• Nepal!

    Nepal: Phewa Lake. Go Now!

    Nepal
    This landlocked country mixes the cultures of the Indian sub-continent with the high Himalayas. Explore Nepal!

  • Japan!

    Japan: Traditional foods. Go Now!

    Japan
    Japan has a rich culture that is visible today in the country's dress, architecture, language, food (pictured), and lifestyle. Begin Your Journey!

  • Bahrain!

    Bahrain: Desert. Go Now!

    Bahrain
    This tiny country has overcome the desert and has found a way to thrive, like this tree on al Jazair Beach. Explore Bahrain!

  • Laos!

    Laos: Karst peak. Go Now!

    Laos
    The simplicity and natural beauty of the countryside make Laos a hidden gem in Southeast Asia overlooked by most travelers. Begin Your Journey!

  • Tajikistan!

    Tajikistan: A yurt in the mountains. Go Now!

    Tajikistan
    The high mountains have mysteries around every turn, including yurts (pictured), a home for the nomadic people. Go Now!

Food, Dining, & Drinks in Israel

WARNING: Terrorist threats continue in Israel, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Israeli Food - Falafel
Falafel

Like all countries, Israel's historic diet is based on what they had locally available, which is a considerable amount of fruits, vegetables, and animals. Sitting on the Mediterranean Sea the conditions are excellent for plant and animal life in most parts of the country.

Among the most popular fruits and vegetables found in early Israeli history are dates, figs, pomegranates, olives, eggplants, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), grapes, wheat, and barley. The animals present were also numerous including sheep, chicken, goat, and more. These animals were used to produce dairy products as well. Off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea there is also an abundance of sea life, which has historically been used for food.

Culinary Influences

As a country on the Mediterranean Sea, Israel has encountered hundreds of people over the years, from the nearby Phoenicians and Persians to the far off Romans and Spanish. Through much of the country's early history all of these groups made significant changes to Israel's diet, primarily in the form of bringing new foods to the region, including apples, oranges, and other now common foods.

Israeli Food - Challah bread
Challah bread

The two greatest influences during this time were religious laws and the Romans. According to the Torah (or the Old Testament) there are a number of dietary restrictions all Jews must adhere to, including the absence of pork and a number of other animals like shellfish in the diet. These rules also dictate how an animal must be slaughtered and what cuts of meat can or cannot be eaten. Finally, there is a restriction on the mixing of dairy with meat products, which forces most households to have two sets of cooking and serving dishes.

The Romans also made a substantial impact as they ruled much of the Mediterranean and hence brought most of the foods that arrived to the region from other parts of the Mediterranean, Europe, or North Africa.

In the 100-300s many Jews left the region and settled in various places, but primarily in the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. From this point until the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 the food in the region of Israel and the food of the Jews abroad took two different paths that eventually merged with the formation of Israel.

The path the people in Israel itself took during this time is similar to the culinary changes that took place in neighboring countries like Lebanon. Like those countries, the majority population in Israel slowly shifted from Jews to Christian and Muslims. These people altered the diet in much the same way the Lebanese changed their diet as Levantine foods came to dominate the cuisine in the 600s and through much of later history.

The Levantine diet really rose to a form recognizable to today with the rise of Islam in the 600s. As this new religion arose to power, both Damascus and Jerusalem became centers of the religion and the food as Levantine cuisine was born and developed (sometimes Levantine food is referred to as Lebanese or Middle Eastern food in English today).

This diet, not dissimilar to Mediterranean foods consists of fresh fruits and vegetables as olive oil, garlic, and beans are used extensively and there is a noticeable lack of dairy products. Hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, shawarma, and baba ghanoush are all considered excellent examples of Levantine foods and all originated in the area known as the Levant, which includes modern day Israel. These foods were and still are primarily eaten by the Muslims in Israel, but the Jews have also adopted numerous dishes, including Falafel, which is often considered the country's national dish.

The path the food of the Jews abroad took was based on Jewish dietary rules and the local foods available. This led to differing foods in Poland, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Spain among others. The Jews in each of these places formed a similar dietary base, but very different foods; for example in Jewish communities today some popular foods are the bagel (invented by Polish Jews), schnitzel (taken from Austria and Germany), borsht (from Russia), and cakes (from Eastern Europe) among others. None of these foods were found in Israel prior to the early 1900s, but were popular in Jewish communities abroad for years.

