The food in Israel is as varied as the population living there. “Israeli cuisine” is a concept which is evolving from the many cooking traditions and the local raw materials. Most of Israel’s Jewish inhabitants are immigrants from eastern Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and North Africa, who brought with them long-standing traditions of Jewish food that developed in the area where they lived, so that you can find couscous in Israel alongside gefilte fish.
Besides its being a country of immigrants, Israel is a Middle East country, part of whose inhabitants are Arabic, and their influence is felt in dishes such as humus, tehina and falafel, as well as in many rice dishes. Israel is also a western country, is influenced by world events, and spires to keep astride of all world changes and vogues, including culinary trends.
Although McDonalds and other hamburger and pizza chains thrive in Israel, the world race after the Mediterranean Basin diet and eating culture can be felt here. In recent years a thriving quality wine industry has developed along with olive oil manufacturers and quite a few small dairies that produce French-style cow and goat cheeses. Fish and seafood have also started playing a major part in the menus of local restaurants, as befits a country located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
In Israel, you can eat Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Arab and American food. You can eat in simple workers’ restaurants or in prestigious chef restaurants. Most of the restaurants and coffee houses in between the latter two offer a menu composed of dishes that have become popular with the local population over the years, and which is based on sandwiches, pastas, fish, vegetables and meat.
Like anywhere else in the world, it is advisable to use common-sense when choosing a place to eat, and to enter places that look clean and pleasant, and where there is a large turnover of diners. Many restaurants have a menu in English. In those that don’t, you’ll always find a waiter who speaks reasonable English and can explain the menu. Most restaurants and food stalls are open non-stop from the morning until the evening hours. Restaurants which are also bars remain open until the small hours of the night. In the major cities, especially in Tel Aviv, you can find something to eat at any hour of the day or night.
Being the lively city that it is, Tel Aviv offers all kinds of cuisines around the clock. Unlike Jerusalem, which is more religiously observant, Tel Aviv’s restaurants are open for business on Friday nights and Saturdays.
Tel Avivians tend to eat later, rather than earlier, so if a restaurant seems a little empty at 8 pm, chances are that by 10 pm it will be buzzing. Restaurants and cafés are often open to 2 am and beyond. Some never shut their doors, being open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Tel Aviv is a city you will never have to worry about going hungry in for lack of open eateries. It is also a city where you will never complain that the offerings at restaurants are monotonous. A good place to sample the many kinds of food available is the weekly Homebaking Food Fair at the Dizengoff Centre, which takes place on Thursdays and Fridays. Here, vendors set up stalls with homemade food. All kinds of Jewish food are available, from the cholent of Eastern Europe (a thick stew with beans) to the malouweh of Yemen (a fried pastry served with tomato relish).
In terms of other international cuisines, there is Asian, Arabic and South American to try. The yearly Ta'am Ha'Ir food festival at Hayarkon Park also offers a chance to get acquainted with the culinary offerings of Tel Aviv. At this event, held in June, top restaurants set up booths, offering small sample portions of their cuisine for reasonable prices.
Café-restaurants in Tel Aviv are very popular. The seats normally spill out onto the pavements allowing dining al fresco in both summer and winter (heat lamps are installed next to the tables). These places do a brisk trade all day, starting with breakfast customers and staying open until the early hours of the morning. Typical fare will include coffees, freshly squeezed juice and a selection of alcoholic drinks. Most main course dishes are big enough to share. Expect to see well presented salads made with fresh, healthy vegetables. As a country with a good climate and a big agricultural industry, Israel's fresh produce is exceedingly good. This is not the land of limp lettuce leaves. Other standard café food includes toasted sandwiches on large bagels and a range of Continental-style desserts.
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