The Ultimate Guide to Israeli Food
I ate my way through the best restaurants of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Northern Israel (Haifa, Galilee, Nazareth, Caesaria). Here's my guide for what you need to eat in Israel!
If someone had asked me to describe Israeli food before my trip, all that would have come to mind was hummus… perhaps matzoh and matzoh balls… none of which really sounded particularly mouthwatering (if I'm being completely honest).
So as I packed my suitcase I thought the trip would mostly be focused on exploring Israel's history – its religious significance, its UNESCO world heritage sights and political background. While I did get an appreciation for those, I was blown away to discover Israel's flourishing culinary scene. The food there, is incredible – it's fresh, it's flavorful and it's innovative. Much of the diet is vegetarian based and as a meat lover I was quite surprised at how easily I tucked into all the vegetarian dishes.
I tried malabi and kanafeh, boureka and zaatar. Even “known-to-me” foods like hummus and falafel had so much more flavor and crunch compared to what we have in the States. I think we ate about every hour or so in the 10 days I spent in Israel and while my jeans may have been uncomfortably tight, my stomach grumbled happily along.
I wanted to write an Israeli Food Guide in the hopes that if you're considering a trip to Israel, you'll be much more prepared and will know what traditional Israeli foods to order, what authentic restaurants to hop into and a little background into Israeli food recipes!
If you have any additional restaurant recommendations, please leave them in the comments below and I will hopefully check them out on my next visit! Unfortunately Yelp is not really a thing in Israel and you'll find the best places through friends, word of mouth and of course blogs. I do wonder if the high-tech scene has a food app that is similar to Yelp though…
Before You Go: About Israeli Cuisine
Recommended Books, Shows & Films About Israeli Cuisine & Food Culture:
- Films: In Search of Israeli Cuisine
- Articles: NYT: Tips from An Ambassador for Israeli Cuisine
- Essential Read: Jerusalem: A Cookbook (probably the most famous book written on Israeli cuisine)
- Other Cookbooks: Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking | The Book of New Israeli Cuisine | Balaboosta | King Soloman's Table
Must Try Foods in Israel
Here are just a sampling of some traditional Israeli foods you should try during your visit to Israel:
|Falafel||fried chickpea balls. Many local markets will sell falafel scoopers, if you want to re-create this at home.|
|Hummus||Israeli hummus is served warm, with a topping of olive oil, chickpeas, warm pita and crunchy onion.|
|Shakshuka||eggs baked in tomato sauce, this is a staple of Israeli breakfast.|
|Tahini||a paste made from sesame seeds. This is pretty expensive if you buy it in American grocery stores so stock up in Israel – it's much fresher, comes in different flavors and is quite cheap.|
|Kanafeh||a Middle Eastern cheese pastry drizzled in sweet syrup.|
|Boureka||I love these – small hand pastries made of phyllo dough and stuffed – try it with salty cheese and spinach!|
|Malabi||rosewater pudding. I love this old fashioned dessert, as it can be spiced up with different fruit toppings, crunchy nuts, whatever you like.|
|Hafuch Coffee||“upside down” coffee where milk is first poured in, then coffee then milk foam. Starbucks couldn't make it in Israel but this drink sure is popular!|
|Israeli Salad||tomatoes and cucumbers. I had this everywhere, from my hotel breakfast to lunch and dinner! so fresh and deliciously crunchy|
|Labne with za'atar||Israeli food has many Middle Eastern influences, like this one! Labne is a thick strained yogurt and tastes best drizzled with olive oil and za'atar spice on flatbread.|
The Best Food in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv Markets
Israel is known for its outdoor markets and Tel Aviv has two main markets that are popular with locals and tourists alike.
Levinsky is the spice market of Tel Aviv and most popular with locals compared to tourists. Once the city's main market, it's where residents come to buy fresh spices, ground coffee and Persian delicacies. The market, or shuk, has a decidedly Balkan and Persian feel due to the arrival of Eastern European immigrants in the 1930's and Iranian immigrants in the 1950's.
