Eating in the Holy Land: The Culinary Delights of Israel's Street Food
When visiting the Holy Land, you'll undoubtedly notice the large number of fine dining restaurants alongside branches of international fast food chains (McDonald's, in particular, seem to be practically everywhere). But if you limit yourself to eating in either, you're missing out on the true culinary delights of street food in modern Israel. More than any other culinary experience, Israeli street food gives you a taste of the Israeli kitchen and its unique fusion of traditions from different parts of the world.
Ask any Israeli what he or she thinks their national food is, and chances are the answer will be either hummus or falafel – two related dishes that are popular all over the Mediterranean. Hummus is a made from chickpeas that are grinded and added with oil and spices. Eating hummus is an ancient tradition – in fact, Israeli author Meir Shalev has speculated that it is referred to as early as the biblical Book or Ruth – but in modern Israel, this tradition got a unique twist: while in most surrounding countries hummus is largely served as a dip, in Israel it is usually served as a spread and the custom of "wiping" hummus from the plate using pita flatbread is a common sight. "Hummusia" is the name given to popular casual-dining restaurants that serve hummus that are usually plainly-looking places where many people sit around large tables. In recent years, hummus has also managed to find its way to the menus of fine dining restaurants as well.
Falafel, the other dish that's often mentioned as Israel's national food, is closely related to the hummus. Like hummus, it is made from chickpeas – now served as fried balls rather than spread. As with the hummus many fine-dining restaurants have discovered the appeal of the falafel in recent years and attempted to put their own spin on it, but most Israelis keep eating their falafel in the traditional way – at the street stalls that sell it in pita, where there are few (if any) chairs around, so it is mostly eaten while standing. Falafel is never served alone inside a pita: it is accompanied by a variety of salads chosen by the customer, from the popular cucumbers and tomatoes cut to small pieces through the pickles, to the unique tastes of the eggplant and the amchoor dip.
Both the hummus and the falafel have been championed recently by Israel's growing vegan movement, as examples of popular and tasty dishes that are also vegan. But street food in Israel has more than enough to offer meat lovers as well. The most popular example is shawarma, which became famous in recent years after it was referred in both the dialogue and post-credits scene of the Hollywood blockbuster "The Avengers". Shawarma is basically meat (usually lamb or beef) that's roasted slowly on a rotating device. Thin pieces of the meat are "shaved" from the big chunk, collected, and served in pita or lafah (another kind flatbread that's larger than pita) accompanied, much like the falafel, with the best salads that Israel has to offer. Other popular meat dishes served the same way are the kebab and the shashlik (both larger, and more juicy pieces of meat compared to the shawarma) that bring together cooking traditions from both the Mediterranean and East Europe. Even the Austrian schnitzel and the French beef steak find their way to the Israeli pita, accompanied by the usual assortment of local salads – it's the Israeli melting pot at its best!