Yes, I’m the sort of traveller who enters a country armed with a list of foods to try, an eating schedule and a walking map. Plus, I like to book myself on to a food and drink walking tour, it’s a great way to learn about the history of a place, while eating your way through their culture. After all, who wants to waste a meal – if you’re only in a city for a few days, that’s only maybe 8 meals, I want to make every scrumptious morsel count.
So, off we flew the rather long 5-hour flight to Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, just outside Tel Aviv, arriving at our hotel early evening (2-hours ahead). But that didn’t stop us – bags down, off we went for a little saunter to hunt down some good local food.
Amazingly enough we just happened to stumble on one of my listed foodie places, a small little pitta place run by a celebrity chef ‘Eyal Shani’, who gave gourmet cooking up to own his own pita shack, but these just happen to be the best pitas in Tel Aviv –
In Israel, the pittas are round and fluffy, they taste amazing and just pull apart, perfect to stuff or dip. Everywhere serves them and they have a certain way of stuffing – first they cut the top inch off. Cafe‘Miznon on Ibn Gvirolstreet saves those top pieces for 2 things, the first is the dipping corner, here you help yourself to, humus, tahini and tomato juice ‘who knew that sun ripped luscious tomatoes could be juiced to make the most amazing dip, ever!’, then you dip away with the off-cuts while you wait for your ‘Shawarma’ to be made. Kebabs are big all over the Middle East, succulent meat skewered over coals, alternatively you can have fried aubergine, smoky barbequed potato slices or deep fried crispy cauliflower.
The making of these beauties is what it’s all about, it’s not just a sandwich or a pitta it’s a thing of structured beauty to make the perfect bite.
The pitta is pulled open, the chef then begins to layer with humus, shredded salad, sliced juicy tomatoes, tahini, chopped parsley rich salad, your chosen filling, more tahini, some lettuce, maybe a charred spring onion and then some seasoned diced tomatoes, soaked in olive oil, all making moist moreish layered perfection.
The atmosphere in ‘Miznon’ was incredible, the staff were having a riot, we got free shots of local Aniseed liquor and then chef treated us to one of those off cuts of pita, filled with caramelized bananas and Nutella – – I was in Israeli foodie heaven and this was just our first night.
It’s worth noting the prices are roughly the same as the UK, you would imagine a trip to the Middle East cheaper but your credit card gets hit just as much as a trip to London. Everybody speaks English, everybody’s helpful, its completely safe to walk around anywhere, any time of the day or night – crime is low, it’s a religious ethical country. It’s a country with a huge history of conflict and ongoing disputes, so security’s tight, with dozens of national service soldiers wandering around with big guns – but despite all of this I felt safer than I have in many other country’s including London.
Most places have an English menu. You can buy ‘Shekels’ in the UK, to get you started it’s about 5 to the pound (4.45 to be precise), most places except credit cards, you can also get money from the banks for a better rate, there’s one fee per transaction so get more because there’ll soon change them back in the UK.
And be prepared to walk loads – Tel Aviv is a big place and its best seen by foot. You can walk from Old Jaffa town in the south to Tel Aviv port (food market & restaurants) in the North in a 1 hour 10 minutes and from the central coast West to East where you’ll find Serona market (food heaven) & Azraeli shopping center (chains & cafes), in the business district in 30 minutes. Buses run all over the city, you can google the routes and jump on with the locals for £1.20 per person per trip.
The next day was taken up with exploring, we headed straight off to Carmel Market, a street packed with mostly food stalls. Incredible Baklava, rustic breads, plump fruits and vegetables, colorful sweets, pink marinated herring, butcher stalls up the side streets, cafes nestled in between, street food vendors hawking kebabs, pastries a plenty and Brik.
Brik is an Arab flat bread pita, cooked on an upside-down wok, its usually filled with a cracked egg but you can have all sorts of goodies thrown in for around £4.
Look for Borek as well, these are Turkish pastries filled with spinach, egg, cheese, potato or a mix for £3 each, hot, tasty and filling. I got mine on Levinsky Street Market, another foody paradise, with dozens of spice sellers, cafes and more all but rustic. Tel Aviv has this Urban graffiti charm mixed with modern day high raised building sprawl, mixed with a dash of colonial.