In 1948, with the formation of Israel, all these foods abroad merged into the country, forever changing the diet. These influences came from everywhere, but the most pronounced in Israel were from North Africa and Turkey. This immigration led to an increase or introduction of pastries, breads, couscous, salads, vegetables, yogurts, and various dishes. Yet today there are also restaurants that serve South American food, European foods, African foods, and even Far Eastern foods. More interesting though is the fusion of these many foods, which have create a unique international fusion diet today.

With the formation of the new country, there was also a religious revival of sorts and that led to an increase in the use of foods mentioned in the Bible, including figs, honey, and others. However, as this took place many of the Arab Muslims maintained their historic diet based on Levantine cooking and little changed for them when it came to dining.

Over the past few decades there has also been an increase in the interest of international foods and numerous "ethnic" foods have given rise to new restaurants, including Chinese, Italian, French, Japanese, and American restaurants. Few of these outside influences have truly altered traditional Jewish or Arabic foods, but rather have just been added to the diet as stand-alone foreign foods.

It's also important to mention that the historic Jewish dietary laws have been adopted to vastly varying degrees in Israel. These laws completely forbid some foods, including pork and seafood (defined in Israel as shellfish and other non-fish animals from the seas). These Kosher laws also demand human slaughtering of animals and also forbid dairy to be served with meat (fish is not considered meat). In this way, there tend to be "Kosher" restaurants and "non-Kosher" restaurants throughout the country. The non-Kosher restaurants tend to have few to no dietary restrictions, while the Kosher restaurants fall into two general categories: meat restaurants (which don't serve any dairy) and dairy restaurants, which tend to serve dairy and fish.

As Tel Aviv has modernized, most new restaurants are non-Kosher and about two thirds or three quarters of the restaurants in Tel Aviv are non-Kosher. Jerusalem is the opposite with about three quarters or the restaurants, or more, are Kosher.

Staple Foods

Bread: bread is fairly common, but the variety of choice depends on the restaurant; traditionally pita bread was the variety of choice

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Bagel: round chewy bread which is boiled, not baked
Falafel: the unofficial national dish is fried chickpeas (garbanzo beans) balls served with vegetables and French fries in pita bread
Shakshouka: fried eggs, vegetables, and bread in a spicy tomato sauce
Shawarma: turkey or lamb kebab seasoned and grilled, then served in pita bread with hummus and vegetables

Dining Etiquette

The Israelis are great hosts, but they may be a bit overbearing as they might cater to you more than you feel comfortable with. However, this also means that they expect to alter their etiquette for you so any mistakes you make at a dining table with the Israelis will likely be easily forgiven. Despite that, you should learn the customs of the Israelis and try to follow them; additionally, if your host or fellow diners are Muslim you will have a different set of rules to follow than if they are Jewish or even Christian.

Try to dress nicely if dining with the Jews and men may be asked to cover their heads if in a home or other building, but again dress is less important than it is if you eat with the Muslims. If eating with Muslims, dress on the conservatively side; generally speaking this means covering your arms and legs. Second, in conservative Muslim homes, it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse. While this is uncommon today, to some conservative Muslims this is important so observe the local restaurant's situation and follow their lead.

Be sure to arrive on time no matter who you eat with and if your hosts have removed their shoes at the door, be sure to do so as well. Greet the elders first then everyone else present. Let your host show you your seat and wait to take food until invited to do so; as the guest you may be asked to serve yourself first and you should try everything offered as turning down food is considered rude. Both the Jews and the Muslims abstain from eating pork due to their respective religions, but avoiding this shouldn't be an issue since it isn't easily available in Israel. The Jews only eat food that is considered Kosher, but again if dining with Jews the food served will likely be Kosher so there is little need to worry about eating the wrong thing. The only thing to be aware of is that if served meat, don't also eat any dairy products, such as butter on your bread or milk in your coffee. Also, the Jews do drink alcohol and the Muslims don't so if dining with Muslims avoid drinking alcohol, although today many Muslims here and elsewhere do drink alcohol.

When actually dining, eat in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left), but be aware that some foods and with some company you may be expected to eat with your hand, but you should only use your right hand when eating, as the left hand is considered unclean among the Muslims.

