Food is not exactly what you think of when you envision a trip to Israel. But yes, I nibbled, chewed and otherwise ate my way across this vest pocket country.
And why not? A meal in Israel is full of usually organic, absolutely fresh veggies, fruit, fish and meat.
In Israel, the echo of Middle Eastern culture touches everything whether it’s at a kibbutz, in an Arab falafel shop, or at an ethnic minority restaurant tucked in someone’s home on a narrow, hairpin road high up some mountain.
Oh yes, and the wine. Forget those weird tasting kosher wines of yesteryear. Israel is actually turning out some rather decent vino.
Like so many others on that side of the Atlantic, Israelis start with a hearty breakfast. Because kosher food laws prohibit mixing milk products and meat, breakfast is a salad, yogurt, cheese, fish affair. The yogurt is thick, creamy, sharp … way better than the thin glop we get at home in America. The fish is marinated or smoked. The cheese is exquisite, and the salads are crisp, varied and fresh.
You have GOT to do a falafel/shishkabob place, maybe in the Arab sector of Jerusalem’s Old City or perhaps on a day trip to Bethlehem. Their fresh, homemade hummus … creamy and tangy … has utterly ruined me for the store-bought junk at home. It’s served with fresh pita bread, tender chunks of lamb and/or grilled vegetables on a skewer and of course, falafel, which is sesame seed paste mixed with onion and spices, then fried into balls or patties.
One surprise was Tishreen’s, the fusion Arab restaurant in Nazareth. “We like to take traditional food and put a modern spin on it,” said Hsan Ghinem, one of Tishreen’s owners.
Plate after plate came out …among them, tabouli (mint, bulgur wheat, onion, olive oil, and lemon with tahini sauce on top) and a chicken dish made with coffee sauce that was full of flavor with a hint of sweet from raisins and plum sauce and a tang from red wine plus an undefinable something else from the coffee. (See Coffee Chicken recipe.)
Then there was the amazing Druze dinner that night. The 100,000 Druze, believers in a 10th Century Egyptian religion, live in 16 villages across Israel, usually high atop a mountain among a spiderweb of narrow roads. It’s unusual for Druze to be this open to outsiders, making Amal Dabbour’s restaurant and B&B in Beit Jann quite special.
Again, it was dish after dish, each small but varied … like eating a dozen appetizers for dinner. In fact, this is how you order. Our group had 14 dishes, soup and three meats for 100 shekels (about $26) apiece … semolina with onion, eggplant, hummus, lentils with wild (yes, Amal gathered it himself) anise. And so very much more.
But best of all, was the maklubih which translates to “upside down.” It’s layers of rice, caramelized onion, chicken, and almonds in a mold that was cooked and flipped over.
The next day, we drove into the Golan Heights. Citrus trees crowded the hills and, though I grew up in Florida, I have never seen such healthy trees … so loaded with oranges, grapefruit, and lemons, you could hardly see the leaves.
Okay, now for the story of modern Israeli wine. The problem with kosher wine is it’s boiled to pasteurize it so non-orthodox people can serve it. This pretty much destroys the taste and aroma. But 30 years ago, a handful of wineries started producing non-kosher wine and today, 300 mostly boutique wineries are scattered across northern Israel.
And the wine, well, it’s quite good … varied, light when it should be light, full bodied when it should be that.
Of course, we went to the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus did much of his ministering. The “sea” is actually Israel’s largest fresh water lake and has been a magnet for settlers for millennia. No trip is complete without “Peter’s fish,” actually farmed tilapia, breaded and fried whole into a crispy, tender creation. Yeah, if you are timid, you can order breaded fish sticks and chips. But you will be missing one of the best fish meals we had on our trip.
The single finest meal, however, was at Muscat, the meat restaurant (restaurants in Israel are either meat of dairy/fish) of Hotel Mizpe Hayamim in Rosh Pina.
This resort is part farm, part spa, part hotel. They grow organic produce on 30 acres, raise their own lambs, goats and cows, and make their own cheese and soap.
I ordered the baby goat and split it with a friend who ordered lamb. Okay, goat is a touch gamey, even the babies. But it was hearty and so tender, it fell off my fork. As for the lamb, all I could say was … wow!
After Mizpe Hayamim, there was more … a roadside coffee shop that also sold spices in dozens of open bins, another spice shop buried in tunnels under the old city of Acre that is so small, it has neither website nor email address. Owner Kurdi Hamudi has, among other things, 12 different kinds of curry powder. Yep, we sniffed nearly every one.
There was also Mahane Yehuda Market back in Jerusalem, which is an experience by itself. There’s hardly a food item you can’t buy here … meats, fish, produce, 1,200 different cheeses from one tiny hole in the wall, halvah, pastries. It goes on and on. Halvah (a crumbly confection made from sesame paste or other nut butters), by the way, survives quite nicely in your suitcase coming home.
We wound up the trip cooking dinner with Israeli celebrity chef Tali Friedman. We split into seven groups, one smashing veal flat for carpaccio, another cutting vegetables for salad, more making fish balls or cooking peppers or handling delicate filo pastry for the caramelized apple filled dessert.
“I can’t believe I’m cooking in Jerusalem,” someone exclaimed in wonder.
Yes, we were. And eating in Israel.
It was truly a wonderful way to gain five pounds.
If You Go
— Story and Photos by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Contributor