Introduction To Traditional Israeli Food
Traditional Israeli food is an ancient heritage of a multi-cultured history of the Jewish Nation. Definitely, Israel is one of the countries where traditional food comes from different cultures. Indeed, Israeli cuisine includes local and diaspora food. Especially, after 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel, local Israeli recipes blended with Jewish immigrant cultures.
Ashkenazi, Mizrahi and Sephardic traditional recipes changed the local Israeli cuisine. Middle Eastern and Mediterranean spices and food such as za’atar, falafel, hummus, msabbaha, shakshouka, and couscous are the most common Israeli street food. Mediterranean ingredients such as veggies, dairies and fish are present in most Israeli recipes.
Moreover, most of the food in Israel is kosher, which means it respects the Halachic rules of Kashrut. As an example, it is customary not to mix dairies and meat and avoid seafood. It is also traditional to prepare a large meal before Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. The Jewish holidays’ typical dishes are challah, jachnun, malawach, gefilte fish, hamin, sufganiyot, me’orav Yerushalmi, and zhug.
Israeli Street Food
Israeli street food is usually findable in street stalls and markets, and it is a kind of Middle Eastern fast food. Street food is generally ready-to-eat standing up or at small tables. The most popular street food in Israel is:
Jerusalem Mixed Grill
Jerusalem Mixed Grill, or Meorav Yerushalmi, consists of grilled meat such as chicken hearts, chicken livers, chicken spleens, ground lamb, lamb fat with onions and garlic, spices such as turmeric, black pepper, cumin, fresh herbs such as cilantro and olive oil. Some say that in Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, someone created this dish. It usually served inside fresh pita bread, a Middle Eastern flatbread, as a sandwich with a side of salads, hummus, and fries.
Bourekas are Israeli pastries originating from the Sephardi Jewish tradition. There are different versions of bourekas, depending on the type of dough, such as phyllo dough, puff pastry, or brik pastry. The filling usually consists of cheese such as feta and kashkaval and vegetables such as spinach, mushrooms, mashed potatoes; sometimes, they can have a pizza garniture. The shapes of Bourekas correspond to different fillings; indeed, triangle bourekas usually contain dairy products, squares or circles bourekas usually contain non-dairy ingredients. Poppy seeds, nigella seeds, black sesame seeds, and za’atar are the typical decorations of bourekas.
Taboon is a Middle Eastern round-shaped flatbread made of flour, water, yeast and sugar, and baked in clay ovens. They are usually served filled with falafel, hummus and chopped meat.
Israeli Salad or Salad Katzutz is the most well-known Israeli dish in the world besides hummus. This salad consists of a mix of diced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, chopped bell peppers, red onion pieces, and garnished with parsley, lemon juice, black pepper and olive oil. It can be an appetiser or a side dish with pita and falafel or shawarma.
Sabich or Sabih is an Iraqi Jewish delicacy consisting of a pita bread sandwich with a filling of fried eggplants, hard-boiled eggs, amba and tahini sauce, Israeli salad, hummus, and parsley. The Salat Sabich is the version without bread.
Shawarma is a meat dish dating back to the Ottoman period and consists of marinated meat slow-roasted on a rotating brochette for hours. The flesh can be from beef, chicken, turkey, lamb or a blend of different meat types. It is usually served inside pita or lavash with vegetables and aromatised with cinnamon and cloves.
The Falafel are small fritters consisting of flour, chickpeas, fava beans, parsley, coriander, cumin, onion and garlic. They can be with only chickpeas, only fava beans, or a blend of chickpeas and fava beans. The Israeli custom is to serve falafel inside pita bread with Israeli salad, hummus, tahini and sometimes garlic sauce. They are one of the symbols of Israeli cuisine, like the Israeli salad.
Popular Israeli Food
Unlike other countries, Israel doesn’t have a national dish because of so many traditional dishes. Following the order of a typical meal, the most famous Israeli food are:
Vegetables and salads are always present among the Israeli appetisers. Indeed, the most typical appetisers are:
- Babaganoush or Salat Hatzilim consists of grilled eggplants, garlic, lemon juice, herbs, onions, spices and tahini. Another variant of eggplant salads also includes mayonnaise, yoghurt, feta cheese, onions, tomatoes, and roasted bell peppers;
- Dolma is a dish consisting of wrapped vine leaves, which are stuffed with rice and spices. There are several variants of Dolma because it is a dish typical of Armenia, Greece, and Syria besides Israel. Some Israelis use mulberry tree leaves instead of vine leaves. The variant without meat is the Yalancı Dolma. The Israeli meat-filled variant is garnished with a pomegranate sauce and dried cherries. It is customary for some Jews to eat stuffed cabbage on the occasion of the Simchat Torah. Moreover, it is an ancient dish that originates in the 16th century Ottoman Empire.
