While pondering what to write about this week, I realized that I somehow made it almost two months in Israel without writing anything specifically about food. That is some sort of feat.
Israel has phenomenal food. Mediterranean cuisine is one of my favorites, but Tel Aviv in particular is quite the city for foodies. A very modern city, Tel Aviv has a trendy food scene. In some ways, it’s similar to places like Los Angeles, with a vast amount of vegan, plant-based, organic and whole food restaurants and cafes all over the city. According to israel21c.org, Israel actually has the most vegans per capita in the world and the vegan population is continually growing. But in general, trendy health food cafes, juiceries and smoothie bars are all over the city, vegan or not.
But the LA-type health food sphere is just one of Tel Aviv’s many food scenes. An interesting part of Judaism is the concept of keeping kosher, which involves a lot of very specific rules. One of the most well-known rules forbids eating meat and dairy together at the same meal, as they don’t want to take two things from the same animal. There are also rules against eating shellfish and any meat that hasn’t been blessed by a rabbi. In the United States, if you keep kosher you most likely have to eat vegetarian or pescatarian whenever you go out. In Israel however, most restaurants are kosher; Tel Aviv is the most secular city of Israel so it has the most non-kosher restaurants. Even here I’ve become so accustomed to seeing the Hebrew insignia for “kosher” on restaurant signs and windows that I barely notice it anymore. Even some of the McDonalds are kosher, meaning they don’t serve cheeseburgers or anything with meat and cheese together. Such specific rules might play into why Israel has such a large vegan and vegetarian population.
The most classic Israeli cuisine is falafel and shawarma. Both can be found in the United States as well as all over Europe and the rest of the Middle East, but I’ve found that each country seems to put their own spin on it, and I love Israel’s style. As someone who’s so accustomed to almost always having some sort of dairy and meat together when I eat, I didn’t realize how much this combination changes cuisine. Shawarma is shaved meat, typically lamb or chicken, and is served in either pita or laffa, a thick, flatbread type of wrap. Accompanying the meat is typically hummus (lots of it), cabbage slaw (with vinegar rather than mayonnaise), pickles (again, lots of them), eggplant (often fried) and tahini sauce. Falafel is served the same way, but falafel balls (fried chickpea balls) replace the meat. There are also additional toppings, but these ones are the staples.
Falafel and shawarma stands are all over the streets and although it’s typically served as fast food, there are traditional restaurants for it as well. Although falafel and shawarma can be found all over the world, in Israel it has a certain prominence as it’s a kosher fast food that incorporates classic Israeli flavors. The no-meat-and-dairy constraint is something I would never usually think about, but it comes up nearly everywhere. Salad dressings are another example; so many salad dressings are cream or dairy-based, but in Israel the common dressings are lemon juice and tahini, the same sauce that goes on the falafel, so that salads can include meat. Sandwiches are also incredibly popular in Israel. They’re a very common breakfast and pretty different than the sandwiches in America, as none of them have meat and dairy together. Some common sandwiches that I see at every café are “omelet” (literally a sandwich with a small, plain egg omelet inside, and, believe it or not, typically pickles and cream cheese on it as well) and “hard cheese” (a cheese sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise on it, and the cheese is something similar to cheddar and gouda mixed together). Tuna salad is popular as well, as fish is something that makes the cut for kosher Avocado sandwiches with cheese and veggies are also common.
With the popularity of sandwiches, falafel and shawarma, fast food here is relatively healthy. Salad bars are also very common, similar to places like Sweetgreen that we have in the States. Mediterranean cuisine in general is one of the healthiest types of food, emphasizing fresh vegetables and healthy fats like nuts and olives. Israel was recently ranked the 10th healthiest country in the world, according to the Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index for 2019, and although this takes much more into account than just food and diet, when I look at the food I’ve been eating the past (almost) two months, it’s easy to see why.