How to Eat: Israeli Style

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday May 30, 2017

You figure from the onset that Israeli cuisine has got to be good. After all, with its wide-ranging climate, which includes subtropical, temperate and semi-arid zones, Israel is one big smorgasbord. Everything from mangoes to lemons, figs to chickpeas is grown in the country, and thanks to that Mediterranean coastline, seafood is plentiful and fresh. Jewish customs also make for diverse fare.

The proper preparation and consumption of food are central to kosher laws and the rituals around Shabbat and Passover, making dishes served according to these traditions happily unique. (Admittedly a few, like gefilte fish -- ground, poached fish patties -- are an acquired taste.) But as good as you might think Israeli cookery is, in reality, it's far, far better.

"Food is a very big part of our culture," says Shai Doitsh, former head of the country's LGBT Task Force, and like most Israelis, a serious foodie. "It tells a story in a way... we took a little from every culture and created something new. Because our state is a startup, thinking outside the box is important to us."

Everything Old is New Again

But in Israel, fusion cuisine isn't just about blending the food of different cultures; sometimes it means merging fare from across the millennia. One of the country's finest restaurants, which resides within the ancient walls of Jerusalem's Old City, is The Eucalyptus.

Iraqi-born chef and owner Moshe Basson researched recipes stretching back to biblical times, pairing them with local ingredients to create enticements like King Solomon couscous, available with veggies, fish or lamb. Order a tasting menu so you can sample goodies including maklubah, a traditional Arab one-pot chicken and rice dish, and Jerusalem artichoke soup, so savory and smooth you'll want to weep with pleasure.

Founded in the late 19th-century, Machne Yehuda market may not compare in age to the Old City, but its offers its own potent delights.

Plan to spend hours browsing hundreds of stalls overflowing with any food or drink item you might wish -- tea, spices, olives, nuts, hummus, wine (Israeli wine is moving up the ranks to compete with Old World wines from France and Italy), halva and cheese can all be found. Pick up kabanosy, Polish thin sausage similar to jerky to nosh on, and wash it down with coconut juice from an actual coconut. Just leave room for the best falafel in Jerusalem, at least that's how the little stand at 105 Agripas Street bills itself. Unlike so much in life, it lives up to the hype.

Surf 'n' Turf in Tel Aviv

It may have a slightly inelegant name, but if the crowd on a recent Monday night is any indication, Meatos Grill Bar is clearly where the Tel Aviv hip go to sip. Opened in 2004 as a kosher restaurant by chef and owner Kobi Abed, Meatos proves you don't have to sacrifice flavor if you're keeping kosher, as long as you cook with ingenuity.

Check out the bonfire eggplant carpaccio, featuring an east-south mash-up of tahini and hummus with salsa and chili. Under kosher law, which forbids meat and milk from being served together, all deserts at Meatos are dairy-free. Ask for the Middle Eastern favorite malabi, a pudding made with coconut milk and flavored with rose water, and you won't even notice.

You cannot leave Israel without having seafood, that's a given. Where to go for it in Tel Aviv, a food-centric city that hugs the Mediterranean Sea is another question; there are a wealth of restaurants dishing out exquisite fish. One of the prettiest is Yulia, located in Tel Aviv Port, overlooking the sea.

There are flavors from around the world represented here, too, and they combine beautifully with just-caught seafood. The grouper fillet with red curry is spiced like it means it, though the curry doesn't overpower the delicate fish. Israeli tomatoes taste like domestic ones used to before mass production -- earthy and sensuous. Don't miss the Caprese salad at Yulia, which also boasts a wonderfully creamy buffalo cheese.

So, how good is Israeli cuisine? Good enough that even if the country didn't have all that history, incredible beaches, thriving cities, and those oh so beautiful people, you'd want to visit it just for the food.

Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.