Food journalist and former restaurateur Gil Lahav travels the 90 kilometers in each direction from his home in Ra’anana to Nazareth several times a week, leading culinary tours to the northern Israeli city and working to promote its gustatory treasures. During those tours, he meets numerous foodies and Tel Aviv restaurant owners who are searching for high-quality ingredients.
“It’s the largest Arab city in Israel, and it embodies a fascinating combination of Europe and the Middle East,” says Lahav. “The European Crusaders considered it an important city and settled here, bringing with them culture and customs that are expressed to this day in education, modes of dress and even alcohol consumption.”
Then, during the Ottoman period, the best Arab food in the world came from Damascus and Beirut to Nazareth, which was where the educated and wealthy Arab elites lived, Lahav says. That’s one of the reasons that over hundreds of years a unique culinary culture developed that was influenced by Syria and Lebanon. But Lahav noted that those countries not only supplied recipes whose echoes are still found in the city’s kitchens, but seeds, plants, and ingredients that are still grown and used in the city and its environs.
Within an area of no more than a few city blocks, one can find the reason Lahav has declared Nazareth as the capital of Israeli street food. “Where else in the country can you find within such a distance at least five hummus joints that are all candidates for the best in Israel, three to five places where you can get exceptional shawarma, knafeh, baklava, tehina and halva, fatayer and ingredients that mysteriously find their ways here?” Lahav asks.
The best of Nazareth
Hummus and shawarma: Imad Hummus
It’s not even 8 A.M., and this large restaurant is packed with customers digging into steaming bowls of hummus as the large shawarma spit turns slowly, releasing its fragrance. This is an incredibly delicate hummus, creamy, airy and devoid of spices that in other places are meant to disguise or mask the taste. The masabaha is also an explosion of tastes in one’s mouth.
The best arayes: Hatzomet, Shipudei Alzaim
Arayes is the ultimate Lebanese sandwich, kebab in a grilled pita, and nearly every restaurant and kiosk in Nazareth has some version of. It’s cheap (around 20 shekels, or $5), worth a trip from anywhere just for it. Simple, inexpensive and addictive — in short, the ultimate street food.
The best baklava and knafeh: Mamtakei Hayedidut
As you enter what looks like a spectacular, spacious hall, you will find no less than 36 different types of baklava at any given time. “From the investment in clarified butter, special pistachios from Afghanistan and Iran and special Arab cheese, through the manual technique of folding the dough to perfection, to the aesthetic way each baklava is served,” is why Lahav prefers this place in a city loaded with sweet shops.
The best awameh: Mamtakei Hawidi
Awameh could best be described as the Lebanese version of the Israeli sufganiya jelly doughnut, although the difference between the two is considerable. If you’ve decided to ruin your health with fried dough, this is the place to do it. At 11 A.M., before a single awameh has been fried, people are already lining up.
The best spices: Ziad Safdi
Nazareth is a city of spices and at every corner there’s a place that grinds coffee (don’t miss Café Fahoum) or a spice shop. Some, it must be said, target tourists, but Safdi’s out-of-the-way store is perfect for foodies seeking ingredients that can’t be found anywhere else. He has been running the store since 1948, when he was only 10. Here you can find shanklish cheese, goat’s-milk labaneh, bay-leaf soap from Aleppo, Syria; orange-blossom water from Nablus and from Tripoli, Lebanon and grape molasses from Hebron and much, much more. In short, a required stop.
The best butchers: Ashtawi and Jeris Milad
We found two exceptional butchers in the city, Ashtawi and Jaris Milad’s Modern Butcher. At the former we found the best lamb chops we’ve tasted in Israel and at the latter an entire world of pork, beef and mutton.
The best place for Syrian cookies and fatayer: Almashadawi
You won’t find any baklava, knafeh, cream cakes or mousse in this bakery, located not far from the Tishrin restaurant. Almashadawi bakes from old recipes, without any food coloring but with plenty of nostalgia. The scent of anise hits you the minute you enter, and on the shelves are rows upon rows of baked goods you hardly ever see anymore — ma’amoul, barazek sesame cookies, karkish anise cookies and fatayer sabanekh (pastry triangles filled with wild spinach).