What is Israeli food?

by Audrey on November 30, 2013 · 31 comments

Before coming to Israel I was expecting to feast on lots of authentic Israeli food. Give me all the falafels, the pitas, and the hummus – I will sample them for you! 

Imagine my surprise when on my first day at a cooking school in Tel Aviv, the chef informed me that there is no such thing as Israeli food.

Gasp!

No Israeli food?

The thing is, Israel has a history that stems back thousands of years and the same goes for its food. The gastronomy has been influenced by a wide range of ethnic groups who have settled in the region for millennia – people who have added an assortment of spices, flavours and cooking techniques. This has resulted in a fusion of culinary secrets which can be tracked back to countries in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and even the Mediterranean.

Also, it’s difficult to call a certain dish Israeli when many of the neighbouring countries also claim it as their own. Having spent the past two months travelling through the Middle East, I saw many of the same dishes making appearances across the countries I travelled through. Take hummus for example, is it Israeli, Jordanian, Lebanese? You simply can’t pinpoint its origins because it’s found all over the Middle East! It’s a regional dish. And that is how the chef who told me there was no such thing as Israeli food, introduced me to Middle Eastern cuisine instead.

Now here’s a little introduction to a few favourite Middle Eastern dishes I got to try while I was travelling through Israel:

Eating hummus in Israel.

Hummus

This popular dip made from crushed chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic, was the one food item that made a regular appearance at the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

My favourite plate of hummus was the one I had at Hummus Abu Hassan in Jaffa’s Old Port, which happens to be one of best hummus spots in Israel. Their hummus was creamy with a nice kick of garlic and topped off with a bit of paprika. It was here that I learned that most restaurants only make enough hummus for the day because the best hummus is meant to be consumed fresh. The magic is held within the first few hours of preparation and once you refrigerate it, that magic slowly slips away.

Shakshouka: and Israeli dish made with tomato sauce and eggs.

Shakshouka

While this saucy little dish is extremely popular in Israel, it’s actually believed to have Tunisian origins (I told you classifying Israeli food was complicated!)

Shakshouka is made by preparing a rich tomato sauce with onions, peppers, garlic and lots of spices. Once the sauce is ready, you crack a few eggs overtop and cover the pan to allow the eggs to cook over easy. You let the whole thing simmer for about 10-15 minutes, and voila!

Shakshouka is generally served in the pan it was cooked in, and it’s a communal type dish where everyone can dip their bread. Just like with hummus, this is a dish that can be eaten anytime of day, though most locals admittedly like it for breakfast.

Sambusak, salty cheese pastry.

Sambusak

Sambusak is a pastry that you can pick up at almost any bakery and it is best enjoyed fresh out of the oven.

The one I tried was stuffed with salty feta cheese, spinach, and then coated in sesame seeds. This was meant to be a little snack along the way, but I found it filling enough to be a meal in itself.

Lahmacun, Turkish style pizza.

Lahmacun (Lahmajun)

While lahmacun is best known as a Turkish-style pizza, I was surprised to also find it in Israel. (See, recipes travel far!)

Here’s another shocker, the photo you see above is of the pizza I helped prepare when I took a cooking class at Dan Gourmet. Yup, I rolled out that dough and it was topped off with lamb, parsley, onions, tomatoes, and a green tahini sauce.

Homemade pita bread with zaatar.

Pita with Zaatar

Zaatar is a combination of Middle Eastern spices that can include dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, sesame seeds, cumin, coriander, salt, and a few others. The trick to baking a delicious batch of pita with zaatar is to add a little olive oil to the dough and then sprinkle a generous amount of zaatar overtop. This makes the perfect snack on its own, or you can pair it with a light tabbouleh salad in the summer, or a hearty stew in the winter.

Knaffe, a cheese pastry soaked in syrup.

Knaffe (Kenafeh)

Knaffe is essentially a cheese pastry which has been soaked in a sweet sugary syrup, and covered with a crust of shredded phyllo dough that somewhat resembles a bird’s nest.

