Wait, They Have More Than Milk and Honey? — Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 1

It's pretty dorky, but I really loved seeing familiar products with Hebrew names.

It’s pretty dorky, but I really loved seeing familiar products with Hebrew names.

Sorry for the recent lapse in updates, but as implied by the title of this post, I just got back from a 2 week trip to Israel. I was on a Birthright trip, and though I wish I could be more original, I’m going to be like everyone else who has gone on those and say it was completely worth it. If you can scrounge up any molecule of Jewery in your DNA, I highly recommend trying Birthright. For someone who defines “pushing herself” as getting medium salsa instead of mild, it was an incredibly rewarding personal challenge. And of course I got to eat my body weight in hummus and pita, so no complaints here.

We criss-crossed the country at rocket ship speed, so there’s a ton to cover, even if I limit myself to just talking about food. I love traveling for many reasons, but I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that exploring the everyday cuisine of someplace new is up at the top of my list. I’ve only really gotten into Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food in the past year, so I was pumped to move beyond falafel and tahini to see what other basic dishes I could try in Israel. I’m going to focus this post on some larger take-aways about the food on my trip, to provide some context for the more in-depth discussion of the more memorable dishes.

Everyone is provided with two meals a day on a Birthright trip, which are generally breakfast and dinner at whatever kibbutz or hotel you’re staying at. The meals were all cafeteria style buffets, and usually involved tons of vegetables and salads, some meat-stew dishes, and rice or couscous. Luckily, I was perfectly happy to take a shovel to the eggplants, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

By the end of the trip, however, I was really struggling with breakfast. Israeli breakfast is very different from the typical American, or even European meals I’ve had. Israelis tend to have very large breakfasts, which our guide explained is due to the schedule of working on a kibbutz (= farming commune) back when they were first established in the late 19th Century. You’d wake up early, go work the fields for a few hours, and then come in for breakfast before heading back out to work some more. To make up for all the hard labor, a traditional Israeli breakfast involves hardboiled eggs, salads of tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, and other fresh vegetables, yogurt-based dips and sauces, and some bread (generally pita). At the places we stayed there were also fried eggs, yogurt, cereal, and pudding for breakfast (no joke, both vanilla and chocolate were offered at nearly every hotel or kibbutz).

I suppose this really isn’t too different a notion than the big farmer’s breakfasts we have here — bacon, eggs, sausage, potatoes etc. — but the foundational tastes of the meal are pretty far apart. As an American I struggled with the idea of having vegetables for breakfast, and found myself craving some sort of fruit in the morning — some berries or citrus or even a banana. I also tend to eat smaller, blander breakfasts (oatmeal with bananas and cinnamon is a frequent occurrence), so I was slightly overwhelmed by the heaviness of the buffet. This is partially because like in Europe, low-fat products are rare in Israel — the basic milk offered was 3%, and the lowest yogurt fat content I saw was 1.5%, with the highest being up to 5%. Now this is not to say that America has it right with our obsession with all things low-carb, low-fat,  and diet-branded (such as diet milk, which is a real thing), but I won’t deny the fact that I’m used to having the option. By the end of the trip I was basically limiting myself to yogurt and granola or cereal, because I knew that my options for lunch or dinner were going to be much heavier, and I regrettably couldn’t jump on the veggie bandwagon in the morning.

A few other random observations about food and drink in Israel:

– I was told by multiple people that Starbucks’ efforts to expand into Israel failed because of the country’s obsession with coffee. The most prevalent chain coffee house is Aroma, which actually has a couple locations in New York. I thought their espresso was nothing to shake a stick at, but they do have an extensive food menu with far better offerings than Starbucks — actual sandwiches and salads served with warm fresh bread.

Aroma also serves the Israeli version of “iced coffee,” which is pretty much a frappucino. I found it tooth-achingly sweet (which says a lot coming from me), but it’s clearly very popular, since almost any store that sold coffee offered a version of iced coffee from a slushee-type machine. This includes both fancy espresso bars and more common snack stands at places like the Dead Sea.

– I only found one restaurant that gave you the option of combining milk and meat (which goes against keeping Kosher) — Black Burger (similar to Five Napkin Burger in NY), but it was a separate topping, not a standard menu item. Even at a sandwich shop, you had to choose between a cheese sandwich and a meat-based one — the cheese and meat were sitting near each other in the refrigerator, but the employees refused to make a turkey and cheese sandwich.

– Fruit juice stands were everywhere, and they were amazing, partially making up for the lack of fruit at our accommodations. I discovered a new appreciation for pomegranate because of it, and I wish the fruit vendors in NY would occasionally bust out a blender or two.

