Israeli Food Mania Plus Wanderlust Produces Foodie-tour Craze

'People want more content on their trips, something beyond museums and cathedrals. And food has a place of honor in contemporary Israeli culture.'

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Boats at a produce market in Thailand
Boats at a produce market in ThailandCredit: Sawalee Eldar
Libby Sperling

With tragic irony, a terror attack that killed three Israelis in Istanbul last March threw a spotlight on a major cultural trend. Journalists wrote about a small group of foodies having been victimized. They were touring in the framework of the Beygale Club, an institution espousing hedonism and an active search for the perfect food.

Preoccupation with the attack couldn’t help but draw attention to life’s pleasures and revealed what has long been bubbling beneath the surface – the sinful food tours abroad. Because if up until two years ago we got excited by tours of relatively exotic markets inside Israel, now we are looking abroad, in tailor-made, well-organized tours in a search for high-quality ingredients, highly creative workshops about local food, and, mainly, endless gourmandizing in famous restaurants.

“The culinary story is an expansion of the general madness surrounding the subject of food, which is reflected in endless cooking programs, books, blogs, recipe websites,” says Hagit Evron, a food columnist who conducts culinary trips abroad. Next summer she will join Nurit Poran, who is also a prominent culinary figure, in a tour that is all about food (and design) in Copenhagen of all places. Poran’s tours include lots of food, of course, but an entire world of other activities as well.

This experience, which has been with us for several decades but only now seems to flourish, no longer belongs to members of the upper 1,000th percentile alone, with prices beginning at 1,500 euros ($1,650) per tour. “It’s still not cheap, but Israelis are willing to pay a ‘premium’ to have a well-tailored experience,” says Evron. And what about the fear of an organized tour, which has suddenly become the bon ton?

“The entire approach toward them has changed due to the culinary tours – the halo surrounding them has also adhered to the ‘ordinary’ tours, sprinkling a kind of stardust.” The target audience of the tours is usually people aged 40-plus, including senior citizens of course. Evron describes three main groups: Those on pension with plenty of time, who have already done Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China and are now moving on to the next in thing; wine lovers; and foodies.

Shahar Hertz, the owner of the Beer and Beyond store, who in recent years has been conducting beer tours to Europe and the United States, also sees a growing trend. “I began guiding beer tours abroad in 2011. At the time the clientele was composed mainly of the most dedicated beer freaks, people who are obsessed, who are constantly in pursuit of the next new beer. The tours always surrounded a beer festival and didn’t include anything else. In recent years the clientele has changed somewhat, and we get people who really love beer, but other things as well. The clientele is becoming more varied.”

Singapore experience

If we thought that culinary tours interest Israelis only, Karni Tomer, who lives in Singapore and leads culinary tours there in Hebrew and English, has a somewhat different perspective. “The wave of culinary tours is a global trend, and Israel is a part of it. When I started Wok ‘n’ Stroll I thought there would probably be about 10 crazies who tour in search of food. And then I discovered an entire world of foodies who come with lists such as 21 foods that you have to eat in Singapore, various guides, newspaper articles, and everyone wants to taste the local food. Everyone photographs food and posts pictures on the social networks, reads about food, is exposed to world cuisine, and when people arrive in a new place they enjoy discovering markets and foods. Israel has many Asian restaurants, and in Singapore you find the source – it’s a developing tourism destination.”

Dining at a food hall in Singapore.
Dining at a food hall in Singapore.Credit: Stefan Chow, Bloomberg News.

Six years ago Tomer would have laughed had you told her that in 2016 she would be a candidate for the Singaporean Tourism Ministry’s outstanding tourist attraction. She arrived in Singapore due to her husband’s job and knew little more than its reputation for good food.