Carmel Market is an open air market known for its fresh fruits and vendors. Walking through the market itself, you'll be beckoned by various vendors competing to sell you their offerings. Everything sold is seasonal and changes regularly from week to week – I spotted in particular some mouthwatering-ly large strawberries in mid-March. We certainly don't have strawberries that compare in NYC! I also tried a warm, crusty cheese bread from a famous bread shop directly on the market alley.
A Tel Aviv Food Tour
As I was visiting the city with limited time, I took the recommendation of my friend Trisha, a fellow travel blogger now living in Israel, to take a food tour with Delicious Israel. The experience was a refreshing, insider look at Israeli cuisine – chock full of interesting tidbits, peppered with history and overall a wonderful meandering walk through food stands, stalls and restaurants I would otherwise have never discovered.
We started first with refreshing shots of citron and green juice. The first thing I noticed about Tel Aviv was all the colorful juice stands all over the city. This particular shop run by the Etrog Man is known for its green juices spiked with qat, a psycho stimulant containing compounds chemically similar to ephedrine and amphetamines. It's banned in the US but Inbal let me in on a secret that Israelis swear by it for their geriatric vigor!
Next we tried malabi, a delightful Israeli milk pudding, and Arab coffee and my personal favorite sabich, a veggie and falafel stuffed pita sandwich. I had malabi many more times throughout my trip to Israel – it's like a panna cotta in that the base is light, creamy and refreshing and malabi can be decorated or dressed up with different toppings for unlimited unique varieties.
Sabich was a new dish that everyone back home insisted I needed to try. Essentially a pita sandwich stuffed with veggies, falafel and egg, the particular sabich shop she took me to too was overflowing with colorful tubs of vegetables, sauces and condiments. The man behind the counter took great care to place in each filling sideways so that every mouthful had a layered bite of each.
Back in my university days I used to stop by Moz for a falafel pita sandwich but the sabich in Tel Aviv blew poor Moz out of the water. I never thought I'd say that I enjoyed eggplant but the fried thin strips at this sabich joint were stellar! I ate those first… ha. When I asked for a take away bag, the man thoughtfully added in a couple more eggplant slices to fill up the pita back to the brim and carefully wrapped it to go. Highly, highly recommend this sabich place!
Perhaps the best part about joining Delicious Israel's food tour was the thorough introduction to Israeli cuisine. I learned that hummus is not just a condiment and that Israelis in fact treat it as the main meal, seeking to perfect the appropriate hummus to pita ratio. They also serve it with a chunk of raw onion, which I particularly liked!
What else should you eat with hummus?
Try Humshuka, a combination of hummus and shakshuka, try hummus and tahini, try hummus and fava beans – there are endless options! Just don't forget the fluffy warm pita bread, chunks of onion and spicy sauce.
Inbal took me to the best and oldest Jewish-run hummus spot in town, Shlomo & Doron. This place is so popular that it fills to the brim around lunchtime and closes shop when all the fresh made daily hummus has run out – typically around 3pm. The hummus was so good that I forgot to take a picture!
Above all, what I appreciated most about Delicious Israel was how personalized the tour felt. Inbal has a unique gift for weaving history and food together to give visitors a unique experience to Israeli cuisine.
Below is the list of places we tried, but note that Delicious Israel offers several different market tours and has the perfect knack for tweaking each tour to suit its participants.
