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Blending the freshness of the Mediterranean with the heat and spice of Middle Eastern cuisine, Israeli foods offer flavor combinations few countries in the world can come close to.
Drawing on Arabic, European, Levant, and many other cuisines, the foods of Israel are an electrifying mix of fire and spice, zest and color, and heart and comfort. There is simply so much great food to try in this country.
So together, let’s embark on one of the most eye-opening, mouthwatering culinary journeys in the Mediterranean region. Guided by a local writer, these are 15 foods you simply have to try in Israel.
Foods You Must Try in Israel
1 – Salatim (Fresh Salads/Spreads)
Israel is notorious for its delicious salatim, an array of fresh salads, pickled vegetables, and spreadable dips. These dishes are often served as starters with hot, crusty bread and eaten throughout the meal with just about anything but dessert.
Popular salatim include Moroccan carrot salad, spiced olives, roasted beet salad, chatzilim (fried eggplant), purple cabbage slaw, matbucha (roast tomato pepper dip), tahina (sesame paste), schug (hot cilantro garlic dip), and hot or peeled roasted peppers.
Restaurants offer salatim as an appetizer, and you can easily find small to family size tubs in any local grocer to take home and spread on a variety of baked breads.
If you like boring salads, Israel is not the place for you. Yalla, get your crunch on!
2 – Hummus (Chickpea Spread)
The world-renowned hummus is pretty much the national anthem of food in the mideast. Hummus has been mentioned as early as 13th century Egypt and remained a popular food throughout many countries in the middle east.
While its origins are disputed (Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel), its rich, creamy taste and unparalleled deliciousness are most certainly not!
Hummus is a dish of boiled chickpeas, ground with fresh lemon, spices, parsley, and tahini into a creamy, rich spread, eaten plain with bread or topped with ground beef, chicken, mushrooms, pine nuts, hot peppers, or fresh vegetables.
Hummus is a wonderful, nutrient-dense source of protein, and almost every menu in Israel has it on hand as a starter or side. There are even restaurants in Israel dedicated to hummus, such as the franchise Hummus Eliyahu, which sells hummus exclusively in a wide range of different flavors and styles. It’s so, so good, and definitely worth a visit.
3 – Tabouleh (Bulgar Salad)
Israel’s rich agriculture boasts a wide array of fruits, vegetables and grains, creating an authentic farm-to-table experience. Many of these fresh ingredients can be found in this beloved Israeli food.
Tabouleh, or Bulgur salad, is a hearty bowl of soft, cracked whole grain wheat, packed with diced vegetables, chopped parsley, and mint, dressed with olive oil and topped with freshly squeezed lemon. Addictive, fresh, and filling, this dish is one of the classic Israeli salads.
The Mediterranean diet is considered to be one of the healthiest and most balanced by contemporary health experts, and tabouleh is full of ingredients associated with this much-regarded diet.
Read more: Tabbouleh Recipe
4 – Laffa (Iraqi Pita)
With mass immigration of Iraqi Jews into Israel in the 19’th century came laffa; fluffy flatbread baked in coal or wood-fired ovens. While a wide variety of sourdough breads, pitas, challah, and even New York-style bagels can be found in Israeli shops and bakeries, laffa is in a league of its own.
A simple yeast-based dough is left to rise over a long period, rolled thinly, and cooked until slightly puffy, dotted with golden brown. Laffa is traditionally eaten with dips and salads or used as a wrap for popular dishes like falafel, shawarma, and sabich.
It’s mouthwateringly fresh straight out the oven, and after trying this flavourful, aromatic bread, you’ll be crying in the supermarket bread section upon your return home, guaranteed. In fact, it’s no laffa-ing matter!
5 – Shakshouka (Poached Egg Stew)
Hailing from North Africa and adapted by Jews and Arabs during the Ottoman Empire, Shakshouka soon made its way into the hearts and bellies of Israelis and, in time, became a staple food in Israeli cuisine.
Originally made with meat and vegetables, contemporary shakshouka is a rich vegetarian dish. It consists of poached eggs atop a savory sauce of tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onion, and middle eastern spices and herbs, including cumin, coriander, nutmeg, paprika, and fresh parsley.
Variations include pickled lemon, hot peppers, salty cheeses, yogurt, and sausage or minced meat. Shakshouka is served steaming hot in a cast iron pan, with crispy breads or laffa for dipping.
A highly popular dish, you can find it on pretty much any menu as part of a classic Israeli breakfast, but it can also be ordered throughout the day, for both lunch and dinner. Israelis love their shakshuka, and I’m confident you will too!
