Eating Israel: A Culinary Journey through Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

22 November, 2019

The food of the Levant and the greater Middle Eastern region has been a rising star for a number of years now, which is in part due to the so-called Ottolenghi effect, but also because much of it fits in so well with the current shift towards vegan and vegetarian eating, and of course not to mention the simple fact that it’s a cuisine full of bold flavours, spices and textures. It’s certainly a cuisine that I have always enjoyed, but even so, my recent
three day whistle-stop trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, my first visit to both cities, proved to be a revelation and full of plenty of unexpected culinary highlights.

Like in many global cities, both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have recently seen a noticeable shift away from over-complicated, fine dining back towards a more pared-back way of eating, with a total focus on the quality of food being served, no frills and no fuss. Alongside the many traditional restaurants and eateries still to be found – serving up staples such as hummus, falafel and kebabs, there’s now an exciting new-wave of places emerging. Places that are re-imagining the traditional Israeli restaurant with elevated cooking, ingredients and wine lists, and that are mixing the old with the new by incorporating global flavours, techniques and influences.

With many of these restaurants being located either in or around traditional markets, their menus are heavily influenced by the readily available top-notch, seasonal fruit and veg and other produce, as well as being informed by the burgeoning farm-to-table movement in Israel that places an emphasis on local, artisan and transparent ingredient sourcing. Alongside the availability of the more traditional Middle Eastern ingredients there’s now also quite a lot exotic produce (such as Asian and Indian) being grown within the country, and this is helping to drive the development of the globally inspired menus and dishes found in many restaurants that are now defining the taste of modern Israeli cuisine.

Of the restaurants we ate at, it was the back to basic places, such as M25 and Shlomo and Doron and the cuisine crossing menus at Machneyuda and Santa Katrina that impressed me the most – these places seem to me to represent the future of dining in these two vibrant cities.

Here are some of the culinary highlights that included two excellent walking tours through markets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – booked through the very helpful Delicious Israel. These both involved multiple stops for small meals and food tastings at often hidden restaurants, a number of which we would not have otherwise found by ourselves.

Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem

Jerusalem Walking Tour

Our Jerusalem walking tour took us around the Mahane Yehuda Market, or The Shuk as it is often referred to by locals. This is the largest market in the city with traders selling all manner of household goods and clothes, alongside plenty of fresh fruit and veg, baked goods, nuts and spices, meats and cheeses, and wines and liquors. It’s also full of food stalls and small eateries offering up falafel, kebabs, shawarma, shashlik and the like, as well as an increasing number of trendy, modern juice and smoothie stands, restaurants and bars. There’s also lots of global influence finding its way into the food outlets in the market – you can get a margherita at Pizza Flora, French patisseries and desserts at Mousseline Ice Cream or even English style fish and chips at FishenChips. The influx of these new places has gone a long way to helping revitalise the shuk and the surrounding area over the past few years – these days it’s not only busy during the day but also particularly buzzy at night.

Falafel Mulla
Fast food Israeli style!  This hole-in-the-wall falafel joint, albeit with a few outside tables, was where we started our quest to find the perfect falafel. It proved to be a great start. The falafel was crisp, moist and moreish and served with amba sauce – a tangy Iraqi pickle made with mango, turmeric, fenugreek and chilli, that I first tried at Sesame, Ottolenghi’s now closed Middle Eastern street food restaurant in Covent Garden.

They also serve shakshuka, schnitzel and sabich – an Iraqi / Jewish sandwich that is actually a pitta filled with fried aubergine, hummus, chopped salad, Israeli pickles, amba and tahini sauce. It’s commonly eaten for breakfast but is also a popular street food, and it’s now even starting to gain traction outside of Israel – I’ve previously had it in Covent Garden at Jacob the Angel (the coffee shop run by the same people as The Barbary and The Palomar).

A Georgian restaurant where we had its namesake, a hachapuri – a clay-baked bread triangle stuffed with cheese. Simply break the bread to delve into the creamy tangy cheese and molten egg – what’s not to like! Add spinach for a healthier version…

Zhug – zippy and zingy

A family owned, working-class Iraqi / Kurdish restaurant. The Agai family still make everything by hand, the same as they did 30 years ago. They buy all their produce in the morning from the shuk and there’s nothing frozen and scarcely anything even ground by machines. It specialises in kubbah (an Iraqi dish of meat-filled farina dough dumplings served in a sweet and sour sauce). We particularly enjoyed a beetroot version, not dissimilar to borscht, and a crisp lamb kibbeh, alongside the stuffed vine leaves with rice fragrant with sweet spices. This was home cooking at its best.

Beetroot kubbah, stuffed vine leaves, crisp lamb kibbeh and a sour kubbah with lemon and yellow courgettes

This cheap and cheerful, low-key restaurant specialises in sabich and is very popular with students.

Tel Aviv Walking Tour

Our Tel Aviv tour took us through the historic Carmel market and the adjacent Yemenite Quarter (the Kerem). Established back in the 1920s this is now the largest of the several open shuks in Tel Aviv and is very much still a working market, selling everything from clothing to electronics, alongside plenty of food traders specialising in spices, fruits, vegetables and other fresh produce. In recent years it’s started to undergo a bit of a fashionable renaissance with a growing number of boutiques, small eateries, street food stalls and craft beer bars opening up in its maze of streets and alleyways. This array of offerings is what I found so interesting about this market – it seems to cater for everyone from the older generation doing a household shop to young millennials heading out for dinner and cocktails. In fact you can now find can old-school hummus shacks sharing space with modern tapas bars and traders balling falafel next to non-kosher restaurants serving up globally-inspired pork and shellfish dishes. I would have liked more than the sole afternoon we had to further explore this vibrant market, a real microcosm of the exciting culinary diversity to be found in modern-day Tel Aviv.

