I am sitting at the bar at Tel Aviv’s Abraxas North restaurant, watching eccentric chef Eyal Shani wow his hungry audience. Shani – who waxes poetic about tomatoes and aubergines while deftly improvising dishes using the day’s ingredients – is equal parts chef and performer. The real star of this culinary theatre, though, is his restaurant’s star dish: a whole roasted cauliflower, crispy on the outside, buttery soft at its core and served on a piece of paper. No plates; forks are optional.
The dish now appears on the menus of influential chefs the world over – but they can all be traced back to Shani’s cauliflower spectacular.
This tiny country has been my home since 2009. Born in the US to Israeli parents, I spent my childhood holidays here, convinced that eating was the national sport. After a stint as a lawyer in New York, I left the corporate world and moved to Tel Aviv to found tour company Delicious Israel.
Food is a wonderful teacher. Visitors to this complex, passionate country can connect to its (sometimes overwhelming) history and culture through their senses. Israel’s immigrant mosaic and world class agriculture make it an ideal place for a foodie pilgrimage.
Many diners around the globe are shifting away from formal three-course meals in favour of a spread of small plates. This is how Israelis eat.
Seasonality and quality are taken very seriously. If mangoes are not in season, you will not be able to find a mango. But the produce that does make its way to the table will make you realise what you’ve been missing – bite into a cherry tomato and you’ll understand what it’s supposed to taste like.
In a small, hastily constructed society built on agriculture (Israel’s early socialist pioneers believed that self-sustainability was key to their survival), it’s not surprising that informality still reigns supreme. Israelis are known for their sometimes tactless warmth, hospitality and lack of pretence. You’ll notice that even the best restaurants don’t have a dress code. Dogs are very much welcome at outdoor tables, and there’s not a white tablecloth in sight.
For more than 70 years, immigrants have landed on Israel’s shores. In addition to local Arab food, the tastes of Addis Ababa, Mumbai, Odessa, Tripoli and Warsaw (just to name a few) have all become part of modern-day Israeli cuisine.
For me, the best place to see this in action is Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, or Shuk HaCarmel as it’s known in Hebrew. The city’s open-air market is a must for any visitor. I’m there almost every day, and I still can’t get enough of its freshness, diversity and colour.
Before I start eating my way through the market, I like to awaken my senses. Behind a stand selling touristy trinkets, I slip into Uzi-Eli’s small storefront. ‘The Etrog Man’ is a third-generation Yemenite healer who creates juices from the etrog, an ancient citrus fruit, as well as a range of other botanicals and fruits.
Suitably energised, I walk through the Yemenite Quarter to my next stop. It’s 10am, but it’s never too early for hummus. The Middle East’s iconic chickpea dish actually originated as a labourer’s breakfast, and the best hummus purveyors still open at the crack of dawn. Shlomo and Doron have been serving hummus made to the same recipe for four generations, recently adding a few unconventional twists: a hummus and shakshuka option and a Balkan version with smoked aubergine, olives and pickled lemon.
Continuing my journey from the market’s backstreets, I walk down Carmel Market’s colourful central strip past the hawkers bellowing prices, trying to outdo their neighbours. I’m always amazed to see the diversity of the food stands: Venezuelan Arepa’s, South African Bunny Chow (curry in a bread bowl), Japanese Okasan, Viva Mexico’s burritos and Balinjera’s Ethiopian dishes – each owned by immigrants who missed their home food and wanted to share it here.
For something sweet, I head to HaMalabiya for its signature dessert, malabi: a creamy Turkish pudding drizzled with rosewater. In a nod to the city’s booming vegan population (a quarter of Tel Avivians don’t eat meat), there’s a coconut milk-based option.
The best way to explore is to lose track of time and wander throughout the city’s neighbourhoods: swanky Rothschild Boulevard, hipster Florentin, the quaint Yemenite Quarter and historic Jaffa.
There are an overwhelming number of restaurants to choose from in Tel Aviv. Here are some of my top choices:
OCD: A nine-course molecular gastronomy spectacle where all 19 bar seats face the chef’s open kitchen stage. Expect complex dishes with lists of unexpected combinations such as sweet pea panna cotta with lemon, habanero and cured egg yolk.
Taizu: Asian-Mediterranean cuisine in which the elements of Asian cooking fuse with local flavours into dishes like paneer tikka bun with aubergine aioli and cherry tomatoes; and crispy rice cone with a fish tartar and soy foam, topped with roe.
M25: the city’s carnivores choose their preferred cut of meat from the open display and sink in with their steak knives minutes later.
Mashya: Moroccan-influenced culinary works of art.
Bana: the hub for Tel Aviv’s vegan diners. Bana elevates plant-based cuisine with dishes like acorn squash with coconut cream and quinoa to a level that non-vegans will love as well.
