The diversity of immigrants to Israel has guaranteed a diverse culinary influence, but this can make the question of what constitutes Israeli cuisine a vexed one. Fortunately, indigenous dietary delights remain to be enjoyed in the Holy Land, especially in the capital Jerusalem.
State of the nation
Most agree that hummus is an Arab invention that has been appropriated by the Jewish majority and developed into an almost entirely different dish. Order a bowl of hummus at Akermawi in East Jerusalem and you’ll find it’s lemon-laced, dotted with cumin and as deliciously dense as setting concrete. This is the staple of many Palestinian workers who arrive before the crack of dawn to work in Israel. One large bowl is said to be sufficiently nutritious for a full day’s labour.
On the west side of town, the cumin and much of the lemon are absent and the hummus is soft and fluffy. This is because the Jewish establishments in West Jerusalem macerate the chickpeas in a blender, whereas the Muslim establishments in East Jerusalem pound them with a mortar and pestle.
The love of hummus spans cultural divides. Across the capital and the country it can be ordered plain or served with a sprinkling of meat, pinenuts, cooked whole chickpeas or ful (tangy, slow-cooked fava beans). Whatever the accompaniment, it is best eaten with pita. Arab-made pita tends to be slightly drier and more hummus-absorbent than the moister, stickier Jewish-made pita.
A flying start
While there’s usually no meat at breakfast owing to the Jewish dietary laws, or kashrut, that prohibit milk and meat being eaten together, there’s usually enough variety to compensate. A typical spread could comprise breads, pastries, fruits of all sorts, a selection of white cheeses (including the slightly sour Levantine delight, leben), muesli, hummus (of course), a tuna dip, Israeli salad (cucumber, tomato, olive oil, onion) and hard-boiled eggs.
In terms of hot breakfasts, one local favourite is shakshuka – a tomato, onion, chilli and capsicum casserole, served in the pan in which it’s cooked with an egg cracked on top. This rich Israeli version of baked eggs can also feature eggplant, goats’ cheese or other creative additions.
All things sugar and spice
If you have any appetite left after all this, you can’t leave Israel without trying a shawarma – what Australians would refer to as a kebab. Wherever you are in the country, from Akko in the north to Eilat in the extreme south, you’ll never be too far from a shawarma (which come with felafel for vegetarians). Debates still rage over where you’ll find the best examples, but HaShamen (The Fat One) on Ben Zakai Street in Jerusalem has incredibly succulent shawarma. Ask for one in laffa, a huge chunk of spongy bread with far greater capacity than a pita, and you’re guaranteed to be well satisfied.
Locally favoured spirits include Sabra, an Armenian brandy distilled from the prickly pear (also a nickname for an Israeli – spiky on the outside, soft on the inside) and arak, the aniseed-spiced liquor. Your best soft drink option is the mint-infused lemonade known as limonana, a refreshing homemade glass of which is commonplace around the country. Another sweet local beverage is the pink concoction of grapefruit and lemon juice available in trendier West Jerusalem hummus joints.
Hot drinks tend to be a choice between mint tea (a bag of black tea swimming in a forest of freshly picked mint) and one of four types of coffee. If you need a caffeine fix in Israel, you’ll need to be specific: ‘nes’ is instant coffee, usually Nescafe; ‘turki’ is thick, strong Turkish coffee boiled on the stove a few times; and ‘botz’ (‘mud’ in English) is the fine Turkish grind stirred into a glass of boiling water.
Espresso coffee, while available, isn’t always such a good option. For those who prefer their hot drinks without a sizeable lashing of caffeine, there’s always sahlab. This rosewater-infused, thin white porridge is distinctively Israeli. More of a dessert than a drink, it’s sometimes topped with coconut and is the best way to warm your soul late on a winter’s night.
The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey, by Janna Gur, profiles the state of the plate in the Holy Land and is packed with ripper recipes to bring the experience home. It does weigh two kilograms, but it’s a lot easier to get through customs than a shawarma.