- Hummus is one of the most famous Israeli food. Hummus and pita is a typical appetiser or sometimes a meal. There are different varieties of hummus, and it’s common to find fresh hummus at a hummusia, an eatery that prepares and sells hummus;
- Israeli Salad (you can find details above in the Israeli Street Food section);
- Khamutzim consists of pickled vegetables soaked in water, salt or olive oil. The vegetables usually employed are beans, bell peppers, cabbages, capers, cauliflowers, carrots, chilli peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, garlic, lemons, onions, olives, radishes, tomatoes, and turnips;
- Kubba consists of rice, semolina or burghul, minced onions, ground beef, lamb or chicken. This dish comes from Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian Jewish traditions;
- Meze or Mezze or Mazza is a typical dish originating from the Middle East, the Balkans, Greece, and North Africa. It consists of small platters of different salads, vegetables and sauces. The most popular Israeli meze includes hummus, babaganoush, falafel, halloumi cheese and tabbouleh;
- Roasted vegetables such as bell peppers, chilli peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplants, potatoes and zucchini are always present as appetisers and side dishes;
- Sabich Salad is based on the Israeli dish Sabich, with eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, tahini, Israeli salad, potato, parsley and amba;
- Salat Avocado is an Israeli-style avocado salad with lemon juice and scallions. Since 1920, avocado trees have been planted in Israel, becoming a winter treat for salads and toasts;
- Sambusak is fried dough with a filling of mashed chickpeas, fried onions and spices. Another version is the one with a filling of meat, fried onions, parsley, herbs and pine nuts;
- Sigarim is a deep-fried or oven-baked phyllo-dough pastry filled with a mix of minced meat, onions and potato with spices;
- Tabbouleh is a Levantine vegan dish consisting of bulgur, onion, tomatoes, parsley, mint, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. Sometimes in the tabbouleh contains pomegranate seeds;
- Tahini is the most popular dressing in Israel and commonly used to garnish falafel, meat, fish and vegetables. It is obtained by toasted ground sesame seeds, and it is the main present in hummus, babaganoush, and halva.
Several condiments and sauces are mainly used in the appetisers with bread and dishes as vegetables. The most common Israeli dressings are:
- Amba is a piquant mango sauce consisting of pickled green mangoes, chilli, fenugreek, salt, turmeric, and vinegar. It comes from the Sanskrit word āmra that means mango. This dressing comes from the Sephardi and Mizrahi traditional gastronomy, and in particular Iraqi Jews brought this sauce in Israeli. The amba is a garnish that goes on sandwiches, hummus and other mezzes. It is also an excellent topping for shawarma, falafel, sabich, meorav Yerushalmi and kebab;
- Filfel Chuma or Pilpelshuma is a traditional Lybian pepper garlic hot chili sauce. The main ingredients are powdered hot, sweet peppers and ground garlic. Additionally, caraway and cumin seeds sometimes are included as well as lemon juice and salt. Like the harissa, the Filfel Chuma is used as a sauce in fish, legumes, meat, rice, salads, shakshouka, and vegetables;
- Harissa is a thick red hot chilli pepper sauce typical of Tunisia. Baklouti peppers and red peppers are the main ingredients with olive oil, garlic, herbs and spices such as caraway and coriander seeds, cumin. There is also the variant with rose petals, and its name comes from the Arabic harasa, which means to break into pieces. This condiment goes with fish, meat, couscous, vegetables and also simply with bread. It is a common topping in sabich, shawarma and shakshouka;
- Matbukha is a very spicy dish consisting of roasted bell peppers and cooked tomatoes with garlic and chilli. It is a traditional sauce from the Maghreb, and North African Jews brought this dressing in Israel. Mainly in use as an appetiser and in traditional dishes such as kofta, shakshouka and tagine;
- Orgeat Syrup is a sweet syrup made with almonds, orange flower and rose water, and sugar. It is employed in cocktails and desserts;
- Tzatziki is a sauce made of yoghurt, cucumbers, garlic, and olive oil. Herbs such as dill, mint, parsley, and thyme are also employed to make this tasty condiment, an appetiser and a side dish.
- Zhug is a very spicy Yemenite sauce obtained by coriander, cumin, hot pepper, garlic, olive oil and spices. In Israel, the green zhug is prepared using jalapenos, and the red zhug is obtained from red peppers.
Israeli First Courses
Surprisingly, Israel has many first courses. The most famous Jewish and Israeli first course is Chicken Soup. Nevertheless, there are additional others, not less important!
- Bulgur is a whole grain obtained from dried and cracked wheat. It is a good substitute for couscous, quinoa and rice.
- Chicken Soup consists of a soup of chicken, carrots, onions, garlic, celery, herbs such as dill and parsley, and spices. There are many variants of chicken soup, depending on the family customs and the Jewish ethnic group. It is customary to add pasta, dumplings or noodles. Sephardim add rice or orzo and add lemon juice, mint and coriander. Ashkenazim sometimes add noodles, matzah balls or shkedei marak, i.e. soup almonds, which are very common in Israel.
- Couscous is originally from North Africa, and it is usually cooked in couscoussière with spices. It is widespread among Sephardi Jews and served with vegetables, chicken or lamb, saffron and turmeric.
