While many popular dishes in Israel are typical to the Middle Eastern Cuisine, its cuisine is as diverse as the population. Food is generally of a very high standard, and immigrants from around the world brought almost every genre and type of food to Israel. Kosher food is widely available. Even restaurants without Kosher certificates follow some guidelines of Kashrut to some extent. Tipping is very common in sit-in places that have waiters – not tipping in sit-in restaurants is frowned upon, but is accepted for signalling atrocious service. It is standard to give 10%-15% (or more for exceptional service). 20% tip is considered generous. Including a service charge in the bill is no longer legal in Israel and should not be paid. Restaurants may charge a “security fee” – roughly ₪1-2 per person. However, this fee is not mandatory, and it is common to ask for the fee to be removed from the bill, as well you should. Most restaurants accept credit cards, but do not accept personal checks. If you wish to include the tip in your credit card charge, state this before paying. Restaurants are required to allow this.
Perhaps surprisingly, items that are typically associated with Jewish cuisine in much of the English-speaking world such as bagels and pastrami are not widespread in Israel, though they can still be found in eateries operated by American or Canadian immigrants.
If you need an English menu, ask for a “tafrit b’anglit”.
Fast and popular:
Israelis tend to consider usually falafel and hummus as national dishes, although these dishes do not originate in Israel. A serving of Falafel includes falafel balls, which are small fried balls of mashed chickpeas and/or fava beans, usually served inside a pita bread (or its larger cousin, the lafa bread) with hummus-chips-salat (hummus, French fries and vegetable salad) and tahini. A selection of more salads is usually available, and you can fill your pita with as much as it can take. This is usually the cheapest lunch available (₪10-15), and it’s vegetarian (and often vegan). You can also order half a serving (“chat-TZEE mah-NAH”). If you don’t know which falafel joint to go to, pick one with a good flow of customers, because falafel balls are tastiest when extremely fresh. Hummus is a popular dip made of chickpea granules and various additions (such as olive oil, fresh garlic, lemon juice and tahini) and usually eaten with pieces of pita. At places that specialize in Hummus (commonly referred to as “hummusiot”), you can find the dish topped with chopped lamb, fried chicken breast, and many other different toppings, such as cooked masabacha grains, shakshuka, ground beef, pine nuts, fried onions, mushrooms, etc.
Another popular option is shawarma – sliced turkey or lamb meat, also served inside a pita/lafa with hummus-chips-salat toppings. Many other things can fit your pita: for example, Me’orav Yerushalmi (Jerusalemite mix), which contain several types of offal meat, or schnitzel, a batter fried chicken breast somewhat inspired by the Viennese original.
Another street food gaining popularity is the Iraqi-origin sabikh: a pita bread stuffed with a hard boiled egg, batter-dipped deep fried eggplant, hummus, tehini, potatoes, and salad.
Israeli cuisine is heavily influenced by the ancient Jewish laws of kosher food. The word kosher means anything that is allowed by Jewish religious laws, in this case food laws. Among other things kashrut requires complete segregation of meat and dairy foods, dishes and utensils; select types of fish are kosher but most ‘sea foods’ are not; meat must undergo a ritual slaughter process; and all foods must be prepared under controlled and monitored conditions. Kosher restaurants and hotels display a valid, dated certificate issued by local rabbinical authorities; kosher restaurants close for the Shabbat. Because of the meat-and-milk restrictions, kosher restaurants bill themselves as either בשרי (b’sari, “meat”) or חלבי (chalavi, dairy). Dairy restaurants will also serve fish (as Jewish law does not consider fish to be meat), and egg products. If you find cheeseburgers or pizzas with meat toppings in a kosher restaurant, they are made from soy or other substitutes for either the meat or the cheese.
Due to the secular nature of much of Israel, both kosher and non-kosher foods and restaurants can be found. Restaurants in Arab areas rarely follow kosher laws (unless they cater to a mixed clientèle), though they often follow Halal laws (the Muslim equivalent).
