Hummus, mixed olives and red wine. That was our dinner on the first evening in Israel, and on pretty much every other evening we were there. Israeli cuisine is deeply rooted in Middle Eastern tradition, but it’s also so much more. Especially in Tel Aviv, where cultures mix freely, unleashing their tastes onto local foodies.
Falafel and hummus were the easiest and cheapest to obtain. Everywhere we went, there were shops and stands offering these local specialties. Also the two grocery stores next to our apartment offered each a full fridge with different types of hummus.
Then there were the pitas and anything and everything could be packed into those—meats, veggies, as well as… hummus and falafel of course. Pitas seemed to be what passes around there as bread. To get what we, Poles understand as bread, we had to go to our neighborhood Russian-run grocery store and get packaged bread with Russian inscriptions. We enjoyed both the pitas and the local bread as ways of adding carbs to meals, though admittedly pitas go much better with hummus and subjectively they feel more filling.
Big cities are melting pots of cultures, in particular of Jewish cultures from different immigration waves that reached the young country over the last seventy years of its existence. One can easily find Russian as well as Polish or German dishes. Asian cuisine, Thai, Chinese and the like, seems to be in short supply—somewhat in contrast to most western states.
There’s also a whole wave of young culinary entrepreneurs experimenting with local and international cuisines, and these tend to have the most interesting offerings. They like to open modern bars in trendy neighborhoods, old ports turned leisure spaces, narrow streets of Jaffa and in the small houses of Neve Tzedek.
We were happy to find both fruits and vegetables available in very good shape. This might’ve been the first time I ate a ripe watermelon this early in the year. We’re always looking closely at the vegetables because—true to our Balkan tastes—we like to have a fresh salad some time in the day. And we had been deeply disappointed by the availability in warm climates in the past, particularly in Bali.
Wine’s great. Red wine that is. We had one bottle of white, courtesy of our landlords, but this one was only so-so. It’s the cooler countries that specialize in whites, usually because they’re too cold to grow proper red grapes. Israel is plenty hot for that and we had a few bottles of local wine, with grapes the names of which I couldn’t possibly remember, which were all smooth, gentle and rich in taste.
Mainstream Israeli beer seems to be of the typical, southern, watery and light variety—again, what you’d expect in this climate. But there’s also an interesting craft beer scene (like everywhere, I guess), which maintains the lightness of the climate, while offering a much broader variety of styles and flavors.
The only downside of Israeli food is that it’s… so darn expensive. Actually, everything is expensive there compared to Poland. Take any Warsaw price, multiply it by two and that’s the Israeli price. Heavy. The difference is even more tangible because the exchange rate of the Israeli Shekel to the Polish Złoty is one-to-one, so the price tags there represent what we’re being charged in our currency.
These prices meant that we had to rationalize our food expenses, so on most days we had breakfasts and dinners at the apartment, while eating out for lunch. Groceries were still expensive, but less so than restaurants. We saw the difference most vividly when, on the last day of our stay, we had burgers for two for lunch, with no drinks and a side of fries for one, then flew to Varna, Bulgaria and the same evening had a full dinner for four, with alcohol, for which we paid roughly the same amount.
Would we say we love Israeli cuisine? Not necessarily. It’s just not distinct enough from modern Western nor traditional Middle Eastern offerings—tasty as it is. We did like what we tried, though, and all the culinary innovation, wine and craft beer movement are part of what makes the country, and the city of Tel Aviv in particular, so livable and enjoyable.