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Israel - Food and Drink
There are more than 2300 species of flora and at least 100 different types of mammals found in Israel. The diet in Israel is largely based on the fruits and vegetables that are locally available. However, Israel has a diverse population that has held on to its traditions from other parts of the world, and this is reflected in the different culinary styles and foods to be found there. Food is an integral part of life and plays a huge role in family gatherings, at religious events and when socializing.
In the past few decades, the country has seen an increase in international cuisines such as Italian, Japanese, French, Chinese and American. Many restaurants serving these cuisines have opened recently. Kosher and non-kosher restaurants are available all over the country. Meals of a high quality are quite affordable at most restaurants, and street food is a cheap and delicious option as well.
Café culture in Israel is quite popular, and there are lot of beautiful outdoor cafés where you can sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and watch the world pass you by. All cafés serve meals and some display their own funky, artistic décor as well.
Local Dining Customs
Kosher restaurants usually close around 2pm before a holiday or on a Friday afternoon. This is in preparation for the Sabbath or Shabbat, and most restaurants and eateries won’t open again until Saturday evening, when the sun has set and Sabbath is over. However, some non-kosher restaurants might remain open throughout, especially in the bigger cities.
Simply put, a meal is considered kosher if it meets the regulations of kashrut. Only non-predatory animals that have cleft hooves and chew their cud can be killed for meat. These animals must also have been killed instantly and humanely according to the practices prescribed by kashrut. Birds that do not eat the flesh of dead animals as well as fish that have scales and fins can be eaten. Pork is forbidden.
Food In Israel
Israel has a range of foods to offer, many of which are common throughout the Middle East. Some of the most popular foods in this country include dates, pomegranates, figs, olives, chickpeas, eggplant, wheat, barley and cheese.
Popular breakfast foods
A typical breakfast in Israel includes coffee or tea, fresh juice, eggs, Israeli salad, different types of cheese, olives, yoghurt and freshly baked bread.
There are plenty of lovely traditional breakfasts to choose from.
Shakshuka – This is a traditional breakfast that consists of sautéed vegetables such as onions and peppers which have been cooked in tomato sauce, and poached eggs. This is a hearty breakfast that goes well with freshly baked bread.
Borekas – Made of pastry dough filled with potatoes, cheese, or vegetables, borekas are a great option when you want to have breakfast on the go.
Israeli salad – A traditional salad which consists of chopped cucumber, tomatoes with olive oil and a zesty lemon dressing.
Challah (egg bread) – This is bread which has been coated with eggs whisked in orange zest, vanilla, honey and salt, and then cooked in butter.
Popular lunch and dinner foods
Lunch and dinner in Israel are usually simple affairs. Typically lunch here might include some type of schnitzel served with a side salad, tahini and hummus. Sometimes lunch will come with mashed potatoes, rice and vegetables.
Boerekas – These are savoury pastries that can be stuffed with potatoes, mushrooms, cheese or spinach. They are a popular street food and can be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner. They are usually accompanied by hardboiled eggs and pickled cucumbers.
Shwarma – This popular dish consists of meat (chicken, lamb or turkey) that has been slowly grilled on a rotisserie. The meat is then finely sliced and stuffed in a pita bread with parsley, onions and tahini. They are filling, delicious and can be eaten on the go.
Shishlik – This is a traditional method of cooking meat on an open grill. The meat is marinated, placed on skewers and then placed over hot coals. The meat has a smoky flavour and is tender and juicy.
Kebabs – These are one of the most popular Middle Eastern delicacies, and are common in Israel as well. Shaped like a fat sausage, kebabs are made of minced meats mixed with herbs, onions and spices. They are usually cooked on a grill and can be eaten with bread and dips, or with rice and curry.
Cholent – This is a rich, heavy type of stew which is usually made on the weekend. Cholent is a brisket with beans, potatoes, eggs, barley, spices and herbs that are all baked together. It is usually cooked in a large quantity and is made to serve at least eight to 10 people.
Moussaka – This popular eggplant dish is made up of layers. The first layer is potatoes, followed by minced meat and then the eggplant. It is usually soaked in a rich béchamel sauce and garnished with cheese.
There are quite a few local desserts to be found in Israel. Those with a sweet tooth will not be disappointed.
Ataiyef – These are pancakes are stuffed with walnuts and usually made for a special occasion. The dessert is covered in a sticky, sweet syrup before serving.