Most hotels in Israel are kosher, so breakfast is dairy, and during lunch and dinner you’ll not be able to get milk for your coffee or butter for your bread (although soy milk and spread are common substitutes). Most big supermarkets sell only kosher products, but more and more non-kosher supermarkets and convenience stores have appeared, due in part to the many secular Jews who have immigrated from the former USSR. With restaurants, things vary by location: in Tel Aviv a large proportion of restaurants are non-kosher, while in Jerusalem nearly all restaurants are kosher. Restaurants that remain open on Shabbat cannot receive kosher certification. So some restaurants serve kosher food while not being certified, but not every restaurant that claims this is necessarily telling the truth.
One attraction for practising Jewish (and other) tourists is the kosher McDonald’s restaurants. Most of the branches are not kosher, so ask before ordering. Branches of Burger Ranch, an Israeli burger chain, are kosher. Pizza Hut branches in Israel are kosher, and thus will not serve pizzas with meat toppings, while Domino’s chains are not kosher, and serve a toppings selection similar to their Western branches.
One pitfall with finding kosher food is that some con-men have found they can make money by selling fake kashrut certificates. Therefore, someone looking for kosher food should look for a certificate from the local rabbinate or a recognized kashrut agency. Certificates from unknown organizations should not be relied upon.
The word for kosher is pronounced kasher (כָּשֵר) in Modern Hebrew, while the Hebrew word for “fitness” is Kosher (in Israel, gyms are known as kheder kosher, i.e. fitness room). The words have the same root – kosher food is food that is “fit” to eat for religious Jews.
Dietary restrictions during Passover:
Another series of strict restrictions come into force during the seven days of Passover, when leavened bread (Hametz) — taken to include any grain product that may have come into contact with moisture and thus started fermenting — is banned. The religiously defined limit is 18 minutes. Any grain product that’s come into contact with water for more than 18 minutes is considered “hametz”. Some Jews even widen the ban to cover rice and legumes. The main substitute for the bread is matza, the famously dry and tasteless flatbread, and you can even get a matzoburger from McDonald’s during Passover.
Religious sectors will completely remove Hametz from their properties. Because the restriction is only for 7 days, many shops don’t remove Hametz from shelves and vending machines, but only cover them or visually hide them. In more observant shops, cashier machines will not recognize the Hametz products during passover, so it’d be hard to purchase them even after they are un-hidden. Note that as hametz owned by Jews must be nominally sold to a non-Jew before the holiday and cannot be repurchased on the Sabbath, many restaurants that are normally open on Shabbat will be closed the day after Passover when it falls on a Saturday, or will continue to serve their Passover menu.
Prominent local snacks:
- Krembo (A hybrid of the words KREM and BO, “Cream” and “In it”, respectively). A favorite Israeli chocolate snack. It is composed of a round cookie, on which cream (most often vanilla-flavored, but there is also a mocha variety) lies, covered with a chocolate shell. Krembos come wrapped in aluminum foil, and are very delicate. They are rarely found in the summer due to their tendency to melt in hot weather.
- Bamba. A popular peanut butter-flavored snack which is one of the leading snack foods produced and sold in Israel. Israelis have low rates of peanut allergies, because they eat Bamba as kids.
- Bissli. A popular wheat snack sold in various flavors such as onions, Falafel and barbecue.
Jews immigrating to Israel from different parts of the world brought with them many different cooking traditions. Most of these are now served in a handful of specialty restaurants, so check the individual chapters and ask around. Among the selection: Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish), Bulgarian, Turkish, North African, Iraqi, Iranian, and many others. One can also enjoy excellent local Arab cuisine served in areas with large Arab populations, mostly in the north of the country and in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
One dish, however, is known across nearly the entire Jewish Diaspora. Known in Europe as Cholent and in the Middle East and North Africa as Chamin, it is a sort of stew that has simmered for many hours over a low fire. It is traditionally a Shabbat dish, originating from the prohibition on lighting fire and cooking on Shabbat. The exact ingredients vary, but it usually contains meat (usually beef or chicken), legumes (chickpeas or beans) and\or rice, eggs, and vegetables such as potatoes, onions, and carrots. Chamin is served in some restaurants on Saturday, and can be bought in delicatessens on Friday.
