Taking it to the streets

While there are many fine dining establishments across Israel, if you get to know the traditional street foods, you’ll eat like a local.

By
December 9, 2014 16:41
Israeli Shwarma

Israeli Shwarma. (photo credit: AMY SPIRO)

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With Tel Aviv recently named one of the hottest culinary destinations in the world by Saveur magazine, there’s no doubt Israel is a contender in international haute cuisine. You can get homemade pappardelle pasta with citrus oil, seared greens, almonds, panko, garlic and a poached egg in tempura at Lumina in Tel Aviv; roasted figs, beef tartar and cracked wheat at Machneyuda in Jerusalem; or foie gras tarte tatin with caramelized Pink Lady apples at Helena in Caesarea.

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But if you want to eat like a local, and really experience Israeli cuisine, then you have to try the street food. From the flakiest of burekas to the juiciest shwarma and the most overstuffed sabich, Israelis do street food right. In fact, if you’re planning a tour of either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, you should probably organize it just around where you will stop for snacks along the way.

For each Israeli street food I explore, I give recommendations – one in Tel Aviv and one in Jerusalem. However, practically every city in Israel will have stores selling these culinary staples – some on every street corner! Happy snacking.

Falafel

If you have to ask yourself “what’s felafel?” you probably haven’t spent much time in Israel – or anywhere in the Middle East, or even New York or Los Angeles. But just in case – felafel is a deep-fried ball made of ground chickpeas and spices. It is most often found served as a sandwich in a pita bread, alongside salad and tehina.

It is often thought of as Israel’s unofficial national food, though, like most things in this neck of the woods, that designation is not without controversy. There are as many varieties of felafel available here as there are political opinions: green from fresh herbs or orange from ground chili; large, fist-sized balls or small bite-sized ones, spicy varieties, crispy ones, smooth bites and chunky offerings.

If you’re in Jerusalem, you’re advised to stop by Rachmo, a landmark in the capital that has two sites: 5 Ha’eshkol Street in the Mahaneh Yehuda market, and 25 Yoel Salomon Street downtown.

In Tel Aviv, don’t miss the felafel at “Hakosem” (“The Magician”), 1 Shlomo Hamelech Street, on the corner of King George Street.

Burekas

The first bite of your very first burekas is life-changing. The crisp, flaky pastry, the creamy filling – be it potato, cheese or one of the many other possibilities – the perfect combination of textures and flavors. If there’s one thing Israelis love, it’s burekas, and you’ll find them at every bakery in town, every family gathering and every synagogue-sponsored meal or celebration.

If you take a closer look at photos from cabinet meetings or government events, you’ll likely spot a plate of burekas in the middle of the table.

The most popular varieties are certainly potato or cheese, but versions filled with mushrooms, eggplant, spinach, pizza and even tuna or bean sprouts are also available. But wherever you go for burekas, remember that they are best served piping hot – so request they be heated or take them home and do it yourself.

In Jerusalem, you absolutely cannot miss “Hochmat Haburekas Mehaifa” (“The Wisdom of Burekas from Haifa”) inside the famed Mahaneh Yehuda market, with its burekas’ perfect crisp dough, generous filling and wide variety. 24 Mahaneh Yehuda Street.

In Tel Aviv, make sure to stop by Burekas Levinsky, located, of course, on Levinsky Street (No. 46, inside the market), to get Turkish-style burekas. Their most famous is the spinach and cheese, tucked inside their impossibly flaky dough.

Shwarma

While Israelis will stuff almost anything inside a pita (or a laffa for that matter), they take their shwarma quite seriously. If you’re ever bored in line at the supermarket, just start an argument over the best meat for the iconic sandwich made of spit-roasted meat shavings: turkey, veal or chicken? Heck, even lamb is on the menu in some places. Turkey is the default, though many locations sell varied offerings.

The classic version is, of course, packed into a pita, topped with salads, tehina and more. Some places will stuff your sandwich so full that the pita will burst, but that’s all part of the charm. You can also get your shwarma inside a laffa – a soft flatbread – or, in places with seating, as a plated entree with sides.

In Jerusalem, make sure to pay a visit to Arkadash, whose tag line is “honoring shwarma.” They offer turkey, chicken and veal shwarma, and don’t miss out on adding a schmear of avocado to your sandwich; 6 Shammai Street.

In Tel Aviv, check out Shwarma Bino, at 3 Beit Eshel Street, and get a sandwich – chicken or lamb or both! – with all the fixings: fresh pita, fried eggplants, onions and the requisite squirt of tehina.

Sabich

Sabich is often considered one of the only real Israeli native foods, rather than those brought by Jewish immigrants from around the world. True, the elements of the iconic sandwich – fried eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, salad, amba (a pickled mango condiment) and, of course, humous and tehina – came with Iraqi Jews as traditional prepare-ahead Sabbath food, but the idea of stuffing all these into a pita as fast-food was an original Israeli creation.

Local lore says the name for the sandwich comes from an abbreviation of its three main ingredients – salad (salat), eggs (beitzim) and eggplant (hatzilim). Regardless of its origin, the combination is perfectly delicious and you’d be remiss to leave Israel without trying one.

In Jerusalem, make a stop at the tiny storefront “Sabich Lelo Tasbich” (“Sabich Without Complication”), 14 Shlomzion Hamalka Street, for the classic sandwich.

In Tel Aviv, the locals all rage about Sabich Frishman, located at the corner of Frishman and Dizengoff streets. You can always get the classic, but they’ve taken things to the next level, with offers including a cheese sabich, a vegan sabich and even sabich in whole-wheat or gluten-free pita.


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