Snackshots Seattle, Part 1: A Fresh Food Fantasy at Pike Place Market

For someone who makes her bread and butter (or rather, is able to buy her bread and butter) from the entertainment industry, I’ve spent surprisingly little time on the West Coast. I’ve only been to California a handful of times, and never visited any of the other states west of Iowa. That is, until this past weekend, when I had the chance to visit my brother in his new digs in Seattle. As with many of my interests, my older brother Dan was a major influence on my passion for food. Up until June he lived on the UES near me (in fact, in the same apartment building, because we’re too cute like that), and one of my favorite parts of getting to know the neighborhood was exploring new restaurants and bars with him. So when I hopped on a plane on Friday to visit the Northwest for the first time, I believed my expectations of delicious overindulgence were reasonable. Little did I realize I was seriously underestimating our genetic predisposition for pie-hole stuffing. Suffice it to say that I have way more to talk about than can reasonably fit in one post. So, much like my last travel experience in Israel, I’m going to break up my trip into more manageable bites. First up, a look at Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market.

Walking up to one of the many entrances of Pike Place Market.

Walking up to one of the many entrances of Pike Place Market. This place is just enormous.

 

Beyond the amazing food I encountered at Pike Place, what struck me most was the easy comingling of obvious tourists (like myself) and the local crowd. Sure, there are kitschy shops peddling t-shirts and trinkets, but much of Pike Place Market is made up of serious local vendors selling fresh produce and homemade items. I kept describing it to Dan as a strange mix of NY’s Chelsea Market and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, somewhere between the higher-brow artisanal wares of Chelsea’s Ronnybrook Dairy and Eleni’s Cookies and the Amish shoo-fly pies and cheesesteaks down Liberty Bell way. And did I mention it’s huge? A sprawling, multi-floor, multi-block, and multi-street, partially open air market, with arms that snake out leading you down paths of flower and jerky vendors, or spice stalls and coffee sellers. Dan and I must have spent a good 3 hours there and never really explored anything beyond the ground level.

Pike Place Fish Market, already crowded with tourists eager to see some serious fish-tossing.

Pike Place Fish Market, already crowded with tourists eager to see some serious fish-tossing.

Soon after we entered we came upon the famous Pike Place Fish Market. The Fish Market is known for its tradition of throwing whole fish that customers have purchased from the back storage area to the fishmongers working the counter. An order will be yelled out — “Alaskan Salmon!” — and lightning quick a freaking whole carcass is tossed carefree up from the floor to the raised platform, where the fish are then butchered and wrapped. Tourists crowded around the stall to watch the performance, but after the first throw I turned my attention to the table across the way, which was laden down with all different types of dried fruit and vegetables. Dan got some fabulously sticky and sweet dried pineapple, but I was feeling more adventurous, and asked the woman behind the counter for something “good, but weird.”

My bag of dried okra, which at first glance looks a bit like dead grasshoppers. Yummier than appearance, I promise.

My bag of dried okra, which at first glance looks a bit like dead grasshoppers. Yummier than appearance, I promise.

She passed me a piece of dried okra, a vegetable I’m usually pretty ambivalent about. It was crunchy and salty, with a underlying freshness and a texture that reminded me of the dried greenbeans I’ve had from Fairway. I immediately bought a bag, completely enamored with this strange vegetable creation that was unlike anything I’d ever tried before. Why can’t you buy dried okra everywhere?

An ungodly amount of life-changing Rainier Cherries.

An ungodly amount of life-changing Rainier cherries.

 

I had a similar eye-opening experience when I tried Rainier cherries for the first time. I’ve always shied away from cherries, finding their tartness too aggressive. I also tend to dislike cooked fruit in desserts, so cherry pie or even the classic Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia aren’t really in my wheelhouse. But as we made our way through the market, an eager fruit vendor handing out slices of peach cut fresh from the fruit caught my eye, and I made my way over to him (hey, I’m never one to turn down a free sample). I can say without any doubt in my mind that that was the best peach I’ve ever tasted. It was luscious, velvety in texture, juicy and tender and exploding with natural sweetness. When I told this to the vendor, he insisted I try the Rainier cherries, proclamining them to be just as fresh as the peaches. And dagnabit, this guy was on the money. I found myself comparing the Rainier cherries to fresh grapes, with a soft and creamy flesh and a mild sweetness that was simply addictive. Dan bought a bag and we finished that day (even in the face of all of the other food we managed to fit in our stomachs).

