When speaking of Israeli food, it’s interesting to consider what’s actually meant by that. As Israel itself is a relatively young state, with most of its population being second- or third-generation immigrants to the region, its food culture is something of a melting-pot.
Due to its location and sizable Arab population, many popular Israeli foods are Levantine classics that can also be found in the cuisines of neighboring states in the region. The rest of the Israeli foods have been transported from other parts of the world by different waves of immigrants, or are the result of these cultures mixing with one another.
The major outside regional influences on the food culture of Israel come from Ashkenazi Jews who migrated from Europe (particularly Poland and the Balkans), Sephardic populations from North Africa, as well as Ethiopian and Yemenite communities.
This means that Israel, especially given its relatively small size and population, possesses one of the most diverse and exciting palates in the world when it comes to its cuisine. Traveling Israel and sampling the Jewish state’s most popular flavors is, in many ways, a mini-tour of the world! The history of the nation can be read through its food, with regional Middle East cuisine being served alongside dishes brought by European and North African immigrants.
The world tour doesn’t end there, though, as in recent years the popularity of East Asia as a travel destination for Israelis has led to an explosion of Thai, Japanese, and exciting Asian-fusion cooking that should feature on any foodie’s bucket list.
Being a Jewish state, food plays an important role in the culture. Many holidays have specific meals and rituals revolving around food that have been observed for centuries or even thousands of years! Shabbat dinner, which falls on Friday night, is an important weekly meal for which many Jews—both religious and secular—gather with their loved ones.
With such a vibrant food culture, offering so much to try, it can be hard to choose where to begin. Luckily, Israel is saturated with culinary experts—whether they be in restaurants, market stalls, or at home in the kitchen! Here we’ll make things a little bit easier by delving into the 25 most popular must-try foods Israel has to offer.
Israeli Street Foods
Israel offers many cheap and tasty foods that can be eaten on the go.
First things first, it would be impossible to speak of Israeli cuisine without diving deep into a discussion about hummus. Considered a national dish, Israelis are remarkably passionate about their hummus. Asking locals where to find the best hummus has been known to spark some heated debates!
Personal preference will define which hummus spot is the best, as there are many variations between recipes. It’s best to sample around and discover your own preference for consistency and prominence of flavors such as garlic, lemon, and tahini.
Served warm and fresh with a heap of pita bread, hummus makes for a healthy and filling lunch option. Sample as much as you can, as there’s not a hummus joint in Israel that will disappoint!
Another quick and tasty lunch food that can be picked up on almost any street corner is the Israeli classic sabich. Sabich consists of a pita or laffa stuffed with deliciously fried eggplants and, often, boiled eggs.
Common additions to a sabich sandwich include parsley-tomato salad, amba, and tahini. Its eggplant stuffing makes sabich a great option for a quick and healthy vegetarian lunch.
Falafel is a staple of many Levantine food cultures, and Israel is no exception. Balls of deliciously fried chickpea flour and herbs, fresh falafel are a flavor experience to behold. Falafel can be ordered by themselves, or in a sandwich or wrap.
Falafel sandwiches are served in a fresh pita with hummus and tahini, and an assortment of delicious accompaniments that vary from place to place. The most common add-ons to a falafel sandwich are Israeli salad, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs. It’s recommended to try as many of these great veggie option as you can, as each place makes its own unique falafel.
Found in bakeries and markets, bourekas are a Sephardic baked good, consisting of a deliciously flaky exterior of filo or puff pastry, stuffed with a variety of fillings.
The most common flavors of bourekas in Israel are potato, cheese, and spinach. Some places will get more creative with their fillings and add meat, but one of the most popular bourekas flavors is actually pizza!
Another beloved dish of Israel is the classic shawarma wrap. Consisting of freshly baked laffa bread stuffed with meat, hummus, tahini, and salad, shawarma is one of the cheapest and most filling options when it comes to eating out in Israel.
The meat filling—typically chicken, turkey, or lamb—is cooked to perfection on a rotisserie over multiple hours. When combined with a variety of fillings, shawarma is the perfect filling lunch, although many Israelis enjoy it as a late-night snack on their way back from a night out.
Israeli Home cooking
Some of the best Israeli foods are those typically found in a home kitchen. Israelis love to host, so try to get yourself invited to a Shabbat dinner or keep an eye out for any of these when they pop on a restaurant menu!
Originating in Yemen, jachnun was brought to Israel by its Yemenite community and has since become a national favourite. Typically only eaten on Saturdays, jachnun is a thick pastry dish that requires a whole day of cooking beforehand. Traditionally, jachnun is served with a helping of crushed tomatoes and hard boiled eggs.
A delicious Sephardic recipe originating in Libya, chraime is a spicy stew of fish cooked with tomatoes. The word “chraime” in fact comes from the Arabic word for “hot”. Typically enjoyed as part of the Shabbat dinner on Friday night, chraime is usually served alongside a fresh loaf of Challah bread.
8. Chicken soup
A staple of Ashkenazi cuisine is a traditional chicken soup. Every kitchen will have its own unique recipe for chicken soup, but most feature chicken meat slow-cooked alongside an assortment of vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and celery.
