Well, I think I’m nearly over my jet lag. Exactly one week ago, I returned from a ten day trip to Israel. A FREE ten day trip to Israel. You see, if you’re Jewish, you’re eligible to go on a paid trip to the motherland – it’s your birthright. These trips started 15 years ago, and so far they’ve taken 500,000 people from 64 countries. Pretty impressive, no? But you have to go between the ages of 18-27, so this summer was pretty much my last chance to go. When I found a culinary themed trip put on by Israel Experts, I knew it’d be the perfect fit.
So let’s get some questions out of the way. Was it a Zionist, pro-Israel trip? Yes. It was led by three (smart, hilarious, kind) Israelis, who clearly have a lot of love and passion for their country. Every trip also does something called a Mifgash, or “encounter” in Hebrew, where they are joined for half of the trip by Israelis their own age. We were joined by 5 soldiers and 2 students. However, we also learned that just because these people love their country doesn’t mean they don’t disagree with decisions made by the government, and feel torn by the conflict in the area. And while we spent most of our time talking about Jewish life in Israel, we also talked a lot about the conflict, visited an Israeli Arab village, and learned about the wars and peace treaties that are very much a part of Israeli history.
Now let’s get on to the part you came here for: the food! Because it was a culinary trip, the focus was equally on history, religion, and food. While we didn’t get to do as much cooking as planned (we were originally supposed to cook for 300 soldiers on an active army base, but it being an active army base, plans change), we definitely learned a lot about the cuisine. Because the country is so young, their food is mostly a melting pot of the cultures that make it up.
Everyone we came into contact with, and even some who simply overheard us talking on the streets of various cities, had an opinion on where to get the best hummus in Israel. We tried tons of it – chunkier, smooth, topped with chickpeas and olive oil, topped with ground meat, topped with mushrooms – and talked about the different styles and varieties. My favorite was at a spot in Jerusalem called Rachmo, just near the Machne Yehuda market. It was smooth and creamy and had the perfect amounts of lemon and tahini, and then it was topped with seasoned ground meat (I’ll guess it was lamb) and all the fat that came with it. We dunked and swirled pieces of pita through this hummus, and I was sad when it was over.
Speaking of pita, I’ve never had such fresh pita in my life. My favorite variation on pita was in Jisr az-Zarqa, an Israeli Arab village on the coast. The village was only opened for tourism in the last year I believe, and some folks recently opened a guesthouse there. They also started an organization where they teach English to high school students. Our tour through the town was led by one of these kids, Mahmood, and he was great. After the tour, we went back to one of the organizer’s house, where we rolled out pita that had already been portioned by his wife. We then topped it with a mixture of za’atar and olive oil, and watched as she popped it into an incredibly hot oven. It came out light and fluffy and still perfectly dense, and the seasoning was perfect, especially when dipped in the labneh and hummus that accompanied the meal.
Other incredible delicious things that happened: A Druze cooking class, where we learned to make Sambusak (kind of like empanadas), stuffed grape leaves, stuffed zucchini, and tabbouleh. And where I first tried schug (or zhoug), which is a spicy condiment! Per the Israeli tradition, by the end of the meal our table was packed with plates.
Burika! This most amazing version of a breakfast sandwich I’ve ever had is kind of hard to describe, but I’m going to try. Wandering through the market in Tel Aviv with my friends was totally worth it, especially when you started to hear the beacon of the cook yelling “Burika! Burika! Burika!” This guy took a very thin piece of pastry dough, kind of like a thin crepe, smeared a spoonful of herbed mashed potato on it, and dropped half into a vat of boiling oil while holding the other half out of the oil, tossed in an egg, and closed it. He let it fry, getting crispy and letting the egg cook before removing it, crunching it up into a pita pocket, topping it with hot sauce (presumably harissa, but I’m not sure), fresh ripe tomatoes, onions, and cabbage, and serving it in a little parchment paper pouch (see photo near the top of the post).
I also discovered Malabi, and am working on getting a recipe that I can share with y’all. There are recipes on the internet, yes, but one of the trip guides said she had a good one, so I’m holding out. Malabi is a custard, a la panna cotta, topped with rose syrup, shredded coconut, and nuts (usually pistachio or peanuts). Some members of my group didn’t like this stuff, but my buddy Russell and I were happy not to have to share with too many others.
Frikaseh: an incredible sandwich I ate in Zfat, recommended by our guide Avigail. Think a middle eastern bahn mi: a fried baguette, stuffed with tuna fish, hard boiled egg, boiled potatoes, preserved lemon, fried eggplant, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Was it funky? Yes. Was each bite different from the one before it? Yes. Was it crunchy and refreshing on a hot day? Oh lord, yes.
A large group of us splurged on our night out in Jerusalem and went to a restaurant called Mona. Because we were a big group, we ended up doing a communal style tasting menu. We drank only Israeli wine (because when in Rome, right?), and ate incredible dishes like squid in curry, beef tartare, spare ribs, and salmon. Plus some exquisite desserts, the details of which I cannot quite remember. Thanks Israeli wine!
Speaking of Israeli wine, we visited two wineries while there (and toured one of them as well), and tasted some delicious wine. The favorite was definitely Barkan Winery. I know grape vines thrive in dry land like Israel, but it will always amaze me to drive through a desert and see as much agriculture as we did – grapes, olives, bananas, citrus, etc. It was really incredible.
Last but certainly not least, I want to talk about the halva. Halva has been a relatively recent discovery for me. I should say, rather, that I knew it existed, but didn’t realize how passionately I felt about it. It turned out that even the pre-packaged industrial halva is good in Israel. But the best stuff looked like a giant cake, with slices of the nutty, creamy, crumbly sweet missing. They would cut you off a giant slab, wrap it in parchment paper, and send you on your merry way. I found it difficult not to each huge amounts of this at once, and my friends are lucky that the two varieties I bought as gifts made it back to Portland safely. Now, to find fresh halva like this here in the northwest.
Overall it was a truly incredible trip. If you’ve ever thought about traveling to Israel, do it. I can’t wait to go back. Be adventurous in your eating. The good stories often hide in a place’s cuisine and recipes.