This back-to-basics eatery is headed up by chef Jonathan Borowitz and is run in partnership with the renowned high-end butcher’s Meatmarket (which is just 25 metres away, hence the name). In fact the restaurant was originally situated in the butcher’s shop but was forced to relocate due to health and safety issues.

As you’d expect, the char-grilled meat was impeccable, and we also particularly enjoyed the arayes – pita bread jam-packed with spicy beef and lamb. Grilled until the bread is crisp and oozing the oily meat juices, this makes for the perfect hand held street food – plenty of paper napkins obligatory! The lamb & beef shawarma and the chopped salad were also spot on. With a simple dining room and a counter full of cuts of meat to choose from, this eatery is a great example of restaurant quality food being served in a basic environment.

Lamb and beef shawarma
M25 Arayes

Irit’s Restaurant / Cafe
This is a small family-run cafe run by its namesake and consists of literally no more than a small room with a few tables and chairs and an old cooker in the corner. It’s got no set opening hours, and the menu changes through the day as various dishes run out, but it’s famous for its Yemeni lahoh pancakes. These delicious pancakes are flavoured with fenugreek and have a similar texture to a crumpet or an injera (an Ethiopian sourdough pancake) and as the name suggests, originate in Yemen. Here they’re stuffed with egg before being fried until crispy in a skillet. We had ours simply served with a side of firm flavour-packed grated tomato, although apparently sometimes Irit serves them with a garlicky tahini and zhug, a Yemeni hot sauce. There’s also a picture of Jamie Oliver proudly displayed on the wall – he filmed here for the Israeli episode of his recently aired TV series Jamie’s Ultimate Veg.

Shlomo and Doron
Shlomo & Doron opened in 1937 and has been an integral part of this quarter ever since, and is still in its original location – although the space has expanded quite a bit from the two tables when it opened. Initially it just served ful, Egyptian fava bean stew in sturdy pots alongside tahini and hard-boiled eggs but over the years the menu has expanded – the now legendary hummus was added a few decades ago. Traditionalists beware though – as the USP here is that the hummus is used as a canvas for global flavours! We enjoyed the creamy hummus revved up as a shakshuka hybrid, the Balkan with roasted aubergine, pickled onions, Kalamata black olives and parsley, and my favourite, a version with sautéed mushrooms, fried onions and spices. I particularly enjoyed the onion petals that were used for scooping – an excellent alternative to the exemplary flat bread they also offer.

Carmel restaurant
More back to basics beef and lamb kebabs for eating on the hoof – here served with amba, tahini, pickled cabbage, sumac onions, charred tomato salsa and hot pepper.

Waste not want not – crisp fried pitta bread at Carmel

Falafel Rambam
This is a small market stand that makes fresh falafel to order. It’s in no way fancy, but the falafel itself is delicious, super crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside, well-seasoned, and there’s plenty of sauces on the counter such as tahini, hot and mild chilli and amba – so you can adjust the spice level yourself. Good falafel may seem simple, but it’s actually very easy to get wrong, and here it’s very good indeed. I also really liked the electric falafel balling machine, something I had not seen before.

Other Culinary Pitstops:

Aside from the eateries explored on the two walking tours, we also ate at a number of other excellent restaurants, of which the following two stood out.

Machneyuda, Jerusalem
This restaurant has been open for 10 years and has quickly become one of the most acclaimed restaurant in Israel. The food here is Israeli cuisine re-imagined through a global lens and with an open kitchen, enthusiastic staff and an intoxicating atmosphere this place made for a great lunch stop. It’s actually owned by the same people who run The Palomar and The Barbary in London and the menu even features a number of dishes I was familiar with from London, such as the excellent truffled polenta with mushrooms in a Kilner jar – which is also a mainstay of the menu at The Palomar. Other standouts included:

  • Cabbage siniya with an electrifying chimichurri, was vibrant with coriander and mint, and zingy with lemon – it was also a nice touch that they brought us a small jar to take home…
  • Shikahukit – a deconstructed kebab of spicy minced lamb, tahini & yoghurt
  • Broken, spanking fresh tuna tartare with roasted vegetables and spinach
  • An Instagram worthy dish of crazy fennel, almonds and feta

The portions here are big (as the seabass dish illustrates) so be careful not to over order! On top of this there’s also a great sense of generosity, which really added to the meal – the free arak was most appreciated…

They’ve also recently opened Yudale across the road, a culinary workshop counter seating restaurant with produce from the market that sounds like it would be worth a visit should I ever be back in the area.

Cabbage siniya
Tuna tartare
Tomatoes and mozzarella
Crazy fennel

Santa Katrina, Tel Aviv
This local restaurant just near the Great Synagogue serves modern Israeli food that takes influence from all corners of the Mediterranean. The kitchen features a large taboon, or clay oven, in which they cook excellent focaccia and pizza – the Pizza Salami with emmental, mozzarella, Italian salami, oregano and chilli was particularly good. Other highlights were the outstandingly fresh grilled sweet prawns, the lamb kebab and the oxtail tortellini, a signature dish here that came unusually paired with a beurre blanc.