For the first half of Israel’s existence, food was supposed to be simple and healthy. It was virtually anti-Zionist to be into the many ethnic cuisines that flooded the country from the far corners of the earth.
Today, Israel is in love with fine food as well as with good wines. The country is awash with young, imaginative Israeli chefs who are creating inventive haute cuisine menus rooted in ancient local food traditions and immigrant recipes including French, Mediterranean, nouvelle, and Asian traditions, often all blended. Tel Aviv is the foodie center, but elsewhere in the country, food standards have improves, too.
Strangely, amid all this elegance, fusion, and attention to quality, it’s hard to find a good chicken soup in Israeli restaurants. Very few restaurants serve old-world Eastern European Jewish dishes. Instead, typical Israeli cuisine draws on Arabic traditions, such as the meze, a vast array of spiced salads and spreads that opens a lavish Middle Eastern–style feast. It includes the Arabic falafel and moves on to scrumptious shwarma (seasoned meat cooked on a spit) and kabobs, served with your choice of salads and sauces, all tucked into a pita sandwich. Palestinian zataar (a traditional mix of local spices that includes dried hyssop and salt) flavors food throughout the country. For travelers, big, often very shareable fresh salads are available in cafes everywhere. For kosher travelers, Israel offers a rare chance to sample excellent kosher Indian food as well as an array of kosher Italian, French, Chinese, and sushi dishes.
But a big chunk of the Israeli cuisine experience is just being there. A great lamb chop, a plate of ordinary pasta, a grilled lamb kabob, or even a falafel sandwich becomes a memorable meal if it’s served on a starlit dock stretching into the Sea of Galilee or on a rooftop terrace in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Israeli Street-Food Tips
Falafel and shawarma tucked into a pita with chopped salad and eaten on the run have become the national fast foods of Israel. To make sure you sample the best the country has to offer, here are a few tips:
- A quality falafel (spiced chickpea fritter) sandwich should contain at least four falafels and your choice of a number of fresh salads and condiment sauces.
- Buy from places with a big turnover and fresh, hot falafels. You should be able to see falafels being fried; if the oil is dirty or not constantly boiling, move on.
- A sandwich made with giant napkin-size Iraqi pita bread costs a half-shekel more and fills you up for most of the day.
- Shawarma (spiced turkey or lamb on a spit) should be freshly sliced from the spit. If the proprietor must turn on the flame to heat the spit, move on.
- Many stands offer hummus either as a separate sandwich choice or with falafel. Avoid it after 11am on a hot summer day.
- Falafel sandwiches, especially with lots of essential techina sauce, tend to be messy. Grab tons of napkins—techina stains are forever.
The Sabbath (Shabbat)
On Friday afternoons and afternoons before holidays, kosher restaurants close around 2pm in preparation for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), which begins at sunset. Most restaurants don’t reopen until Saturday evening after dark. Depending on the volume of business, some restaurants may stay open beyond normal closing hours on Saturday night. A number of nonkosher restaurants remain open on Shabbat in the big cities.
Your hotel usually provides Saturday breakfast, but you will need to deal with Friday’s dinner and Saturday’s lunch. Most larger hotels serve kosher Friday-night meals and Saturday lunches prepared before the Sabbath, but hotel dinners are expensive and bland, and you generally need to reserve these ahead of time, whether you’re a guest of the hotel or not. By Saturday evening after the sun sets and Shabbat is over, restaurants will be open again, but in summer, the end of Shabbat comes quite late. If you’re kosher and don’t want to go to the expense of reserving Shabbat hotel meals, eat a hearty lunch on Friday and buy take-away supplies.
- Look for weekday business lunch specials. In many restaurants, they go until 5 or 6pm. Remember—after the witching hour, when lunch turns to dinner, the price for the same dishes can double.
- In Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Eilat, you’ll find free tourist magazines and pamphlets loaded with coupons offering 10 percent discounts on many restaurants. Some of these places are quite good.
- Amazingly, kosher restaurants are not all that easy to find in all parts of Israel. Check out www.eluna.com, a website that reviews tons of kosher choices all over the country. It also offers coupons and vouchers for dining spots.
- Fill up at breakfast. Israeli hotels offer vast morning buffets, and if you’re discreet, and your hotel dining room is big and busy, you should have no problem slipping a few treats into your daypack for later in the day.
According to the rigorous regulations of kashrut, only peaceful, nonpredatory animals that chew their cud and have cleft hooves and birds that do not eat carrion may be used for food—and then, only if they have been killed instantly and humanely according to methods supervised by religious authorities. Only fish with fins and scales can be eaten, which means no shellfish or dolphins. Pork, too, is forbidden. Kosher restaurants that serve milk will not serve any food containing meat or poultry, although they are permitted to serve fish. This means that cheese lasagna must be meatless. In restaurants serving meat, your coffee will be served with milk substitute and desserts won’t contain milk products.
A restaurant may maintain a kosher menu, but if it prepares and cooks food or does business on Shabbat, it will generally not be able to receive a kashrut certificate.
Note: Never bring your own food (such as a cookie or a piece of baklava) to a meal at a kosher restaurant, as this may contaminate the kashrut status of the establishment.
In many cases, kosher restaurants may be 5 to 10 percent more expensive than comparable nonkosher restaurants. If kashrut is not a concern, you can save a bit by seeking out nonkosher places. Glatt kosher and mehadrin (especially stringent supervision of kashrut) often mean an even higher price.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.