Food Glorious Food! A Love Letter to Israeli Cuisine
Anyone who has visited Israel, whether they love or hate it, will probably say this about it: The food is amazing. There’s a lot of it. And no one will stop trying to feed you.
On Wednesday night while visiting Inbar, we went to her family’s house for a yahtzeit, or anniversary of a death. Her entire father’s side of the family, all Iraqi Jews, crowded under the fluorescent lights of the tiny apartment in the walkup. The men prayed, and although not many people spoke English, I felt very welcome as I was kissed, smiled at and had my cheeks patted by her aunts and several cousins. And before I knew it, out came the food.
As the plates were passed Inbar walked away for about five seconds, and suddenly I was handed a giant plate with the most amazing food imaginable: two kinds of kuba (stuffed semolina with meat), schnitzel (pounded flat fried chicken — very common in Israel), grilled chicken, hummus, salads and more. The plate was so heavy I was shocked I could hold it with one hand. I looked at Inbar with my mouth wide.
“You think I can eat all this?” I asked her.
“I wanted to give you a little bit of everything,” she said nonchalantly. And suddenly I was becoming full of the most amazing food imaginable with relatives all around me encouraging me to eat in a language I can barely understand.
Israel has a very distinctive eating style. There are many different kinds of vegetables, including anise, onion, cucumber and tomato. Salads are served at every meal. Hummus and babaganoush reign supreme, and visits to the bakery happen on almost a daily basis. Very salty things like feta cheese, pickles and olives are served frequently. And, of course, there is hot water with mint leaves and honey — a traditional Israeli hot beverage served alongside coffee.
As most of Israel is some form of kosher (despite the fact I have heard of places here that serve cheeseburgers, pork and shellfish here, I dare you to try to find any of them), you will not be able to get certain things here or the recipes will be varied. Skittles, which are unkosher in the U.S., are kosher in Israel. Cokes are made with real sugar here, not artificial corn syrup. And certain varieties of cheeses, like brie and mozzarella, are either rare or nowhere to be found.
During the majority of my travel time, I was surviving on snacks I bought at Trader Joe’s back home. So when my first evening in Jerusalem came, Brad took me out of the city down Ben Yehuda Street for a meal.
“What do you want?” he asked. “Schwarma?”
I nodded gleefully as we went into a shop. One of the guys was standing out front with a bowl and a pair of tongs.
“Falafel?” he asked. I immediately took it at popped it in my mouth. In Los Angeles, falafel balls are these dried spicy ping-pong balls that you try to eat without choking on. But if you have ever had falafel made by an Israeli, as these were, you know they are warm and crunchy on the outside but just melt on the inside and makes you heart weak at its nonexistent knees.
Brad stepped outside for a minute as I made my falafel laffah wrap. When he walked back in, he looked at me shocked.
“I thought you were getting schwarma!” he said.
“Well, I get easily distracted by good falafel,” I replied.
This pattern of delicious meals continued even after this writing. Whether it was the burgers near Lauren and Avi’s house in the north that were piled with roasted garlic, lettuce and onion with Cajun fries, the Hamburgreg at Greg café with chewy fried mushrooms instead of the burger or the savory Jerusalem mix over barley at a counter in the shuk in Tel Aviv, it was all delicious. It never felt heavy like American food, and it was always satisfying to the core.
As I settled into Shabbat lunch in Tsfat and began helping myself to the dips, salads and cholent, I remembered the guy I was dating briefly in the states before I left. The last date we had was two months before this point. He had gone to Israel a month previously, and all he did was complain about it.
“It’s like a third-world country,” he said. “Everything is so old and run-down. What kind of people live like that?”
As I sat there at a raucous lunch filled with food and spirit that can’t be found in the United States, I thought about how much he couldn’t see, which is part of the reason why I stopped seeing him. Then I thought about Inbar and her family, who even though they didn’t speak English did their best to make me feel like I was at home. It was very clear they weren’t wealthy in money. But their hearts were open to a stranger in their country who showed up on their doorstep. I couldn’t imagine something like that happening in America, even with the Jews who live there.
Is this country perfect? Not even close, and neither are the people. But I’d rather be in a decrepit home filled with love and delicious dishes rather than a beautiful house with silent hostility. After all, the love we have is often reflected into the food we ingest, and we don’t only eat for the body, but for the spirit.