You might be one of the lucky half-a-million tourists who will visit Israel this summer. In that case, I'd like to help you sort out the wonderful options of street foods the country has to offer, and to point to a few of my favorites you shouldn’t miss.
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Israelis are spoiled about their food. They’ve been spoiled by grandmothers who were all gifted cooks, and who expressed the love to their children and the longing to their old country through food. A lot of food.
The Israeli foodie is accustomed to distinctive, strong flavors (the term “balanced”, so common in the U.S. culinary scene, is unheard of when it comes to street food in Israel). Strong flavors and fresh ingredients are the main characteristics of most types of street and fast food you’ll come across in the country.
The Israeli palate is so different than the American, that Israelis kicked out two American giants that tried to open branches in the country, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Israelis like their latte strong and Italian, and their donuts on Hanukkah. These chains do pretty well in foodie nations like France and Italy, but realy, there are no bigger snobs than Israelis when it comes to food.
Not only that, McDonald’s had to change its burger recipe (in other words, make it tastier) in order for Israelis to agree to eat it – the Israeli version of a McDonald’s burger is prepared on charcoal grill. While Israel is not the only country in the world that offers a kosher Big Mac (they’re available in Argentina as well), it is still the only country where the chain had to actually try harder to make its recipe better. Respect!
Here’s a list of some more originally Israeli street foods you should try during your visit. Most of them can be found easily all around the country, but I included the places I personally like. Wherever you’re staying, make sure to ask the locals for their favorites.
Sabich: A dish that evolved from the Iraqi-Jewish Shabbat breakfast of fried eggplant, overnight cooked egg, tahini and pickled mango sauce (called amba). The street version includes all the above stuffed into pita bread with the optional chopped vegetable salad, cooked potatoes, sliced onions and hot sauce. (For a quick home-made version look at today’s recipe here). Sabich has become very popular over the last few years, and can be found all around the country. I love the one served in Tel Aviv on 42 Frishman Street, just off the corner of Dizengoff. I’m not the only one: Plan to spend time waiting in line if you’re there for lunch or dinner. Unless, of course, you’re insisting on American schedule of dinner at 6 P.M. You’ll be the only one there. Israelis eat later.
Mixed Jerusalem grill: My absolute favorite; A mix of chicken hearts and gizzards, together with other chicken and turkey red meat all seared on a hot griddle in a mix of spices like cumin and turmeric. It is then served in a pita with hummus, hot sauce and pickles. There are a couple of places near the open-air Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem - the best is Steakyat Chatzot (“Midnight Steakhouse”) on 123 Agripas Street.
Tunisian sandwich: A large fried bun (yes, fried) stuffed with hard-boiled egg, canned tuna, warm potatoes, olives, pickled lemon and harrisa. If there’s more space in your bun you can add some chopped vegetable salad. It’s a spicy, not for the faint of heart, North African version of the Salade Nicoise, all in a bun, and it’s so good. The Tunisian sandwich is a bit harder to find at your typical street food stand. My favorite place for having this delicacy is in the market in Ramle in central Israel (no address, go to the market and ask for it). If you're in or around Safed, you’ll find a great version of the sandwich on 26 Jerusalem Street.
Burekas: Large Turkish or Bulgarian pastries of handmade phyllo filled with either cheese, potatoes, spinach or roasted eggplant. When the dough is done right, made with oil and not margarine (and the pastry not too thick) it's simply perfect. Many places will slice the burek into smaller slices and serve it with an egg cooked overnight, pickles and even tahini. My favorite is Burekas Penso in Shuk Levinsky, Tel Aviv’s spice market (43 Levinsky street). The place makes its own dough, and serve the burek with a cold yogurt drink called ayran. There are many other excellent places, including Leon Burekas in Jaffa (17 Olei Zion street) and the Cart Burekas in Haifa (35 Ha’atzmaut Street).
Shawarma: Similar to the Greek gyro, the Israeli version of Shawarma uses turkey thighs layered with lamb fat. Some places serve lamb meat, but since the Israeli lamb has a strong flavor and smell, I actually prefer the cheaper turkey version. The thinly sliced meat is served in a pita, very similar to falafel. You’ll be able to add hummus, tahini sauce, amba, chopped vegetable salad, cabbage salad, pickles, french fries and many more toppings. Shawarma Bino in Jaffa (29 Raziel David Street) is made of layers of lamb and veal, and is perfect. Haifa is the town most known for its shawarma shops: Emil Shawarma on 33 Allenby Street and Hazan Shawarma on 140 Jaffa Road in the Lower City are two of the best.
Falafel: The symbol of all-Israeli food. There are so many good places around the country, your best bet would be asking the locals where to find the closest best place. It’s essential to make sure the falafel was fried in the last few minutes or just in front of you. Some of my favorites in Tel Aviv are Falafel Hakikar near Rabin’s Square (79 Ibn Gvirol street) and Falafel Jina (it's a chain with branches around the city, including one on the corner of King George and Allenby across from the Carmel Market, and another near the Haaretz headquarters, 22 Schocken street). In Jerusalem, try Falafel Shalom on 34 Bezalel Street.
Tamarind juice and almond juice: Available in many markets and in the Old City of Jerusalem. My favorite is mixing both juices together.
Pomegranate juice: Small carts loaded with fresh pomegranates where fresh juice is squeezed to order. Healthy and refreshing and almost essential on a hot Israeli summer day. There are a couple of carts just outside Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem.