International Cooking: Food from Israel

I started researching food from Israel a few weeks ago, before the Hamas attack, when things were more peaceful than they are now. I was able to get some great input from Israeli people on Reddit, and many of these recipes were suggested to me by them.

This post isn’t meant to represent support for or against Israel. I do express support for the regular Israeli and Palestinian people who just want to be able to live their lives in peace. I spoke with some lovely people on the Israeli subreddit and I hope they are safe. I wish everyone could just get along because no one should have to live in a warzone, constantly fearing for their lives.

If you would like to donate to support the victims of this conflict, you can find an extensive list of charities at Charity Watch.


Israel is located in West Asia, with the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Red Sea to the south. I ran into some issues when researching dishes for the country, where Palestine was sometimes considered part of Israel and sometimes not. This is part of the current conflict so I don’t want to say too much about it as I don’t feel qualified. However, what I can say is that the West Bank along the east of Israel and the Gaza Strip along the southwest are considered Palestinian territories. Israel does not recognize Palestine as a sovereign state, but many other countries do.

In ancient times, the region was home to several Israelite and Jewish kingdoms. Over the years, it was ruled by various powers such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans.

The Jews were a majority population in the area, until the Jewish-Roman wars which scattered many of the people. Jerusalem, which has been the most important city in the region since ancient times, was destroyed during these wars. This wasn’t the only time either; the city was destroyed and rebuilt at least once more throughout history.

Jerusalem itself is an important city to three religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It is claimed by both Israel and Palestine as their capital city, but this is just one issue that has caused conflict between the two. I’m not going to try and explain the whole Israeli-Palestinian situation here because I know I won’t be able to do it well.

What Do People Eat in Israel?

Israeli cuisine is pretty varied because Jews from all over have come to live there, bringing their own culinary traditions. There are elements of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, as well as influences from other parts of Europe.

Ancient Israeli cuisine was based on a group of locally grown products known as the seven species: olives, figs, dates, pomegranates, wheat, barley, and grapes. These were enhanced by imported spices.

Later, Hellenistic and Roman culture introduced elaborate meals involving fish, beef, pickled and fresh vegetables, olives, and various fruits.

During Ottoman rule, dishes such as vegetable gratins, stuffed vegetables, and rice and bulgur pilafs were incorporated into Israeli cuisine.

During the period after World War II, when the State of Israel was established, many foods were difficult to obtain. This led to substitutes such as eggplant being used instead of meat, and the development of ptitim (pearl couscous) instead of rice. Various inexpensive products were used to add flavor, such as canned tomato paste, hummus, tahini, and mayonnaise. Some of these foods remain an important part of Israeli cuisine today.

Modern Israeli cuisine combines many of these elements. One thing that is common among dishes is the absence of certain foods that Jews do not eat, such as pork and shellfish.

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Israeli dishes I didn’t make!

Chicken Schnitzel with Ptitim (Israeli Couscous)

Chicken Schnitzel with Ptitim (Israeli Couscous)

I was surprised when I found out chicken schnitzel is actually really popular in Israel. It’s typically served with ptitim, which is pearl couscous (also known as Israeli couscous). Someone on the Israel subreddit told me they had a great ptitim recipe but unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get it. Instead, I found a recipe online that looked promising, so that I wouldn’t just have plain ptitim (I was told there are usually vegetables involved).

The schnitzel was simple. I cut a chicken breast into thinner cutlets and pounded them flat. I seasoned with salt and pepper, then coated them in flour, then beaten eggs, and finally a mixture of breadcrumbs and sesame seeds. This is a pretty standard chicken schnitzel process, except for the sesame seeds, which seemed common in the Israeli versions I was looking at. I didn’t follow an exact recipe.

For the ptitim, I started by cooking garlic and chili flakes in a mixture of butter and olive oil. Then I stirred in the pearl couscous, and after it began to toast a little, I added chicken stock. Once the couscous was cooked through, I stirred in some halved cherry tomatoes, spinach, Parmesan, and pepper. I finished with some fresh parsley as a garnish.

This was a really good meal. Of course, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with schnitzel! The ptitim was great too, but I had already eaten pearl couscous before so I knew I liked it. I actually have a recipe for lemony pearl couscous!

