One of the nicest and most distinct Israeli traditions is food. Jews coming from the Middle East and Far East, from Europe, Australia, South Africa, North and South America—all adopted the local cooking habits to their dietary laws and passed them on to their children.
The cooking style of the countries where they lived came as part of their baggage when they made their way to Israel and they blended with those who had come before them.
One thing about which there has been little debate is Israeli street foods.
It’s not an exaggeration that in the greater downtown areas of most Israeli cities and towns, there are street food kiosks on every corner! These offer a wide variety of foods for visitors and natives alike.
Many of these foods have crossed the ocean and appear in North American cities, but one might ask what are the real street foods of Israel and what is their origin?
Chickpeas are among the oldest cultivated plants and native to northern Persia. They are a staple of peasant cooking, a source of cheap protein and have been in the diets of Jews of the Mediterranean and North Africa for centuries.
Chickpeas form the basis of humus and falafel. “Israelis hold hummus in such high regard that it is rarely made at home. Instead it is savored—or rather worshipped—at a favorite hummusia,” writes Janna Gur in The Book of New Israeli Food.
Hummus is one of Israel’s national foods because it is “filling, nutritious and cheap” and requires no forks and knives just “pita bread and an expert wrist.”
To the cooked mashed chick peas are added garlic, salt, cumin, lemon juice and tahini. Humus is then spooned onto a plate with tahini in the center and olive oil and chopped parsley added as a garnish. Scoop it up off the plate with pita and enjoy!
Tahini or tahina or tchina is from the Arabic word meaning ground because it is ground sesame seeds. As a dip, tchina is then combined with ice cold water, lemon juice, crushed garlic and salt. Tchina is eaten with pita.
Felafel probably came from Egypt where it was created by Egyptian Christian Copts who served up this dish with fava beans during Lent when meat was not eaten.
It is a combination of chick peas, garlic, parsley, lemon juice, cumin, coriander, salt and pepper. Sometimes burgul, dry bread crumbs and eggs are added. The mixture is shaped into small balls, often popped into deep oil to fry by a gadget called a falafel maker which scoops up the mixture and then releases it into the oil.
Felafel is served inside a half or whole pita with your choice of salads, sauces, dill pickle, tchina, sometimes eggplant and sometimes French fries.
One street food which Israelis claim they invented or brought from Iraq is sabikh. Sabakh means morning in Arabic. In fact, it is pita stuffed with deep-fried eggplant, boiled egg, potatoes, tchina, tomatoes, onions and parsley. It is often topped with ambah, an Indian mango pickle.
Two very typical Israeli foods, particularly in Middle Eastern restaurants are Shashlik and kebab. These words are often used interchangeably, although they mean something different. Shashlik are pieces of meat put on a skewer and grilled; kebab is ground meat combined with parsley, onions and garlic and wrapped around a skewer and grilled.
Shwarm is the Turkish word for grilled. See that large, vertical rotating spit? Boned turkey is cooked on it, sometimes with lamb fat on the top for flavoring. Pieces are then shaved off and served inside pita or laffa, the pizza-size pita, as a wrap and served with salads.
I happen to have a very strong stomach, but one of my favorite foods (and one of my husband’s) is mixed grill. This is done on the street and in restaurants and consists of chicken livers, hearts, regular chicken, onions, paprika and a special spice blend very quickly stir fried and often stuffed into pita.
Burekas are a stuffed, turnover-type pastry made from thin phylo dough spread on a cookie sheet, sprinkled with oil and sometimes filled with spinach, potatoes or butter before melted butter is spread on top and the whole pastry baked until brown and puffy then cut into squares.
One cannot forget nuts and seeds, freshly roasted—sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chick peas, pistachio nuts and more are favorites from the street vendors.
Cafes are very popular in Israel, practically on every corner. Most, if not all, are dairy and some even serve alcoholic beverages. Two of the most popular coffee drinks are café afukh and ice café.
Café afukh means upside down coffee. It was probably given this name because originally a small amount of coffee was added to the milk.
Today, café afukh is the same as cappuccino. Interestingly enough, German Jews who came in large numbers in the 1930s brought the concept of a small amount of coffee with a lot of milk, otherwise known as café au lait.
Ice café has two meanings in Israel. One is what we might call slush or crushed ice with coffee or coffee flavoring added; the other is actual coffee with ice cubes added.
In winter, a drink which originated in the Arab countries has come into Israel, served from very large brass or silver containers. The drink is Sahleb. which is made from the flour of ground tubers of orchids, possibly with rose water added; sometimes milk and sugar are also added. What emerges is a starchy, cream of wheat-thick drink, eaten with a spoon, garnished with coconut, crushed pistachio nuts and cinnamon.
On street corners and throughout the markets are places offering freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable drinks in varying sizes.
Whatever you choose to eat, whether standing at a kiosk or walking along the street, you will find these street foods reasonably priced, plentiful and healthy as well.
Author Bio: Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, food writer, lecturer and cookbook author. She also leads walks though Machaneh Yehudah, the Jewish produce market in English.