Sorry for slacking on posts lately – I just started a new job last week (yay!), but I find myself coming home totally exhausted and completely averse to looking at a computer screen. Hopefully I was just overwhelmed by my first week, and I can go back to normal this week!
This weekend I was walking down the street looking at all of the different food stands and small restaurants, and I was struck by how different many of them are from the style and types of restaurants I grew up with in the US. That led me to think about all the different foods I’ve come to love in Israel that I never had in the US (there are A LOT). Which, in turn, led me to this post.
Keep in mind that there are even more Israeli foods than those on my list that I think should make an appearance in the US. These are just my particular favorites! I’m not exaggerating when I say a trip to Israel solely for the food is completely worth it. While I admit to missing a few of my American favorites from time to time, I can never complain about Israeli food because of my new favorites like these.
- Labneh– Labneh has become one of my food staples since I moved to Israel, but I had never had it before I came here. Labneh is yogurt strained of all liquid to createa kind of super soft cheese. It has a thicker texture than any yogurt you can buy in the US (closer to cream cheese) but it has the sour taste of Greek yogurt. It’s often topped with Za’atar and olive oil which are the perfect complement. I love using it as a dip for pretzels or veggies or as a substitute for mayo on sandwiches or wraps. It’s surprisingly low in calories (about 60 per 100 grams) for its rich taste, so it makes a great snack that doesn’t kill your diet.
- Za’atar– Talking about labneh brings me to za’atar, possibly the best and most important spice in Israel. Za’atar is a seasoning blend traditionally made from the za’atar plant (eizov or hyssop in the Bible). Today, the za’atar plant is protected, so true za’atar is hard to find. The za’atar purchased today, even in Israel, is mostly made of a dried herb mixture, dried sumac, sesame seeds, and salt. Whatever it is, it’s delicious, and I keep a huge container of it on our spice rack (and eat all of it off the top of the Labneh before Ofir can get it).
- Shakshuka– Shakshuka has slowly been making its way into American recipe books (I see it on Pinterest fairly often), but it’s not nearly as prevalent there
as it is here. Shakshouka is basically a dish made by poaching eggs in a tomato sauce, usually spiced with peppers and onions. You can get it at any restaurant that serves breakfast here (though it’s not strictly a breakfast dish), and there’s tons of twists on it. Of course, my favorite is homemade by Ofir 🙂 Here’s an easy recipeif you want to give it a try yourself at home. It’s great for those nights where you want something delicious but don’t want to spend hours cooking.
- Krembo– Ah krembo, how do I love thee? Seriously, Krembo is possibly my favorite food to come out of Israel. Last time I went back to the US, I took a pack of 60 krembos, and when I had to unpack my carryon for security (like always), the guy gave me the weirdest look ever before asking if they were seriously all for
me. Krembo is a candy/cookie hybrid only sold during the cold months, so that it won’t melt. It’s made with a round biscuit at the bottom, topped with marshmallow fluff, and covered in dairy free chocolate.The marshmallow fluff can also be coffee flavored, and every day I change my mind about which kind I like better (yes I eat them every day). I personally love to freeze them, giving the fluff an awesome ice cream texture. Since a pack of three costs a whopping $36 on Amazon, I think it’s about time krembo comes to the US for real.
- Halva– Speaking of sweets, halva is another Israeli treat I never had before coming here. It’s a little hard to explain, because it’s literally like nothing I’ve ever had before. It’s a sweet dessert made from sesame paste base, and it comes in a million different flavors. There’s great stands in the markets that sell huge varieties of halva (Halva King in Jerusalem is my favorite), but you can also buy it in the grocery store, where they even sell it in granola bar style (often sugar free) as a healthy sweet snack. Coffee and chocolate flavors are probably my favorite, but I recommend trying as many as you can before you pick yours.
- Bourekas– Bourekas are savory pastries made with phyllo dough, often topped with sesame seeds. They’re sold at every bakery, so it’s hard to walk a block in Tel Aviv without seeing them. They can be large, usually sold with a hard boiled egg for a full meal, or more commonly in a smaller size for sides or snacks. They come with all kinds of different fillings like mushrooms, cheese, mashed potatoes, or, my personal favorite, pizza. They’re not exactly healthy, but they are really delicious. And versatile – they can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
- Sufganiyot– So sufganiyot are available in the US, since they are technically just filled doughnuts. But they aren’t available in the plethora of flavors these are when they make their annual appearance for Hanukah. Once you hit November, these hit the shelves in bakeries and markets in almost any delicious flavor imaginable. I love the Oreo ones from Roladin, but my favorite bakery in Jerusalem, Marzipan, makes some awesome flavors, too.