The unfortunately lukewarm Plain Jane at Cinnamon Works.

The unfortunately lukewarm Plain Jane at Cinnamon Works.

 

After strolling through most of the top floor of the market, we made our way across the street to Post Alley, where most of the Market’s restaurants and shops can be found. Our attempt to go to Pike Place Chowder was thwarted by the outrageous line, so I guess I’ll just have to leave that for my next visit. We did manage to try a Plain Jane Cinnamon Roll at Cinnamon Works, a bakery that specializes in the cinnamon pastry diaspora (aka pull-apart bread, sticky buns, honey buns, etc). The Plain Jane had excellent flavors, but it was disappointingly room temperature, and you never want to eat an under-warmed cinnamon roll — it highlights the chewy, unforgiving nature of the batter. Next time I’m going to specifiy a fresh roll, or a reheated one.

The menu at the original Beecher's Handmade Cheese.

The menu at the original Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.

 

More importantly, I also paid a visit to the original location of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, so I could finally make a proper comparison to my lovely meal at Beecher’s NYC. The original Beecher’s location is significantly smaller than it’s NY outpost — most of the space is devoted to the actual production of cheese, which I suppose is getting your priorities straight. The retail area is dominated by the cheese counter and cafe menu prep stations — no restaurant/lounge here, just sandwiches, soups, and cheesy breadsticks. You can still peer down into the cheesemaking arena at the Original Beecher’s, but this time from milk-can stools at the cafe’s narrow ledge, the only area to eat their wares. After sampling Beecher’s signature crackers and cheeses, Dan and I decided to split the Flagship Sandwich, a caprese-style grilled cheese featuring Beecher’s Flagship cheddar, their Just Jack, the “Beecher’s spread” and tomato and basil.

Cheesemaking in action at Beecher's.

Cheesemaking in action at Beecher’s.

Our Flagship Sandwich -- look at that gooey cheese resisting separation.

Our Flagship Sandwich — look at that gooey cheese resisting separation.

 

I usually like my grilled cheese unadulterated, but the density and richness of the two cheddars was mitigated by the sharp savory basil taste and the moist tomato. The “Beecher’s spread,” mysterious and left unexplained, seemed to add a subtle bite of mustard. Thick white bread helped to hold the sandwich together, and was toasted to perfect golden-brown. Overall, the quality of cheese and food in general at the original Beecher’s was still stellar, but the creativity and diversity of choices on the menu at the NY outpost make me happy I live nearer to the East Coast option. Dammit, now I want that mushroom tart again.

The small sign announcing the entrance to the Crumpet Shop, tucked away from the noise of Post Alley.

The small sign announcing the entrance to the Crumpet Shop, tucked away from the noise of Post Alley.

 

Another shop of note is the Crumpet Shop, a small cafe hidden away upstairs in one of the buildings on Post Alley. Their menu is limited to three categories: the titular crumpets, scones, and looseleaf teas. However, there are seemingly endless variations within those sections, including both savory and sweet options. In all of my UK adventures, I’d actually never tried a crumpet before, due to my enduring love of a proper scone and my general ambivalence towards the crumpet’s North American cousin, the English Muffin. For those who have yet to encounter a crumpet, they’re traditional English griddle cakes, slightly crumbly and usually served warm with butter, jam or some other type of spread. Although I was tempted by The Crumpet Shop’s scones, I felt I should give the cafe’s namesake its due. Also, Dan was intent on having a crumpet, and at that point I had tried so many other treats that I couldn’t imagine having another pastry all to myself (well, that’s a bit of a lie … more on that in a bit).

On line for some serious crumpet action.

On line for some serious crumpet action.

