Israel is home to people of different backgrounds and cultures, and if there’s any one thing that can bring them together, it’s a good meal. In fact, a vibrant mesh of global traditions has created a culinary landscape for hungry locals and travelers alike. Whether it’s street food vendors in Galilee, hidden hole-in-the-wall eateries in the countryside, or gourmet dining experiences in Tel Aviv, a delicious meal is never out of reach. Think mounds of roasted, raw, and pickled vegetables, salty cheeses, an abundance of spiced legumes, freshly baked breads, and eggs poached to perfection.
Though the cuisine is expansive and the options endless, there are certainly some must-try dishes for your first trip to this rich, gastronomic region. Don’t miss these 15 on your next trip:
Pita, Israeli Salad, and Tahini Sauce
No matter where or what you’re eating in Israel, you’re bound to see these three staples on the table. First, it’s warm pockets of pita used to scoop up dollops of hummus and soak up the last bits of juices from mains, or hold together sandwiches or wraps. Then it’s Israeli salad, with its chopped tomato, cucumber, onion, and peppers, that brightens up even the richest of shawarmas and fried schnitzel. And tahini sauce — a slurry of sesame paste, garlic, and lemon — gets drizzled on anything and everything from veggies to meats.
Falafel could easily be described as one of the cornerstones of Israeli cuisine, and it’s undoubtedly one of the most popular foods in the country. Balls of mashed garbanzo beans are mixed with fragrant herbs and spices, deep fried, and served alongside hummus and veggies or stuffed into pitas and slathered in sauces. Vegetarian, and usually vegan by nature, falafel is stellar street food that always hits the spot.
You simply haven’t had hummus until you’ve been to Israel. A dish with one of the most debated origins in the Middle East, this spread of garbanzos, tahini, lemon, and garlic is blended to creamy perfection and spooned into traditional wraps and sandwiches, or set alongside pita for a full scoop-crazed meal. In Israel, hummus is often served warm and topped with spices and nuts, raw and pickled veggies, and even hard boiled eggs.
There is no better way to wake up in Israel than with a steaming pan of shakshuka. Tunsian in origin, shakshuka is a stewed tomato, pepper, and garlic sauce with spices like cumin and coriander, and even a little chili depending on the cook. Eggs get poached inside the sauce as it finishes simmering, and then it’s garnished with parsley and eaten with pita, or even a little tahini sauce and Israeli salad. Hearty and warming, it’s a must-have staple breakfast or brunch food.
Sabich can be traced back to Iraqi Jews who made their way to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s and would eat this sandwich on their way to synagogue in a hurry, filling it with last night’s leftovers. A pita gets loaded up with fried eggplants, hard boiled eggs, chopped salad, and other cold ingredients on hand, such as potatoes. The sandwich gets topped off with parsley, tahini, and often a sweet and savory pickled mango sauce called amba.
Schnitzel immigrated along with German Jews who arrived in the area in the 1930s. You’ll find this dish on practically every menu throughout Israel, right alongside falafel and shakshuka. Israeli schnitzel differs from European schnitzel in that folks here use chicken or turkey instead of pork, and fry it in vegetable oil to keep things kosher. Try sesame-seed coated schnitzel with ketchup and mashed potatoes, or even sandwiched in a pita with a swipe of the country’s beloved hummus.
Another accompaniment to fresh pita bread, baba ghanouj (or baba ganoush) is a luscious side for savory dishes eaten all around Israel. Eggplants are charred on the outside, and the soft flesh is mashed and mixed up with tahini, olive oil, garlic lemon, and sometimes spices or parsley. It’s smoky, creamy, and totally addicting.
No one does shawarma like they do in Israel — it’s the ultimate street food. Turkey, chicken, lamb, or beef gets the slow-roast treatment on a revolving spit, and is then shaved off into thin, juicy slices and layered into a fluffy pita or laffa wrap. The toppings are endless here: pickles, tahini sauce, cabbage, Israeli salad, and amba all amp up a shawarma and make it uniquely Israeli.
Hamin, also called cholent, is a traditional Jewish beef stew with variations of potatoes, veggies, beans, barley, or other grains. The hearty, soul-warming dish is simmered overnight for 12 hours starting before Friday evening and eaten for lunch the next day so that those preparing and eating the dish may adhere to traditional Jewish law and refrain from igniting a fire on the Sabbath.
Also written borekas or bourekas, these flaky phyllo parcels are eaten all over the country. You’ll find them in markets, bakeries, and even convenient stores, stuffed with savory ingredients like potato, cheese, spinach, or mushrooms, and sprinkled with sesame. Order these baked golden beauties as a small snack or in a large size for a full meal, often served with hard boiled egg and tomatoes.
Pitas aren’t the only bread you’ll be munching on in Israel. Malawach is a pancake-like fried puff pastry and is a common breakfast or buttery snack, served with tomato, fried egg, and a spicy herb condiment called zhug. You can also roll it up and stuff it with veggies and hummus or go for a sweet version with a simple drizzle of honey.
You can’t do dessert in Israel without trying a piece of buttery, rich knafeh. A bright orange spun dough resembling vermicelli noodles is layered over mounds of decadent cheese, baked to a golden crunchy crisp, and then soaked in a rose water or orange syrup, and topped with pistachios. You’ll find knafeh served warm or cold and in all sorts of mouth-watering renditions around the country, with each culture and family adding their own twist.
Originally hailing from Turkey, malabi is a creamy and subtly sweet milk pudding made with rose water, pomegranate syrup, or raspberry syrup and topped with a mix of pistachios, pine nuts, or pomegranate seeds. Many Sephardic Jews break their Yom Kippur fast with a serving of malabi.
The mighty sesame seed even makes its way into Israeli desserts. Halva is a sesame-based sweet made with sugar or honey. The mixture forms a dense, crumbly texture that’s molded into large rounds and sliced off in slabs. Halva is treated much like a blank canvas for rich flavors and tastes. Toasted nuts, dried fruits, spices, chocolate, vanilla, and coffee are just the start.
Israel’s forward-facing food culture knows no bounds. With such a strong diverse culinary scene and a penchant for innovation, Israel has become the hub of cultivated meat and alternative protein technologies. Locals are embracing this modernized form of gastronomy and are anxious to make Israel a cultivated meat destination.
The next time you’re in Israel, there’s a good chance you’ll see a juicy cultivated steak alongside a mezze of creamy hummus and baskets of fresh pita. You don’t want to miss sinking your teeth into this.