This is another dish with mixed origins; while most recipes seem to point to Lebanon as the rightful creator, Knaffe is popular in Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Northern Egypt, Turkey and even Greece.

Malabi, a sweet milk pudding made with rose water.

Malabi

This sweet milk pudding was one of the best desserts I tried during my trip. While it can be eaten plain, the one I had was covered in a raspberry syrup with some chopped nuts and shredded coconut sprinkled overtop. It was very light, creamy, and highly addicting.

Halva, a dessert made with sesame seed paste (tahini).

Halva

And last but not least, we have halva. There are actually two types of halva; the flour based dessert and the nut-butter based dessert. I tried the latter which is made from a sesame seed paste known as tahini.

Never did I imagine tahini could be turned into a dessert – I mean, this the same ingredient used in hummus and baba ghannouj – but as it turns out, you can turn it into something sweet. Walking through the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, I was surprised by all the halva varieties available – with vanilla, raisins, peanuts, dark chocolate, white chocolate, pistachio, coffee, cherry, almonds, and so much more. A nice little treat when paired with a cup of coffee or tea.

Have you tried Middle Eastern food? Do you have any favourites?

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Lindsay @ Where Is Your Toothbrush? November 30, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Call it whatever you want – it’s crazy delicious! Middle eastern is one of my absolute favorite cuisines. Your post just reminded me that I haven’t tried lahmacun yet while here in Istanbul. Better get on that. The one with green tahini sauce looks AMAZING. Great photos. I would love to take a Middle Eastern cooking class some day.
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Audrey December 2, 2013 at 4:09 am

Oooo, don’t miss out on the lahmacun while you’re in Turkey! They really know how to make it well.

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Maria November 30, 2013 at 7:32 pm

Audrey this is a great post and I appreciate the lessons you offer.
Oh the Hummus, Shakshouka and Malabi – making my stomach growl *laugh*
Thanks!
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Audrey December 8, 2013 at 7:23 am

All great dishes! I hope you have a good Middle Eastern restaurant nearby. ;)

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Rika | Cubicle Throwdown November 30, 2013 at 8:24 pm

I really need to go to Israel. I’ve never heard of a dish there that didn’t sound absolutely amazing!! This style of food is right up my alley. Yum!
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Audrey December 8, 2013 at 7:24 am

The cuisine was great! I definitely needed a falafel break by the end of the trip, but I could totally eat one now. :)

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Marilyn November 30, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Audrey..I know I would enjoy the Malabi and Sambusak for sure…don’t know about the rest and I really detest hummus which seems to be a staple

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Audrey December 8, 2013 at 7:27 am

That’s too bad that you don’t like hummus – it usually makes an appearance at the table for each meal. However, they do have other dips you can eat with pita like ‘baba ghanoush’ (made with eggplant) and ‘fool’ (made with beans).

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Agness December 1, 2013 at 4:03 am

I love my mild version of homemade hummus – so delicious and health, but I guess the Israeli one is much better. We eat a lot of halva in Poland, it’s so sweet and yummy!
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Audrey December 2, 2013 at 4:15 am

That’s interesting that they also have halva in Poland. Recipes do travel far!

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Shaz December 1, 2013 at 5:08 am

Mmmm… I tried Halva this summer and it was delicious! The malabi sounds even more tempting. And that shakshouka looks like something I would eat every day for breakfast.
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Janice Heck @janiceheck December 1, 2013 at 7:36 am

Hmmm. Wish I had read this before I visited Israel last year. If I had, I would have known what to ask for. We did have lots of hummus and fresh vegetables and all kinds of wonderful salads, yogurts, and jams.
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Rachel of hippie in heels December 1, 2013 at 2:12 pm

yum yum! those all look so good. on menus here in India- they say “isreali food” and “american food” and i always laugh about it!
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Alyssa December 1, 2013 at 6:25 pm

So many of those things look delicious!

