Like the United States, Israel is an ethnic melting pot of cultures, religions and immigrants. As a result, the food scene in Israel is extraordinarily diverse and also of a very high standard. 80% of Israelis are Jews of whom more than half were born in Israel. But most of their parents, grandparents or great grandparents came to Israel from more than 120 countries, bringing with them foods, recipes and food traditions from six continents. And the 20% of non-Jewish Israelis have their own food traditions too. Israel is also a part of the Western world, and very little happens in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and Paris that doesn’t find its way to Israel within a few weeks. Put all this together and you have the ingredients for one of the most dynamic, fascinating – and delicious – food scenes in the world.
If you’d ask an Israeli 25 or 30 years ago what is the country’s typical fare, chances are the answer would be felafel, humus, tehina, with a side order of couscous or gefilte fish. A lot has happened in 25 or 30 years. All these dishes still exist, of course, indeed the first four are ubiquitous. But Israel has it all now, from hamburgers (Israel’s first McDonald’s opened in the 90’s) to pizza to sushi (more sushi restaurants per capita in Tel Aviv than in any city on earth, including Tokyo), to the cuisines of India and China, to some of the finest influences of Paris, Brussels, Lyon, Barcelona and New York – the Israel food scene is utterly sophisticated and in step with the latest trends. Many of Israel’s leading chefs have studied, prepped, apprenticed at some of the finest restaurants in the world.
But there’s more. There are restaurants in Israel that serve cuisines that exist nowhere else on earth: particularly the cuisines from areas now devoid of Jews, where large Jewish populations created their own eclectic cuisines, such as in Salonika, Dubrovnik, Tripolitania, Mesopotamia, Persia, Yemen and Bukhara.
There are two elements that make food in Israel so unique. One is our location on the shores of the Mediterranean. Like Turkey, Greece, Italy, France and Spain, our cuisine reflects the warm sun, the olives that grow on our trees, the olive-oil we press, and the breads, fish and meats that have made the Mediterranean the source of what is considered by many as the world’s healthiest diet and, quite simply, the source of the best things to eat. Secondly, Israel produces the most splendid quality of fruits, vegetables and dairy products. From the legendary Jaffa oranges first exported to Europe in the 1930’s, to the kiwis, star fruit, citrus, tomatoes, peppers, flowers, yoghurts and cheeses we export today.
Almost every restaurant in Israel has menus in English. Occasionally, the spellings or translations can be a bit strange, but these can provide amusement as well as charm. Like for anywhere else in the world, research restaurants on-line or use a good guide-book, and get advice from friends or your hotel front desk about their favorites. And use common-sense when choosing a place to eat, selecting places that look clean and welcoming and where there is a large turnover of diners.
Most restaurants and food stalls are open non-stop from the morning until the evening hours.
Restaurants that are also bars remain open until the small hours of the night. In the major cities, especially in Tel Aviv, you can find something to eat at any hour of the day or night.
Reservations are a must at the top restaurants – particularly in Tel Aviv. A great deal for tourists are the Business Lunches at restaurants – particularly the top-rated places – in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. These lunches are special ‘prix fixe’ menus with several choices – at prices a third or half of the same meal in the evening.
Israelis generally eat later than Americans. Lunch is usually some time between 1 and 3PM. And while the better restaurants are open from 6 or 7 – they don’t usually become crowded until 9PM or later.
In Israel’s early days, pioneers on kibbutzim would rise at 4AM to work the fields and milk the cows, and return for a hearty breakfast at 8 or 9AM. Breakfast would revolve largely around their own produce: eggs, bread, dairy products, fresh vegetables and fruit.
Fast forward five or six decades and the pioneers’ breakfasts have evolved into one of the most delicious – and renowned – gastronomic experiences in Israel. Every hotel serves a version of the “Israeli Breakfast” – invariably a giant buffet of vegetables, salads, cheese, eggs, smoked fish, breads, pastries, yoghurts, cereals and fruit.
It’s the Mediterranean: café life is major in Israel, with sidewalk cafes throughout every city and town. They offer a varied menu of coffees, teas, cakes, sandwiches, pastries and light meals. Israelis often sit in cafés for hours over a cup of coffee. One of the Israeli favorites is “café affuch” (“upside-down coffee”), a combination café cappuccino/café latte. U.S. style coffee bars are more and more common in Israel, with one Israeli chain now with two stores in New York.
Israelis love to eat at all hours. Felafel is considered Israel’s number one street food, and it’s available everywhere. If you’re driving, the restaurants, snack-shops and stores at gas stations are invariably spotless and serve excellent fare. Also ubiquitous are juice stands – where oranges, grapefruits, carrots, pomegranates, grapes are squeezed to order.