When the Israeli-born, London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi cranked out Ottolenghi: The Cookbook a few years ago, masses went weak in the knees for his vividly hued, vegetable-centric dishes. Suddenly, Americans discovered Israeli cuisine. Meanwhile on the restaurant front, Philly chef Michael Solomonov followed up his critically acclaimed Zahav, perhaps the country’s most revered haven for Israeli cooking, with the casual hummus spot Dizengoff. Recently, Solomonov and partner Steve Cook announced an expansion to NYC, nearly in tandem with the release of Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. Likewise, longtime John Besh disciple and recent James Beard Award winner Alon Shaya opened Shaya in New Orleans earlier this year, and his modern interpretations of Israeli dishes just garnered Esquire’s coveted title of “Best New Restaurant in America.”
When Combina, Taïm chef Einat Admony's Spanish-Israeli concept opens in NYC's SoHo soon, Israel will get yet another surge of limelight—as it should. Reflective of motley cultures, from Arab to Eastern European, this mash-up leads to a celebration of clean, vibrant, wholesome flavors. These are 10 of the must-know dishes illuminating a country known for one of the world’s most impressive street-food scenes.
Fewer folks would skip breakfast if their mornings could revolve around shakshuka. In Israel this hearty dish, which originated in North Africa, is an AM fixture. Served in a sizzling skillet, it’s a glorious mixture of eggs braised in a pepper and bay leaf–accented stew of tomatoes.
Where to Try It: Most Miamians hightail it to Zak the Baker for his confections. Before stocking up on the rugelach at this Wynwood favorite, it’s worth sitting down to the smoky shakshuka served with tahini and slabs of his perfectly dense bread.
Tubs of ready-made Sabra might come to the rescue of rainy-day hummus cravings, but it’s far more rewarding to dig pita into a from-scratch batch. That’s the norm in Israel, where restaurants churn out silky renditions of the staple spread. Melding dried (or canned if you must) chickpeas with tahini, olive oil, garlic and a burst of bright lemon juice, hummus can be accelerated by the addition of spices like paprika and sumac. Another common sight in Israel is msabbaha, an upscale, chunky riff on the dip embracing whole chickpeas.
Where to Try It: New Yorkers were revved to learn that Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook’s Philadelphia hummus den, Dizengoff, would soon land in Chelsea Market. The Rittenhouse Square hangout whips up different versions from Persian lamb to good-for-you carrots, but always alongside pickles and just-baked ethereal pita bread.
Egyptians might prefer it when made from fava beans, while health-conscious folks dig it in baked (sadly improperly crunchy) form, but Israelis relish their falafel deep-fried and spawned from dried chickpeas. Perhaps the country’s most iconic of eat-on-the-run dishes, these orbs, simply uniting onion, garlic, salt and spices like cumin, are most commonly nestled inside pita bread, accompanied by creamy sesame tahini, pickles and a shot of hot sauce.
Where to Try It: There are other sandwiches on the menu, but New Yorkers flock to Einat Admony and Stefan Nafziger’s Taïm for one of the three falafel variations: with roasted red pepper, spicy harissa or classic parsley and cilantro. Capping it off with amba, tangy pickled mango-fenugreek chutney, is a must.
Boreka, those crispy pockets of dough stuffed with cheese, spinach, potatoes and beef, pervade Turkey. They are just as entrenched in Israel’s gastronomy. Particularly savored during breakfast, the parcels are typically spawned from homemade dough. Time-strapped bakers, however, often find successful results with the help of filo dough.
Where to Try It: Israeli-style hand pies aren’t plentiful in the States, but can be found in certain no-frills bakeries. At Mighty Pie, in New York’s Union Square Park, they tempt in straightforward flavors such as mushroom, as well as an eyebrow-raising ham and cheese.
The sabich sandwich first found the spotlight by Iraqi Jews, who supposedly desired eating it on Shabbat morning. The vegetarian creation pairs discs of fried eggplant with slices of hard-boiled eggs underneath a mound of hummus, tahini and the ubiquitous crunchy Israeli salad.
Where to Try It: At the buzzy New Orleans newcomer Shaya, Alon Shaya highlights a gussied-up version with preserved mango, soft-cooked egg and pickles.
It doesn’t get simpler than a clean, refreshing mélange of raw, diced tomato and cucumber. This colorful chopped salad is a staple at the Israeli table, often part of breakfast feasts to boot. Flecked with herbs, it’s testament to the power of exquisite freshness.
Where to Try It: While it’s easy to get amped for the impending arrival of crispy grape leaves and charcoal-grilled lamb merguez at Philadelphia’s Zahav, Michael Solomonov encourages diners to kick off meals at his Society Hill shrine to refined Israeli cooking with an assortment of salads. The tried-and-true cucumber-tomato hybrid just might come to the table in the company of beets and tahini.
After shaving off shards of spiced meat — slow roasted for hours in a vertical spit — they are then tucked inside laffa bread while at their juicy best. This is the beauty of the shawarma, a cheap, filling ritual that especially satisfies in the wee hours. Although lamb once dominated this tasty genre of sandwich, an Arab fast-food mainstay, there are now plenty of chicken, beef and turkey renditions across Israel.
Where to Try It: No-frills Melrose Avenue joint Ta-Eem Grill is a favorite among LA’s late-night revelers. In between parties they find nirvana in hefty platters of messy, tender, chicken shawarma sandwiches. Brooklyn's Samesa does a Lebanese-inspired version at Berg'n food and beer hall.
Turning on the oven during Shabbat is verboten, so rolls of jachnun, slow-cooked for hours in a sealed container, is one way clever way of getting around the dissatisfaction of cold bread. The golden-brown carb, originally made with hearty whole wheat flour, traces its roots to Yemeni Jews.
Where to Try It: Visit New York’s cozy 12 Chairs Café on a Saturday or Sunday, and jachnun is among the offerings. Cooked overnight in a honey sauce, it gets a savory boost from a hard-boiled egg and crushed tomatoes.
A descendant of the smooth, quivering Middle Eastern pudding muhallabia, malabi is a milky confection reminiscent of panna cotta. Thickened with cornstarch, it’s perfumed with delicate rosewater and vanilla.
Where to Try It: After a go-to meal of fried olives and chicken cooked under a brick at Einat Admony’s homey New York restaurant Balaboosta, order her creative spin on malabi, tricked out with crème fraîche, berries and an aromatic dukkah spice blend.
Salep flour, spun from the tubers of orchids, was embraced throughout the Ottoman Empire in the forms of fragrant puddings and winter-warming beverages. In Israel this aphrodisiac is known as sachlav, a thick, milky drink regularly dispensed at markets.
Where to try it: While sachlav is commonplace in Israel, it remains relatively unknown in the States. Mighty Pie is trying to change that. In addition to its roster of flaky borekas, an orange blossom water and vanilla–scented sachlav topped with cinnamon powder, coconut flakes, raisins and chopped pistachios makes for an intriguing winter pick-me-up.