No Israel tour is complete without sampling the culinary delights of Middle Eastern food. In Israel, eating is a popular pastime, and for many, the basic Middle Eastern dishes are the favorites, and ideal for a relaxed afternoon meal with friends or a quick snack. Middle Eastern food is simple, hearty and fresh, and vegetarians and meat lovers alike will surely find something to excite the palate, from skewers of grilled meats to falafel in a pita.
Without a doubt, the most important Middle Eastern dish in Israel is hummous. Made of ground chickpeas, tehina (ground sesame seeds), lemon juice and garlic, hummous is a simple yet earthy and filling dish, and it’s even healthy. Many Middle Eastern restaurants serve hummous with ful (fava beans), whole chickpeas or slices of boiled egg, and, most importantly, a generous squirt of good quality olive oil. Every corner of the country offers a plethora of hummous joints, where diners start their meals by “wiping a plate” of hummous with fresh pita.
The Salad Course
Like the Lebanese meze, many Israeli restaurants will begin a meal with a dazzling array of salads, from falafel, fried balls made of chickpeas and spices; to tehina, usually garnished with parsley and lemon juice; labane, a local type of thick yogurt garnished with parsley and zatar; matbucha, a spicy dip made from tomatoes, peppers, oil and garlic; a number of eggplant dishes, as well as various pickled vegetable salads.
Grilled meat restaurants, known as a ‘shipudiya,’ abound in Israel, serving ‘shipudim’ -- skewers of beef, chicken and other specialties cooked over a brazier – as well as other grilled dishes such as chicken breasts and beef steaks. There are also the street corner eateries serving shwarma – small pieces of spiced lamb or turkey shaved off a rotating cylinder of meat, and served inside a pita with all the salad and hummous fixings.
Where to Eat
Recommending the best ‘shipudiya’ is a tough business, as everyone has their favorite place. Still, the recommendations below are all well-established and respected restaurants. Many of the best grilled meat and hummous restaurants are owned and run by Arabs and do not have a kosher certificate, although they do not serve game, pork or seafood.
Not surprisingly, Jerusalem’s Old City is full of Middle Eastern restaurants. Abu Taher, at 16 Butcher’s Market just off the Cardo, is a good example of a well known hummous joint. In Jerusalem, try Bibi, a shipudiya restaurant in the Talpiot industrial zone, or Baba, a hummous hangout with branches in Talpiot and on Emek Refaim.
Abu Ghosh, a Christian Arab village west of Jerusalem and just off the road to Tel Aviv, has many excellent Middle Eastern restaurants that are very popular with Israeli day trippers. The Lebanese Restaurant at the entrance to the village serves a wide range of Middle Eastern dishes and is very popular. In the middle of the village are the two Abu Shukri restaurants, both known for their tasty hummous.
In the Tel Aviv area, try Abu Hassan at 14 Shivtei Israel in Jaffa, with hummous that is held in high esteem among Israelis. Knafeh, at 53 Sderot Chen near Rabin Square in central Tel Aviv, is a good all-round Middle Eastern restaurant. Finally, Hummus Ashkara, at 45 Yermiyahu Street in north Tel Aviv, is an old favorite for many.