I think the same can be said about a lot of places, which I learned when researching about the origins of foods in Canada, the UK and Martinique. Caribbean food is a great example – it’s a mixture of African, European and Amerindian culinary traditions.

Another thing I find interesting is how a lot of different countries have very similar foods! For example, the pancake. A scotch pancake, American pancake, a crepe, palacinky (Czech Republic) could just be different names for what is essentially the same thing. It really makes you wonder who truly originated what dish!

Anyway, great post Audrey!
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Michelle December 1, 2013 at 11:29 pm

The only thing I’ve had from that list is hummus, but I’m anxious to try more! They all look so delicious.
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Sarah December 2, 2013 at 9:26 am

Great list! I Love Sambusak! I think it could be related to the Indian Samosa and the African Sambusa.
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Audrey December 2, 2013 at 2:01 pm

And maybe also to the Latin American empanada. ;) It’s funny how similar recipes exist in completely different cultures.

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VeeraBianca December 2, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Love this post, I guess the food is fantastic in Israel what ever it is actually called! Hungry for proper hummus!
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Beth December 2, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Whatever you want to call it, everything looks amazingly delicious in your photos!

Middle Eastern food is something that I LOVE… and one of my favorite places just shut down here in HK. Maybe a trip to the Middle East is in order…
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Frank December 3, 2013 at 3:52 am

Ahh, fun. I love Hummus and Kunafa. Did you visit and try it in Nablus? The best and original is from there :) You definitely ate a lot of great food although you missed some of my favorite mid-east options. Also i hope if you get the chance to visit Syria, it has the best of many of these foods although i’m sad to think it will never be the same place again after the war.

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marlosyray December 3, 2013 at 2:20 pm

what a post…..looking forward to go Israel. love to Hummus so much making me crazy. my mouth is watering after seeing so much pics with Israeli Food……….!!!!!

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Mike December 3, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Since Israel has only existed since after WWII, it’s not a big surprise. However, it’s interesting they don’t have at least one “Israeli” dish. Outstanding pictures! They make me hungry.
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Julie December 4, 2013 at 6:10 pm

Not a post to check out before lunchtime, especially when said lunch prospects are canned soup…
I have always loved Middle Eastern food and this post confirms all the more why I need to get myself to Israel sooner rather than later!
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Heather December 5, 2013 at 9:45 pm

I’ve had spectacular hummus in Greece, shakshouka in Singapore and knaffe in Shanghai (of all places.) Good food really does travel the world!

What about Israeli pearl couscous? Is that a thing there? I see it in the grocery store and have often wondered about its origins.
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Audrey December 8, 2013 at 7:20 am

That’s funny that you found knaffe in Shanghai. I actually found a really good restaurant in Yangshuo that specialized in shakshouka and hummus. Never expected that from China!

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Rachel Kruse December 6, 2013 at 9:04 am

I grew up eating za’tar but I’d never bothered to find a recipe. Thanks for this. I’ll be trying it soon.

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Antoinette December 9, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Middle Eastern foods, hands down, is one of the best foods out there, next to Peruvian cuisine. There are sooo many Israelis here in NYC and now that you mention, they never say “Israeli food”; they always refer to it as Middle Eastern, or even Mediterranean. Funny enough, when my exbf and I traveled to Israel three years ago, we actually got tired of all the hummus & pita and everything else in between. We started eating sushi & Italian and seafoods right before we left.
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Paula @lkg4sweetspot December 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm

I think learning about the foods of other countries and nationalities is one of the great things about travel! When I travel with my kids, we sample as much as possible of the local cuisine – they have become quite adventurous where food is concerned!

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apol | WanderfulTogether.com January 11, 2014 at 11:34 am

I love everything with pita… at least the ones I have already tried.
I think I won’t have trouble finding what to eat when we get the chance to go to the Middle East.
Shakshouka looks so yummy!
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Lesvos rent a car March 5, 2014 at 11:54 am

Funny enough, when my exbf and I traveled to Israel three years ago, we actually got tired of all the hummus & pita and everything else in between.

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