One must-try add-on to chicken soup is shkedei marak, or “soup almonds.” These tasty little croutons are a crunchy addition to a heartwarming bowl of home-cooked chicken soup.
Kubbeh is a classic Middle Eastern dish that is popular in Israel mainly with Iraqi Jews. Kubbeh comes in many forms, but the most basic consists of a dough of bulgur flour and crushed pine nuts, stuffed with a variety of delicious fillings.
Either fried or boiled in a soup of beetroot or okra, the most common filling for kubbeh is minced meat. Keep an eye out, though, as some places offer vegetarian options or their own unique take on this market classic.
Known locally in Hebrew as chamin, cholent is a popular Jewish stew that is cooked overnight and usually eaten for lunch on Saturdays. Cholent is a hearty dish made up of beef, potatoes, beans, and hard-boiled eggs. Dishes such as cholent and jachnun are cooked overnight and kept warm for Saturday, as Judaism forbids cooking on a Saturday.
Mujaddara is a popular dish that was brought to Israel from Syria and Egypt. A rice dish that’s packed with lentils and fried onion, mujaddara is a great high-protein option for vegans. There are many variations, with some mujaddara recipes incorporating various types of meat or yogurt.
Those with a sweet tooth have a lot to look forward to when visiting the Holy Land!
A classic dessert in many Levantine cuisines, halva is a sweet dish made from sesame paste. The name halva comes from the Arabic word for candy, and halva can be purchased fresh at many markets and supermarkets. Being made from sesame, halva has a high protein content, meaning you don’t have to feel guilty about this sweet treat!
Malabi is a sweet, milky snack that is a very popular dessert option across Israel. Consisting of a base of milky jelly topped with rosewater jelly and crushed nuts, malabi is a dessert that is as light as it is refreshing. The best malabi in Israel can probably be found in the Arab quarters of Jaffa, and makes for the perfect dessert on a hot day.
Rugelach is Israel’s answer to the croissant. These tasty little puff pastries come with a filling of either chocolate or cinnamon and can be found fresh in just about every bakery across the country.
Knafeh is a must-try Arab desert. Best eaten fresh from a bakery, knafeh consists of a creamy base topped with delicious little pastry shavings, all garnished with crushed nuts and a sweet syrup. While perfectly tasty on its own, knafeh also goes wonderfully with ice cream on the side, if you’re feeling an extra sweet craving!
Somewhat similar to rugelach, babka is a delicious and comforting sweet bread best enjoyed for dessert. Originating in Jewish communities of Poland and Ukraine, babka is a sweet bread stuffed with chocolate that makes for the perfect accompaniment to an Israeli black coffee.
If you get peckish between restaurant visits and trips to the market, then have a try of these classic Israeli snack foods.
Bamba is Israel’s most beloved snack food, and the mere mention of it lights up the face of any Israeli—young or old. A puffy corn snack with the flavor of peanuts, Bamba is a tasty treat that many would regard as a national delicacy.
Bageleh are tasty little Israeli pretzels that come in a variety of fun shapes. Simple, tasty, and classic snacks, they’re perfect for taking along on a hike or a day of traveling to snack on.
Olives are one of the major agricultural exports of Israel, and no trip to the Holy Land would be complete without sampling its many delicious varieties. Grown by many Israelis in their back gardens, the local market is a great place to find a wide variety of locally produced olives that will make for a delicious and healthy snack.
Dates are a staple food for many Levantine cuisines, and Israel is no exception. The dates grown in Israel are particularly sweet and delicious, and not to mention, incredibly healthy. Israel, in fact, is home to the world’s second-largest date field!
Israeli Holiday Foods
Pay attention to any Jewish holidays that might coincide with your visit to Israel, as many of them have special foods that will be hard to find at other times throughout the year!
Hamantaschen are a holiday treat that can be found in bakeries around Israel to celebrate the Jewish festival of Purim. The name derives from the Purim celebration of victory over Haman, an official of the Persian Empire who sought to rid Persia of the Jews in the biblical Book of Ruth. These little triangular pastries are usually served with a filling of either poppy seed or chocolate.
The most beloved treat of Hanukkah, sufganiyot are jam-filled donuts that come served with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Children and adults alike go nuts for these tasty desserts.
Latkes, also known as levivot in Hebrew, are a classic dinner meal in the cuisine of Ashkenazi Jews. Little fried pancakes made from shaved potato, these tasty patties make up a staple of the Hanukkah menu.
Challa is a fluffy, slightly sweet Jewish bread that can be found on every Shabbat dinner table. Challa is eaten as an accompaniment to any important meal and should be picked up fresh from the local bakery. Baked in a distinctive plait shape, it’s a tradition to tear off pieces using your hand, instead of slicing.
25. Matzo Ball Soup
A holiday food traditional to Ashkenazi cuisine, matzo ball soup is a staple of the Passover spread. It’s a heartwarming soup containing matzo balls, which are made from combined mazzah flour and eggs. These little balls soak up the flavor of the soup and will instantly make you feel at home.