Tourist Tip #191 / The Israeli Supermarket

For a behind-the-scenes look at how Israelis live and what fills their fridge, play a visit to the local grocery and stock up.

Israel offers its visitors an amazing array of tourist attractions, but if you want to go behind the scenes and see life as it's really lived here, there's probably no better place than the supermarket.

In the center of the country's urban areas, where space is limited, most supermarkets are small and relatively plain affairs. The giant supermarkets are further out on the city's edge and in the suburbs. But even in the middle of the city, a stop at a grocery store offers a glimpse into Israeli tastes. The two most prevalent supermarket chains, Super-Sol and Mega, have large and small stores throughout the country and both chains are kosher. Another major food retailer, Tiv Ta'am, is not.

The refrigerator section at any supermarket hosts a plethora of Middle Eastern-style food. Options include hummus with a range of toppings, such as pine nuts, whole chickpeas, and matbuha, the Middle Eastern equivalent of salsa. You will also find tehina, the sesame paste known as "tahini" outside of Israel. Pita is available in every supermarket and is a handy edible utensil for these dips.

Jews from North Africa and the Middle East brought a range of culinary specialties when they immigrated to Israel, many of which have been adopted by the entire Israeli population. Shakshuka, for example, is a Levantine spicy tomato dish cooked up with eggs in a skillet that can be found on many cafe menus. For the strong of heart, or at least strong of stomach, there's schug, a spicy condiment brought to Israel by Yemenite Jews that is the fiery counterpart to pesto.

Visitors who become addicted to shakshuka, which isn't hard, can find the tomato sauce needed to make it in jars and cans at some larger supermarkets.  If you don't want to weigh down your suitcase with such a heavy souvenir, consider taking home some spices, available at any grocery store. One such spice, za'atar, known as "hyssop" in English, is a great addition to pita or toast. You can also try cardamom, hel in Hebrew, which is traditionally used in coffee.

Even modest grocery stores have a large range of dairy products, including cottage cheese, hard cheeses and yogurt. There is also so-called "white cheese" ("gvina levana" in Hebrew), which is similar to its French counterpart, fromage blanc, and can be eaten in a bowl with sugar or spread on bread or crackers. There's also a range of flavored refrigerated pudding snacks to satiate your sweet tooth. Disposable spoons, forks and plates are available at any supermarket if you're grabbing something as a snack to go. Just ask.

Many but not all products sold in supermarkets are labeled in English. If you don't speak Hebrew and the identity of a product is not clear from its appearance, go ahead and ask an Israeli for assistance. If they speak English, most would be happy to help.

My experience is that most cashiers are friendly and helpful but frequently do not speak English. Chances are, someone in line can help you out if any issues come up. You are expected to bag your own groceries, but bags are provided. Most supermarkets take credit cards. 

Unlike some other Israeli tourist attractions, this experience is free. Unless, of course, you buy something.