Believe it or not, there isn’t that much spicy food in Israel. Locals love the odd bit of spice here and there, but piquant – rather than full-blown-spicy – dishes predominate. Perhaps Israel is often mistaken for a spicy-food-loving country, because it's hot and spice makes you sweat – cooling you off.
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Conveniently, then, hot peppers tend to be spicier in the summer; and this year’s hot season has resulted in some particularly potent peppers. We set out on a mission to find dishes that balance spiciness with other flavors. The results aren’t unbearable, just unbeatable.
Hot and rich: Spaghetti with shrimp and crab at Popina
Uriel Kimchi’s 6-month-old chef restaurant is the new star of the Neve Tzedek neighborhood. The Mediterranean menu is divided by cooking techniques: steamed, baked, preserved, slow-cooked and roasted.
The winning dish: Spaghetti. If there’s one thing we love, it’s when a dish has a mixture of flavors, and each bite yields something new and exciting. This hot pasta salad had us on the edges of our seats with steamed and chopped shrimp, crab meat, tarragon, arugula, a sharp chili sauce and yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit). You can even soften the spiciness if you want, thanks to the yogurt sauce at the bottom of the plate. The oceanic, citrusy, spicy and even Indian flavors create a zesty feast for the senses, topped off with walnuts and yellow cherry tomatoes.
Cost: NIS 62
If you’re already there: Try the delicate shrimp burger in a steamed bun.
Popina, 3 Ahad Ha’amSt., Tel Aviv
A Moroccan medley: Marrakech eggplant at Jamilla
Yoel Weik and Abdu Al’arj met in the kitchen of the late, much-missed Fabian Restaurant. Al'arj, who came from Morocco in pursuit of a great love, cooked authentic Moroccan food for the restaurant's workers, impressing Weik. Together they decided to open Jamilla, which specializes in fresh, authentic and affordable Moroccan food made without soup powder and with very little oil.
The winning dish:Marrakech eggplant. Moroccan cuisine generally isn’t that spicy, but the innocent-looking Marrakech eggplant has a surprising kick to it. Two whole eggplants are flame roasted, covered with a thin layer of tahini and served in a large dish beside a tomato-and-spicy-pepper salad infused with lemon and excellent olive oil. Sounds innocent so far, right? Well, there’s more. A pile of fatless shoulder meat is roughly chopped, seasoned with aromatic spices, and added to the mix. The heat kicks in around 10 seconds after taking the first bite, but we couldn't stop chewing – the tahini and smoky flavor irresistible contrast with the tomatoes and succulent meat. Fortunately, it comes with white bread to soaks up all the flavors. Vegetarians and vegans can order the dish without meat.
Cost: NIS 45
If you’re already here: Try the spicy Moroccan fish on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Jamilla, 31 Gruzenberg St., Tel Aviv
The dream act: Enchiladas rojas at Mezcal
Ziv Erlich grew up in Mexico and could never understand why his native food wasn’t popular in Israel. He decided that his goal in life would be to prove to Israelis that Mexican cuisine is much, much more than just rice and nachos. Five years ago, he opened a small tequila bar in Florentin called Mezcal, serving authentic Mexican dishes alongside a selection of tequilas. Visitors were hooked – and what was once a bar grew into a popular restaurant.
The winning dish: Enchiladas rojas. The Mexicans are the kings of spiciness, and their peppers pack a serious punch. These enchiladas are made with corn-flour-and-hot-pepper tortillas stuffed with chopped chicken (our choice – several other fillings are available). They’re served with a chipotle-based sauce and sour cream and grated cheese to balance out the spiciness. It may not be the hottest dish on the menu, but it’s definitely one of the tastiest – fantastic.
Cost: NIS 46
If you’re already here: Mezcal is one of the only places in the city with a spicy dessert. And yes, it may not be to everyone’s taste, but how do you feel about spicy beer?