Ma’aroud – This is a roll stuffed with dates and cut into circular cookies before being served. This dessert is not too sugary, but will still hit that sweet spot.
Knafeh – This is a very popular dessert in Israel. This is a ricotta cheese-based pastry that is soaked in a sugary syrup before being served. It might also be served with yoghurt on the side to cut through the sweetness and add another texture.
Baklava – Probably the most popular Middle Eastern dessert, baklava is flaky dessert, made from layers of filo pastry which are coated in honey and stuffed with nuts. The sweet is baked and then soaked in an orange and rose infused sugary syrup. There are many different types of baklava available.
Coffee is by far the most popular beverage in Israel. There is a strong coffee culture in the country, with a variety of brews to choose from. Numerous cafes will serve you Turkish coffee, lattes, espressos, iced coffees, cappuccinos and traditional coffee. Tea is also readily available and comes in many different flavours and blends.
Additionally, alcohol is also available in Israel, except for in certain more conservative areas. There is some good local wine and beer available that you can try. The wine industry here is slowly growing, and the quality of its products has also improved over the years. However, it is also not advisable to wander the streets while drunk!
Some wine regions that are becoming popular are near Jerusalem and Golan Heights. Red wine is more popular than white, specifically Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Among the dry wines, Riesling is the most popular.
Tap water is usually considered to be safe to drink in Israel, except in areas where there is temporary housing. Always ask whether it’s safe to drink the water before you try it. Be careful with drinking juices outdoors as well.
There are several other popular Israeli drinks.
Mint Tea – Since Israel gets so hot, a cup of mint tea can be quite refreshing. Add lemon salt to the infused tea to quench your thirst.
Ice café – Unlike its more popular counterpart (iced coffee), ice café is a coffee-flavoured slushy. This is a milky, frozen drink that can be quite addictive.
Lemonana – This is simply mint and lemonade that are blended together.
Israelis are known to be wonderful hosts. They will try their best to make you feel at home and cater to your all your needs. This is mostly great, but you might feel a little suffocated at times.
When dining with conservative Jewish people, men might be asked to keep their heads covered. If you’re dining in a conservative Muslim household, sometimes men and women will not eat together.
Make it a point to arrive on time for an appointment or meal, and check with your hosts if you need to leave your shoes outside the door. It is also advisable to acknowledge and greet the elders in the room before seating yourself. Wait for your host to show you to your seat and check if you will need to serve yourself. Do try and taste everything you are offered, as it is considered rude to turn down food.
When dining with Jewish hosts, you will most likely be served meals that are kosher; if that is the case you should refrain from eating any dairy products along with the meat. This includes butter and milk.
When eating certain meals, you may be expected to eat with your hands rather than cutlery. Try to follow the lead of your host if you are unsure about this. Make sure to only eat with your right hand as it is considered offensive to eat with your left hand. When eating in a restaurant, check the bill to see if a service charge has been included. If not, it is considered appropriate to leave a tip that is around 10-15 percent of the bill. It is generally better to leave the tip in cash.
Celebrations And Food
Food plays a huge role during holidays, celebrations and special occasions. Most holidays in Israel are religious, and there are usually certain dietary restrictions to be followed. Apart from the big holidays, Jewish people celebrate the Sabbath every week with very specific meals. On a Friday, meals might include cholent, challah, stew and desserts. All meals for the Shabbat are cooked on the Friday, since all work is prohibited on the day of the Sabbath.
The Jewish New Year, known as Rosh Hashanah, is a major holiday. Some of the popular sweets made for this holiday are apples that have been dipped in honey, honey cakes and bread with more honey. The main course is usually some type of fish. During Hanukkah, the main dishes are doughnuts filled with cream, or jam and potato pancakes. There are also many minor Jewish holidays such as Tu Bishvat and Purim, which are celebrated with great pomp as well as with special dishes.
Israel is also home to many Muslim people, so lots of Islamic holidays are celebrated there. The two major celebrations are Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha. Eid al Fitr is usually right after Ramadan, and it is celebrated differently by different families. Eid al Adha takes place after a person returns from a pilgrimage to Haj. It is usually celebrated with a variety of meat and rice dishes.
There are a multitude of cuisines and dishes to explore when living in Israel. While the food available there might be very different to the food the average expat is used to back home, once you give it a chance, you are bound to fall in love with the freshness and diversity of the cuisine. Try to learn as much as you can about the culture and the customs of the people in Israel. If you are open to new experiences, and you should have no trouble settling in.