Food has not always been one of Israel’s strong suits. In the first few decades of the country’s history, its food culture was widely regarded as bland and lackluster. For visitors to Israel today, this past is hard to imagine. These days, tourists to Israel find a plethora of unique and delicious food offerings throughout the country. As with many other sectors of this still-young country, Israel’s cuisine has clearly matured immensely over the past 10-15 years – to the great benefit of both its residents and visitors.
Israeli food is certainly delicious. But it is difficult to define what exactly constitutes “Israeli food.” As a country of immigrants, Israel brings together cuisines from dozens and dozens of cultures, forming a great food melting pot. Israeli chefs acknowledge that they are still trying to figure out the characteristics of “the Israeli kitchen.” Certainly, though, two major characteristics stand out. First and foremost, Israeli cuisine is highlighted by fresh ingredients. The country’s small size and varied climates make it possible for a chef to go to a market every morning and buy produce and meat that are rarely more than an hour or two from their point of origin. It is also common for chefs to grow their own herbs, especially at restaurants outside the big cities. The distinct taste of fresh meat, produce and seasonings is central to the Israeli food experience.
Second, Israeli chefs are greatly influenced by their part of the melting pot. They often speak of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ cooking as an important factor in shaping their own cooking. Whether from North Africa, Europe, South America or the Middle East, chefs grow up with the cuisine of their ancestors’ countries, and this influence is melded with their later culinary training to produce amazing flavors. This type of influence is certainly not unique to Israel. In any country with immigrant populations, one can find many restaurants that incorporate flavors of the chef’s home country. Right now this melding is slightly more pronounced in Israel than in, say, the U.S., most likely because Israeli chefs are still developing flavors and dishes that can be called uniquely “Israeli.”
The most innovative examples of the new and improved Israeli food culture can be found in the major cities, especially Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Here one finds Israeli chefs who have trained in Europe and the U.S. and brought their knowledge back home. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of Tel Aviv has made it an especially fertile ground for introducing new cuisines and new takes on familiar cuisines. It is little surprise, for instance, that the city is the third largest sushi market per capita in the world—behind Tokyo and New York. Outside of the cities, one finds culinary gems in the kibbutzim and moshavim that dot the countryside, particularly at tzimmerim—the Israeli version of the bed and breakfast. Here the food may be less experimental, but it takes the freshness characteristic to its highest level, with local restaurants and proprietors of tzimmerim serving fruits and vegetables literally grown on-site.
When discussing Israeli food, a brief mention of the Israeli wine industry is necessary. With nearly 200 wineries and one of the world’s best growing climates for grapes, Israel has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in the wine world. Most of the wineries are small boutiques whose distribution is limited to Israel itself. Almost all have tours and tastings available, and winery tours in Israel are growing in popularity. Even those who cannot make it out to visit the actual wineries can enjoy the fruits of their labor—most restaurants in the country include a varied selection of Israeli wines on their wine lists.
Of course, no exploration of Israeli cuisine is complete without acknowledging the regional influences of Middle Eastern cuisine. Falafel, pita, hummus—while not originally Israeli, these foods and their ilk are more delicious and flavorful in Israel than just about anywhere in the Western world. Besides the many Israelis whose families come from Arab countries, there are 1.2 million Israeli Arabs who contribute their culinary culture to the milieu. For all the fancy meals one can eat in Israel, few can beat standing on a street corner eating a pita filled with fresh falafel, vegetables, hummus and tahini. Israel has thankfully moved past its days of culinary mediocrity, and we can all look forward to the bright future of the Israeli kitchen.
Julie Cooper is the director of public relations for the Israel Government Tourist Office – Midwest Region. For more information on traveling to Israel, visit www.goisrael.com.