Best Tel Aviv Restaurants
Etrog Man | for fresh squeezed juices and qat juice. HaCarmel St 11, Tel Aviv
Hamalabiya | for late night malabi and cardamom spiced coffee. 28 Gedera, Tel Aviv
Sabich Tchernikovsky | for the best sabich! Tchernikhovski St 2, Tel Aviv
Miznon Getzel | a ukranian-jewish bakery and coffee shop. 1 Gedera, Tel Aviv
Shlomo & Doron | a highly popular Jewish-run hummus place. 29 Yishkon Street, Tel Aviv
Lehamim Bakery |fresh, artisan breads like sourdough and cheesy breadsticks. HaCarmel St 11, Tel Aviv
The Best Food in Jerusalem
Jerusalem's most famous market is Mahane Yehuda (pronounced with a throaty machne) a boisterous, jam packed affair with spices, cafes, restaurants and at night.. craft beer spots! It's worth walking around in the early morning before the stalls open, to check out the colorful street art of well known international and local figures.
If you're looking for a WiFi-enabled resting spot, there are tons of great cafes and bakeries inside Mahane Yahuda. At night, the market stalls close up while bars and clubs pop up! Abraham hostels runs pub crawls if you're traveling solo and want to meet up with other travelers.
Where to Stay in Jerusalem
Jerusalem's main tourist highlights are Mahane Yahuda and the Old City. I recommend staying near either, as the city's light rail system is a straight east-west line that easily connects both ‘hotspots'. For luxury, consider Mamilla Hotel, for value Prima Palace is excellently located. Solo travelers will love Abraham hostels for its vibrant, social atmosphere.Book: Mamilla Hotel, Hotel Prima Palace, Abraham Hostel Check prices: Mamilla Hotel, Hotel Prima Palace, Abraham Hostel
Orthodox Jewish Cuisine
I've always been curious about orthodox religions. Jerusalem, as one of the holiest cities in the world, naturally has a large orthodox Jewish community known as the mea shearim. I took a walking tour with Authentic Tours to learn more the area and our guide Yana was extremely knowledgeable. The tour was a walking exploration through the orthodox section of Jerusalem and we stopped along the way into various local restaurants and bakeries to try their cuisine as well.
You can learn so much about people through their food and customs. Because much of the orthodox community arrived from Eastern Europe, the food has a strong Ukranian and Polish bent. Below are some of the restaurants we tried in Jerusalem. I do have to warn you that some establishments are not the most welcoming of outsiders but the bakeries were quite delicious!
Avichail Bakery | a large bakery with various breads and sweets Rehov Yaavetz 8, Jerusalem
Maadanei Hadar | a kosher deli specializing in kugel. Try both the potato and sweet noodle versions (to be honest I did not care for either) but well worth trying!
Daitsh | a kind, family run kosher restaurant with the best chicken soup, matzoh balls optional. Also serves gefilte fish if you want to try it.
Helman Bakery | a small bakery with excellent cinnamon streusal. Natan Strauss St 18, Jerusalem
Best Restaurants in Jerusalem
I went to the first 2 stops on this list but did not have a chance to visit the rest. This is the complete list of recommendations from friends and locals for Jerusalem food, or visit this post to learn more about food in Isreal.
Tmol Shilshom | a cozy cafe serving great teas, drinks, coffees and delicious pastas for dinner. Yo'el Moshe Salomon St 5, Jerusalem
First Station | this is an outdoor mall at the site of the city's old train station. tons of restaurants, stalls and shops to browse here! David Remez St 4, Jerusalem
Pasha’s | this is the recommended spot for Palestinian classics like fattoush (bread and fresh vegetable salad) and baba ghanouj 13 Shimon Hazadik St, Jerusalem
Abu Shukri | this is perhaps the most famous hummus place in the old city of Jerusalem, located in the muslim quarter. El Wad ha-Gai St 63, Jerusalem
The Best Food in Northern Israel
Galilee, Haifa, Acre, Nazareth, Caesaria
We spent a week up north, specifically to explore Northern Israeli cuisine and culture. We based ourselves in Haifa, an old Israeli port town about 2 hours driving distance from Jerusalem, and then did day trips to nearby cities like Nazareth, Galilee, Caesaria and Acre. Northern Israel is quite lush and green, with beautiful rolling hills and many sea ports. Another reason to visit? The region is quickly making a name for itself as Israel's own Napa Valley!