This ptitim recipe is from Jamie Geller.

Shakshuka (Eggs Poached in Tomato Sauce)

Shakshuka (Eggs Poached in Tomato Sauce)

Shakshuka is a common dish in many countries in North Africa and the Middle East, and I’ve already made it once before during this challenge, for Algeria. I was planning on waiting until Tunisia to make it again because that’s where it’s thought to have originated. However, it’s apparently extremely popular in Israel, so I decided to include it this week. There are many recipes for shakshuka, so I tried to choose one that’s typical of what you would find in Israel.

I started by sautéing some chopped onion. Then I added bell pepper, chili, garlic, tomato, and canned diced tomatoes. I seasoned with paprika, cumin, turmeric, and salt, and simmered until the vegetables were cooked.

Next, I made little hollows for the eggs and dropped them in. I covered the pan and left it over low heat until the eggs were just cooked through. Then I garnished with fresh parsley and served with homemade pita.

This was excellent, but I love shakshuka so of course it was! The recipe I used is from Kosher Cooking.

Hummus (Chickpea Dip/Spread)

Hummus (Chickpea Dip/Spread)

Hummus is something else that isn’t just an Israeli thing, but it went with the next two dishes I was making so I decided now was the time to make it. I’ve actually never liked hummus, but before this week I had only tried storebought versions. I thought I’d have a go at making it myself in case it tasted better.

The recipe I followed called for me to first make a tahini sauce. I did this by pulsing some whole garlic cloves (skin on) in the blender with lemon juice just until the garlic was crushed into a rough puree. Then I strained the liquid out into a bowl and discarded the solids. I was skeptical about this but it worked out well.

Next, I added cumin and tahini paste. I whisked to try and combine everything but it didn’t work too well since the tahini paste was so thick. However, the next step was to slowly whisk in water, and eventually I did get a nice smooth sauce. I seasoned this with salt and set it aside.

I cooked the chickpeas for my hummus in a pot with onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and bay leaves. Once they were super soft, I put the mixture in my blender. I was meant to remove the onion, celery, and bay leaves, but the onion had fallen apart too much so I kept most of that in. I blended the chickpeas with some of their cooking liquid until they formed a smooth puree.

Next, I transferred the chickpea puree to a bowl and whisked in the tahini sauce. Then the hummus was ready. I’m not sure it’s meant to be served warm, but I tried some before letting it cool and I thought it was really good!

I served my hummus at room temperature, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with paprika and za’atar (a Middle Eastern seasoning made from herbs, sesame seeds, and sumac).

This was a zillion times better than all the storebought versions I’ve tried and I would make it again!

The recipe I used is from Serious Eats (the tahini sauce recipe is linked on this page too).

Sabich (Eggplant Pita Sandwich)

Sabich (Eggplant Pita Sandwich)

This eggplant sandwich is very popular in Israel. It’s made by stuffing pita bread with fried eggplant, boiled egg, Israeli salad, tahini sauce, hummus, and amba (a pickled mango sauce).

I know I’ve said this before, but I’m not sure I like eggplant that much. However, this had many other flavors going on so I thought I would try it.

First, I made the hummus and tahini sauce. Then I made the amba, which I didn’t take a photo of on its own so it doesn’t get to be its own entry. Amba is not just popular in Israel; it’s thought to have been brought there by Jews from Iraq.

Amba

I started with a green, unripe mango. Some recipes use ripe mangoes instead, but from what I can tell, green mangos are more common. I cut half the mango into small pieces and the other half into larger chunks.

Then I combined vinegar, water, honey, mustard, salt, fenugreek, sumac, cumin, turmeric, cayenne, and garlic in a small saucepan and brought it to a boil. I added the small pieces of mango and simmered for a few minutes.

After letting the mixture cool a bit, I added it to the blender and processed until smooth. Then I added the mango chunks and pulsed a few times to make a chunky sauce. I returned this to the saucepan and cooked for a few minutes longer, and then I let it cool before serving.

I have to say, this stuff was amazing! I was worried I wouldn’t like it but it was the perfect balance of sweet and sour.

The recipe I used is from Food & Wine.

