I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks in Israel on a trip with the organization Aish Hatorah. Any time I had been to Israel before, it was a toss up between pizza, falafel, shwarma, or a salad from Sambooki. On this trip, however, I consumed fewer than three dairy meals, and my meat (fleishig) meals could only be described as “abundant.” We ate in a meat restaurant in Metula in the north, where waiters served us endless tabletop grills with chicken, beef kabobs, grilled vegetables, and steak. At the Dan Panorama, where we stayed for most nights, we were treated to buffets loaded with a variety of meat, chicken, and fish dishes, as well as a stocked salad bar (a la Israel), carving station, and a variety of soups and side dishes. And of course, our shnitzel lunches were always hot and crispy, topped with sesame seeds and served alongside hummus and what Israelis call “ketchup.”
On that note, here are some of my observations about the current state of food in Israel.
1. The meat is almost there. I distinctly remember my first memory of eating meat in Israel, and understanding why most people stick to chicken. My parents had always told me that Israelis served chicken instead of meat because red meat in Israel is so expensive. However, as my palate developed, I provided my own answer to this question: red meat is not worth the money. Of course, hamburgers and expensive entrecote steaks in restaurants are delicious, but in terms of home cooking, stick with chicken. You can’t go wrong with a fatty batch of pargiyot (boneless dark meat chicken). Nevertheless, the quality of the meat (amount of fat and silver skin, as well as overall flavor) has improved some, as long as you cook it right. And I can’t tell you what “right” is yet, because I only tasted it once or twice.
2. Condiments. Ketchup is still a thicker version of sweet tomato soup; avoid if you can. Mustard is alright. When eating in restaurants, you will most likely get either Thousand Island or Honey Mustard salad dressing, in which case I recommend going for plain olive oil and lemon juice. The oil and juice in Israel is fresher than in America, so take advantage. Additionally, when it comes to sandwiches/burgers/wraps/salads, pile on the garlic mayonnaise! I have no idea why America hasn’t stolen this genius concept yet, but it makes everything taste better. While you’re at it, throw on some sweet chili as well. It’s like BBQ sauce, ketchup, duck sauce, and hot sauce all in one perfectly balanced condiment. MMM! And for those who are curious, spots like Burgers Bar offer other condiments like pesto, chimichurri, hot sauce, tahini, and all of the aforementioned sauces and condiments.
3. Say Cheese! Of all types and all origins: cow, sheep, goat, lamb; brie, camembert, feta, Bulgarian, hard cheese, soft cheese, yellow cheese, salty cheese; smoked, cured, aged, fresh. On one Thursday afternoon, I spent an hour cheese shop-hopping in the Shuk (Machaneh Yehuda) by myself to find the best lamb’s milk feta cheese, and had the time of my life. Throw in a bottle of Reisling (which is Kosher nearly everywhere!), some Osem whole grain crackers, and fresh red grapes from the shuk, and you have a great Shavuot Kiddush (which I did).
4. Produce availability. Unfortunately, I was unable to get my hands on any pomelos or persimmons, which just proves the quality of the fruit in Israel. You won’t be able to find anything that is out of season; therefore, the fruits and vegetables that you can find in the Shuk are of the highest quality. Purchase according to season and you will not be disappointed!