- Lentil Soup consists of lentils, onions, garlic, celery, carrots and parsley as essential ingredients. Additional ingredients of this tasty soup are potatoes, chickpeas, pumpkins and tomatoes. In Israel, it is also common to find variants with meat, such as the Yemenite bone marrow soup, which is called ftut with the addition of hawaij spice combination.
- Ptitim is an Israeli pasta, which is also called Israeli Couscous, and it is also well-known as Ben-Gurion rice. Like every kind of pasta, ptitim can be cooked and flavoured in many ways. It can be boiled, sauteed and baked with stoke, broth and spices.
- White Bean soup is a Sephardi soup that consists mainly of beans and tomato sauce.
- White Rice is mainly present in several first Israeli courses such as soups. Additionally, it is also served with meat, chicken and vegetables. Persian Jews prepare their typical green rice, which is a recipe made of fresh herbs and rice. Another tasty traditional rice recipe is the Mujaddara, which consists of lentils and rice with stir-fry onions. Anciently, Sephardi Jews created the Orez Shu’it, an old Jerusalem recipe of white beans, tomato paste and white rice.
Israeli Main Courses
Israeli main courses can consist of dairies, fish, meat or vegan food.
- Cheeses are predominantly diffuse in all the Mediterranean area, and the main characteristic cheeses in Israel are yellow cheese, cottage cheese, soft white cheese, i.e. Gvina Levana or Quark. Labneh is a white cheese derived from yoghurt, and it is a typical cheese of the Balkans and the Middle East that can be eaten plain or with olive oil and za’atar. Halloumi cheese is produced with a blend of goat’s and sheep’s milk. It is a delicious cheese, especially grilled or fried. Tzfat cheese is a white cheese that is similar to feta. Initially, it has always been produced in the Israeli city of Tzfat by the Meiri dairy since 1837, where the Brinza cheese, a creamy white cheese, is also made. Another famous Israeli cheese is the Bulgarian feta cheese, which is very common in sandwiches and salads.
- Typical Israeli Egg Dishes are Shakshuka, Omelettes and Haminados. Shakshouka mainly consists of eggs, tomatoes, onions, garlic, chilli and paprika. Additional ingredients can be bell pepper, eggplant, and feta. Omelettes are made of eggs and onions with different herbs such as dill seeds, parsley, coriander, and spices such as turmeric, cumin and peppers. Haminados are boiled eggs that are baked, which are baked in meat stews such as the cholent.
- Fish is mainly available in Israel from the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and Galilee. Additionally, there are also fish farms. Typical fish is gilt-head sea bream, trout, St. Peter’s fish, grouper, halibut and tilapia. In Israel, the fish can be grilled, fried, baked, braised or cooked in spicy hot pepper sauce. Among Ashkenazim, carp, herring and salmon are very diffuse. Carp is a fish employed to make the gefilte fish popular on Shabbat and other Jewish festivals. Herring is a fish primarily present at the kiddush on Shabbat. In the Russian community, herring is served with boiled potatoes, dark bread, and sour cream. A typical Israeli dish is the fish Kufta, fried fish with onions, herbs, spices and a topping of yoghurt sauce or tahini.
- Meat is one of the main courses, mainly on Shabbat and festivals. The most common poultry are chicken and turkey. Chicken-based recipes are several such as the most common oven-baked chicken, couscous chicken casserole, chicken albondigas or meatballs in tomato sauce, chicken and turkey schnitzels, and chicken with olives. Beef albondigas in tomato sauce are also a typical Jewish traditional dish. The kofta is similar to the albondigas because it consists of a blend of ground meat, spices and herbs, cooked in tomato sauce with vegetables and beans. Other meat dishes are the mangal, a Middle Eastern barbeque, kebab, merguez that are Maghreb spicy sausages of beef or mutton, the shish taouk that consists of marinated chicken, the shashlik, which consists of meat grilled cubes en brochette. Moreover, other meat dishes are the moussaka, an eggplant based recipe with ground meat and potatoes, and of course, meat stews like the famous cholent.
In Israel, there is an ancient tradition of baking sweet pastries and cakes. Besides local bakeries, there are also konditoria, European style pastry shops and bakeries owned by European immigrants. Traditional Israeli desserts are halva, phyllo dough pastries, the Sephardi semolina cakes, the Ashkenazi babka, the ma’amoul, a semolina cookie filled with dates, and nuts such as pistachios and walnuts. Additionally, kugel Yerushalmi is a typical delicacy consisting of sugar, canola oil, noodles, eggs, black pepper, and salt. Tahini cookies and rugelach are also favourite desserts of Israel and baklava, a nut-filled phyllo pastry. Sacher torte, Linzer torte, cheesecake, and strudel are other desserts brought by European Jewish immigrants; they are sold in bakeries and homemade.
This article introduced the fantastic Israeli culinary world, which never ceases to amaze tourists and Israeli. Food is a central part of the Israeli culture, and there is so much to discover in Israel’s food heritage.