When you ask people what dishes come to mind when they think of Israeli cuisine, the typical responses include falafel, hummus, and shawarma. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but none of the foods I just listed were actually created in Israel. I hope I didn’t shock you too much and that you give me the chance to try and define Israeli cuisine because it is a lot more difficult than you may think. People actually have debates over what constitutes as Israeli food.
I like to think of Israel as a soup. When you make soup, you need a lot of ingredients. You can’t just make soup with a tomato. You need the seasonings that will make it taste better. Those seasonings are the countries and cultures that have influenced Israel since the founding of the state. When you come on your first trip to Israel and specifically Tel Aviv, you will notice the large number of Asian, Italian, Ethiopian, and Greek restaurants that line the streets.
Let me explain how Israel got to this place. Yisrael Aharoni, a famous chef, discovered Chinese food while studying in Amsterdam. This made him decide that he needed to study in Taiwan. After that experience, he brought his knowledge back to Israel and opened his first Chinese restaurant, Yin Yang. Aharoni made Chinese food a staple in the Israeli diet. At the time of the early 80’s there were very few restaurants in Israel so, when Yin Yang opened, people gravitated towards it. At one point, there were around 70 Chinese restaurants in Tel Aviv and nothing else. Many people could not afford to dine at fancy restaurants so this was cheap and casual. The chef at Taizu, a very popular destination for Asian food, said “We’re not authentic and neither are most of the other new Asian restaurants in the country.” I think this perfectly explains the influence that these Asian restaurants have had on the cuisine of Israel.
Another food we need to discuss is olives. If you have not had olives in Israel you are in for a treat. They are extremely easy to find in any of the markets. These stands sell all different kinds like beldi, which has the texture of sun dried tomato, and castelvetrano ,which has a buttery flavor. Even though olives are popular in Israel, the main source of them are found in Greece.Greece has the highest per capita national consumption of olive oil. I have found that both Greeks and Israeli use a lot of citrus and fresh herbs such as mint and dill in their cooking.
I know I only mentioned in this article Asian and Greek cuisine, but there is so much more I can say about the cuisines that have influenced Israel. I wouldn’t be able to fit it on one page. People have written entire books on this subject and discuss the topic of Israeli cuisine daily. The best way for you to experience what I have been writing about is to travel to Israel. Explore the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv or Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. Find the restaurants that feel like hidden gems. Take a cooking class and learn how to make falafel. Make sure to eat a lot of shawarma. This is how you get the full picture of what Israeli cuisine is. Maybe you will discover Italian street food sandwiches, Dim sum, and Druze pita like I did, or you will create your own story. Israel is one big soup or melting pot. It is the tomato, but it needs all the seasonings to help it sparkle. Taste everything and discover those seasonings.