Sabich

The sabich itself was easy. I made an Israeli salad (which you can read about further down). I also boiled an egg. Then I just had to slice the eggplant and pan-fry in olive oil until it was done.

I stuffed the eggplant into some homemade pita bread with Israeli salad, shredded cabbage, boiled egg slices, amba, tahini sauce, and hummus. As you can see, my pita wasn’t very structurally sound. But the sabich tasted good regardless! Eggplant still isn’t my favorite food but it was quite good here, with so many other flavors.

The sabich recipe I used is from Serious Eats.

Falafel (Fried Chickpea Balls)

Falafel (Fried Chickpea Balls)

Falafel is a popular dish in many countries and something I’ve always wanted to try, but I never got around to it. I did make some fava bean falafel for Egypt, but I had never tried the chickpea version.

I started by soaking my chickpeas overnight. Then I added them to my food processor with onion, garlic, parsley, flour, salt, cumin, ground coriander, pepper, cayenne, and cardamom.

I was concerned that my chickpeas would not break up properly in the food processor, which is what happened with my fava beans during Egyptian week. But I’ve since decided that those fava beans are a bit old and maybe that’s why I was having problems with them.

The food processor did a great job with my chickpeas. I was meant to aim for a rough paste, and in retrospect, I think I should have processed the chickpeas further than I did. But there were no major issues. I covered the mixture and put it in the fridge for an hour or so, which I think is meant to help the mixture stay together.

When I was ready to fry my falafel, I found I needed to add a bit more flour for the mixture to stick together. This is why I think I should have processed it a little more. But it was okay, because as you can see I did manage to make falafel that held their shape! I formed the mixture into balls and deep-fried them until they were golden.

Falafel can be served in many ways; it can even be enjoyed as a simple snack. I served mine on a plate with one of my pita breads that didn’t puff well, along with some hummus and Israeli salad. The next day, I put some in a tortilla with hummus, amba, and Israeli salad, and that was also delicious. Overall, I really enjoyed this.

The recipe I used is from Tori Avey.

Israeli Salad (Tomato, Cucumber, and Onion Salad)

Israeli Salad (Tomato, Cucumber, and Onion Salad)

Israeli salad is a simple combination of cucumber, tomato, onion, and parsley, with an olive oil and lemon juice dressing. The exact ingredients can vary; some other popular ingredients are bell pepper and za’atar. I actually had a great Reddit thread saved where everyone was giving their favorite Israeli salad recipes, but when I tried referencing it again it I saw that it was from the Israel subreddit, which is now private.

This kind of salad is pretty popular across the whole Middle East, but from what I can tell, Israeli salad in particular is meant to be made with more finely diced vegetables. I really enjoy salads like this and this was no exception.

I only roughly followed a recipe here, but the one I was referencing was from Tori Avey.

Cholent (Beef, Bean, and Barley Stew)

Cholent (Beef, Bean, and Barley Stew)

Cholent is a popular stew that many people were suggesting I make. It’s made with meat, potatoes, onion, barley, beans, and kishke. Kishke is a kind of sausage made primarily from matzo meal and chicken or beef fat. The recipe I followed listed it as an optional ingredient, so I did not include it, but it’s something I would like to try one day.

I started making my cholent by sautéing some onions. Then I added beef stew meat (I used chuck roast) and seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika, cumin, turmeric, and cayenne pepper. After cooking for a few minutes, I added pearl barley, chicken stock, a little honey, and red kidney beans (which I had soaked overnight).

I covered the pot and set it over lowish heat for about 2 hours, until everything was cooked through and the beef was tender. About 20 minutes before finishing, I added some chopped potatoes.

This was really delicious! A great meal for a cold winter’s night, though it’s taking a while to cool down here.

The recipe I used is from Jamie Geller. I did have to adapt the directions because they were for a slow cooker and I don’t have one.

  • Bourekas – hand pies made from puff pastry. They can have a variety of fillings but cheese is popular.
  • Hamantashen – triangular cookies that can have all kinds of fillings, such as prune, apricot, Nutella, dates, or figs. These are usually associated with the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Final Thoughts

This was a great week! All the food from Israel was really good, but I think I liked the falafel the best.

Next week, I will be cooking food from Italy.

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