But enough of the complaints, let’s dig into the times we had to buy ourselves food, because that’s where the more interesting dishes were. Given the frenetic pace of the tour, I didn’t have much time to jot down notes on food, so consider this a brief slideshow of some culinary exploration, rather than a detailed analysis of Israeli street food. I can’t say I was disappointed by anything I ate, from the strip mall shawarma to my first taste of Iraqi food.

I’ll get into the specifics of my various lunches and dinners next post, but for now I wanted to talk about the two markets or “shuks” that I went to in Israel, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I’ve been to various farmers’ markets in my life, including the famed Union Square Market, but I’ve never seen anything comparable to the markets they have in Israel. It was like someone had turned a supermarket inside out — you could find anything you wanted there, from fresh fruit and vegetables to desserts, condiments, spices, and even full fish and butcher shops.

2013-03-15 13.26.35

A typical stall in the Tel Aviv Market — you couldn’t help but hit a dried fruit vendor every twenty feet or so.

One of the most plentiful items on sale was dried fruit, with a wide variety in copious quantities. Aside from the obvious Middle Eastern staples of dried figs and dates, I also tried dried pineapple (not the overly sweetened chunks you see in the grocery store) and dried mango. Since the vendors charge based on weight, it was impossible only get a few pieces of anything. I was lucky enough to sample others’ hauls and avoid having to make my way through 5 pounds of figs. I was also excited to try fresh dates for the first time.  The fresh date reminded me of a mellower grape — it still had the sticky-sweetness of dried dates, but the juiciness helped to mitigate it a bit. I’ve only come across dried dates in the US, so if someone knows where I can get fresh ones, I’d be extremely grateful.

This may look like cheese, but it's actually piles and piles of halva.

This may look like cheese, but it’s actually piles and piles of halva.

Another shuk mainstay are the halva stalls. Halva is a overarching term referring to a number of different types of sweets that are found in the Arab and Jewish world, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe to North Africa and beyond. The word itself just means “sweet” in Arabic, and is generally divided into two categories: flour-based and nut-butter-based. The halva I encountered in Israel was mainly sesame (aka tahini) -based, so they were dense and crumbly. As you can see from the photo, there are at least as many varieties of halva as flavors at Baskin Robbins. In both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem the stalls had free samples available, and I got to try chocolate and coffee halva, respectively. The texture reminded me a little of dried out pate, which was off-putting, although they were both certainly very sweet. I personally prefer my tahini on its own, so I wasn’t tempted to buy any halva to bring back to the States.

Aside from raw ingredients, you could also find freshly made pastries, like rugelach and baklava.

Aside from raw ingredients, you could also find freshly made pastries, like rugelach and baklava.

I ate more rugelach than ever before during my trip to Israel, and it really changed my opinion on the treat. Most of the rugelach I’ve encountered in the US has been dry and stale, with the cinnamon or chocolate filling providing the slimmest amount of moisture to combat the crumbly crust. But the fresh rugelach in Israel was almost like a cinnamon roll in texture, the dough squishy and saturated by the buttery filling. More to come on the top rugelach contender in part two of my Israel posts, but the total ubiquity of  rugelach in the shuks points to the reasoning behind my fascination with these markets. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is ride the public transportation in a foreign city. It may seem odd to be so interested in a subway system, but I’m fascinated by how people from different regions have figured out urban design — with the same basic constraints of a light rail or subway system, how does someone outside of New York or the US tackle the conundrum of creating a convenient commute? It takes me out of the picturesque tourist attractions and gives me a tiny slice of everyday life in Paris or Rome or Amsterdam.

Because of safety issues, Birthright groups are pretty much restricted to the tour bus provided by the trip, which meant riding the light rail or public bus was not an option for me. But I did get to walk through the shuk in Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon, as average, everyday shoppers were getting their food and supplies for Shabbat. Unlike some of the more novelty stalls at the Union Square Market, these people were literally shopping for staples — peppers and onions, raisins and cinnamon and ketchup and mayo, and maybe even a little dessert for after Shabbat dinner. The markets were bustling, partially with awestruck tourists like me, but we were not the majority of people there. So while I dilly-dallied, taking in the sights of loaves of challah and being eyeballed by head-still-on herring, the rest of the world got on with its business. Mundane as it might be, I couldn’t help but be grateful for the chance to be an observer of uncurated life, similar to my own but just different enough to make me question when our paths diverged, and if there are any Super Shuk-and-Stops in Israel.

Next post I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of some of my favorite meals in Israel. Let’s just say that I found a deeper bond with the Israeli people than our common religious heritage: an everlasting desire for ice cream in all its glory. Stay tuned for shawarma, falafel, shakshuka, and of course, lots of dessert.

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6 thoughts on “Wait, They Have More Than Milk and Honey? — Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 1

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