Half way down Carmel market off to the right is what looks like a Synagogue, it’s Called ‘Hummous Ha Camel’ its infamous for just selling Humus and it’s the best around. For just under £3 you get a bowl of the stuff. Now Israeli humus isn’t like the supermarket stuff, its light and fluffy and so sumptuous with bags of tahini flavor (sesame seed paste). I had the ‘Ful’ version, that’s humus with a ladle full of hot brown bean stew, plus you get topping like raw onion (raw onion as a dip or sprinkled, is a life changer, your humus will never be the same) a good splash of olive oil, a spoon of chilli paste and your off with a bag of two pittas just enough to share for elevensies.
The people of Tel Aviv don’t say ‘let’s go out for humus’ they say ‘let’s go out and scoop’ – because that’s what you do, rip a piece of pita, open it up and scoop – it’s so smooth and definitely the best humus in the World.
Another great place to try on Camel market is ‘Shmuel Kebabs’, we went back a few days later. Also on my recommended list of places to tick off – A cool vibe café, tranquil from the rush of Camel market with friendly service in this amazing smoky Kebab place. Get your meat or grilled veggies plated with bread, salad and pickles or wrapped snuggly in to a pita for around £8. They also have a few sides like charred aubergines with tahini – the Middle East is the place for salads, they really know how to pack them with flavor, much helped by their sun dazzled crops, juicy and ripe from the local farms. If you don’t believe me look up ‘Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes, he’s the top Israeli food writer with a few fabulous restaurants in London, he’s a food hero in Tel Aviv.
Every good Israeli restaurant serves still home-made lemonade, freshly squeezed local lemons, served cold with some mint if you’re lucky, just like they do in ‘Moorish’ Falafel bar in Norwich. Mint teas also a favorite – I get my local mint tea kick from the ‘Workshop’ on Earlham Road, Norwich, if you’re lucky they might even have ‘Shakshuka’ on the menu and definitely humus. – – – – But back to Tel Aviv drinkies, there is also local Artisan beer and ‘Arak’ an aniseed liquor, alcohol is widely available, which may surprise you in a Middle Eastern country. But Israel is 80% Jewish & 20% Muslim, whom abstain.
We treated our self to some cocktails in The Imperial, craft cocktail bar and also The Norman Hotel, Library cocktail bar. Both amazing and highly recommended, The Norman was decadent in its exquisite art deco lounge area, while the Imperial was cool in its snug prohibition style hangout. Both had amazing cocktail menus, with original twists on classics for around £11 each.
Night time took us down to Jaffa’s old port a 30-minute stole from Tel Aviv central beach, watching the sun go down and enjoying the cool breeze after a sun scorched day. We chose ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ eating Al Fresco overlooking the harbor’, it’s a bit of a touristy gimmick but I liked the package. For around £25 per person you get 22 small bowls of mezze, cascaded on to your table with a massive basket of freshly baked flat bread. Local salads like Tabbouleh (bulghar wheat, tons of flat parsley with tomatoes and oil), local dips like humus and baba-ganoush (aubergine & tahini puree), to die for tomato salad (have I told you about Mediterranean & Middle Eastern Tomatoes, there like good chocolate to our doggy treats), plus a jug of lemonade, a choice of some fishy or kebab main, a coffee and some rather lovely sweet fritters soaked in syrup for dessert. My husband chose a fish called ‘Denis’, I don’t think that was his name, I later found out it was Sea Bream but from now on I’m calling it Denis. While I had the local blue crab – not a lot of meat, skinny little thing, but tasty enough (Cromer crabs win hands down).
All restaurants have vegetarian choices, you can even go on a Vegan food walking tour in Camel market. And with their good knowledge of English, all dietary needs can be catered for.
Food in Tel Aviv is incredible, there is over 1750 places to eat, I worked out you could go for 2 years eating day and night at a different place.
One local specialty originally from Iraqi Jews is the vegetarian dish of ‘Sabich’, which is traditionally eaten as a breakfast on ‘Shabbat’ the holy 7thday of the week – Saturday. It consists of Humus, tahini, aubergine, potato, egg and salad stuffed in to a pitta in layers and it was without doubt scrumptious, so much so we managed to have 2 of them while away, one version containing Falafel.