The shop itself is charming, and I would recommend a stop in, especially if you don’t feel like dealing with all of the crowds of Pike Place Market proper. The entrance features the counter/kitchen where you place your order, plus bar seating along the wall. A small collection of tables are located just past the counter and down a few steps, where you can cool your heels for a bit and take a gander at the whimsical artwork and Alice in Wonderland murals that line the walls.

Our toasted crumpet, piled high with preserves.

Our toasted crumpet, piled high with preserves.

Dan and I split a crumpet with fresh raspberry preserves, very lightly toasted so that it was not quite browned, but still warm enough to gently melt the preserves into a luscious goo. Ultimately, I think I’m more of a clotted cream and scone gal — the texture of the crumpet and its straightforward yeasty flavor were fine, but far from revelatory. The most memorable part of the dish was the raspberry preserves, which were unbelievably fresh and pure in their flavor. I’m sure I’ll be repeating myself endlessly about this, but I was completely blown away by the quality of the basic ingredients of my Seattle meals. From fruits to vegetables to seafood, everything seemed like it had been hand-picked just for me.

The Donut Robot Mark II, hard at work.

The Donut Robot Mark II, hard at work.

 

I started out this post by talking about my exuberance over dried okra, so it seems only fitting to bookend the discussion by jumping to the other end of the spectrum — doughnuts. Dan was insistent that we pay a visit to the Daily Dozen Doughnut Co., a small counter not too far from the Pike Place Fish Market stall. We had actually passed by it when we first entered the market, but the line was absurdly long, so DDDC ended up being our last stop of the day. DDDC does one thing, and one thing only — make piping hot mini doughnuts to destroy your arteries and blow your mind. (They also sell espresso and coffee, because what else are you going to have with your doughnuts? Milk? What are you, a weirdo?) DDDC is a ridiculously small operation, considering the sheer quantity of mini-dos they churn out each day. With a small area in the back for prepping the batter and decorating the finished donuts, DDDC’s main attraction is the “Donut Robot, Mark II” a miracle of modern technology that squirts out two perfectly formed mini doughnut rings into a roiling river of oil. The rings of batter then travel along a conveyor belt, frying for the precisely the right amount of time before being slid out of the machine and onto the continuously growing pile of puffed perfection.

Henry Ford could never have imagined the gift he would give dessert lovers everywhere with his assembly line method.

Henry Ford could never have imagined the gift he would give dessert lovers everywhere with his assembly line method.

 

These bad boys, roughly the size of Entenmann’s mini powdered donuts, are only sold in multiples of 6, with any collection of toppings you desire. Aside from plain and powdered, you can also get chocolate frosted (with sprinkles), along with whatever special toppings they have for the day. We chose two plain, two cinnamon-dusted, and two coated in a maple glaze. I hate to veer into hyperbole, but these were actually the best donuts I’ve ever had, simply because they were the freshest, and the batter had such a pure sweet taste to it. Like the best version of funnel cake, with the right amount of crispness to the outside, while steamy, light and airy inside. The bag was still warm as I grabbed it, yet not a spot of grease transferred from the bottom to my hands. My favorite was the cinnamon sugar donut, the uniform coating achieved by the seller drops the donuts in a bag, tosses in some cinnamon sugar, and shakes. No fancy schmancy toppings or fillings, just old-fashioned, well-made, fresh from the fryer donuts. To be honest, you really can’t compare Daily Dozen Doughnut Co. to the Doughnut Plant — it’s like trying to compare a homemade brownie to a chocolate ganache cake from a high-end bakery. These establishments have two different goals. But if I grew in Seattle, I would have begged my parents to take me here on the weekends, and thoroughly thumbed my nose at the barely heatlamp-warmed measly offerings at Dunkin Donuts.

