WASHINGTON D.C. – The saddest shelf in my local supermarket is the Kosher-Israeli one. It’s stuck between cans of tuna and jars of mayo, and displays a random selection of items like Osem’s chicken-flavored soup powder, Israeli couscous, an Israeli barbecue-flavored snack called Bissli, jars of gefilte fish and a surprisingly large selection of matzah, no matter the time of year.
With Israeli cuisine having its moment in the U.S. - new Israeli restaurants are opening in major cities, Israeli chefs are winning awards and cookbooks are coming out - you would think chain supermarkets would follow suit. It's taken longer than expected, but some Israeli manufacturers are finally jumping into the American waters. With the help of specialty supermarkets such as Trader Joe’s and numerous online shops, the variety of products Israelis know from home now available for American consumers is growing.
Here are some of the most notable products:
Bamba - The puffy, peanut butter flavored snack has been Israeli kids' favorite for generations. It looks like cheese puffs, but tastes like peanuts. The innocent snack, manufactured by Israeli giant Osem, won some attention recently after research found that consuming it at a young age could be linked to avoiding peanut allergy.
Trader Joe’s got Osem to manufacture the snack exclusively for them, wrapped in their iconic packaging (featuring two elephants holding Bamba). Earlier this month, Osem announced it was opening a new manufacturing facility that will make a million bags of Bamba a day. For now, it’s available at Trader Joe’s, Walmart and at the Kosher aisle in most chain supermarkets.
Shakshuka starter is Trader Joe’s newest gift to the masses. This Middle Eastern dish of eggs cooked in a spicy tomato and pepper stew is an Israeli favorite and the Trader Joe has translated it for an American audience by selling pre-cooked stew. All that's left is adding the eggs. I suggest ignoring their instructions - cooking the frozen shakshuka starter in the microwave seems over the top even for Americans - and instead using the microwave only for defrosting. Then, transfer the stew to a skillet and cook it down to the thickness you prefer. Make two small wells in the stew using a spoon and add an egg in each. Sprinkle the eggs with salt and cook the shakshuka on medium heat, covered or not, until the eggs are done to your liking.
Cottage cheese - I think I can objectively say that Israeli cottage cheese is the best in the world. It’s creamy, smooth and fluffy, nothing like the American version. And now Israel’s biggest name in cottage cheese, Tnuva, has begun producing its’ favorite cheese in Minneapolis under the name Muuna. Muuna is available in the big chain stores like Giant and Safeway in its plain, original version or in an American adaptation, mixed with fruit. You need to try it to appreciate it, and I promise you’ll never look back.
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On the same note, labneh cheese (a strained yogurt cheese) is also enjoying some popularity. The labne sold in the U.S. is not manufactured in Israel, but lovers of Middle Eastern and Israeli cuisines will be happy to know that it’s now regularly available at Whole Foods and other specialty supermarkets.
Costco sells an Israeli sheep’s milk feta cheese, which is both delicious and inexpensive, at $5.99 a pound. The packaging proclaims the cheese is “highly kosher” (as opposed to “just a tiny bit kosher?”). Either way, it’s a good feta to crumble into salads, eggs, or over avocado toast.
Schug is a Yemeni cilantro and hot peppers spicy salsa that’s very popular in Israel. It's become trendy in the U.S. lately with recipes appearing in magazines like Bon Appetit, and with Trader Joe’s regularly stocking a prepared version. I have good reason to believe that the sudden interest in schug has to do with the popularity of Israeli cuisine, not Yemeni, since only Yemeni-Jews in Israel call this hot sauce schug (or zhoug) - in Yemen, the sauce is known as sahawiq or sahawig. Do as Israelis do and top your hummus with some schug before dipping your pita bread into it (Israelis don’t do baby carrots).
Another condiment you can find at Trader Joe’s is amba, a savory fermented mango sauce that is very popular in Israel. Amba is a type of Indian chutney (amba means mango in Marathi, an Indian language), that some researchers say was exported to Iraq by Iraqi-Jewish traders who lived in India. In the early 1950s, Jewish immigrants from Iraq brought amba to Israel, where it joined an array of condiments served at falafel and shawarma stands. In Israel, amba is now served with the popular sabich, an eggplant, amba and tahini pita sandwich. Trader Joe’s amba is made fresh: It’s lighter than the Israeli version of amba and its flavor seems to lean more toward its Indian roots.
One of the best additions to the variety of available Israeli ingredients are two tahini brands representing the best that Israeli market has to offer. The first is Al Arz tahini produced by the Zaher family in Nazareth and the second is Har Bracha from the Samaritan community in Mount Gerizim in Nablus in the West Bank. Both have a deep, earthy flavor that’s savory, yet almost sweet (a good tahini should not be bitter and unfortunately many of the American brands are).
For now, these tahini brands are available at Kosher supermarkets and online. Look for Israeli online supermarkets for the best prices (usually much cheaper than Amazon).
There’s a reason the whole Levant is obsessed with tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds; if you’re making your first steps in the tahini world you can follow some of the recipes here.
And while we’re discussing the tahini family, it’s good to mention Seed + Mill, a N.Y.C-based company that sells tahini as well as Israeli style halva. They ship their special halvas in flavors like chocolate and orange, crunchy peanut butter and coffee, throughout the U.S.
Some other items you can find online of in kosher supermarkets include:
- Sweet tahini in vanilla or chocolate flavors - a good alternative to peanut butter, also makes an excellent babka or rugelach filling.
- Silan, or date honey - according to some researchers, this is the original honey that’s mentioned in the bible. Use it in recipes instead of honey or molasses and add the unique deep date flavor to any dish. Also look for date spreads as another Middle Eastern option for filling babkas.
- The famous Pereg company is an excellent option for spices and spice mixes including sumac, za’atar seasoning, shawarma mix, hot and sweet paprika in oil (Moroccan paprika), and their flavored breadcrumbs.
- Israeli chocolate snack such as Pesek Zman (hazelnut wafer bar covered in chocolate milk) and Mekupelet (shredded chocolate logs) are all-time favorites for a reason. Try making hot chocolate by covering a Mekupelet in hot milk and letting the chocolate melt into the best sweet drink you’ve ever had.
The writer would be happy to learn about more products that are common in Israel and can be found in the U.S.