There’s evidence to suggest that Israeli food has recently stepped into the spotlight: LA’s Freehand hotel just opened a neo-Israeli restaurant called The Exchange; a 2016 documentary called In Search of Israeli Cuisine hosted by Zahav chef Michael Solomonov is available on Netflix; and pan-Middle Eastern restaurant like NYC’s Nur, New Orleans’ Shaya, and LA’s Kismet have earned glowing critical reviews.
But for all the recent attention, the food of Israel and the Middle Eastern traditions it melds with are ancient. As with any cuisine, the lines between what is distinctly Israeli and what has been borrowed and gifted to and from other cultures is hardly cut and dry. The food of Tel Aviv is different from that of Galilee is different from that of the West Bank, and the many ethnic and racial groups within Israel contribute to its culinary diversity.
“How would you put a lasso around American food?” says Michael Solomonov, chef at Philadelphia’s celebrated Zahav restaurant, when asked to generalize Israeli food. But for all its various influences, ingredients, and techniques, Israeli food has some signature dishes and characteristics that are useful to Americans encountering it for the first time. Many will be familiar to fans of other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines.
“For me, it’s charcoal flavor. It’s a lot of lemon; it’s a lot of olive oil; that overuse of olives, figs, grapes, wheat,” Solomonov says. “And then tons of herbs and a wide range of spices.”
Most Americans should be acquainted with one of Israel’s staple dishes: hummus. Nothing against the premade stuff, but fresh hummus elevates the humble chickpea to an art form.
“Most hummus is kept no longer than two hours,” says Adeena Sussman, a food and wine writer who lives most of the year in Tel Aviv, and is the author of a forthcoming Israeli cookbook called Sababa. “A lot of the hummus places are open here in the morning and close at 1 when they’re done with their hummus for the day.”
She says much of the hummus in Israel is less lemony than in the States, allowing the chickpea and tahini flavor to shine. Varying ratios of chickpea puree to tahini create variations that can be thick, smooth, grainy or light.
Hummus is just one component of salatim, a spread of cold and cooked salads, dips, condiments, and breads that can be presented as a first course or as an entire light meal.
“There’s tons of acid, good salinity, lots of herbs, and part of the experience is just the showering of plates,” says Solomonov.
Pickles are also generally part of the platter. Israel’s strong sunlight makes lactofermented vegetables a quick endeavor, with pickled options spanning krauts, cucumbers, and beet juice-packed veggies.
Condiments and sauces are also in plentiful supply and can take a simple salad in a lot of flavorful directions. Harissa—a versatile hot chili pepper paste that also can include garlic, saffron, coriander, cumin, and caraway—is a staple for spicing up everything from fish to vegetables.
“You open an Israeli refrigerator, you’ll see preserved lemons and date syrup and tahini and olive paste and all these accents that can really give a lot of concentrated flavor, full of sun and spice,” Sussman says.
Ditto for spice blends, which can vary in their composition. Ras el hanout is a spice mixture of North African origin, analogous to India’s garam masala, that can include dozens of individual spice components; baharat is a similarly complex blend that’s attributed to Syrian and Lebanese origin.
“Everyone knows baharat as kind of the pumpkin pie spice; it’s a sweet-clovey one that’s also used for savory dishes. It’s got cinnamon and mace, and goes really well with caramelized onions and heady cuts of meat and ground lamb,” says Solomonov.
A Yemeni soup spice, called hawaij, is also common; it’s heavy on turmeric, black pepper and cumin. It’s added to a Yemeni soup called marak temani, which is typically thick, meaty, and full of potatoes, Sussman says.
Chickpea-based falafel is an important staple of Israel’s food scene, but variations can also be made with other beans like fava (an Egyptian style of the dish). Falafel are eaten pretty much all day long in Israel, not just relegated to lunch or snacks.
“In the morning, falafel is the breakfast sandwich of Israel; later in the day or night it becomes the burger of Israel,” Sussman says.
Schnitzel is—perhaps surprisingly—also a common dish in Israel, brought there historically by Austrian and German immigrants who came to work on kibbutzim. It’s nearly always chicken-based rather than pork or veal, and is served with mashed potatoes or tucked into a pita.
Oh, and a note on pita from Solomonov: “For a while, people here thought that pita meant dry or shitty or something that needed to be cut into triangles and toasted. But pita is fluffy with nooks and crannies like an English muffin and it has good development of sour in it. It doesn’t have to be lavash circa whenever.”
Sussman calls pita “the envelope of Israeli food,” and says it’s a very common way to eat shakshuka. This Tunisian poached egg and tomato sauce brunch dish has skyrocketed in popularity in the U.S. recently, but it’s long been an on-the-go morning staple in Israel, where it’s sometimes stuffed in the pita with roasted red peppers. In the U.S., the egg yolks tend to be much softer than shakshuka eggs in Israel, where the egg is more cooked than a runny egg but not quite hard-boiled.
Of course, there’s much more to Israel’s fresh, sunny food than what we’ve been able to cover in these 60 seconds. We haven’t even touched on wine, on lamb, on couscous! Fortunately, curious Americans are gaining more choices when it comes to seeking out Israeli restaurants here in the States.
“I just want to create peace in the Middle East,” Solomonov says of his 10-year-old restaurant, Zahav. “I think that Israeli food represents Israeli people and the idea and state of Israel. The conversation about Israel and the conversation about its right to exist… food is maybe where it should start. It’s tangible, it’s something there that tells a story.”