Mezcal, 2 Vital St., Tel Aviv
Afternoon heat: Mullet chraime at David and Yosef Downtown
When the David and Yosef restaurant (named after owners Dudu Elmakias and Yossi Shitrit) moved from Yermiahu Street to its much larger current location six months ago, the menu also expanded. And we thought it was good before!
The winning dish: Chraime with beetroot, hummus and hot peppers. David and Yosef take the traditional chraime from Tripoli and make it spicier (they'll turn the heat up even higher if you ask). As with every good chraime, the smell is especially important – the mixture of garlic and chili pepper tickles your nose and awakens your appetite. A scorching matbucha sauce made with tomatoes, spicy paprika, garlic and hot green peppers is slow cooked to perfection. You'll find yourself looking for more bread to dip in it. The fish is placed on top of the sauce and complemented with a rich hummus-and-beetroot topping that provides a sweet contrast to all that spiciness. In a perfect world, we’d eat this fish every Friday.
Cost: NIS 105, including an appetizer, bread and a drink (served as part of the lunchtime business menu).
If you’re already here: Don’t miss the popcorn shrimp – a delightful dish.
David and Yosef Downtown, 21 Montefiore St., Tel Aviv
A tropical tongue-twister: Moo Phad Tua at the Thai House
It’s impossible to talk about fiery food without mentioning Asian cuisine in general and Thai House in particular. Owners Yariv and Lek Malili, who split their time between Thailand and Israel, brought authentic Thai culture – of the sort that isn’t always sold to the average tourist in Thailand – to Israel.
The winning dish: Moo Phad Tua. Everyone has a favorite spicy dish at Thai House, but if you're looking for a challenge, go with this authentic offering, available only during the summer months. Made with black-eyed peas, pork, Thai basil and lime leaves, it may look innocent next to some of the other dishes on offer – but just wait till you taste it. The homemade red curry sauce is topped off with a blast of red pepper that will open up your taste buds – and your nostrils. But it isn’t all just spice – the combination of Thai basil, lime leaves and crunchy black-eyed peas lends the dish a deeper flavor.
Cost: NIS 72
If you’re already here: Try the Pasa – Thai lettuce leaves with noodles, tofu and coriander, mint and dill.
Thai House, 8 Bograshov St., Tel Aviv
The best spicy dishes outside of Tel Aviv
La Cuccina: You can find quite a few dishes that have some kick to them here, but a few are particularly spicy. Take the pizza melanzane (NIS 49), for instance. Sizable slices of hot red pepper and eggplant slices atop a quality pastry, it's one of the best pizzas you’ll find in Eilat. La Cuccina, Royal Promenade, Eilat
Minna Tomei: Five Asian cuisines are represented on this menu, and the one that tickled our taste buds the most was the chicken Seoul (NIS 59) – a Korean dish made with cubes of tempura chicken in a delicious pepper sauce, with white rice and kimchi on the side. It's wonderful. Minna Tomei, 8 Fliman Castra Center, Haifa
Moo V’moo: People should be talking about this place a lot more. Why? It's very simply one of the best meat restaurants in the country, as residents of Rehovot know all too well. It also includes a butcher and delicatessen. The merguez sausage (NIS 56) has a rich stew and a strong flavor. Lazy Tel Avivians: You’re missing out. Moo V’moo, 177 Herzl Boulevard, Rehovot
Mahaneyehuda: This restaurant has inspired quite a few people to get in their cars and drive to the Holy City – with good reason. Try the minced lamb and beef mixed with pistachios and pine nuts and served on a yogurt-and-tahini base. The meat is lightly spicy; the real heat comes from the generous heap of harissa sauce and spicy skhug (a Yeminite condiment made from coriander and chili) paste it’s served with. Grab the pita that arrives alongside it, and pack it all in there. Mahaneyehuda, 10 Beit Yaakov St., Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem
Bourbon Street: This New-Orleans-inspired joint has the spiciest wings we’ve found in Israel. The iablo wings (NIS 38 for 12 pieces) are made with Buffalo sauce, tabasco and hot pepper. Somehow, the hotter it gets, the better it tastes. Bourbon Street, 8 Hamanofim St., Herzliya