 

Pike Place Market is the closest to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market that I’ve found in the US. The mix of high-and-low-end vendors, the obvious plays towards tourist wallets combined with neighborhood shopping, and the unabashed delight in all that the local producers have to offer struck me as hewing closer to the Israeli model than Big Box Americana. Of course, it would be silly to ignore the fact that there is a Target just around the corner from Pike Place, and that the very first Starbucks (now a bonafide  international behemoth) is just down the row from Beecher’s. But my visit to Pike Place Market seemed to underscore the overall impression of Seattle. I felt like this is a city with a lot of pride, both in the larger sense of the Seattle itself, and the microcosms of each neighborhood. Fortunately, that pride is combined with a distinctly laidback, unself-conscious attitude. For me, that meant meeting a lot of people who wanted to share what they thought makes Seattle special, or what they themselves added to the culture, from hand crafted piggy banks to badass spice blends. So next time you’re in Seattle, pay a visit to Pike Place Market. Don’t worry that you’re buying into the tourist to-do list — there are so many layers to this locally-sourced onion, you can easily make your trip truly unique. I know I’ll be back — if only to finally get my hands on a bowl of that famous Pike Place Chowder!

The loosest definition of trail mix I've ever seen. Yes, that is a pile of meat and cheese.

The loosest definition of trail mix I’ve ever seen. Yes, that is a pile of meat and cheese.

Pike Place Market

1916 Pike Pl,

Seattle, WA 98101

pikeplacemarket.org

 

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Snackshots Abroad: Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 3

While uploading photos to include in this last post about my trip to Israel, I suddenly realized how many different places I ate at. So I thought I’d include a quick montage of some of the more random and/or pedestrian fare I ate, and then focus on a few particularly memorable or exotic dishes from my travels.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out "Doritos" in Hebrew.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out “Doritos” in Hebrew.

We’ll start out with snacks — I’m sure that bag looks pretty familiar. It is the Israeli version of Doritos, and despite the non-Latin letters, the artificial cheesy flavor remains comfortingly the same.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Fans of Edgar Wright films may recognize this ice cream treat as Nestle’s Cornetto (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Flavours_Cornetto_Trilogy), frequently seen in American ice cream trucks as the King Cone. In Israel I saw a wider variety of flavors offered — this one featured peanuts and caramel, and was the perfect treat after a long hike up and down Masada.

Now onto the more local fare:

Shawarma b'laffa in Sderot.

Shawarma b’laffa in Sderot.

First up is the shawarma b’laffa I had in Sderot. My brother’s girlfriend Leah, who lived in Israel for a year, recommended that I get a laffa wrap at least once. Laffa is a larger flatbread, closer to naan in texture than a pita, and a million times better than your average wrap. The shawarma here was tasty, but one of my favorite things about your average street food/deli in Israel was the small salad and condiment bar that seemed standard. Even the mall shawarma place we stopped at one lunch had pan-fried eggplant, pickled vegetables, and a couple of different chunky sauces to accompany your meal. The meal I had in Sderot was memorable not because of the food itself, although it was delightfully greasy in the way a great sub from a NY deli is, but because of the significance of the location. Sderot is a border town with the Gaza Strip, and the poverty was pretty palpable. Our guide explained that due to the frequency of rocket attacks, all those who have enough money to leave Sderot have, and the people left are the ones that are stuck. This was great for our group because it meant a cheap lunch, but I couldn’t help but notice a certain haunted and worn-out look to the roads and market we walked through. There was another rocket strike only two days after we visited Sderot. Regardless of your feelings about the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, there’s no reason innocent people (on either side) should be subjected to that kind of violence.

2013-03-19 14.06.42

The sign says “Tasty Falafel 4”

Let’s lighten up the mood a bit, and transition to a happier encounter with laffa. This small falafel shop was in a strip mall in Jerusalem. Tasty Falafel 4 offered 4 different types of falafel (wow, who could have made that intellectual leap?) with the option of putting it in a pita, laffa, or on a platter. They get extra points for all the different delivery options — half pita, half laffa, falafel, shawarma, a combo of the two, or veggies. They also gave you complementary “chips,” which were closer to the British chip in terms of being fried potatoes rather than our American Lays, but were actually small potato puffs that topped your order like a Greek gyro. I ended up getting a mix of all four falafel types with all the salad trimmings (except the spicy sauce). Sure, it was probably the equivalent of Taco Bell in NYC, but sometimes you just want fast food.

Sorry, but I couldn't wait to bite into a "chip" before I took a picture of my falafel.

Sorry, but I couldn’t wait to bite into the “chip” on top before I took a picture of my falafel. Look at the soft potato center and golden brown fried edges. Mmm.

