This past week I got to take part in a very unique project titled Taste of Israel which was organized by university students from Haifa University and Technion. I was really excited when I first heard about Taste of Israel because while at first it may sound like a regular food tour or even a press trip, there was actually a lot of meaning behind it.
To give you a little background, the students who organized Taste of Israel are part of an international non-profit organization called Stand With Us and their goal is to share the country they know and love with the rest of the world. The idea is that this cultural exchange will help dismantle prejudices, create an environment that fosters understanding, and promote peace in the Middle East.
And what better way to bring people together than through food?!
This trip was all about discovering the culinary delights of Israel, but it was also the perfect platform to explore a very diverse Israel. During my visit I met Orthodox Jews and secular Jews, Muslims and Christians, and I learned about the Druze and Bahai faith. I met people from all nationalities: a restaurant owner from Tunisia, a natural healer from Yemen, Brits in the PR industry and American hoteliers. But regardless of people’s nationalities or faith backgrounds, what struck me the most was that these people had chosen to call Israel their home and they were very happy to share it with me.
I have so much to share from the past few days, but until I get around to writing about it all, here are some of the highlights:
- Discovering Middle Eastern cuisine
Hummus, hummus and more hummus! Seriously, I don’t think I have ever eaten so much hummus in my life. It was a regular staple at the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I did not tire of it. Of course there was more to Israeli cuisine than just hummus; eggplant with tahini, Galilean beef stews, shakshouka, grape leaves stuffed with rice, stuffed peppers, and sweet halva for dessert. Rest assured, there will be lots of foodie posts coming up!
- Exploring Jaffa’s narrow little alleys.
Jaffa was such a charming little city to explore on foot. I really enjoyed wandering around the winding alleys, climbing and descending steps, and meeting lots of stray cats along the way. That’s another thing – there are so many cats here!
- Taking a cooking class at a Kosher cooking school.
While in Tel Aviv, I had the chance to take a cooking class at Dan Gourmet, a kosher cooking school that opened up in a run down neighbourhood in Tel Aviv in order to train the next generation of cooks. I learned 2 different recipes that day: lahmacun (which would compare to a Middle Eastern version of pizza) and charred eggplant with tahini, garlic and lemon. Let’s just say my taste buds have seen the light!
- The pop-up kitchen event with students at Haifa University.
During our visit to Haifa we got to meet up with many of the university students who helped organize this trip. A pop-up kitchen was set up on campus, and together with our new friends we got cooking outdoors. Not only did we learn some great kosher recipes, but we also had a lot of fun preparing these dishes together and getting to know each other a little better while doing so.
- Getting muddy in the Dead Sea.
After 3 days of non-stop eating with Taste of Israel, the question in everyone’s mind was - will we float? After lathering ourselves with handfuls of thick, black mud, we sprinted into the Dead Sea to put the water’s density to the test. It worked!
- Meeting Uzi-Eli at Mahaneh Yehuda Market
Uzi-Eli is a bit of a local celebrity but he’s neither an actor nor a singer. The man is a healer of sorts and he also has a magnetic personality. He calls himself the ‘Etrog Healer Man’ (an etrog is a yellow citron which he uses in many of his products), but I think he should go by ‘Happiest Man in Israel’. Walking into his shop led to a fit of laughter, especially when he adopted Sam as his personal guinea pig and proceeded to lather him up with lotions and wave a goat’s horn around his head. Expect some video footage with partial nudity. ;)
- Watching an Orthodox Jewish wedding take place
On our last night in Jerusalem our group went out to dinner at the King David Hotel, where there just happened to be a wedding taking place in the courtyard. Even though no one in our group was technically a guest, we still all rushed over to the veranda to watch the proceedings; it was one of the most beautiful ceremonies I have ever witnessed. The music was deeply moving, the bride gushed tears beneath her veil, and a joyous mazel tov was cheered when the groom smashed the glass. I have never seen so much dancing before the party even started.
- Soaking in the history
Israel oozes history! Every hill, street and valley we went to seemed to have some kind of historical significance – where Herod built his palace, where a prophet encountered God, where Jesus carried the cross, where wars were lost and won.
- Staying at Dan Hotels
While in Israel I stayed at three different hotel locations owned by Dan Hotels, and I was thrice wowed with the views! Imagine my surprise when I woke up in Tel Aviv after my 1 am arrival to discover blue seas and the ancient city of Jaffa outside my window. The trend continued with harbour views in Haifa and the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. They sure picked their locations well!
And that is a little teaser of what you can expect! I realize that 4 days in the country is hardly enough time to get to know a place, which is why I’m excited to be coming back in November to travel around with more time. I’ll likely revisit some of the cities I went to, but I’m also itching to explore some of the regions I didn’t get to this time around. If you have any tips, you can share them in the comments below. :)
Have you been to Israel?