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
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
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.
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
Shawarma: turkey or lamb kebab seasoned and grilled, then
served in pita bread with hummus and vegetables
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
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
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
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
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.
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.