Holy Land food trail

Andrée shares his culinary adventures and Seder experiences in the Holy Land, a very hospitable region.

I love learning and I love teaching, especially in the kitchen. My trip to Israel has completely fulfilled these needs. We were so fortunate to be welcomed by such open-hearted, generous, willing to share great Servas hosts. My interest in travelling to Israel was peaked when I started cooking with the Ottolenghi-Tamimi cookbooks years ago, discovering spices such as za’atar and baharat. Mediterranean cuisine had just expanded exponentially!
First stop at the Helena restaurant in Caesarea. Mediterranean sea view and fish for lunch.
Forward to April 2017, Easter, Passover and a lot more was going to unfold. Our first night allowed me to learn how to cook eggplants with tahini sauce, guacamole with avocados, the Israeli tomato and cucumber salad with za’atar, and a pasta dish with zucchini, basil, and garlic. Freshness on a plate! Of course, the olives are omnipresent too. The next day, our hosts made sure we discovered authentic Arabian breakfast at Said in Acre (Akko). They brought us some warm hummus, tahini, olives, pickled cucumbers, tomatoes, pita, and onion quarters used to scoop the hummus. Food discovery alert! Supper: a local fish bought at the Acre market and prepared with our host back in Haifa was served with tahini sauce with lemon, garlic and parsley.My discoveries continued through various cultural, geographic, and religious backgrounds of Jewish, Palestinian, north of Africa, Spanish, eastern Europe and more.Our next host arranged for us to attend a Shabbat dinner – our first ever! Again, here it was a splendid feast, and to our astonishment they do it every Friday night! Imagine a table filled with roasted vegetables, tahini sauce, tomato and cucumber salad, cabbage salad, more salads, salmon, olives, and a vegan dessert made with cashews and raw chocolate!We also had the privilege to visit the Afikim kibbutz, tour a state-of-the-art dairy facility and join in for lunch in the cafeteria. But first, our host invited us for coffee and freshly marinated cucumbers; delightful!Before lunch, the Afikim cafeteria chef took us for a quick tour of his kitchen where they prepare 6,000 meals a day!! Tables are set with tablecloths to make you feel at home. The food here represents influences from eastern Europe.

Exploring the Golan Heights allowed us to discover Druze cuisine in Majdal e-Shams. Here too, the chef gave us a tour of his kitchen and kept sending more tasters for us to discover. He was explaining that the kibbeh are always made by hand by the ladies of the family.

The next morning, in Rosh Pina, we were treated to a Mediterranean breakfast with a spectacular view; tuna spread, marinated fish, two goat cheeses, four fresh cheeses, olives, tapenade and of course, fresh bread, right out of the oven!

On the road to Jerusalem, we stopped in Umm el Fahm where, after exploring narrow and very steep streets, we were fortunate to have a cook make a falafel in front of us, and gave have us the opportunity to taste a little bit of everything he was making. He even give us some cumin to make our own falafels back home.

We arrived in Jerusalem on a Saturday afternoon, very excited to walk to Mahane Yehuda and go exploring the market even though it’s closed during Sabbath. We ended up discovering a unique restaurant: Menza, on Betsal’el. Here we ate delicious beef cheeks “bourguignonne” and a hamburger with a local red wine.

Our first Kosher for Pesach (Passover) breakfast wass another food alert discovery: shakshouka, a dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, and onions, often spiced with cumin.

Our Christian friends took us under their wing to celebrate Palm Sunday in the old city. Quite the experience for our Canadian space “bubble”! So many people! Our friend knows the city inside out and took us through back alleys. We had a quick tour of the “wine and cheese restaurant” kitchen at Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center and had a bite to eat. Food discovery alert: a fantastic herb goat cheese!

Miraculously, a plate of tabbouleh and kibbeh appeard, offered by the chef! On this tour, we are discovering Jerusalem (Israeli/Palestinian) hospitality and generosity. Since it is artichoke season, we went back to Menza to eat a fish kebab with roasted artichokes.

While having a coffee at the Mahane Yehuda market we saw people eating a delicious-looking pastry with meat and cheese and ask them where they got it. “Around the corner, to the left and left again.” When we finally arrived, they were closed for Passover. Another quest began – as we got to taste a number of fruit pastes or fruit leathers that we had never tasted before! So many nut varieties, olives, spices; and imagine, 250 merchants, calling to attract you to their stalls! A very lively market!