Next up, we have the Lahuhe from the sacred city of Tzfat. It’s basically a Yemeni crepe/burrito, full of herbs and spices and three different types of cheese.

Lahuhe -- basically a Yemeni crepe -- from Tzfat.

Lahuhe — basically a Yemeni crepe — from Tzfat.

I only tasted the wrap my friend Dave got, but it had the light texture of a tortilla mixed with gooey cheese and a heavy za’atar backend spice.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

Let’s move into the big leagues for our next round of Middle Eastern edibles. I’ll admit that I had a list of must-try food written up before I even set foot on the plane (we’ve discussed my dependency on lists previously). A lot of the items on the list were types of food I had sampled in America, but I needed to compare with the more authentic Israeli equivalent — falafel, shawarma, hummus and so on. But at the top of the list was an elusive dish I have still yet to try in the US — shakshuka. Shakshuka is one of those foods that has a million variations across the globe — chak chouka, eggs in purgatory, huevos en el Purgatorio, and so on. At its most basic level, shakshuka is eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce. When I told one of my Birthright leaders I was desperate to stick my face in some shakshuka, she suggested what seemed to be an obvious answer: go see the Doctor. Dr. Shakshuka, that is.

The doctor's office.

The doctor’s office.

Dr. Shakshuka is a restaurant near the flea market in Jaffa, the older Arab city that Tel Aviv grew out of. The inside of the restaurant was crowded and dim, but around the corner Dr. Shakshuka has taken over the whole alleyway, ten tables of varying lengths strewn about the space. I ended up ordering family style with a bunch of my tripmates, getting shakshuka with eggplant, shakshuka with shawarma, stuffed peppers, and a couple of kebabs. The meal also comes with an unlimited supply of thickly sliced loaves of warm, soft white bread to sop up the runny egg and tomato sauce.

Dr. Shakshuka's version of unlimited breadsticks.

Dr. Shakshuka‘s version of unlimited breadsticks.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

The star of the show -- shakshuka with eggplant.

The star of the show — shakshuka with eggplant.

As I had hoped, Dr. Shakshuka totally lived up to expectations. The eggs were perfectly poached, and breaking the yolk led to the unctuous, fatty egg mixing with the acidity of the tomato. A self-professed eggplant zealot, I thought it was a great addition to the dish, the silky texture melding with the rest of the liquid, adding a little bit more chew without distracting from the spices. The beauty of the dish is the way everything comes together — this is definitely not one of those foods for people who like to keep each part of their dinner in separate little sections on their plate. You gotta be ready to get a little messy, dipping your bread in and keeping plenty of napkins at the ready. I know of a few places in NYC that serve shakshuka, and I’m eager to try them out — I only got to try the dish once in Israel, so no over-shakshuka-exposure for this gal.

The most exotic food I ate in Israel came on the last day of my trip, while strolling through Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. Another recommendation (both from the trip leaders and my brother’s girlfriend Leah) led me down a side street of the shuk to the Iraqi restaurant Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

Inside, the restaurant is visually nothing to shake a stick at. Small tables and rickety chairs fill the space, and you order off a menu on the wall, giving your order literally to one of the cooks, who makes and places your food on a cafeteria tray and sends you off to the elderly gentleman by the ancient cash register. I had zero knowledge of Iraqi food, but some items on the menu looked familiar — meat-stuffed cigars that seemed almost Greek, and those brimming bowls of hummus with different toppings of beans, vegetables, and sauces. But I couldn’t get just any ol’ bowl of hummus –I needed something authentically Iraqi (or at least ostensibly authentic). So I went with a bowl of red kubbeh. Kubbeh (or kibbe) is an overarching category of Middle Eastern dishes that involve bulgur or semolina and chopped meat. Red kubbeh is made up of semolina dumplings stuffed with ground beef, boiled in a tangy  broth with stewed vegetables.

