I’m writing to you from good old Jerz, but my heart (and my taste buds) are in the absolutely beautiful land of Israel. In my mind, I’m still walking through the mystical streets of Tzfat, navigating crowded and colorful markets, floating in the crystal clear Dead Sea, and looking up at the stars in the Negev. I’m very grateful I got to go on Birthright, the free trip to Israel given to every Jewish young adult, and my visit to this incredible country was so meaningful and exciting.
I don’t even know where to begin with the food. I ate so much food. And it was all so good. Let’s get right to it.
Breakfast seems like a good place to start, doesn’t it? We ate all our breakfasts in the hotels which was totally fine by me since our hotels had some exceptional food! Israeli breakfasts are very different from American breakfasts because they lean far more savory. Eggs and pastries are typical but so are salads with lots of fresh veggies! The first few days, it seemed strange to me that a salad could be eaten in the morning, but I definitely grew to love and appreciate this fresh twist on breakfast. Eventually I was scooping piles of cucumbers onto every breakfast plate and loving every bite!
This breakfast was from the first hotel we stayed in, which was in a city called Nahariya. I got an omelet from the omelet station where I asked for “kol” (all, everything). Side note- I kept a list of all the Hebrew words I learned while in Israel and loved trying to use them everywhere I went! (Even though almost everyone speaks English there and probably thought my accent was atrocious). Anyway, “kol” entailed mushrooms, some kind of wonderful cheese that I could not place, onions, and lots of fresh parsley. I also got a tomato salad with pesto and some other kind of exciting cheese, a cheesecake/custard type of thing that was always my go-to breakfast item at this hotel, and a bureka, which is a pastry filled with… um cheese.
I am just now realizing how much cheese was present in this meal and I am not sorry about it.
Continuing with my apparent cheese theme, this plate from our hotel in Jerusalem features a piece of feta in the middle which was another breakfast favorite of mine. The feta in Israel is sooo much better than any I’ve had in America because it’s super salty. On the left, we have a croissant with different types of jams and a poppy seed pastry. On the right, we’ve got salads! Israeli salad (tomato and cucumbers), tabouleh (parsley and bulgur wheat with tomatoes), and some yummy butternut squash. Then there’s Jachnun! It’s an Israeli pastry that is traditionally served on Shabbat morning made from thin dough rolled up into a log, then cooked overnight and served with tomato sauce! It’s so unique and really delicious.
Elite coffee definitely deserves a mention because I drank quite a lot of it on this trip! These packets of instant coffee were everywhere in Israel, and I can’t get enough of it! It has a slight natural sweetness, but is just strong enough! I snatched a few packets for home too, so I can start my mundane mornings by fantasizing that I woke up in Israel…
Speaking of coffee, one of the coolest parts of my trip was staying at a Bedouin Camp, and coffee is an integral part of the Bedouin culture. Settled in the midst of the wide and barren desert, the Bedouins are known for their hospitality, selflessly giving shelter and nourishment to weary travelers (and/or tourists like us). While we were at the camp, I was fascinated when learning about the central role that coffee plays in Bedouin rituals of hospitality.
Here’s a description of the ritual of giving coffee to guests from http://www.bedawi.com
A long beaked brass coffee pot is filled with water and the grounded coffee mixed with cardamom seeds is poured into it. The mixture is brought to boil 3 times and then it is left to settle fo a few minutes. It is ritually served in tiny, egg shaped china cups (‘Feenghal’) and the cups are usually half full:
‘Al Heif’: The first cup of coffee to be poured and tasted by the Bedouin host to let the guest feel safe.
‘Al Keif’: The second cup of coffee to be poured and tasted by the guest himself.
‘Al Dheif’ (The cup of the guest) is the third cup of coffee to be poured. It is drunk by the guest.
When the guest has had enough coffee (the guest should drink at least one), he holds the little coffee cup by placing the hand over the cup and then he wiggles the cup by turning his wrist a few times. This is the sign to the host that the guest has had enough. It is not in insult to say ‘No, thank you’, but you will be even more warmly embraced if you say ‘Yes, please’. (Note: Do not drink the whole cup otherwise you will be left with a mouth full of coffee grounds.)
