Rooted in regional and continental influences with a dash of traditional Mizrahi, Sephardic, and Ashkenazi flavors, Israeli cuisine is a collection of ever-evolving delicacies developed by a long-wandering people who are now living in a young and burgeoning nation.
Traditional Israeli food isn’t only tied to Jewish holidays like Passover and Shavuot, or relegated to Israeli BBQ. The Israeli culinary scene is robust and thriving, ranging from classic street food to upscale restaurants. Suffice to say, many Israeli food trends have made their way to America, influencing how we eat in the US.
Interestingly, some of the modern-day star ingredients of Israeli cuisine like pomegranates, dates, figs, and olives were also all the rage in biblical times: “What’s old is new again,” writes The Atlantic. “Perhaps the best rule for creating a national cuisine is to look first at what your land can provide you, and then go from there.”
Now that you’re getting hungry, let’s take a look at some traditional Israeli food recipes, as well as modern American variations you can make at home.
As food blogger Liz Reuven of “Kosher Like Me” so rightly points out, you know the influence of Israeli cuisine reaches far and wide “when hummus becomes a culture and freekeh is sold at Whole Foods.” A delicious and nutritious dip, hummus actually has ties to 13th century Egypt and is now a Mediterranean mainstay. It has also grown immensely popular in the US among Jews and non-Jews alike.
Hummus is great for dipping pita or veggies, whether it’s a simple traditional hummus with chickpeas or a zesty twist with walnuts or pinto beans. Some modern American variations have even gone as far to add avocado cilantro, roasted red pepper or pumpkin. But why settle on one type of hummus when this tri-color hummus recipe from blogger Jamie Geller has three.
Often adding a savory spice to hummus and other Middle Eastern recipes, traditional Israeli tahini is a distinctive paste made of sesame seeds, lemon, garlic, and olive oil. The seeds have been ground for tahini since ancient times in different areas of the world, including India and Ethiopia.
In the US and beyond, chefs are finding innovative modern uses for tahini at meals including breakfast (waffles with tahini), lunch (creamy broccoli tahini soup), and dessert (tahini scones). But let’s face it, it doesn’t get more American than a Tahini Frappuccino.
Today, you can’t visit the Jewish homeland without trying the popular street food, falafel. A tasty meat replacement made with fried chickpeas or fava beans, authentic falafel is a craveable treat. You can’t eat just one bite.
With the help of creative culinary minds, traditional falafel has morphed from balls into sliders and full-size burgers as well as falafel masterpieces by American and Israeli chefs. There are even recipes for unexpected occasions like Hannukaah (falatkes) and dessert (chocolate falafel).
Brought to Israel by Libyan and Tunisian Jewish immigrants, classic shakshuka (Arabic for “a mixture”) is a popular poached eggs in tomato sauce dish that’s spiced with a combination of chili peppers, onions, cumin, za’atar, paprika, cayenne pepper, and/or coriander. You can find it during brunch in a Tel Aviv cafe or cook it in the kitchen at home.
Red or green, baked or stovetop, easy or difficult, some say the key to shakshuka is the sauce. Modern variations incorporate all sorts of ingredients like garbanzo beans and spaghetti squash. For a hearty breakfast, how about some “huevos shakshukos,” a traditional Israeli food with a Mexican twist? Or you could eat it for dinner—we won’t judge.
In some places in America, people will call anything leafy topped with Ranch dressing a salad. As for traditional Israeli salad, that’s a different story. Made with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, bell peppers, lemon juice, olive oil, tahini, and zaatar, this classic chopped salad is a delicacy made everywhere in Israel.
Of course, you can’t have a classic without some modern variations like a Beefed Up Israeli Salad (no actual beef included) or Israeli Fruit Salad. Also on the sweet and modern side: Eggplant Maple and Soy Sauce Salad. Or now that quinoa is kosher, how about a One Bowl Summer Salad with quinoa, peaches, and mint lime dressing.
A Middle Eastern favorite, shawarma is a popular street food in Israel. Thin cuts of lamb, chicken, beef, or mixed meats are stacked on a vertical rotisserie, then sliced and served on pita.
Modern variations offer healthier carbless alternatives, without pita, like Chicken Shawarma Lettuce Wraps, Shawarma Stuffed Peppers, Grilled Chicken Shawarma Salad and Chicken Shawarma Sheet Pan Dinner.
Introduced to Israelis by Iraqi Jews, the traditional Israeli sabich (or sandwich) contains fried eggplant, egg, hummus, Israeli salad, mango pickle, and various condiments in a pita. Another street food classic, it is often eaten on Shabbat.
Speaking of latkes, they weren’t always for Chanukah. According to PBS, they actually descended from Italian pancakes and were first associated with Jews in the 1300s. Potato latkes, such as this tasty recipe from Birthright Israel alumna Aliaksandra Sukharuchkin, originated with Ashkenazi Jews in the 1800s.
How about some not-so-traditional latkes? You can make these yummy fried pancakes with anything from butternut squash to salami, even crispy rice. Sriracha lovers will love topping potato latkes with this Sriracha Cheddar Sauce or better yet, you can ditch the potatoes altogether and opt for Ramen Latkes with Sriracha Mayo. It’s a rare occurrence for Hanukkah and Thanksgiving to overlap, but next time it does you can be prepared with Spiced Sweet Potato Latkes.
Nutritious, sweet, and almost as divisive as gefilte fish (some people love it, some people don’t), halvah is derived from the Arabic word halwa (sweet confection). Originating in the 12th century, it spread across the Middle East and eventually reached Israel. Israeli halvah is widely made in a variety of flavors and distributed throughout Israel and the world.
Halvah is perfect the way it is, but that hasn’t stopped chefs from finding new ways to make it trendy. Restaurants have incorporated it into their menus by blending it into all sorts of foods from ice cream to cookies. There are also many ways to make halvah at home or to incorporate it into other recipes such as Halvah & Ricotta Stuffed Figs. For something both sweet, savory, and sophisticated try this Salted Chocolate Halva Recipe.
Do you have the key to the most heavenly hummus, tasty tahini, and scrumptious shawarma? Be sure to share your recipes, both traditional and modern. We might even post it on our blog.