Last week, I got back from an epic trip to Israel. It was full of culture, history and, of course, hummus. While I definitely ate my body weight in falafel and pita, and was prepared to do so, I was not expecting the diverse and bountiful markets, full of unfamiliar spices, fruits and baked goods.
Fortunately for me, I had Israeli friends guiding me in the right direction. They showed me which foods I had to try that an ordinary tourist might pass by on the way to find souvenirs. Here are a few of my favorites. And whether or not you ever find yourself in the Middle East, they’re definitely worth checking out.
There isn’t any way to really describe this unique dessert except to say you must try it. Halva in Israel (pictured above) is made from tahini, sesame paste, yet it has a sweet, rather than savory, flavor. It can’t be compared to any dessert in America really. It’s very dense and can be cut into pieces or devoured with your hands. The markets offered plenty of flavors, like my personal favorite, espresso, and also provided samples that can’t get any fresher.
I wish I had known about this unique Middle Eastern spice before visiting the markets so I could have stocked up and brought it home as gifts. Za’atar was my all-time favorite condiment in Israel, perfect for topping boring vegetables or for dipping with bread and oil. It’s a combination of sesame seeds (surprise!), dried sumac, salt and a number of other spices. It’s unlike anything I’ve tasted before, and it’s easy to find at any restaurant or hotel over there. At the markets, this spice will barely cost you anything, while at touristy locations it is quite pricey.
I’ll be you thought Lychee was an Asian fruit, right? While it is true that this fruit is often found in smoothies at Chinese restaurants, it’s also a household fruit in Israel. Locals peel the colorful, spiky rind, revealing a white, jelly-like flesh. Fun fact: lychees have pits, so be careful if you pop the whole thing in your mouth. Just like we would serve berries after a meal in the U.S., Israelis enjoy eating their sweets with plenty of sweet lychees.
Honorable Mention: Arak
If you’re a fan of the Greek liquor, Ouzo, then by all means, try this national Israeli drink. It goes down smoothly – and in my opinion it has a pretty nasty flavor of black licorice. If you do find yourself at a local bar anywhere in the Middle East, be adventurous and order up a shot of Arak.