The best part of travel for many people is trying new foods unique to the cultures experienced around the world. But often that aspect of travel requires packing a good supply of Imodium or other tummy-soothing medications.
Not so in Israel. While the food served in Israeli homes and restaurants is flavorful and exciting, it is not so exotic as to send a typical Westerner's stomach into distress.
Influenced heavily by the Mediterranean climate, Israeli cuisine includes an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, poultry and bread. "Locally-sourced" is a phrase rarely used to describe the cuisine, since it's all local, but one word almost always used is "delicious."
The majority of hotels in Israel include breakfast with the room rate, but this is not some corner-off-the-lobby experience with boxed cereal and questionable powdered eggs. This is a breakfast buffet worthy of King Herod with mounds of fresh fruit, including pomegranate and huge slices of oranges and grapefruits grown within a few miles. Israeli breakfasts also include salad, but not the green leafy stuff that comprise most salads in the West. Think carrots, raisins, onions, pickled cauliflower and turnips. Of course chickpeas and cheeses make the buffet line-up as well. Mini-quiches, pastries, and baked tomatoes and mushrooms are also common. What you won't typically find is bacon or sausage. Think about it.
If burgers and fries define a typical American grab-and-go lunch, then the same can be said for falafels and shawarma in Israel. Falafels, for the uninitiated, are crushed chickpeas with a mixture of spices, rounded into small balls and deep-fried. If served by themselves, they come with a ranch-like dipping sauce, but much of the time they are served in a pita pocket with salad ingredients, such as sliced carrots and onions on top. Its a nice hand-held food for business people and travelers on the go. Add a bit more protein with sliced shawarma on top. Shawarma is basically roast lamb or chicken on a spit sliced very thinly. Some people prefer a plate of shawarma topped with amba, a mango/curry sour sauce that Israelis use like Americans use ketchup - dumped on everything.
A fun dish served at breakfast, lunch and dinner is shakshuka, a flavorful tomato and egg dish that is quite popular in Israel and northern Africa. The tomatoes are cooked somewhat like spaghetti sauce with huge chunks of tomatoes, mixed with some lovely spices, and just at the last minute, a fresh egg or two is dropped into the hot tomatoes. The whites cook, but the yolk remains runny. Eat it with a chunk of bread for dipping and you have a memorable dish you can easily make at home.
Another dish served at most meals or for an afternoon snack is helva. It's usually made from a sesame seed paste, or sometimes semolina flour, and flavored with sugar and butter. The paste is then topped with pistachio nuts or chocolate and used as a spread.
The final snack dish, served everywhere, is hummus and pita bread. You just can't get enough of good hummus and pita in Israel. You think you make it good at home, well, give it up - this is as good as it gets.
The most important thing to remember about dinner in an Israeli home or restaurant is that you'll never be able to clean your plate. They just keep bringing food until you stop eating. It's a cultural thing. A clean plate indicates you are still hungry and thus, as good hosts, they must feed you until you are satisfied. The food just keeps coming.
Israeli cuisine, in large part, is a reflection of where in the world Jews have lived before coming home to Israel. You'll find lots of schnitzel, gnocchi, fish and always lots of fresh vegetables served on the side. There are plenty of Eastern European influences, but also American influences in the entrees.
So take your trip to Israel with an eager palette, anticipating all the good things you already know and love, only ramped up with the freshness and flavor of a globally-inspired cuisine
What are some of your favorite Middle Eastern dishes?
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A Midwest farm girl at heart, Diana Lambdin Meyer caught the roaming bug early in life. Diana married well - to a photographer who also has the travel bug and whose work in still and video complements her words. Now based in the Kansas City area, Diana is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers who makes a full-time living on the road and at the keyboard. Read about Diana's adventures on her blog, Mojotraveler or follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.
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