I really enjoyed the experience of tasting authentic Arabic cuisine and we definitely sampled our way through the region's culinary offerings as frequently as every hour or so. Of course, we made some time to see some of the mystical sights in the region, like the Rosh Hanikra grottoes and Ba'hai gardens. You can read more about our Northern Israel trip and my notes for planning your own Israel vacation here (coming soon).
Recommended Hotel: Dan Carmel Haifa
This luxury hotel is situated on a hilltop above Haifa, giving excellent views of the city below. The rooms were spacious and comfortable and I highly recommend staying here for a couple nights to fully explore Northern Israel. For the religious, they offer shabbat service and meals.Book: Booking.com, Hotels.com Check prices: TripAdvisor
Best Restaurants in Northern Israel
In no particular order, here is a list of places we ate at that I really enjoyed!
Sealife Hotel | for an epic lunch. We loved the fall off the bone lamb and sticky glazed chicken. There was also a huge assortment of veggie-based appetizers. Galilee
Haifa Street Food Tour | we toured the best of Haifa's eateries with this tour, stopping at local bakeries, fresh markets, beer taverns and Israeli and Middle eastern classics. Our guide Jessica did a great job navigating us through different districts, different ethnic establishments and ensuring that we sampled desserts, hearty mains and even beer. My favorites were the various bourekas at Borekas Bachar, the extra crunchy falafel balls at HaWadi Mishel and the savory dumplings & meatballs at Meir’s Ptiliot. (pictures below) Haifa
Vortman Winery | a beautiful small wine shop on a private family estate. Share a bottle of white with some friends on the expansive backyard patio. Haifa
Mary's Well | Nazareth is perhaps most famously known as the birthplace of Jesus, but this town deserves a new reputation as a culinary capital. Check out the religious sights but spend an equal amount of time sampling creative Arabic fusion kitchens. Here were some of my favorite stops: Avra Cafeteria (for Greek classics like moussaka) and Rosemary's (voted #1 restaurant in town several years running). Nazareth
Oud Restaurant at the Legacy Hotel | this restaurant is located inside Legacy Hotel and the meal was simply incredible. Oud specalizes in combining Mediterranean flavors across Arabic, Armenian, Turkish and Greek food through innovative cooking techniques! My favorites were the waldorf salad, hummus two ways, crunchy shrimp, spicy merguez sausage, fried halumi cheese and il basha with asakro, tagine pots filled with kubbe dumplings and shushbarak served in a warm yogurt sauce. (pictures from our meal above)
We also split a platter of 4 amazing desserts – various panna cottas and malabi flavored with fruit, honey etc. Unfortunately I can't seem to find the menu to pull up the exact names.. This was definitely one of those meals where the food is polished off so quickly that I barely have any photos!
We briefly peeked into the colorful rooms at the Legacy Hotel and they have an excellent view of the Basilica of the Annunciation and Nazareth city, so if you're looking to stay in town this would be an excellent hotel choice. Nazareth
Morad Winery | this was a unique stop on our trip! Morad was founded by a husband and wife team obsessed with wine. They specialize in fruit wines and we watched a heartwarming video about the company's founding and sampled many, many of their delicious fruit liquers. My favorite (and their best selling) is the passiontfruit liquer. Carmelim
Mariposa | a phenomenal restaurant located at Caesaria Golf Club, Israel's only international golf club. A more international menu focused on seafood, with exceptionally fresh crudo and pastas. We had a bunch of appetizers and desserts to share and everything was wiped clean pretty quickly. Caesaria
Planning a trip to Israel?
At this point, I realized I have many, many more food photos but the post started to get a bit long! I'll be sharing more Israeli food pictures on my Instagram so be sure to check out #shershegoes_Israel for more! I did make sure to list all the restaurants we particularly enjoyed in this post though – so please feel free to bookmark for your own Israel trip.
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