Israel’s culinary journey

by Sarah on November 22, 2011


From falafel to croissant

Israel is a food lover’s destination. It wasn’t always like this. Thirty years ago the culinary delights were limited to falafel, shawarma and chocolate milk in a bag. They continue to be as popular as ever, but now there are in competition with an eclectic range of international favorites, from sushi to croissants.

The beauty of Israel’s food transformation is the ability to absorb new influences while holding fast to tradition. Although formal culinary training in Israel is heavily based on French technique, many chefs add their own personal ethnic twist to their creations. Halva crème brulée, stuffed figs in wine, Moroccan pastries filled with chocolate, slow cooked beef with root vegetables and Persian loomi lemons…dishes that are both international and distinctly Israeli.


Croissants at La Lyonnaise French bakery in Ashdod

Some classics, however, seem impervious to change. They have become part of the country’s cultural heritage, analogous to the French baguette or American apple pie. Hummus, the ubiquitous chickpea puree, is a classic example. Tradition stipulates that it is always made the same way, never flavored with exotic additions. Pumpkin, sun dried tomato or roasted garlic hummus? A laughable suggestion and not even considered.

Workers’ diners offer a taste of Israeli home cooking. These humble establishments are living museums, preserving age-old culinary customs of the immigrants who settled in this country.  Couscous, mafrum and shakshuka can be sampled in a Libyan restaurant, while an Eastern European eatery may offer kreplach, gefilte fish and chicken soup. Hidden in the commercial districts around the country, these family owned restaurants are advertised by a simple sign or none at all. In time, these foreign food cultures have become the anchors of Israeli cuisine and deeply tied to personal and even national identity.

libyan food in or yehuda

Libyan food in Or Yehuda

However, before all else, regional cooking is composed of the people who have lived here; The Arab, Druze, Circassian, along with the Levantine Jews of Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian descent. The commonality between these groups is clearly reflected in their shared food culture which is as rich as the land they live on. A unique aspect of local culinary heritage lies in their deep understanding of edible wild plants.

edible wild plants in Israel

cyclamen, za'atar (Majorana syriaca) and sage

Indigenous species such as mallow, mustards, hyssops (za’atar), chicory, cyclamen and sage are used in everyday cooking and herbal medicine. Moshe Basson, chef at Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem and a slow food advocate, incorporates native plants in many of his dishes. He was first taught the secrets of foraging by the Arab women he met as a child while wandering the hillsides of Jerusalem. There is a growing interest in the local flora, not only in their practical use but their place in biblical history and their connection with the land.

The standard items of Israel’s formative years are still the basis for its cuisine; an abundant of fresh fruits and vegetables, a few core dairy products, whole grains and legumes. In the past there was a minimum of processed foods and most of the cooking was done at home. As the economy strengthened, so did the appetites. Travelers brought home stories of legendary foods from the far reaches of the earth. Croissants from France, momo dumplings from Nepal, tapas from Spain, fresh fragrant ginger from India… these were yet unavailable in this small Middle Eastern country.  Israelis began a culinary exodus and returned home with inspiration from afar.

messa restaurant

Innovation at Messa restaurant, Tel Aviv

The first trailblazers had to learn new techniques at their roots. Some went to formal training, such as Chef Oren Giron who studied pastry making at Le Cordon Bleu in England. Later he would open Osim Bishool Culinary School in Herzliya.  Adi Frishman studied the art of the iconic croissant and brought Parisian chic to Tel Aviv at La Gaterie Bakery. The owner of Manuella in Zichron Yaacov gleaned his secrets of handmade pasta in southern Italy. Many of the celebrity chefs, cookbook authors and TV personalities have also gone on an internship abroad, including Israel Aharoni, Michal Ansky of Master Chef fame and dessert queen, Carine Goren.

Manuella, zichron yaacov, italian restaurant

Manuella Italian Restaurant, Zichron Ya'acov

Recipes have migrated from one kitchen to the next, inevitably changing to suit the Middle Eastern palette. Others have remained unchanged from their country of origin. Today patisseries, brasseries, tapas bars, Argentinean grills mingle with old time favorites. During Shabbat and holidays, families serve Moroccan tagines near grandmother’s famous Polish krupnik.

The culinary journey is still evolving, adding depth and flavor to Israeli cooking.


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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosa November 22, 2011 at 8:13 am

Thanks for sharing! Everything looks delicious.




Silvia November 22, 2011 at 8:38 am

I love incorporating flowers in my dishes, but I thought cyclamen is poisonous, which part of it is edible?


Sarah November 22, 2011 at 8:53 am

Hi Silvia, The leaves are generally used when cooking with cyclamen (never the roots as they contain poisonous saponins). The leaves need to be boiled in a large amount of water and drained. I don’t know about the edibility of the flowers.


Silvia November 22, 2011 at 11:43 am

This is very interesting, thank you for the information!


Yaelian November 22, 2011 at 8:59 am

Beautiful post Sarah,something that one can show people who ask what kind of food we have here:)


Faye November 22, 2011 at 5:38 pm

I second Yaelian’s opinion! This is just wonderful. It really gets people to think.


Sarah December 4, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Thanks for the kind comments!


Emily Segal November 22, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Sarah, your photos are crazy gorgeous!!


Faye November 22, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Very good point about the workers’ diners. Sometimes you come across great dishes in those kinds of places.


usha November 22, 2011 at 9:13 pm

EXCELLENT !!!!! The photos do full justice to the food.
Incidentally, I saw a re-run on jewish food on Fox TLC. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven….esp. when I saw the challah.


Miriyummy November 23, 2011 at 1:08 am

Excellent article, now I’m hungry!


Yael November 23, 2011 at 1:49 am

I loved how you incorporated photos from our different excursions to one coherent piece. You’re a genius! Now we need to do some more traveling so you’ll have new and better photos :)


Victoria Challalncin November 24, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Wonderfully informative. Thanks for the glimpse into the evolution of Israeli food.


OysterCulture January 1, 2012 at 7:54 am

Its my goal to make it over to sample for myself, what a great overview.


sasha February 28, 2012 at 11:20 am

Hello! i am late to this post but it made for wonderful reading nevertheless!
Do you use the email address listed in the website? I wanted some eating recommendations in israel for my honeymoon next week please!we go to jerusalem, massad, haifa and telaviv. i would really appreciate some tips!
thank u much


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