I didn't realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I didn’t realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I initially thought the soup would be spicy, perhaps because I’ve been trained to equate “red” with curries or chili powders. But in fact it was more acidic than spicy, which played well against the richness of the dumpling dough and the ground beef. The vegetables were tender, and even with the meat the meal was filling, but not overly heavy. I know it’s pretty lame to get so excited about trying a new cuisine, but I was very pleased with myself for choosing something new and unknown. Luckily, I happened to like the food, too. There were a number of other kubbeh permutations to try at Rachmon, so I’m hoping I can find some Iraqi food in NY. One of my lunch buddies got fried kubbeh, which seemed almost empanada-ish in appearance.

We started with dessert, so we’ll end with it, too. Jaffa was especially kind to me, from the flea market where I found some great gifts, to Dr. Shakshuka‘s, and finally, to the best ice cream I had on my whole trip. Between his insatiable thirst for trivia and history, and his insatiable desire for ice cream, our tour guide Shachar was a man after my own heart (er, stomach?). He came along to Dr. Shakshuka for lunch, but barely touched his food, explaining that he was saving room for some phenomenal ice cream. And so after a little shopping in the market, I followed his directions to a gelateria a few blocks down. They had a wide assortment of flavors from sugarfree to fruit based to candy-laden types like Snickers. I opted to get a combination of the almond-toffee and the Indian Kulfi.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

Overall, the milk base of the gelato was strong, but what really took my gelato to a new height were the flavors. The almond-toffee was delicious, if not particularly shocking — the crunch of the almond against the sticky, gooey toffee and the creaminess of the vanilla base was, as you would expect, a stellar combination. But the Indian Kulfi threw me for a loop. Cardamom was the dominant flavor, and I found it absolutely addictive. It reminded me of the best version of kheer, which is Indian rice pudding — almost savory in taste, but the creamy sugar sweetness of the gelato itself kept the flavor from veering out of dessertland. I’m “borrowing” my mother’s old ice cream maker this summer, and I’m determined to try to replicate this gelato. I’ve seen recipes for cardamom ice cream on sites like Serious Eats, and it’s definitely on the top of my ice cream experiments list.

Last, but not least, we’ll deal with one of those amazing food moments of redefinition. Sometimes all it takes is a really well-made version of a dish to completely shift your opinion. For me, this happened with rugelach. I’ve admitted in the past that I’m not the best Jew-food eater, and part of that was my distaste for rugelach. Too often I would come up against stale, dry, crusty rugelach, the filling like bland paste with the barest hints of the sweet promise of cinnamon or chocolate. Forget rugelach — hand me a piece of babka or a danish, please. But then I went to Marzipan Bakery in Jerusalem. Marzipan was a recommendation from the writers of Serious Eats, and with my rugelach-obsessed friend Zina in tow, when I caught a glimpse of the sign in the Jewish Quarter, I knew we had to stop in.

The hebrew spells out "Marzipan" phonetically.

The hebrew spells out “Marzipan” phonetically.

Inside, it was clear what their star product was:

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

And somehow, despite my history with disappointing rugelach, the fact that all of the city had switched to Kosher for Passover goods (blech, matzoh-meal), and the unreasonably high expectations. the rugelach I had from Marzipan that day was lifechanging. It was the best rugelach I’ve ever had — a slightly sticky coating on the toasted, flaky dough, a luscious chocolate filling that made me yearn for a Zabar’s babka. It was everything I’d been told I should love about rugelach, and damn if I wasn’t a proud Jew at that moment.

I’ll be honest, I’m wrestling with how to sum up this brief series of posts about my trip. I didn’t even get to all the delicious things I tried in Israel (like their fascinating take on frozen yogurt), but hopefully the items I’ve covered give a good picture of my general sense of wonder about the entire experience. This trip challenged me in so many ways, from traveling on my own (well, sans friends, that is) to getting up on a camel, to dipping my toes (and the rest of me) into the Dead Sea. Trying to capture just the part of the trip dealing with food keeps pushing me to make grander statements about my own personal growth and willingness to expand my palate, both for literal tastes and the larger tastes in my life. But truth be told, I’m backing away from the melodrama on this one. If you want a pitch for why everyone who can should do Birthright, let me know and I’m happy to jump right into the spiel. Mostly, I just had a wonderful vacation. And like most of the things I write about on this blog, it was as much about feeding my appetite as it was about feeding my curiosity.

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.

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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.