Most Israelis enjoy instant coffee and will order it in restaurants and shops. The quality of this coffee is often quite high. However, Israelis also appreciate a café culture. While concoctions such as “botz” (mud) coffee, also known as “cafe turki” or Turkish coffee (an inexpensive extra-finely ground coffee, often spiced with cardamom, that is cooked on a stove and served unfiltered/unstrained) are popular, the coffee culture in Israel has become refined and the quality has drastically increased in the last couple of decades. High quality espresso has replaced instant coffee as the base of most coffee drinks. There are several highly popular local coffee chains and numerous independent coffee shops. Many Israelis like to just spend time sipping their café latté (the most popular coffee in cafés) and chatting with friends. You can also have a light meal with sandwiches and salads. Aroma is Israel’s largest coffee chain that has good coffee. You can order sandwiches there in three sizes and choose from three types of bread. Arcaffé is slightly more expensive, but their coffee (some say) is a little better. Other chains include Elite Coffee, cafe cafe, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and Cafe Hillel (of which some branches are Kosher dairy). Israelis frown upon US-style coffee, and Starbucks failed miserably in Israel because their coffee was considered inferior by the locals.
Vegetarians and vegans:
Vegetarians and vegans should have a relatively easy time eating in Israel. Due to the kosher law against mixing meat and milk, there are many “dairy” restaurants that serve no meat, which makes them popular with vegetarians. Be aware that these often serve fish. In some parts of the country you can also find vegan restaurants. Amirim is a vegetarian/vegan village in the Upper Galilee with several restaurants. “Israeli Salad” (sometimes called Arab or Chopped salad) is a chopped salad of finely diced tomato and cucumber. It is very common and can be found virtually in every food-serving establishment. It is common for sit-down restaurants to indicate on their menus which dishes are vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free.
The drinking age in Israel is 18. Drinking and driving is illegal and actively prosecuted. Also, since 2010, the sale of alcohol outside of bars and restaurants and public drinking are prohibited between 23:00 and 05:00.
The most active nightlife can be found in Tel Aviv and Eilat. Tel Aviv, “the city that never sleeps”, is Israel’s party capital with a vast number of bars and clubs. Compared to much of Europe, drinking is rather expensive and the steep prices in Tel Aviv in particular are sometimes cited as a reason for the rather large community of young Israeli expats in Berlin.
There are three main brands of Israeli beer:
- Goldstar. a Munich-style dark draught, it is the most popular Israeli beer in Israel. Can be found in bottles and cans of 0.5 and 0.3 liters (1 pint and half a pint, respectively), or KHE-tsi and shlish (Hebrew for “half” and “third”. Referring to the amount based on litres, as Israel uses SI). It is also available from tap (meh ha-kha-VIT, Hebrew for “from the barrel”). Some say it pairs deliciously with Bissli, a snack food indigenous to the area.
- Maccabee. A pilsener, lighter and smoother than Goldstar. Comes in bottles, cans or from tap. This beer has a bad reputation in Israel as being of foul taste. Its recipe has been changed and the beer has been regaining popularity in Israel. Still, due to its bad reputation many bars do not serve it. The local variety of Maccabee tastes differently than the exported one.
- Nesher. comes in bottles, mostly malt.
