It’s hard to believe that a mere two weeks ago, I was in Israel. More accurately, two weeks ago I was in a Bedouin village. After a long day driving through the desert, there was a tea ceremony, camel and donkey riding, yoga, and dancing under the stars. I spent the night in a massive, open-air tent with 40 other people, our sleep—or lack thereof—punctuated by the braying and bellowing of donkeys and camels in the distance. The next morning, we awoke at 4 am to hike Masada, an ancient fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, where we gazed out over the water to Jordan in the distance. Before our eyes, the sun rose from behind a mountain, an orange coal burning in the purple-tinged dawn.
On my trip, I was fortunate enough to join a culinary expedition with IsraelExperts, arranged through a program called Taglit-Birthright. For those unfamiliar, Taglit-Birthright is a program that sends thousands of young people with Jewish heritage to Israel each year. To date, they’ve sent over 500,000 people from 66 countries to Israel. Think of it as a scholarship for a (mostly) free trip to Israel. When you sign up for the program, you choose a trip provider—much like a tour agency—and a trip that you’re interested in. Themes range from outdoorsy to urban. In my case, however, I love food: from making, photographing, and eating it, to talking and writing about it. So it only seemed natural to sign up for the culinary trip.
Upon arriving in Israel, one of the first things that struck me is how healthy Israeli food is. A dish that featured heavily into our diets was salad. Accompanying every meal from breakfast through dinner, the most basic version of Israeli salad is simply composed of incredibly fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, usually with a bright, tangy squeeze of lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Other versions may incorporate cilantro, mint, and green or red onion. Interestingly enough, only a few that we encountered contained lettuce.
Foods which Americans might never consider for breakfast and instead associate with lunch or dinner are not off limits during the morning hours in Israel—and what better way to get your daily serving of vegetables than by having a salad with your morning coffee or tea? Along these same lines, Israeli breakfasts also featured olives, tomato slices, cucumbers, and soft white cheeses, as well as more typical breakfast foods such as pastries, eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese (though Israeli cottage cheese is far superior to the American kind), puddings, and fresh juice.
Speaking of cheese, there are a stunning variety of Israeli cheeses—and, sadly, I know the names for exactly none of them. Our first dinner was at a goat farm (called Shvil Izim, or Goat Path) just outside of Tel Aviv, where we were greeted by a vast array of cheeses, all labeled exclusively in Hebrew: there were smooth, hard-rinded, yellow ones, and creamy, pale, spreadable numbers; some were plain, while others were studded with fresh herbs and spices; some tasted mild, mellow, buttery, and understated, and still others possessed the characteristically tangy, sharp bite you might typically expect from a goat cheese. Regardless of their color, shape, or texture, though, all were delicious. We layered them on bread and pita, or even just ate them on their own alongside an incredible spread of salads.
One of my favorite dairy-based accompaniments to meals, however, is labneh. Ranging from a looser, Greek-yogurt like texture, to a thicker, cream cheese consistency, labneh is essentially a yogurt that has been strained in cheesecloth anywhere from a few hours up to a day. It was served in a variety of ways: dolloped plain on the side of a plate, mixed with fresh herbs like mint and cilantro, or swirled in a dish with a healthy splash of olive oil and sprinkled with cayenne, lemony sumac, or earthy za’atar. My favorite at the moment is to mix labneh with olive oil and cayenne, then slather it generously on pita, perhaps alongside some Israeli salad or majadra (spiced rice and lentils).
Another delicious complement to meals is Israeli tea: black tea is steeped with fresh mint leaves and then lightly sweetened with sugar or honey. At home I now drink this on a near-daily basis. The mint’s freshness is a delightfully uplifting counterpoint to the tea’s deep, dark richness.
And let us not forget the marvel that is hummus. Though it is natively an Arab dish, hummus is even more popular in Israel than in neighboring countries because of its versatility in kosher cooking. There’s even a debate over which motion you should use to swipe your pita through hummus: for the characteristic “swipe” motion of pita through hummus: sivuv (סיבוב), in a turn, or duch (דוך), meaning straight. We practiced our sivuv and duch skills on a wide variety of hummus throughout Israel, from Tzfat to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and beyond: flavors ranged from citrusy and bright, to nutty and tahini-heavy; from smooth and swirled with olive oil, to chunky and topped with chickpeas; from light, vegetarian hummus, to a more hearty meat hummus—practically a meal in itself—topped with ground beef or lamb. Like Annie from Serious Crust, my very favorite was the latter, found at a restaurant in Jerusalem called Rachmo, just outside the bustling Machne Yehuda (or “Shuk”) market.
Even now as I flip through my journal and try to convey everything I ate and experienced, it becomes clear that the phenomenal meals we had throughout the trip are too numerous to recount: from the first, astoundingly delicious falafel in Tzfat—piping hot and fresh, stuffed into a pita with Israeli salad, hummus, sumac-sprinkled onions, and drizzled with tahini sauce—to an incredible dinner at Mona, a gourmet restaurant in Jerusalem, where course after course arrived without respite, blurring together in a rapturous haze: beef tartare, endive salad, lemon pasta, shortribs, oxtail, and fluffy, decadent polenta; a rich chocolate dessert, something with hibiscus sauce, and a white chestnut custard bathed in a luxurious, otherworldly crème anglaise. Yes, it was a decidedly un-kosher, or trafe, meal.
This isn’t even accounting for the street food, of which the most near and dear to my heart remains malabi, a lightly sweetened milk pudding drizzled with rosewater syrup and sprinkled with coconut and pistachios. And, although I never got a chance to try burika, I hear it is just as incredible.
Then there are the simple pleasures—the ones for which there are almost no adequate words: sinking your teeth into a perfect, lush slice of orange melon while gazing across blistering white sand and into rushing azure waves. An impromptu tea brewed from fresh garden herbs, collected with care, steeped and sweetened, served with pride. Crunching into the seeds of a passion fruit smoothie while wandering smooth-stoned, winding alleyways, colorful wares and stalls and hawkers on all sides, the crush of a crowd and a day’s sweat intermingling underneath an unfamiliar city’s high and ancient walls. Iced coffee sipped from the solace of an umbrella at a sidewalk cafe, eyes following the swirls and eddies of people on their way to the market. The earthy sweetness of beets and nectarines mingling with the kindness of strangers. The clinking of wineglasses in a restaurant courtyard, lit by the warmth of good food and great company. The feeling of a rolling pin beneath your hands, the graceful rhythm, the satisfaction of doing, rewarded later on with the first piping hot bite into something that you created. The experience of sharing new flavors with new friends, in a place you have all grown to love.
How do you articulate these feelings, the ones that fill you up to the brim and feel like they’re a second skin inside your own? How do you convey that sense of belonging, the feeling of home away from home, that one you have no matter where you go, but especially when you find people who welcome you so openly, sharing their lives, traditions, and homes? How can mere words convey the depth of these experiences?
Words, perhaps, cannot suffice. But maybe food can: the ethos of a place becoming its flavors—verve, zest, and spice for life captured in the dishes of a region, and the food itself a reflection of the people; the entire expanse of their warmth, love, hospitality, and compassion found, of all places, on a plate.