Read more: Shakshuka Recipe
6 – Falafel (Fried Chickpea Balls)
The original falafel has roots dating back to ancient Egypt. It was allegedly made from fava beans, and the dish migrated through the mid-east via the port city of Alexandra.
Modern falafel contains ground chickpeas, fava beans, or both, rolled into ball-shaped patties with spices, and deep-fried for a perfectly browned outer crust. Falafel is typically served inside a pita or laffa and topped with Israeli salad, cabbage, hot peppers, fried eggplant, hummus, tahini, spicy sauce, and fries, or ‘chips’ as they’re called in Israel.
Falafel is considered the national dish of Israel, and it is a prime choice for vegans, thanks to its protein-packed, plant-based ingredients.
Today, falafel is very trendy in many parts of the world, and powdered falafel mix is commonly used as a meat substitute base for burgers, meatloaf, and more. In Israel, falafel vendors take pride in their food, and will often insist you taste one on the spot- but it’s unlikely you’ll stop at one!
7 – Shawarma (Rotisserie Lamb/Turkey)
Lovers of meat, here’s a feast for your eyes! Believed to have originated from the Ottoman Turkish Empire, this delicious delicacy is one of the most popular street foods in Israel as well as Egypt, Pakistan, and beyond.
Shawarma is tangy and spiced veal, lamb, or turkey, stacked and roasted on a giant skewer, rotisserie-style. Using an electric carving knife, thin strips of meat are shaved off, browned on the grill, and rolled up in a fresh laffa or pita, with pickles, salads, tahini, hummus, spicy sauce, eggplant, fries, and amba (mango sauce).
Shawarma meat can also be eaten with salad and rice, without the bread or wrap. It is without a doubt one of Israel’s most beloved dishes and a must-try during any visit to the country.
8 – Schnitzel (Breaded Chicken)
While the schnitzel is authentically Austrian, the dish was adapted by European Jews and brought to the Middle East, in time becoming one of the most popular foods in Israel.
Schnitzel is made from cicken breast cutlets are pounded until evenly thin, dredged in flour, egg, and spiced breadcrumbs, then fried until cooked through and golden brown on the outside.
The perfect Israeli schnitzel should strike a delicate balance of soft, juicy, and crunchy. It is commonly served with lemon, Israeli salad, rice, fries, or in a fresh baguette with fried onion, pickles, tomatoes, garlic mayo, sweet chili sauce, and even ketchup, if you tell them you’re American!
9 – Sabich (Iraqi Eggplant Sandwich)
This breakfast delicacy was eaten by Iraqi Jews on Shabbat morning, and the dish traveled with this population during the founding of the state. By the late ’70s, stores in Tel Aviv began selling Sabich. Today, it takes its place on the pedestal of integral Israeli foods, no longer overshadowed by its big brothers, falafel and shawarma.
Sabich offers a fabulous fusion of textures and flavors in each and every bite. The original sabich was made with ‘haminados’, essentially slow-cooked brown eggs and potatoes. However, the modern sabich consists of sliced boiled egg, crispy fried eggplant, hummus, various salads, and fries, all stuffed into a pita and topped with tahini, amba (mango chutney), and fresh parsley.
A drizzle of hot sauce or chopped onion helps make the sabich even tastier. From street food vendors to fast food restaurants, you can try this wildly popular and filling food throughout Israel.
10 – Rugelach (Little Twists/Crescent Pastries)
Similar to its big brother ‘babka’, these soft, doughy treats were brought to Israel via Polish, Hungarian, and Austrian Jews, and are a traditional bakery staple throughout Israel today.
Rugelach are made from sweet yeast dough, filled with chocolate, cinnamon, nuts, or halva (sweet tahini paste), rolled up into small crescents, hence the name, and baked to fluffy perfection.
Some bakeries prefer a crispier, less chocolatey texture, while others opt for soft, gooey twists, oozing with chocolate and brushed with a sweet water glaze. As you amble through the energetic streets of the marketplace, rife with the aromas of delicious food, be sure to grab a coffee and a rugelach (or two or three).
Before you leave, you’ll probably find yourself frantically stuffing a box or two inside your suitcase for loved ones at home. Ok, all for you – but it’s the thought that counts!
11 – Sachlav (Middle Eastern “Hot Chocolate”)
If you arrive in Israel at any point during a rainy, wet winter, it’s hard to miss the marketplace vendors calling you to try sachlav from their giant metal urns. You can also head to the nearest coffee shop for a quieter, more European-style cup of this indulgent drink.
