A brief guide to food in Israel.
Israeli cuisine is a unique hybrid that includes foods from the dozens of different countries. In addition to Arab foods, Jewish immigrants brought with them their native dishes from diverse areas of the world. Recipes from Eastern Europe, North Africa, Asia, Ethiopia, Mediterranean countries, Middle Eastern lands and other locales have all merged to create “Israeli cuisine.”
Having the chance to explore Israel’s cuisine is like receiving a casino sign up bonus bonanza. You never know what to expect, but you can expect that it’s going to be good.
Some highlights of the modern Israeli food scene:
Regardless of what you’re eating, Israelis don’t consider a meal complete unless it includes a nice smooth dish of hummos. The dish should, preferably, be topped with a swirl of olive oil, some garbanzo beans and a little bit of hot sauce to give it texture and some zing.
There are many differing opinions about where one can find the best hummos in Israel but almost everyone agrees that making good hummos is an art.
The top hummos restaurants take pride in preparing fresh hummos daily. They soak the garbanzo beans and then boil them until they’re soft. The garbanzo beans (sometimes, other types of legumes are used) are then mashed (most people use food processors these days but the best hummos is mashed manually) and mixed with high quality tehina (sesame seed butter).
Each hummos restaurant adds its own spices and herbs but the most common additions are lemon juice, salt and garlic. Everything is mixed until the hummos is smooth with a creamy consistency. The hummos is then dished out with warm olive oil and a sprinkling of parsley, paparika and, usually, a drop (or more, depending on one’s taste) of hot sauce.
Sometimes the hummos is served with a salad but the most popular way to eat a meal of hummos is with warm pita bread that one tears apart to dip into the hummos.
Shakshuka is a tasty dish that you can adapt for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s made with a rich tomato-based sauce that can be spicy or not and features eggs poached into the sauce. When prepared properly, the egg yolks are still runny, necessitating some good bread to soak up the sauce and yolks.
Shakshuka originates in North African and it’s a good idea to say something to the server if you’re not a fan of spicy dishes because real shakshuka aficionados generally add a healthy dose of hot red peppers to their sauce. Served with a salad and a crusty bread makes this dish a hearty meal, regardless of the time of day it’s served.
Israeli salad is one of the few Israeli dishes that didn’t immigrate with any of Israel’s ethnic populations but evolved in Israel. In its most basic form it is made up of finely chopped cucumbers and tomatoes but today, that has been expanded to include every type of vegetable possible.
If you go into an Israeli hotel you’ll be treated to a smorgasborg of cut up vegetables which you combine to create your own Israeli salad. Carrots, roasted eggplant, peppers, grated beets, cabbage, kolarabi and other locally grown vegetables are laid out for you to build your salad.
Israeli salad is often topped by some cut up parsley and a healthy swirl of olive oil. Side dishes of tehina, hummos and olives are served along with healthy whole grain bread.
You can prepare baba ganush using eggplant that you bake in an oven or, for a real treat, you can roast the eggplant over a fire to get the special smoky flavor that such roasted eggplant delivers.
Either way, you want to cook the eggplant until it’s soft and runny in the middle. It helps to poke the eggplant with a fork in a few different spots so that the eggplant will soften faster and more evenly. When the eggplant is soft, split it open and scoop out the middle. If it’s well-cooked, you should be able to scoop out everything, leaving just the thin shell of the eggplant peel to throw away.
Mash the part that you’ve scooped out and add mayonnaise or, for a richer (and healthier) dish, tehina. Add salt and pepper and chopped parsley. Serve with a garnish of parsley and put out knives so that people can spread it on crackers or bread.
Kugels are not a specifically Israeli cuisine but they are ubiquitous to the Ashkanazi community that brought them to Israel from Eastern Europe. Kugels involve different types of vegetables which are mixed with eggs and other ingredients and served as side dishes with meat, fish or other main courses
For instance, a potato kugel involves grated potatoes, grated onions, eggs, salt and pepper. After mixing, the mixture is put out in a pan and baked till golden brown.
Carrot kugel is another popular side dish. This kugel is often prepared as a sweet dish with grated carrots, apples and sometimes, raisins and walnuts. Again, eggs are added along with brown sugar, cinnamon and cloves or nutmeg. The mixture is poured into a cake pan and baked.
Other kugel options include sweet potato kugel (mashed sweet potatoes, bread crumbs, eggs, brown sugar, cinnamon and cloves), and, for a savory kugel, zucchini kugel that is prepared with sauted sliced zucchini and diced onions, eggs, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, cumin and turmeric.
You can learn a lot about Israeli culture and society through Israeli cuisine. Plus, it’s really good!
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