But the main breakfast dish is ‘Shakshuka’ eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce, you scoop it up with bread. We had that along with a lamb shawarma and pickles at ‘Benos’ on Rothschild Boulevard. Beno Gabso also owns Dr Shakshuka a well-known rustic cafe in Jaffa, not just because the foods fabulous but because Gabso’s become a bit of an internet celebrity – check out ‘Feed Phil’ in Tel Aviv on Net flix.
But what’s more than humus is ‘Mashawsha’ a warm chunky melt in your mouth chickpea dip with tahini, lemon and garlic and I’m so gutted I never found any on my trip – but then again that’s another reason for me to go back.
Another local specialty is ‘Malabi’ found from the street vendors in Jaffa, a milk based dessert seen in pots for around £3, they cover it with this sweet pink syrup and you can sprinkle on crushed nuts and coconut (hold the nuts). It tastes so much better than it sounds and is actually really refreshing to eat in the sun. But I can’t not mention the amazing Gelato shops all over Tel Aviv offering gorgeous flavors that taste just as good as the real stuff in Italy for around £2 per scoop. We stumbled upon ‘Legenda Gelato’ down Rothschild Blvd open until 3am.
‘Kanafa’ is another dessert worth a mention, you might find it on the breakfast buffet or in some restaurants, you can even buy it by the kilo on Camel Market – it’s Turkish in origin and is made with goey cheese and vermicelli pasta, soaked in sweet syrup – I know!, but it tastes out of this world. If you don’t believe me ‘Haggle’ in Norwich has it on their menu, it tastes so much better freshly made and Haggles is exceptional.
On our last night, we walked all the way up the beach to the port, it’s a massive area holding a day time farmers market and at night it bustles with restaurants and drinking venues. They all seemed a little too touristy for me so we wandered down one of the main streets to a local’s restaurant, eating al fresco and watching Israeli life go by. Tel Aviv’s always busy, there’s not many city’s that can support over a thousand cafes. Life’s busy with residents walking dogs, eating out, jogging up the promenade, zooming around on electric bikes and scooters (& on the road too!) It’s a hive of activity 24/7.
I chose Snitzel, apparently that’s an Israeli thing too – and another goodie you can eat locally in Norwich’s, Ruth’s Kitchen, dishing up decent Jerusalem street food down Magdalene Street, I’ve also heard they offer ‘Sabih’ / Sabich the one with falafel.
On our last morning, we went to ‘Benedict’ in the Serona complex, inside its bursting with food shops and street food vendors, a must for any foodie (like the Time-out ones popping up all over the world). But just outside the entrance is this Benedict specializing in all day Breakfasts 7 days per week, there’s a few in Tel Aviv. The full English, shakshuka, pancakes, gypsy toast, steak & eggs, guacamole on toast, amazing breads and juices and of course several varieties of eggs Benedict, which comes with a basket of bread, that bread! –oh, that bread dipped in to runny local jam and melting butter in the morning sun.
We then headed over to ‘Lehemim’ a small chain of Israeli bakers, a bakers like no other. This is a brilliant place for a casual bite, breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s like a bigger version of Timber Hill bakery in Norwich. You can sit down, take out or buy by weight – locals fill bags up of rolls, pastry’s and loaves. Everything looks and tastes incredible. They do a version of chocolate croissant, made with a chocolate paste and rolled in to a plain mini croissant shape – delicious. Incredible bakes that would make Paul Hollywood cry.
We loaded up for the journey and off we flew home again. Full, satisfied, sun kissed and a tad humus-ed-out.
Apart from the stunning street food, Tel Aviv boasts one of the top 10 beaches in the world. The people are friendly and welcoming to all regardless of religion or sexuality, its casual with places open until late, it has an incredible history with Jerusalem just an hour’s drive away, Jaffa within walking distance with its gorgeous medieval streets and Tel Aviv city, so young, just 100 years old but growing by the second in to a wonderful simmering pot of gorgeousness topped with Humus.
There’s something to see around every corner, but most of all something to eat on every street
– – – it’s an amazingly tasty place to visit.
By Zena Leech-Calton ©
Cookery Tutor & Food Writer