We took a free tour of the old city with Sandeman’s Tours that ends with yet another food discovery alert: bagel, za’atar, and olive oil….the best za’atar I have ever tasted! Why is it so good? This becomes the new quest. We stop at a restaurant to enjoy another Arabic lunch with hummus, falafel, and salad.

We were so fortunate to be invited by Jerusalem Servas hosts to our first Seder dinner to celebrate Pesach (Passover). What a discovery on the cultural, historical, religious, and food side! An evening full of emotions and new acquaintances. We learned so much: matzah, four glasses of red wine, dip your finger ten times in the wine, hard boiled eggs, gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, roast chicken, potato casserole, and carrots, as well as a bitter herb symbolizing the bitterness and harshness of slavery the Hebrews endured in Egypt; it was horseradish! We also saw the tradition of the Seder plate: chicken bone, egg, bitter herbs, vegetables, and a sweet paste called haroset. Another delicious feast! Another wonderful way to understand a different culture and the importance of remembering where you come from and passing this message onto the children!

The next day was mostly spent visiting Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center for its culinary school (hospitality and tourism program). Between the chef instructor and my Jerusalem friend, I learned much about freshness of the ingredients, different herbs grown in Israel, a few recipes and tastings, ending with a lovely lunch at the restaurant managed by students. They served us a seafood appetizer on puffed pastry, a beef tenderloin main course with a mushroom duxelle sauce and a delicious cheese cake for dessert! What a treat.

Our friend also showed us where to get the best falafel sandwich in the Old City souk where they made it right in front of us!

We learned about spices, pastries, eggs cooked in ashes and enjoyed the freshest bagels, so different from ours.

A well-deserved coffee at the Austrian hospice felt like a peaceful retreat right in the middle of the Old City.

We had dinner in Bethlehem, in a huge tent. About ten plates appeared on our table even before the main course arrived including: hummus, olives, pickled cucumbers, salads, fattoush, various fresh cheeses, labneh, deep fried halloumi, chicken and lamb kebabs covered with a large, thin pita bread, three balls of dry cheese on another salad! Yet another feast!

Our friend’s son took us deep into the bowels of the Old City to an old souk to learn about knafeh, a cheese pastry soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup. Delicious, fresh and sweet! Made in front of you and served with a glass of black tea. What more can you ask?

During our visit to the Dead Sea, we learn more about tea; it is served as a welcome, to warm you up or calm you down, or for breakfast or before dinner. Basically tea for every occasion! We ate another food discovery alert: a matzo chocolate pie.

Another local family, arranged with our first Servas host, invited us to tour Ein Kerem where we enjoyed a nice walk, we tasted some raw almonds (green from the tree – eew, sour), and had a delicious restaurant lunch with Arabic salads, kebabs, eggplants, tahini, and cheeses. They made us discover another za’atar, bagels and even some cookies with sesame seeds (almost like florentines). The next discovery was an almond cookie that was kosher for Passover, a melt-in-your-mouth type cookie and a must have! A few days later, we had supper to conclude Pesach with mostly vegetarian dishes: eggplant with tahini, many salads, a fish dish. Another feast!

A few recommendations from our Canadian friends who lived in Jerusalem sent us to the American colony where we shared a delicious dish of warm hummus with spiced lamb sprinkled with pine nuts.

Our last day in Jerusalem took us to the Armenian tavern where we had the Armenian variations on shishlik, kebab, and Jerusalem mixed grill in the form of lamb kebab served with rice and a mixed plate of basturma (dried spiced meat), sausages, kibbeh, labneh, and sautéed vegetables. Overall delicious with good service.

Walking in Jaffa is a mixed bag of graffiti, old and new architecture, industrial areas, old cafes and new restaurants such as Tash & Tasha, a Georgian restaurant where soon after ordering, hummus, various condiments and cheese katchapouri appeared on our table. The meat katchapouri was a tasty discovery. Overall fantastic experience.

We had to dine at Claro in Tel Aviv because of our Israeli chef’s friend’s recommendation. This farm-to-table restaurant menu changes daily based on supply. The impressive wide open kitchen is surrounded by a wide bar. That day we ate crusted fish made in the traditional French salt-crusted dishes and executed to perfection. Definitely a highlight we shared with our Canadian friends leaving in the city.

What we have found from our wonderful experience is that Israel’s culinary scene extends its roots to and draws its nourishment from so many cultural, religious, and historical aspects that are worth exploring in great depth. And when everybody says they have the best hummus or that they invented it, they may in fact be right!

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