The food wasn’t at the top of things I was excited about when I was invited to experience Israel. Aside from hummus, falafel and Charlotte turning her nose up at an unappetizing jar of gefilte fish in Zabar’s when she decides to convert in Sex and the City, I really didn’t have a clue what Israeli cuisine is. But when you’re traveling all around the country with chef-owner Nir Margalith from Puzzle Israel, you not only get the inside scoop on how all these Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines meld together to become Israeli cuisine, you eat really, really well. I could rave about a hundred things we ate, but I painstakingly whittled my list of the must-trys down to these 10 things to taste in Israel:
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially when you’re heading out on full day adventures like mountain biking and repelling in the Negev desert. My favorite way to stay energized quickly became getting my protein by eating as much shakshuka as possible at breakfast each morning.
It’s technically Tunisian in origin, but became hugely popular in Israel when North African Jews immigrated to Israel in the 1950s. Shakshuka is a poached egg cooked in a cumin spiced tomato sauce. You can find it at a lot of places, but the best I shakshuka I had was at the Shiri Bistro in Rosh Pina.
2. Fresh Pomegranate Juice
I love pomegranate juice and used to drink it all the time when we lived in Arizona. It was super easy to find since pomegranates are grown in Arizona and California. I didn’t realize that pomegranates originated in modern-day Iran and are grown all over the Middle East. Bonus that the growing season in the Northern Hemisphere is from October through March.
Thanks to our friend Cailin from Travel Yourself, who mentioned to me that I must try the pomegranate juice if it was in season, I was on the lookout. And I didn’t have to look very hard. Little carts with pomegranates piled up next to the juicer were everywhere. Well worth my 15 Shekels (about $4 US)!
It’s kind of like the Turkish döner or the Greek gyro. The meat (lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, or veal) is put on a vertical spit and it turns to slowly roast for up to a day. The meat is then shaved off and can be served on a plate or as a sandwich. It’s a fast food and perfect to grab for a quick lunch on a full day of sightseeing.
I opted for a pita and selected hummus, tabbouleh, cabbage, tahini, pickles and spices on my turkey shawarma. The best one I had was at Shevah (91 Yaakov Pat St) in Jerusalem, which was highly recommended as a local favorite.
4. Israeli Wine
The skeptic in me had me thinking there was no way Israeli wine would be good. Oh, how wrong I was. Grapes were technically growing on this land since biblical times and modern day Israeli wine makers have studied viticulture and enology at world-class universities and interned under top wine makers in France and the United States.
Many wineries are producing award-winning wines and the Golan Heights is one of the most interesting wine regions I’ve visited around the world. It’s worth traveling up to the north of Israel to visit a few, but if you can’t then at least try some Israeli wines which are easily found in restaurants and wine shops around the country.
Israel is a country that loves its dips. Eating hummus is a given, so I’m not going to include it on this list. But there are other dip options beyond hummus, like labneh.
It’s a cheese that is made from straining yogurt. It’s Armenian in origin, but Israelis have embraced labneh and it’s a staple breakfast food that is enjoyed with pita or bread.
Like so many Israeli foods, Krembo is a an import. The Danish treat became extremely popular in Israel in the 1960s, though today some 50 million are produced and sold in Israel. Part of the popularity might be because it’s a treat that is only available and sold from October through February.
Krembo means cream (krem) in it (bo) in Hebrew. It’s a marshmallow cream, that reminded me of the Marshmallow Fluff that comes in a jar, heaped onto a shortbread cookie and then covered in chocolate. You can’t just pop the whole thing in to your mouth and it’s very delicate, so I wondered how to eat it as I unwrapped the individual foil-wrapped treat.
Apparently this is a debate in Israel! Strauss, the primary manufacturer of Krembo in Israel, did a study and found that 69% of Israelis prefer to eat Krembos from the top down.
7. Chocolate with Pop-Rocks
Where eating a Krembo is an Israeli’s trip down memory lane to their childhood days gone by, Pop-Rocks remind me that I’m a child of the ’80s. While technically not Pop-Rocks, the flavorless Pop-Rocks-like explode for that ka-boom sensation in your mouth in this unique milk chocolate bar.
The chocolate bar is divided into little squares like a Hershey bar. Break one off and let the chocolate melt in your mouth. Then pop-pop-pop!
Arak is one of those things you’ll end up trying regardless of whether you actually want to try it. Like Italy’s Limoncello, Greece’s Ouzo or Norway’s Aquavit, every Israeli will pour you a shot of Arak or mix you an Arak cocktail.
It’s distilled from the leftover pulp, skins, stems and juice from winemaking. Anise seeds are then added for flavor before another distillation to make the licorice-flavored spirit.
Before my trip, I thought of Israel from the stories in the bible – Moses wandering the desert for 40 years, landlocked Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. It’s easy to forget that Israel actually has over 100 miles of coast.
And if you know anything about being kosher, it might be even more surprising that you can find excellent seafood all around Israel (bottom feeders like lobster, shrimp and calamari are prohibited by Jewish dietary law). Lucky for me, because I love all of those things and one of the best seafood meals I had was at a restaurant in the village Sderot near the Gaza Strip that I’d probably passed over from its outside appearance had I not been traveling with locals like Nir and Guy from Puzzle Israel.
Honestly, the restaurant named SINS kind of looked like a Las Vegas tattoo parlor with cages over the door and windows. But it goes to show that first impressions aren’t always accurate, because inside I found a cozy restaurant with a chef-owner who was happy to share his stories of what owning a restaurant within range of rockets was like. And I had one of the best seafood curries I’ve ever had.
Falafel is Israel’s unofficial national snack and every Israeli seems to have an opinion on the best way to eat it – stuffed in to a pita or on a plate. Either way, you simply can’t go to Israel and not try the chickpea fritters.
You can find falafel literally everywhere. Just look for a long line at lunchtime or in the early evening to find the best local falafel haunts. If you have it in a pita, it will be accompanied by various salads and sauces so be sure to grab plenty of napkins. It is one delicious, albeit messy, street food.
My trip was provided by Puzzle Israel in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own.