- Israeli Breakfast Spreads– I’ve mentioned before how much I love Israeli breakfasts, so of course I had to put them
on my list. A full Israeli breakfast includes eggs, usually in omelet form, a variety of pastries and breads, spreads like goat cheese, labneh, baba ganoush, avocado, date honey, and jam, plus tuna salad,olives, and Israeli salad (diced tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, usually with lemon juice and olive oil). When you order at a restaurant, the breakfast usually includes fresh juice (most often orange or carrot) and a hot drink of your choice. This has quickly become my favorite breakfast, and whenever we go out it’s always my choice. I love that there’s so much variety, and that it’s relatively healthy. If you’re in Israel, it’s definitely a must try.
- Jachnun– Ofir brought me jachnun on the first morning of my first trip to Israel, and I was honestly a little afraid to try it because of its weird appearance. Jachnun (pronounced “jokh-noon”) is a yemeni breakfast “pastry” usually served only on Shabbat. It’s a roll of dough with a slightly (very slight) sweet taste that’s cooked in a slow oven overnight. It’s served with crushed tomatoes, a hard boiled egg, and zhoug (a super spicy paste). Now I want it every Shabbat, though I try to refrain since it’s not exactly low calorie (exactly the opposite). My willpower was low yesterday, though, and I enjoyed every bite.
- Pita Druze– Pita Druze is a really thin pita cooked on a dome shaped stove usually in stands in the market. It’s spread with labneh, za’atar (basically everything I love), tabouleh, and a tomato sauce (and probably other things, I don’t even know). Sometimes it’s available at stands in the mall on the weekends, and you can always find it at the Carmel Market. Anytime I see it, I have to get one, because they’re seriously that good.
- Sabich– While many of these foods can be found in other countries in some form or variation, sabich (pronounced “sah-beekh”) is a uniquely Israeli food, originating in the Iraqi Jewish community. The most famous sabich stand, Sabich Oved, is right down the street from our apartment, but I didn’t have it for the first time until this summer. Sabich is a pita stuffed with fried eggplant, hard boiled eggs, Israeli salad, tahini, hummus, hot sauce, and sometimes amba (a spicy pickled mango sauce). I’m honestly not the biggest fan of eggplant, but frying it gets rid of the texture that turns a lot of people off, making sabich perfect even for those of us who don’t like eggplant. If you get a chance to try sabich, be careful about which hot sauce you choose, since some pack some serious spice. Some Israelis who live abroad and frequent travelers to Israel make a sabich stand their first stop upon arrival – that’s how delicious it is. So, while it might not be hitting the food court in the US anytime soon, if you make your way to Israel, be sure to give it a try.
- Shawarma – Shawarma is similar to a gyro – meat cooked on a rotating spit and shaved off into a pita or laffa (kind of like a large round flatbread). While gyros and shawarma are available in the US (though not widely), their prevalence here means that the art of making shawarma has really been perfected. You can choose your toppings from options like hummus, tahini, Israeli salad, pickles, Turkish salad, amba, pickled vegetables, and others. It’s sold everywhere here and it’s usually pretty inexpensive, making it one of the top choices after a night out at bars or clubs. And really, it’s so much better than the Taco Bell you usually grab at home.
- Hummus– Last but certainly not least is hummus. I know what you’re thinking – hummus is already in the US, and super popular. But hummus in Israel is a whole different ball game. If you’ve seen the movie You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, you know all the jokes about how much Israelis love hummus (e.g. substituting it for toothpaste), and honestly, those aren’t that far off (except for the toothpaste).
And I totally don’t blame them. Here hummus has a completely different texture and flavor than any I ever has in the US, and it’s not just a dip or a side dish – it’s an entire meal.It’s usually topped with a bunch of chickpeas, olive oil, and tahini, plus other optional toppings like cilantro or zhoug. Its served with pitas, Israeli style pickles, and an raw onion, which you literally just dip in the hummus and eat. As much as that weirded me out at first, it’s honestly delicious (though your breath will not be). If you can find an Israeli restaurant near you in the US, I highly recommend trying their hummus. If not, you’ll just have to make a trip to the Holy Land.
I know these foods will probably never be American mainstays, and lets face it, that’s probably best. The fact that each country has unique foods that are integral parts of the culture is one of the things that makes traveling so special. If you do happen to find one of these in the US, or wherever you are, make sure to give it a try. Better yet, come to Israel and try them where they’re done best.
This is only a short list of some of the culinary treasures of this country, which itself is only one small part of what makes Israel so amazing. If you do come to Israel, be sure to use the contact page or comments to get in touch. I promise to take you to grab some sabich – my treat 🙂