Holy land, heavenly food: A culinary tour through Israel

Moroccan-inspired dishes cooked by Shoshana Karbasi in Ein Karem outside Jerusalem. Photograph by Evan S. Benn.
Moroccan-inspired dishes cooked by Shoshana Karbasi in Ein Karem outside Jerusalem. Photograph by Evan S. Benn.

You’ll never forget your first trip to Israel, especially if you keep a journal of your travel memories. That’s what I did in 1995 when, a few weeks before my 13th birthday, I went there with my family, to become a bar mitzvah atop Masada, the historic desert fortress.

I brought that same journal with me when I recently returned to Israel this year, alternating between reading the old passages and writing new ones. My unintelligible cursive then and now notwithstanding, what a difference 22 years makes. Those 1995 entries were filled with wide-eyed impressions of history and religious lessons come to life. The pages from the recent trip with my wife have more words dedicated to divine food than to sacred sites.

Regardless of your tourist desires, and even without a travel journal, a vacation to Israel is not one you’ll soon forget. It’s easier than ever to get there now that El Al resumed its nonstop Miami-Tel Aviv route (from $1,000 roundtrip). I’ll spare you the musings of 12-year-old me, but here’s a peek into my journal from our latest visit to help you plot your eating tour through the land of milk and honey.

Best Tel Aviv Restaurants and Market Finds

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Chef Eyal Shani is credited with starting a worldwide cauliflower craze with his whole-roasted version at North Abraxas in Tel Aviv. Photograph by Anatoly Michaello.

Israeli soldiers are smoking after-lunch cigarettes and international Birthright students are mingling outside North Abraxas when we arrive for a snack. A U-shaped bar looks into an open kitchen, and cooks periodically light bowlfuls of sage on fire to refresh the air. Chef Eyal Shani is credited with igniting a global cauliflower craze, and his original version here — roasted whole, its charred leaves and head scattered with sea salt — is simple, straightforward cooking at its finest. Ditto an appetizer of fat Jericho green beans, snappingly fresh under a light sheen of lemon juice and garlic. 

Restaurateur Ofra Ganor’s beachside flagship, Manta Ray, draws locals and visitors alike. They come for her wildly varied meze selections and super-fresh fish. From a serving tray with about a dozen options, we picked cold salmon with Italian parsley, charred octopus with white beans, and roasted okra with tomato to accompany local sea bream, the whole-roasted catch of the day.   

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Meze at Manta Ray. Photograph by Evan S. Benn.

We toured the Carmel Market with Inbal Baum, a U.S. expat and former attorney who runs the culinary company Delicious Israel. She led us to the city’s Yemenite quarter, on the outskirts of the market, and to Shlomo & Doron. Making hummus since 1937, Shlomo & Doron gets everything right, from slightly warm, impossibly smooth chickpea dip to fluffy, pillowy pita to swipe it up. It’s also one of the few spots to find an unorthodox but otherworldly combination of shakshuka served in a hummus-lined bowl — creamy, acidic and brilliant. 

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Shakshuka in a hummus-lined bowl at Shlomo and Doron near the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. Photograph by Evan S. Benn.

Global food halls have found their way to Israel, and two of the newest are in Tel Aviv. Rothschild Allenby Market and Sarona Market attract young, in-the-know eaters who come to nosh on everything from Japanese ramen to South African curries to Georgian breads.      

North of Tel Aviv, near the foot of Mount Carmel, the family-run Tishbi Winery pairs wine flights with high-end Valrhona chocolates. Behind the tasting room, an on-site bakery pulls warm raisin challahs and lush cheesecakes from a wood-fired oven, and — on Fridays before sundown — a food truck parked out back smokes the best barbecue brisket I’ve tasted outside St. Louis. 

At a Druze village atop Mount Carmel, a guide explained the ancient faith and its traditions over a table-bending feast of rice pilaf, stuffed grape leaves, lamb sausage, roasted eggplant, baklava, tea and spiced coffee. 

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Pilaf from a Druze village in Mount Carmel. Photograph by Evan S. Benn.

Go to Acre or Akko for Uri Buri and the Efendi Hotel

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A table of food at Uri Buri includes salmon sashimi with wasabi sorbet. Photograph by Sivan Askayo.

Chef, restaurateur and hotelier Uri Jeremias has put the peaceful port city of Acre (also spelled Akko) in northern Israel on the world’s culinary map. His long-running Uri Buri — TripAdvisor’s No. 1 restaurant in the Middle East — is located just down the street from the Efendi Boutique Hotel. Jeremias opened the 12-room Efendi five years ago in a refurbished Ottoman palace that melds historic elements like a Crusader-era wine cellar and original ceiling frescos with modern luxuries.

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Uri Jeremias is the proprietor of Uri Buri Seafood Restaurant and Efendi Boutique Hotel in Akko, also spelled Acre. Photograph by Sivan Askayo. Sivan Askayo

The Efendi’s rooftop is a prime perch to take in a Mediterranean sunset before strolling over to Uri Buri. A tasting menu shows off house favorites — thinly sliced salmon with wasabi sorbet is classic — as well as whatever’s outrageously fresh that day. For us, that was raw anchovies brined in seawater, pan-seared scallops with seaweed and a touch of cream, and shrimp with artichokes and a squeeze of lemon.