Within a short time she started roaming in the various markets and neighborhoods, tasting in the famous inexpensive food compounds, and completing her research by reading about the different cuisines. She also taught cooking in the Israeli community, but was attracted to the East Asian food compounds. With the knowledge she accumulated she began teaching grandmothers who came to visit their families, and soon started a local course for tour guides. Today she employs five tour guides whom she trained, and conducts tours for tourists from all over the world. Recently a new group of clients joined – tourists from Southeast Asia or Singapore itself. “They’re already familiar with the local cuisine, so we conduct gourmet tours for them in the most highly regarded restaurants.”

Zviki Eshet, owner of the Greek restaurant Greco, conducts culinary tours to Greece. His impression is that he doesn’t cater only to the wealthy. “Not necessarily tourists with a lot of money, but foodies or people who really love to cook and want to reach the source.”

So why now of all times?

“People want more content on their trips, something beyond museums and cathedrals. And food has a place of honor in contemporary Israeli culture I can testify from the tours to Greece that we’re seeing an entire culture based on open tables with a large number of saucers placed in the center – hot, Mediterranean food. The cooks in Greece open their kitchens to everyone, the owner sits at a table with the tourists and speaks to them as equals, which strongly connects with the warm Israeli experience.”

A passion for food apparently also motivates those joining the culinary tours to Thailand of chef Sawalee Eldar. Eldar, who in the 1980s started the Shangri-la restaurant chain, is a native of Thailand. In the past her clients on the tours were professionals – chefs and restaurateurs. They wanted culinary tours with a Thai chef who is not only familiar with the local cuisine but also speaks Hebrew. Eldar says that not only has the clientele changed, so has the increasingly high demand. “Today I find interest in the tours in all sectors, regardless of finances. A young newlywed couple who received a honeymoon gift from their parents, retirees who travel the world and are seeking a culinary emphasis, and my cooking students, who want me to guide them through the maze of Thai cuisine and show them the sources of the unique ingredients.”

A customer smells a mango at a stall inside the Chinatown Wet Market in Singapore.
A customer smells a mango at a stall inside the Chinatown Wet Market in Singapore. Credit: Nicky Loh, Bloomberg

Appreciation from the mayor of Paris

Sharon Heinrich, who lives in Paris and writes the blog “Sharon’s Paris” (and also writes a column in Haaretz) conducts sweets tours for individuals, couples, friends or families in the City of Lights. She began the tours after over a year of writing her blog and becoming close with her readers. “I received many requests from regular readers who wanted me to take them to the places I write about. From that the idea was born.”

Heinrich believes that with the internet full of lists and recommendations, the guided culinary tours are popular for a reason. “There’s so much information on the internet, and sometimes it’s confusing. People don’t want to waste time and are interested in maximizing their stay abroad, that’s why they’re ready to place the short time they have in each destination in the hands of a local, even more so a local who speaks their language, who can optimize the experience for them.” Often the romantic atmosphere includes a proposal of marriage. The cost is taken into account: “People who come to the city know that in general they’ve chosen a destination that isn’t cheap,” she says.

Chocolates from a French sweets tour.
Chocolates from a French sweets tour. Credit: Sharon Heinrich

According to Heinrich, there may also be a psychological dimension to Israelis’ preoccupation with food. “There’s a lot of comfort and creativity in food, and in a country where the economic and security situations are not simple and people work long hours to survive, food is an amazing source of comfort. In addition, many people find themselves in the kitchen or in cooking and baking workshops to satisfy their soul, which is somewhat forgotten in the modern world and the pace of life here.”

Benny Ben Israel of the TV reality show “Master Chef,” who has been guiding culinary tours to Italy in recent years, sees them as a basic need of the modern tourist. “I started with tours at the end of 2010, when the target audience was people who had already been to Italy, loved it and wanted to deepen their familiarity and their knowledge. The term ‘culinary tour’ is far more routine today, because even people who aren’t real foodies are interested. It’s a captivating trend with an increasingly large audience, and no longer just a niche.”

He believes that the great advantage of culinary tours is the social-cultural aspect. “It’s important to me to convey the experience of food as an instrument that reflects the culture and the worldview of the inhabitants. By means of local cuisine I make sure to teach my travelers a different point of view, so they’ll be able to adopt something of this culture for themselves.”