Breaking Bread in Israel

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Breaking Bread in Israel
Whether it's delicious street food snagged from a market or a traditional meal at a high-end restaurant, Israel’s food comes with ample sides of heritage, history, and pride.
By Sivan Askayo, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Elinor Carucci
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    Hummus: The Essence of Middle Eastern Cuisine
    Hummus—a spread of ground chickpeas seasoned with olive oil and lemon—is the essence of Middle Eastern cuisine. Some of Israel’s most popular purveyors are found in Arab villages. Abu Ghosh, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is a site of special pilgrimage for its hummus. In Jaffa, Ali Karavan (also known as Abu Hasan) has achieved international renown for its version—served with fresh lemon and garlic sauce, warm or mixed with fava beans; arrive early before the day’s rations have disappeared. In Jerusalem’s Old City, head to the Muslim Quarter and duck into any of the Arab restaurants to sample their own creamy hummus.
    Photo by Elinor Carucci
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    A Street Food Education
    Israel’s street food vendors have elevated snacks into an art form, and bustling markets and crowded bus stands can become the setting for a fantastic meal. In the Old City of Jerusalem, hunt for bagel-shaped, sesame-sprinkled rolls, or test the falafel at the stands that surround the shuk (market). Some of the country's most popular falafel spots are around Carmel market, in Tel Aviv. Carnivores may prefer to try shawarma, a Turkish dish consisting of mixed meats grilled on a spit, wrapped in flatbread, and served with tahini, salad, and pickles. Tel Aviv's Miznon does superb street food with a twist, but true shawarma seekers should visit the city of Ramat Gan simply for a sandwich at Shemesh.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    Fresh Seafood Served Simply
    Israel is bounded to the west by the Mediterranean Sea. Port cities like Haifa, Acre, Ashdod, and Jaffa haul in fine seafood and distribute it to restaurants throughout the country. Trout, sea bass, mullet, and tilapia are served grilled and seasoned with lemon and herbs on tables throughout the country. Ouzeria, in Tel Aviv, serves seafood tapas in a Greek tavern setting, pairing ouzo and olive oil with sardines, shrimp, and cured fish. In Old Acre, beloved restaurateur Uri Yirmias has opened Uri Buri, a seafood restaurant that incorporates the ocean into its setting—it is located on a seaside promenade—and, of course, into its simple but elegant seafood fare.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    Eat Israel’s Best at Breakfast
    A proper Israeli breakfast combines the best fare from all regions, but can be enjoyed anywhere from the Mediterranean coast to Jerusalem. Local vegetables are chopped into a fresh salad, while the Golan and Galilee regions provide rich, creamy sheep’s milk cheeses. Olives, yogurts, bread, and fresh orange juice complete the suite. Many hotels host sumptuous breakfast buffets, including Jerusalem’s Mamilla Hotel. Benedict, in Tel Aviv, is synonymous with brunch, even when it’s dinnertime: The restaurant’s motto is “All About Breakfast,” and it satisfies breakfast cravings 24 hours a day with Israeli staples as well as French fare, omelets, and bacon. Delicatessen is another popular Tel Aviv dining spot that does great breakfasts.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    Fine Dining
    Fine dining has blossomed in cities like Tel Aviv, catering to an increasingly discerning national palate. Visit the elegant Herbert Samuel restaurant at the Ritz, helmed by local celebrity chef Jonathan Roshfeld. Stylish Hotel Montefiore serves seafood dishes to a hip city crowd. Highly-reviewed Taizu endows the street cuisine of Southeast Asia with a fine-dining flourish. Make reservations and allow plenty of time to sample signature cocktails like the Green Tai (vodka, sake, lychee cream, and green tea) and the Hendrix Masala (gin, Campari, sake, red vermouth, and masala tea). Jerusalem also has exemplary restaurants; Machneyuda serves fresh Israeli dishes in a lively atmosphere.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    Culinary Tours
    For those eager to experience Israel’s culinary traditions, but intimidated by the variety of street foods and the winding markets, a food tour may be the perfect excursion. Touring company Mekomy offers several themed introductions to Israeli cuisine. Each tour is led by an informative and experienced local guide, and many are offered in English. In Tel Aviv, guides lead guests past spice stands and regional specialities at the Levinsky market. Turkish, Persian, Moroccan, and Bulgarian cultures are all represented here, and you’ll be grateful for a guide to decode the delicacies. Alternatively, a tour of Tel Aviv’s Carmel market, stocked with vegetables and produce, concludes with a cooking class and local lunch.
    Photo courtesy of Mekomy
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    Israeli Coffee Culture
    Café culture is important in Israel. Traditionally, coffee shops would serve up the thick, strong Turkish coffee that is popular all around the Middle East (and which is often referred to as Arabic coffee, Israeli coffee, Greek coffee, and so on). While this coffee would often be flavored with spices such as cardamom, today you are just as likely to find caramel- or vanilla-flavored lattes and cappuccinos at the modern cafés and espresso bars springing up across the country. These establishments are more and more at the center of business and social life—especially in bustling Tel Aviv. Take your coffee to an outdoor table for some first class people-watching.
    Photo by Boaz Rottem/age fotostock
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    Skip the Water, Try the Wine
    As Israel’s wine industry grows, so do opportunities to tour its vineyards and taste its varietals. In the Golan Heights and Galilee, boutique wineries such as Carmel Winery, Ramat Ha’Golan, and Zikhron Ya’akov have opened their doors to tours and tastings. At Golan Heights winery, you have the option of touring 28 vineyards and tasting wines from brands including Yarden, Gamla, Hermon, and Golan. The grapes here spring from volcanic soil, and mountains surround the vineyards. Ramat Ha’Golan has contributed to Israel’s growing appreciation for fine vintages, and many wineries surround the tiny town of Zikhron Ya’akov, leaving a visitor spoiled for choice.
    Photo by Noam Armonn/age fotostock
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    Welcome to the Shuk
    Experiencing an Israeli market, or shuk, is one of the chief delights of visiting the country. Most open early in the morning and hum with activity until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. Markets close Saturday, meaning the busiest times are Friday afternoons before Shabbat as families hurry to buy food for the weekend. Carmel market, the largest shuk in Tel Aviv, sells everything from meat, cheese, and produce to clothing and toiletries. Machne Yehude is the most famous market in Jerusalem, crowded with locals and travelers of all religions and ethnicities. In Haifa, head to the Wadi Nisnas market in the Arab Quarter, which is filled with bakeries, seafood shops, and piles of ground Arabica coffee.
    Photo by Richard T. Nowitz/age fotostock
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    Eat with Locals
    EatWith is a service which invites travelers to dine with locals in their own homes. The fact that this now-global community first started here is a testament to the Israeli spirit of hospitality. There’s no better or more convenient opportunity to connect with hosts, swap stories, and enjoy delicious homemade cuisine. Depending on your interests and your appetite, you may choose a meal in Galilee accompanied by regional sheep’s milk cheese, lunch at an organic farm, or a hip dinner in one of Tel Aviv’s brightest neighborhoods. No matter what food is served, the meal will be unforgettable.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo