Being an immigrant country, Israel is rich with traditional foods that arrived from all over the Jewish diaspora. These cuisines still exist today and have managed to keep their identity in the Israeli melting pot. Right next to the Jewish cuisines you’ll find the local Arab kitchen, which is gaining more and more popularity among Israelis who appreciate the generosity, freshness, bold flavors and the use of local vegetables and herbs.
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The best places to find Israel’s traditional cuisines are at private homes of those who immigrated to Israel, and of their children. This isn’t always the case with grandchildren, who may have already forgotten the secrets of their grandmother’s kitchen. And if you’re lucky enough to know a Yemenite, Libyan, Romanian, Iraqi or Georgian family, make sure they have you over for Shabbat. That is sure to be your best experience with real traditional Jewish food, not to mention the great company.
For those who don’t have any distant relatives or friends to hook up with for a Shabbat dinner, some of the cuisines are available in mom and pop restaurants around the country. It’s interesting to notice that some of the traditional cuisines became very popular through these kinds of establishments, while other cuisines still live at homes of people, but did not make it to the mainstream.
Libyan cuisine, for example, is available in many small restaurants and with dishes like mafrum (meat-filled potato in tomato sauce) served over couscous, chraimeh (fish in spicy sauce) and spicy salads like pumpkin salad and filfelchuma (pepper and garlic). Moroccan restaurants, competing with the Libyan ones on the origin of couscous, are popular as well. But why didn’t the rich delicate Persian cuisine make it to the mainstream restaurant scene? Or the Iraqi cuisine? You can find a few Persian and Iraqi restaurants in Israel, but not nearly as many as Libyan and Moroccan.
Homemade cooking is also offered in special markets around the country, usually on Fridays. Many of these markets are set in the big malls in every city. Wherever you’re staying ask around for specific times and locations. You’ll be able to sample Druze, Persian, Iraqi, Yemeni and other cuisines under one roof and at very reasonable prices.
Unlike most of the contemporary restaurants in Israel, the traditional restaurants in this article are kosher. Traditional all the way (well, except for the Arab ones). Many of these small places open only for lunch, and some of the dishes might be gone early in the day.
Here’s a list of some dishes from around the Jewish world and from local Arab cuisine you wouldn’t want to miss. These dishes are available around the country, but I included a list of some of my personal favorites.
Mafrum - A delicious creation from the Libyan cuisine. A mixture of ground beef spiced with cinnamon is sandwiched between two thin slices of potato. The sandwich is dipped in egg and flour and fried, then cooked with other chopped vegetables in tomato sauce and served over couscous. Try this and more stews, including the famous shakshuka, at Bechor & Shoshi, but go early for lunch because they run out of mafrum early. Bechor & Shoshi , 10 Harav Abu Hatzira st in Bnei Brak and 14 Yad Harutzim St. in Tel Aviv. And at Doctor Shakshuka, 3 Beir Eshel St. in Jaffa.
Hamusta kibbeh soup - From the Kurdish cuisine, which is a cousin of the Iraqi one. Both cuisines offer a number of different soups, all with kibbeh, which are bulgar and farina patties stuffed with meat. The soups include the hamusta, a sour broth made with Swiss chard and zucchini, or a red soup with tomatoes and beets. You are likely to start your meal with a table filled with small salads, hummus and fresh pita bread, so remember to save some room for the heavy soup as well.
Jerusalem has a large Kurdish community and Morduch, just outside Machne Yehuda market is an excellent place to try this cuisine. Morduch, 70 Agripas Street, Jerusalem.
Yemenite bone soup - OK, not exactly what you wish for in a hot day in Israel, but sitting in an air conditioned room, sweating over a bowl of marrow bones cooked in the Yemenite spice mixture called Hawaij (turmeric, cumin, cardamom etc.) is an experience not to be missed. You will finish the last drops of the soup using the Yemenite bread, lachuch, which is similar to the Ethiopian injera.
In Tel Aviv’s Carmel market, try Rina and Zecharia, 22 Hakovshim st.
Try Jachnoon too, an overnight cooked rolled pastry served with a hardboiled egg and spicy sauce. It is available in many of the homemade food markets around the country and in some restaurants, such as the Jachnoon Bar, 28 Hillel St, Jerusalem.
Khoresh e qorme sabzi - a Persian stew of meat, beans and herbs, which is simply full of flavor. Another Persian dish to try is the Gondi soup. The gondi are chickpea flour and chicken dumplings. Try Salimi, 80 Nachalat Benyamin Street, Tel Aviv.
Leek patties - From the Balkan cuisine, these fried patties can be either vegetarian or can include ground beef. They are available at Bulgarian restaurant, where you should also try the kebabs, and if you dare, try the shkembe, a tripe soup. Monka, 15 Yehuda Hayamit Street, Jaffa.
Watercress salad - is one example of the Arab cuisine, and will be serve to your table together with herb tabbuleh, eggplant in tahini and eggplant in yogurt, cauliflower in tahini, fattush, fresh za’atar salad, wild mustard salad, and at least ten other fresh herb and vegetables dishes. That’s how any meal in an Arab restaurant will begin. Together with smooth hummus, labaneh and tahini dips, pickles and fresh pita bread there’s really no need to order a main course. And for about $10 per person it’s one of the most reasonable and fabulous options there are. There are so many excellent restaurants, but my new favorite is Al Tanur in Raina junction, near Nazareth Ilit in the Galilee.