Israel welcomed more than 3.3 million visitors last year, and while many tourists flock to the land of milk and honey as part of a religious pilgrimage, there is no doubt that its melting pot of culinary influences has also positioned the country as a food enthusiast’s dream. It’s been less than 70 years since Israel was declared an independent state and recognized by the United Nations. Over the decades, millions have emigrated to establish roots in the Holy Land, bringing with them culinary traditions from around the world.
Tel Aviv, which hugs the Mediterranean Sea’s eastern shores, offers a vibrant backdrop to explore the country’s varied food culture. It’s a young, pulsing city with an average of 316 sunny days per year, which means plenty of beach time and healthy eating. Here, you’ll find a broad range of dining options. Spend an afternoon wandering through a traditional food markets packed with fresh produce, prepared foods, baked goods, and plenty of tchotchkes to bring home as souvenirs. Tourists and locals alike mingle as the day wears on and there are plenty of outdoor cafés to find respite and take in the sights. As the sun sets, the streets begin to fill as cafés overflow with friends meeting after work.
New restaurants are opening all the time at a pace that seems in sync with the technology-driven work force. Following world trends, a greater emphasis has been made on farm-to-table dining as well as reinterpreted classic techniques from a variety of cuisines including Japanese, French, and Italian. Young chefs study abroad and bring their inspiration back to Israel, although there has also been momentum to reconnect with the pride of local eating and dish- es synonymous with Israel cuisine such as hummus, falafel, and shakshuka. Whether you’re sampling traditional dishes or inventive preparations with a more modern spin, Tel Aviv offers ample options for a destination-worthy eating adventure.
The best way to gain a deeper understanding of Israel’s food culture and the role that Tel Aviv plays in its ever-changing evolution is to spend an afternoon with Delicious Israel (Tel: +972-525-699-499. www.deliciousisrael.com) founder Inbal Baum. Launched in 2011, the boutique company offers personalized walking, cooking, and travel tours. “I started Delicious Israel after a wanderlust journey,” says Baum. “My parents are both Israeli and my experience was the beach, family, love, food, food, and more food!”
Baum studied at the University of California, Berkeley, practiced law in New York City, then headed south to become a yoga instructor in Mexico. She moved to Tel Aviv nearly seven years ago without a clear vision of what the future would hold, but her love of the country’s rich culinary heritage became stronger as she became better acquainted with the people and places of her new home.
“Delicious Israel was a long time coming,” Baum admits. “Food tours are an ideal way to see a place. History, culture, and reli- gion—it’s our sustenance. The media can often times be inflammatory but there are real people here living their lives.”
Baum points out that American’s conception of Jewish food is often bagels, lox (short for gravlax—salmon cured with salt and sugar and thinly sliced), and matzah ball soup. While those dishes are common among Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States, much of Israeli cuisine comes from Sephardic Jews, who come from Mediterranean regions such as Spain, northern Africa, and the Middle East.
For those with a full itinerary, a market tour is the ideal way to taste the best of Tel Aviv. Carmel Market dates back to the 1920s and has been a longtime destination for locals to complete their daily shopping. A market tour with Delicious Israel will satiate even the heartiest appetite and often begins with a packed pita sandwich from nearby Sabich. The Iraqi-Jewish dish is often eaten for breakfast and originally consisted of the previous night’s leftovers. Delicately fried eggplant is layered with hard-boiled eggs, tahini, tomato, pickled red cabbage, lettuce, and amba (a spicy mango chutney worth smuggling in your luggage for the journey home)—all packed into a pita.
Weaving through the bustling streets, the next stop is for malabi, a chilled dessert that is reminiscent of panna cotta. Milk, cornstarch, and splash of rosewater are combined to create a sweet palate cleanser with variations that may include a fruit purée or chopped nuts. Venturing further through the alleyways that surround Carmel Market’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, your guide will inevitably stop at a spice stall such as Teva b’Carmel, which overflows with dried chiles, fruits, whole spices, and blends such as za’atar (a traditional combination of thyme, sesame, sumac, and salt).
Hummus is one of Israel’s most iconic foods and those in the know find their way to Shlomo and Doron, which has been preparing the deceptively simple purée of chickpeas, tahini (ground sesame seeds), and lemon since 1937. Unlike Westerners’ consumption as an appetizer, hummus in Israel is a meal unto itself. Served with warm pita bread and schug (a spicy cilantro and pepper condiment), Shlomo and Doron usually shutter by the early afternoon when the day’s preparation sells out.
Wandering through the rest of the market, Baum, or one of her equally passionate guides, offers personal insights and knowl- edge, and though appetites may be satiated by day’s end, the desire to learn more about Israel’s food scene only grows hungrier.