Palestinian beers are also available:
- Taybeh. – made in the first micro-brewery in the Middle East, “Taybeh Beer Brewery” is from Taybeh village, a short taxi ride distance from Ramallah, an extremely fresh and delicious beer that is popular with many Palestinians, Israelis and tourists alike. It is mainly found in Israeli Arab communities, Jerusalem, and Palestinian cities. Taybeh Brewery offers free tours of the facilities and has ₪5 beers for sale at the brewery. Taybeh village also hosts its very own Oktoberfest-style beer festival held annually during the first week of October. The festival well-attended with foreign tourists and is growing in popularity.
Lately, several brands of micro-breweries have established themselves, and a wide selection of boutique beers such as Sins-Brewery, Bazelet, Golda, Laughing Buddha, Asif, Dancing Camel and many others can be found in selected alcohol houses and in some chain retail stores.
In addition, a wide variety of international brands are available throughout Israel, some of which are locally brewed. Among the most popular are Heineken, Carlsberg and Tuborg.
A common liqueur in Israel is Arak. It is clear, and anise-flavored, quite similar to Pastis or the Colombian Aguardiente. It is usually served in a glass of about 0.3 L, mixed with equal amount of water and ice leading to a characteristic milk-like opaqueness. Some like to drink it mixed with grapefruit juice. Arak is usually kept in the freezer. A common brand is called Aluf Ha-Arak and Elit Ha-Arak (both of the same distillery) with the former of higher alcohol per volume and the latter of stronger anise flavor. They are of slightly different volume although the price is accordingly different.
There are several local big vineyards and a growing selection of boutique ones, some of them of high quality. Wine is mentioned in the Torah and Israeli winemaking tradition goes back to before the Roman conquest. Much of Israeli wine is kosher. Kosher wine has historically had a terrible reputation that is mostly unjustified in the 21st century and has been fading due to the good quality of many kosher wines becoming more widely known among connoisseurs and the wider public alike. The Golan Heights are among the premier wine growing regions under Israeli control.
Most of the regular Western soft drinks are available, and many have local variants that aren’t very different in taste. The Coca-Cola Company, RC Cola, and PepsiCo fight for the soft drink market aggressively. Israeli Coca-Cola is thought by Cola connoisseurs to be tastier and more authentic than elsewhere, because it is made with sugar, not with high-fructose corn syrup. Tempo (not to be confused with Tempo Industries, Ltd. which is the brewer of most Israeli beer and bottler of most soft drinks including the local Pepsi) and Super Drink are dirt-cheap local variants, at times sporting very weird tastes.
The generic name for Coke or Pepsi is “cola”, and it usually implies Coca-Cola; if the place serves Pepsi, they will usually ask if it’s fine. “Soda” generally means “soda water”, and is not a generic name for carbonated soft drinks.
There are several more authentic soft drinks:
- Tropit – cheap fruit flavor drink which is usually grape. Comes in a tough aluminum-like bag with a straw. The bag is poked using the straw to make a hole through which you drink. A very portable drink (until holed), which has become very popular in summer camps. In the newer varieties there is a marked area where the straw should be inserted. Even then it can sometimes take practice to insert the straw without the juice squirting out, if you are from the US it is just like the Israeli version of “Capri Sun.”
- Chocolate milk – there are a number of brands of sterilized chocolate milk (SHO-ko) which comes in plastic bags and small cartons. The tip of the bag is bitten or clipped off, and the milk is sucked out. As with Tropit, it is very portable (although due to its milky nature, not as much) until opened, after which it is impractical to reseal. Chocolate milk in a bag is usually served cold, and it would be a very bad idea to warm it.
- Spring Nectar – fruit flavored drinks that comes in cans or 1.5L bottles. Sold in most supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations, as well as many take-away stands. Comes in a number of flavors such as peach, mango, and strawberry.
- Prigat – fruit flavored drink that comes in plastic bottles. Is sold at pretty much every supermarket, petrol station and corner-store around Israel. Comes in many flavors including grape, orange, apple, tomato and a few more exotic options as well.
- Primor – fruit juice in plastic bottles. Sold pretty much everywhere. Comes in many flavors, mostly citrus and apples.