Milgo & Milbar: if you prefer fish and seafood, this is my number one choice in Tel Aviv for flavour-bursting combinations like the fish carpaccio with crispy ginger, grapefruit, chilli and mint.
Imperial Craft: hidden in the back of a linoleum-lined hotel lobby, this bar, which squeaked into the top 50 of the World’s Best Bars 2017, serves up made-to-taste cocktails alongside Asian-influenced dishes.
Israel can be covered from top to tail in less than six hours. Tel Aviv is in the centre, so day trips out are easy. When I’m in need of a change of scenery and some fresh air, I get into my car and head up north for the day.
My first stop is usually Goats with the Wind, a serene, solar-powered goat farm overlooking Galilee’s lush green hills. After some selfies with the farm’s baby goats, I sit on some floor cushions and tuck into a cheese plate, organic salads, and crusty, fresh-out-of-the-oven loaves.
My next destination is Noura’s Kitchen, in the Druze town Daliyat el Carmel. Noura always greets me warmly, offering me stuffed vine and cabbage leaves. Although a typical Druze meal involves an endless spread of salads and pot-cooked delicacies, I convince Noura just to let me nibble on her famous atayef, a fried walnut-filled dumpling, glazed with sweet geranium syrup.
If I am up for a longer drive, I head to the Golan Heights, the home of my favorited winery, Pelter, which started as a backyard passion project, and now supplies the country’s top restaurants with cult favourites Trio (its cabernet/ merlot/cabernet franc blend) and sauvignon blanc, as well as arak, date brandy and gin.
Ready for dinner, I head just north of the city of Tiberias, where Magdalena’s incongruously elegant restaurant serves Instagram-worthy versions of locally foraged, Arab-style food. I tuck into shishbarak (lamb-stuffed dumplings cooked in goat yoghurt); kubbeh stuffed with chickpeas and halloumi cheese; and wild chicory with caramelised onions.
Just an hour southeast of Tel Aviv is Jerusalem.
On the way, in Ein Rafa, there’s Majda, where a Jewish chef and her Arab husband serve local specialities like kubbeh siniya, a meat pie cooked on a bed of bulgur and tahini.
Once into the historic Old City, I stop off in the Arab Quarter for knafeh at Jaffar’s; for hummus at Lina; and then a coffee and strudel at the Austrian Hospice, taking in the view of the Old City from its roof.
I try to make it to the Machane Yehuda market before Azura closes to enjoy the Iraqi/Kurdish delicacies, cooked on kerosene lanterns by the third-generation owners. Then I pick up some challah from Pe’er Bakery and some chocolate rugelach at Marzipan to take home for Shabbat.
Just next to the market, Machneyehuda is one of the hottest places to eat – and a great place to dance on the tables while downing shots of locally produced arak.
And if I’m looking for a uniquely Jerusalem experience, there’s Eucalyptus, where the chef incorporates the seven species of the Bible – two grains and five fruits – into his dishes.
When I have time, I continue driving past the Judean Hills, down south to the Negev desert.
Israelis pride themselves on making the desert bloom, and the stark landscape is dotted with agricultural oases that rely on drip-irrigation to grow produce.
Alongside ancient Nabatean settlements and national parks, wineries like Ramat Negev defy the terroir to produce award-winning bottles of malbec and merlot. Up the road, the Kornmehl Farm’s hillside caravans are ideal pit stops to end a day with some of Israel’s best artisanal goat cheeses and pizza. deliciousisrael.com
Cathay Pacific flies to Tel Aviv from Hong Kong six times a week
Farm to Table, and Beyond: The Israeli Breakfast
Farm to table is nothing new in Israel.
Jewish immigrants living in the 1930s kibbutzim (agricultural cooperatives) would wake up early and eat a farm breakfast before heading out to work: vegetables from the fields, white cheese from the dairy and hard-boiled eggs from the chicken coops.
That humble meal has evolved into the perfect weekend brunch. The classic Israeli breakfast is now an abundant spread (think eggs benedict, artisanal camembert, organic salads, homemade dips and bread baskets) that revolves around the same core ingredients.
Israel’s love affair with breakfast is so strong that some of its classic breakfast dishes are now street food available throughout the day:
This glorious pitta sandwich traces its roots to the Iraqi Jewish Shabbat (Saturday) breakfast spread, which includes fried aubergine slices, hard-boiled eggs, salad, tahini and amba, a mango chutney.
This Tunisian breakfast staple involves chopped tomatoes, cooked in a heavy pan with onions and spicy peppers, with eggs poached on top.
A Turkish/Balkan savoury filo pastry filled with cheese, potato or spinach, typically eaten with a hard-boiled egg and spicy harif sauce.