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A room at the Efendi.

We retired to the Efendi for a restful sleep in superb linens, only to wake up to more food. Shakshuka, rich jams, freshly squeezed juices, housemade lebneh and warm breads are fortification for a day of touring or traveling.

Where to Eat, Stay and Shop in Jerusalem, Israel

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A vendor offers a sample of halvah at Machne Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Photograph by Evan S. Benn.

Machane Yehuda Market is the beating heart of Jerusalem’s culinary soul. More than 250 stalls hawking everything from fruits and spices to halvah and cheese come together in a maze of activity that crescendos on Fridays as shoppers prepare for the sabbath.

Merav Oren, whose Open Restaurants connects food lovers with chefs through workshops, cooking demonstrations, panel talks and tours, led us through the market, coaxing choice samples — tahini, dried nuts, herbal juices, Turkish meatballs — from her favorite vendors.

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Market sweets. Photograph by Evan S. Benn.

At night, the produce stands close their shutters — revealing colorful commissioned graffiti art — and the craft beer bars, cocktail joints and late-night food kiosks come alive. Machane Yehuda is the birthplace of the Jerusalem Mixed Grill, a street food for the brave: griddled bits of cumin-seasoned chicken hearts, livers, onions and peppers stuffed in a pita. I liberally splashed mine with amba, a pickled mango hot sauce, and felt like I’d won the night.

Through Israel’s Women and Tales in Jerusalem Project, local women from varied backgrounds invite visitors into their homes to learn about their cultures and traditions. On one delicious morning, we walked door to door in Ein Karem, being welcomed with mint tea and warm smiles like we were old friends.

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Moroccan-inspired dishes cooked by Shoshana Karbasi in Ein Karem outside Jerusalem. Photograph by Evan S. Benn.

Shoshana Karbasi, whose ancestry is Moroccan and Spanish, told us about the poetry readings she hosts on the rooftop terrace of her centuries-old house while offering us rose water-scented sweets. Kineret Leibovitz Botil, a dancer and descendant of Yemenites, fed us pull-apart bread with her father’s spicy zhug in her home, built around an old olive press — the millstone is her living-room table. Hadar Kliedman, who leads a biblical lifestyle devoid of modern conveniences, showed us how she stain-dyes hand-shorn wool in pomegranate and other natural solutions before weaving it on a loom. And Dalia Harfoof, of Kurdish lineage, promptly took our hands and led us in a joyous dance before teaching us how to make kubbe, a beet and dumpling stew that’s a typical dish of Iraqi Jews.

The ideally situated David Citadel Hotel is steps from The Eucalyptus, just outside the Jaffa Gate to the Old City. Chef-owner Moshe Basson cooks new-school takes on decidedly old-school cuisine. Known as Israel’s Biblical Chef, Basson builds his Eucalyptus menu on wild herbs, native ingredients and ancient recipes. Figs filled with minced chicken, and slow-cooked lamb neck with root vegetables under a dome of baked dough, were highlights of the family-style Queen of Sheba tasting menu.               

It’s a taxi ride from the hotel to Mona, where rustic comforts like polenta with mushrooms and chicken livers with date honey are elevated to fine dining. We popped into the Mamilla Hotel’s rooftop bar for a nightcap overlooking the Old City before returning to the David Citadel next door. 

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Foie gras on semolina honey cake with wild berry coulis was on a recent tasting menu at Machneyuda restaurant in Jerusalem. Photograph by Evan S. Benn.

A proper Israeli culinary tour should wrap at Machneyuda. Situated just outside the market (“machneyuda” is the locals’ nickname for Machane Yehuda), chef Uri Navon and his crew showcase modern creativity and classic techniques through locally sourced ingredients and dishes that are shaped by the area’s history.

We plowed through nearly the entire menu while overlooking the action from Navon’s kitchen counter. He sent us off with a piece of seared foie gras — an unusual appearance on a dessert course — atop his mom’s semolina honey cake with a spoonful of wild berry coulis. A sweet end — and a reminder not to wait 22 years before coming back.

Israel: Beyond Food

  • Maskit. A former Alexander McQueen designer has revived this Israeli luxury fashion house, which runs a showroom in the Old Jaffa area of Tel Aviv.
  • Israel Museum. The national museum in Jerusalem showcases multidisciplinary works from Israeli and international artists. Showing through early March: Dan Reisinger’s graphic and innovative In Full Color and Ai Weiwei’s Maybe, Maybe Not, the artist’s first time showing in Israel. 
  • Old City. Home to some of Jerusalem’s most religiously significant sites, including the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock. A bustling market spans the Old City’s Muslim and Christian quarters.
  • Tower of David Museum. The 45-minute Night Spectacular, a light and sound show projected onto the Tower’s excavated walls, tells the story of Jerusalem.
  • Bahá’í Gardens. The Bahá’í faith’s World Centre is located in Haifa, just outside Acre, and is home to spectacularly manicured terraced gardens.
  • Caesarea National Park. The ancient port town midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa — full of affluent neighborhoods and an international golf course — displays archeological finds and hosts shows at its Roman theater.