Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Israel: A Culinary Adventure

As many of you know, my wife, Patti, and I recently returned from a two-week pilgrimage to Israel.  The trip was nothing short of amazing and you can be sure that I will write several more posts about our time there.  But first, I want to describe the culinary adventure that came with our trip.

Any trip to a new place, whether it is to another town, another state, or to another country always gives us the opportunity to try new things.  When I used to travel for my employer, some years ago, I always tried to be open to experimentation.  I learned that it was fun, and painless, to try local foods, drinks, and be open to learning a little about culture and people. 

But the two weeks we spent in Israel went far beyond my previous excursions.  Every day our hotels would serve enormous buffets for breakfast and dinner, and every day we would stop for lunch at some amazing local spot. 

In two weeks, I tried more new food I have in any other decade of my life and it was glorious.

Those who know me know that I am not generally a fan of breakfast.  The choices that we have for breakfast in American culture bore me.  I don’t much like French toast, pancakes are better for lunch or dinner, and while eggs and bacon and cold cereals are great, I get tired of them. 

And this leads me to the culinary revelation of our trip.  The world of breakfast is far, far, bigger than the choices we have in American culture.  And those new choices were wonderful.

I discovered that fish was an acceptable, and to me fantastic, offering for breakfast.  At various times there was herring, smoked herring, pickled herring, salmon, smoked salmon, raw fish (not sure what kind), and a few other fish that either I don’t remember or which were never identified.  We also had shakshouka, a Middle Eastern egg dish, in which eggs are poached in a tomato and vegetable sauce.  This was good, though not my favorite.

Almost every breakfast (and many dinners) also offered goat cheese, salty white cheese, labane (yogurt cheese), white Bulgarian cheese (20-30% fat), cream cheese, fresh local yogurt, and Greek yogurt.  I list these all together because it sometimes became difficult to discern which were cream cheeses, and which were yogurts.

And many meals also offered hummus, couscous (which I never managed to sample), many varieties of eggplant, Israeli salad, a variety of other unnamed vegetable salads, and halva which looks sort of like a cheese, Braunschweiger, or liverwurst.  It isn’t meat at all but made with sesame paste and honey.  It’s a little crumbly but has a slightly sweet taste.  And there was also a dessert that was something between tapioca and rice pudding but made with a grain that no one could adequately translate.

Lunch was often some variety of falafel, which for the uninitiated, is sort of fried “meatballs” made with chick peas) or shawarma, which is a spicy shaved chicken (shaved off of a spit much like good Greek gyros) with vegetables and served in a pita bread or in a “roll bread” that was a bit heftier than a tortilla, thinner than a pita, but about the size of a tortilla at Chipotle.

And then there were the breads that were served at every breakfast and dinner.  They varied from day to day, but although none of them were labelled, there were breads that resembled challah, butter knots, sesame twists, and tons of other varieties.  There were rolls, fresh pita bread that is far better than anything store bought here at home,  Jerusalem bagels (which are not bagels in the American sense, but a forearm-long, oval shaped, slightly sweet, bread), pastries like rugelach (sort of a chocolate, hazelnut, crescent roll)and others that were variously drizzled in honey or sugar.

And of course there was fruit.  Every day there was an offering of oranges, kiwi, apples, grapefruit, fresh tomatoes, dates, olives, and the discovery of the week (for us), flora fruit.  Our introduction to this was at a snack stop after a worship cruise on the Sea of Galilee where the snack place across from the gift shop had the usual offering of soft drinks, juices, sweet rolls, but also offered a sort of a fruit smoothie that we didn’t recognize.  We asked the proprietor two or three time what it was, and every time we swore that he was saying, “Four.”  We assumed that there was some sort of language barrier and he was telling us the price, but after several attempts he took a small cup, poured out a taste, and offered it to us.  It tasted like some combination of mango and citrus and was so good that Patti immediately bought the regular serving.  It was only after she was halfway through it that we asked our tour guide what it was and he identified it as “Flora” fruit.  As the days passed, we saw this fruit again and again in desserts ranging from something akin to gelatin molds to a topping on something that resembled cheesecake.  They were all delicious.  Some later googling gave us a possible common name, persimmon.

From a culinary point of view, every day was a new adventure and despite my list, I’m sure that I’ve forgotten a few.  More than that, every day I lost count of the things that we saw on the buffet, could not identify, sampled, and still had no idea what it was.

In all, we had a lot of fun sampling as many things as we could (even if we never knew what they were) and our culinary world got a little bigger.

Travel is all about adventure.

Never be afraid to try new things.


Often times, that’s half the fun of your entire trip.





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