Although you should try everything offered, you are expected to leave some food on your plate when you're finished eating so if there is something you don't enjoy you may leave it. Also, when finishing the meal, in addition to leaving a little food, place your fork and knife together on the plate to indicate you have finished.

If dining in a restaurant be sure to check the bill for a service charge. Many restaurants include a service charge that will replace the tip, but if no service charge is included a tip of about 10-15% is appropriate. Leave the tip in cash, don't add it to the credit card total, but let the server know it's there.

Celebrations & Events

Israel seems to be offering a holiday during ever month of the year and with each holiday comes varying foods and traditions. Nearly all of these holidays are religious in origin, both Jewish as well as Muslim, and as each religion has dietary restrictions the foods served are very authentic local dishes.

More than just monthly events, the Jews celebrate every Sabbath/Shabbat (their holy day, which takes place from sundown on Friday to just after sundown on Saturday) with foods and a traditional meal. On Friday evening some of the more common foods include challah, a braided bread, cholent, a stew, chicken, and desserts as this is generally a family event celebrated with these and other foods, depending on the family's personal preferences. The following day, for Shabbat lunch a meat dish is usually served, but there are numerous options as to the other ingredients in the dish. These meals are usually cooked prior to sundown on Friday (as work is not allowed on the Shabbat) and are often followed with desserts and cakes.

Among the major annual holidays, Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and is celebrated with numerous sweets including apples dipped in honey, bread with honey, and honey cake. The main course tends to be fish, but it is the sweets that are best remembered.

Hanukkah is marked with the presence of sufganiyot, doughnuts filled with jelly or cream and levivot, better known as potato pancakes in English.

Passover, which celebrates the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, is marked with the visitation of friends and the traditional foods, which are without yeast, effectively banning most breads, pastries, and beer. This only slightly limits the food choices though as chicken matzo ball soup is popular and vegetables are common as well.

Among the minor Jewish festival are Tu Bishvat, which serves dried fruits and nuts, Purim, during which wine is drunk and pastries are shared, and Shavuot, which dairy and milk take the prominent role on the dining table.

However, Israel is also home to numerous Muslims and they celebrate Islamic holidays, first among them being Eid al Fitr, which is an event filled with numerous foods. Although these foods differ from family to family and region to region, they generally consist of various meats as a base with other grains and vegetables on the side. This celebration occurs immediately after Ramadan, a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days.

The second major Islamic celebration is Eid al Adha, which is only celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of rice and meat dishes, including many of those served during Eid al Fitr.

Drinks

Israeli Food - Carrot juice
Carrot juice

The drinking culture in Israel begins and ends with coffee, but the country offers numerous varieties so no matter your tastes you should find something that reminds you of home. Espresso, Turkish coffee, lattes, cappuccino, iced coffee, and a traditional cup of coffee are all available as coffee shops are everywhere. Tea is also common, especially in the coffee houses as it's available in numerous styles as well. If you want something more original to Israel try sahlab, a pudding-like drink made from cornstarch, cinnamon, and pistachios. Or if you want something from home, soft drinks, juices, milk, and most international favorites are easily accessible.

The alcoholic drinks available in Israel include anything one can imagine, however in more conservative locations, particularly in Jerusalem and in Muslim areas, the options may be limited. Most of the Jews do drink alcohol, or at least have no objection to drinking alcohol, and it can be purchased and consumed, which is in stark contrast to some of the country's Islamic neighbors. If you do decide to drink alcohol, be aware that most Muslims don't drink and you should avoid its consumption when in their company. For those that do drink, beer and wine are probably the most popular beverages. For a local brew try "Dancing Camel" or "Negev." Due to Kosher laws, the local beer selection is limited as is the local wines, however this is rapidly changing. The wine industry in Israel has quickly expanded and the quality has also vastly improved. While wine consumption is growing, it is still mostly limited to accompany a meal. The wine regions of note include the region around Jerusalem and the Golan Hights region, although good wines can be produced in various parts of Israel. Red wine rule Israel, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, while on the white side dry Rieslings are among the favorite local products. Be aware, the only city with a true night life is Tel Aviv, although entertainment can be found elsewhere on most days other than the Sabbath (Friday evening into Saturday evening).

The tap water is generally safe to drink in Israel, but in areas of temporary housing it should be avoided. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water, first check with your local hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2016