Millions of pilgrims visit Israel each year, searching for spiritual meaning and religious heritage. But many of them don’t just find spiritual fulfillment on their journey. Thanks to the country’s remarkable food culture, they encounter sensory delights as well.
“We just started to define Israeli cuisine in the last ten years,” explains Tali Friedman. “Israel is, I think, one of the biggest melting pots that you can get. Everyone…came from…almost all over the world, like from western Europe and Europe and the north of Africa. My roots, for example, are from Tunisia, from Morocco, and from Tripoli. Just this – it’s a huge mix. Some of the people, they came from Kyrgyzstan, from Iran, so we have all these amazing cuisines gathered together.”
Tali knows what she’s talking about: She is the first-ever female chair of Mahane Yehuda, the main shouk, or market, in Jerusalem. She also runs The Atelier, a cooking workshop where she showcases her latest recipes, her ingredients sourced from the shouk just outside its doors.
Though a site of bustling activity most days of the week, the shouk suddenly and dramatically shuts down every Friday night for Shabbat – the Jewish practice of the Sabbath. Drawing its practice from the Book of Genesis and the 10 Commandments, Israelis shut down the country, turning off electronic devices and resting.
But according to Faydra Shapiro, Shabbat isn’t only important for religious reasons. It plays a key part in the cultural life of the nation as well. Phaedre hosts many Shabbat dinners on Friday nights, inviting Christians to her table to break the iconic challah bread and build inter-religious community.
“Putting aside all the sort of religious reasons to keep Shabbat, it has a really important social function as well,” she says. “It means that families get together because there’s nothing else going on, and so it really holds family and society in a much kind of tighter embrace when you all have that day off.”
Tel Aviv-Yafo to the south also boasts a dynamic culinary scene. One of its most innovative institutions is Na Laga’at – a cultural center fostering community among and celebrating the achievements of deaf and blind individuals. The center hosts “BlackOut,” Israel’s only dark restaurant, where diners eat in a pitch-black space, designed to help them savor their food by removing the visual aspect of eating. Blind and visually impaired waiters provide service and describe the food, allowing them to give guests a small sense of what life without sight is like.
You can also find Ethiopian cuisine, made by Beta Israel, the name for Ethiopian Jews. Injera, bread made from fermented flour, is used as a utensil; diners scoop up meat, vegetables, and sauce with injera to consume it. For those unaccustomed to the process, it can sometimes get messy – but it is always delicious.
All the restaurateurs in Israel have a remarkable story, and Rama Ben Zvi is no exception. She took a farm-to-table approach long before the practice became a culinary buzzword – 27 years, in fact. Because her family’s land was for many years isolated from cities and stores, they grew their own vegetables. Farm-to-table isn’t just a trend to her; it’s a way of life.
Her restaurant in the Jerusalem Hills burned to the ground in 2016 due to a forest fire. The experience was a painful one, but Rama and her family banded together to build the restaurant anew. Today, it’s thriving.
It’s a symbolic story, in many ways. The Jewish people are remarkable for their resilience; despite being scattered over the four corners of the earth and experiencing centuries of persecution, they’ve come together to build something extraordinary.
Israeli cuisine showcases all that history, complexity, and diversity with every bite. Explore the tastes of the country yourself in the new travel series from Passages, “Israel Explored.” Stream the six-part video series at passagesisrael.org/explored.