by: Peter Fast, National Director, Bridges for Peace Canada
From the pen of Peter Fast, national director of Bridges for Peace Canada and the future CEO of Bridges for Peace International, comes the fifth installment of the Quirks of Israel. Join Peter on a journey through the wonderfully peculiar culture, traditions, heritage and daily life of this singular nation as he unpacks, introduces and celebrates the quirky aspects that make Israel so wonderfully unique.
Part of the excitement of traveling to a foreign country is tasting the foods of the culture you are visiting. Israel is full of exciting flavors and foods. It is a Middle Eastern country, so demographically and culturally, Israel brings many dishes and flavors from the region of the world in which it exists. Yet Israel is also a nation of immigrants. Jews from over 70 countries have made aliyah (immigrated to Israel), and brought their culinary cultures with them. The implication? If you want an authentic Israeli Middle Eastern dish, there’s a million different restaurants to choose from. At the same time, if you want authentic Chinese, Korean, French, Italian, Greek, Japanese and so on and so forth, you can also find these foods in abundance. Once I even ate a burger at a Texas Grill in Ariel, the capital city of Samaria.
Let’s take a look at some of the gastronomic delights that Israel has to offer.
If you’re in the mood for tender lamb or chicken, your best bet is a shawarma. This dish is the perfect marriage of shaved meat, spiced pickles, cabbage, hummus, tahini, spicy sauce, salad and French fries. All of this is wrapped up in a laffa or a flatbread, and devoured.
Then there’s the falafel, which is basically a pita stuffed with much of the same ingredients as the schwarma, except that this is a vegetarian dish. Instead of meat shavings, the star of the show when it comes to a falafel is deep fried, mashed chickpeas and fava beans, making for delectable golden brown balls of goodness.
You could also eat a traditional shakshuka, a skillet dish of spiced tomato sauce with onion, peppers and garlic—with fried eggs nestled in the center. Alternatively, you might opt for a shish kabab (ground meat, mixed with herbs and spices, and grilled on a skewer), or for the brave, there’s Jerusalem mixed grill. This dish consists of chicken hearts, spleens and liver mixed with bits of lamb cooked on a flat grill, seasoned with onion, garlic, black pepper, cumin, turmeric, olive oil and coriander. It looks tasty, smells good and is very popular, but I’ve never been able to give it a try.
The Israelis are passionate hummus eaters. Made from mashed chickpeas, hummus is a very big deal in Israel. It is slathered on everything in abundance. So much so, that if you don’t tell the guy making your falafel to only use a little hummus, your whole meal will be overpowered by this mashed chickpea spread.
For those with a sweet tooth, there’s halva, a sugary confectionery made from sesame seeds, sugar or honey and flavored with everything from the standard chocolate, vanilla or espresso to the more exotic seasonings like chili and wasabi.
The Israeli breakfast is legendary, especially if you’re staying at a hotel. I’m a breakfast man, so I get excited by a good quality breakfast spread. And the Israeli hotels mean to impress. You’ll have a dozen or more cheeses, plate after plate of fresh fruit, row after row of fresh vegetables, pastries, four or five different types of bread, chocolate spread, jams, pancakes, a cook standing ready to make you a fresh omelet with an impressive array of fillings, freshly squeezed juice and freshly brewed coffee. Let me tell you, it is an experience!
There are so many other incredible foods in Israel that it is impossible to list them all in this article. Suffice to say that this is a country of gastronomical delights where flavor is king. Walking through any of the markets in Israel, you’ll see mountains of spices, meat vendors, fruit vendors and smell wonderful aromas that will blissfully carry you through your day.
No meal is complete without something to drink. When in Israel, you cannot forget the coffee and tea. Israelis love both these drinks, and the country boasts a plethora of restaurants, coffee shops and tea houses that invite you to choose from an impressive lineup of cappuccino, Turkish coffee, Americano, espresso or latte. Israel is famous for its glorious coffee options, quality roasted beans and wonderful flavors.
As a final point, there’s the tea. My mother’s side has British roots, and I grew up with an appreciation for a lovely cup of tea. Israel has manyexquisite flavors, and I think the one that tops them all is the mint tea. Perhaps it leads my list of favorites because when I drink it, I think of being in Israel. Sometimes they will serve it with the mint leaves right in the hot water and a lump of sugar. Drinking a nice cup of mint tea during the winter months will soothe your bones and take the chill right out of you.
Now picture this: you have your nice cup of mint tea—or cappuccino, latte, Turkish coffee or whatever you like—with a delicious pastry while you sit at a lovely coffee shop in downtown Jerusalem, musing about everything and watching life stream by as you bask in the sunshine. What a perfect way to spend a few hours in the City of Gold!
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