Sachlav is a native Middle Eastern/Turkish delight, which later spread its popularity throughout Europe and England. Its unique flavor and aroma come from ground ‘salahb’ orchids, whose medicinal properties make it a popular winter choice.
Salahb powder is mixed with milk, orange blossom or rose water, vanilla, and cinnamon, and then topped with shredded coconut, ground nuts, and dried fruit to create a thick, creamy and comforting treat.
Considered the ‘hot chocolate of the Mediterranean’, sachlav is a unique must-try treat. On the topic, Israelis also make a mean hot chocolate (‘choko cham’) by filling a glass with real milk chocolate, topped with hot milk, for the ultimate rich and sweet liquid treat.
12 – Mitz Pri (Freshly Squeezed Juice)
Though it’s known as the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, the ‘Land of Freshly Squeezed Deliciousness’ might be a better modern-day term for Israel!
Most of Israel’s produce is grown locally, with Jaffa city alone home to over 400 orange groves. The streets of Israel are packed with fruit juice vendors, their stands stacked with bananas, oranges, carrots, and pomegranates. These powerhouse juices contain high levels of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, allowing you to treat yourself to a sweet, refreshing drink without guilt.
While some stands opt for traditional fruit and vegetable juices, others get funky with milk or juice-based blends, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, coconut, and even chocolate.
Whichever way you smoothie or shake, there’s nothing like a refreshing glass or cup of Israel’s brightest, finest colors on a (very) hot summer day.
13 – Bissli (Fried Wheat Snacks)
Bissli was first invented in 1970 by Ephraim Saadon, a longtime worker in the Israeli food company Osem. Made from deep fried pasta, Bissli (meaning ‘my little bites’ in English) is the second most popular snack sold by the company.
These crunchy wheat snacks are available in a variety of flavours and shapes, including the most popular ‘grill’ spirals, onion rings, pizza squares, falafel sticks, and BBQ flavoured cylinders. Bissli are a delicious and addictive snack, beloved by locals and tourists alike.
14 – Bamba (Peanut Butter Puffs)
Bamba was produced by the Osem factory in the 60’s and became popularized by soldiers during the six day war. To this day, bamba continues to be one of Israel’s most delicious and popular snacks.
These rich, nutty treats are made from corn grits pressure popped into bite-size puffs, air baked, and finally coated in liquid peanut butter. Each treat is mildly sweet, slightly salty, with a slightly crunchy bite, which soon becomes soft and chewy in the mouth.
Bamba also comes in strawberry and chocolate nougat flavor, though the peanut butter version has stood the test of time. Made preservative and food coloring-free, Bamba is the iconic snack of the country, found in the strollers, backpacks, hands, and homes of Israelis from all walks of life.
15 – Halva (Sesame Squares)
Halva is an ancient treat, referenced as early as the 7th century as a date and milk mixture. Halva recipes were found in ancient 13th century Persia and Spain and were later adopted by the Ottoman Empire, resultantly spreading throughout Asia.
Halva can be grain, sesame, or nut butter-based. In Israel, sesame butter is combined with honey or sugar and flavored with vanilla, chocolate, coffee, coconut, nuts, and juice extracts to create large, cake-like slabs that are sliced into perfect, melt in your mouth squares.
Many shops in the open market are devoted to selling and giving out samples of Halva in a variety of flavors. Some such flavors include marble, pistachio, chocolate hazelnut, citrus, and cinnamon swirl.
Halva is a not-too-sweet, smooth and creamy, slightly crumbly confection with an acquired yet addictive flavor. Plus, it packs very nicely in a suitcase as a gift to bring home from Israel!
Foods to Try in Israel Summary
Israeli food promises a dynamic, sumptuous blend of refreshing, fiery, and comforting flavors, fusing Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences to create a truly blockbuster cuisine, suitable for people from all walks of life.
Defined by its diversity, the dishes of Israel stretch the breadth of the palate. There’s zest, spice, heat, richness, sweetness, and succulence, among many other textures and flavors.
A visit to experience the wonder and beauty of Israel is simply not complete without trying as many of these traditional dishes and popular foods as you can.
And for that reason, be sure to have this list handy for any future visit to Israel. Soak in the culture. Marvel at the decadence. And prepare your stomach for a feast like no other!
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Author: Shira Kirzner is a creative content writer from Jerusalem, Israel. Passionate about her native culture, she strives to share more about Israeli cuisine and tourism with the world through her writing.
Images licensed via Shutterstock