It’s so interesting to me how specific and detailed the act giving of coffee is and how it can convey a welcoming and a sense of trust without words. The coffee served by the Bedouins is made from green coffee beans (pictured above) and is spiced with cardamom. It has a very, very strong and intense flavor.
We also ate some amazing food at the Bedouin camp! Sitting on the floor on mattresses, we were served a huge platter of beautiful food. And no plates! Laffa, which is a bread similar to pita, played the role of both plate and vessel for loads of wonderful things to stuff inside. I love how this style of eating invites a sense of community. Sitting in a circle and breaking bread with new friends, and maybe making a little bit of a mess in the process (a lack of plates tends to create this kind of predicament) creates a fun and casual atmosphere and a thoroughly enjoyable meal!
Chicken and veggies were nestled in a bed of flavorful rice, in the foil there were warm baked potatoes, and the sides included tehina (a sesame-based sauce), Israeli salad, fresh cucumbers, pickles, and hummus!
I had so much fun stuffing laffa upon laffa with lots of lovely chicken and rice and veggies topped with the creamy, nutty tehina and hummus. A perfect bite!
Negev Research Center
The desert looks mostly like this. Breathtaking in its enormity and beautiful patterns of sand snaking in and out of hills and mountains, but lifeless for miles and miles in many places. A great expanse of Israel is arid desert, which means that people must be creative and resourceful in order to sustain life there.
The Negev Research Center is a perfect example of that! In the middle of the desert, there are huge fields and numerous greenhouses growing some of the most delicious vegetables I’ve ever had!
The cucumbers here were just gorgeous. Back home I never really thought much of cucumbers. That’s because American cucumbers are little more than crunchy green water compared to Israeli cucumbers, especially the ones grown at the Negev Research Center. These are real cucumbers. Where have you been all my life you perfect vegetable?
^ 100% the best tomatoes in the world.
The Negev Research Center is doing really interesting work experimenting with unique crops that are easy to grow in the desert! This vegetable grows best when in salty water, so it can even grow nearby the Dead Sea! I found the progress being made here to be fascinating. The science of producing food even where life is near impossible is really really cool.
Everyone in Israel looooves Aroma, so you know I had to check it out! It’s like their version of Starbucks with better food or Panera with better coffee. A winning hybrid in my book.
I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich with arugula, tomato, red onion and an aioli dressing and it was wonderful. I was definitely jealous of the beautiful Israeli salad with chicken and lemon dressing to my right though!
The coffee I got was sweet, sweet bliss… The Aroma Coffee consisted of espresso, hot cocoa, and warm milk, topped with whipped cream… AND as if that wasn’t enough- I didn’t realize until I got to the end of my drink but there was a piece of chocolate on the bottom meant to be stirred into the drink to make it even sweeter and yummier! I was in love.
There are a few in Aromas in the US as well, so I definitely need to go the next time I’m near one!
Tzfat, the city of mysticism and spirituality, is home to not only mysterious winding streets and colorful art to buy, but also some delicious food!
The day we visited Tzfat, it was raining, foggy, and cold. Very cold. So this pomegranate cider I bought was just what I needed! It was sweet and tart and steamy and luscious. It was definitely the ideal treat to warm me up!
Then, I had my first Israeli Shawarma!!! This was definitely one of the things I was most excited to try in Israel because everyone I talked to kept telling me I hadn’t lived until I’d had shawarma in Israel. And it definitely lived up to my expectations.
Shawarma is meat cooked on a spit (like a turning heated stick?) and in this case, it was chicken and turkey. I was overwhelmed by all my choices in toppings and the fast pace at which the shawarma man was assembling his masterpieces, so I frantically asked for almost all the toppings; Israeli salad (noticing a theme here?), onions, hummus, parsley, roasted eggplant, and spicy sauce.
This shawarma was definitely one of my favorite foods of the trip! It was absolutely delicious. I was happy that I got mine wrapped in laffa rather than pita because laffa is much larger –> more room to stuff it to the brim! Wonderfully seasoned meat, bright and crisp veggies, smoky eggplant (my favorite part!), smooth hummus, and very spicy sauce were a perfect combination of bold flavors and textures. Amazing.
I ate so much wonderful food that it’s impossible to show you even just the highlights in one post, so Part 2 is coming soon! Stay tuned for hummus, shakshuka, and more…
Enjoy! 🙂 Love, The Perky Foodie