Words and Photos by Rachel Rex
Whether you plan on visiting for free through Birthright or traveling there on your own, Israel offers some breathtaking historical sights — and some mouth-watering food. I visited the country on a Birthright trip this summer, and although my time was limited to 10 days, I think I got a pretty good taste of the country.
As a general guide, anticipate lots of hummus, cucumbers, and yogurt-based food, like labneh. I found it a bit strange to eat fresh cucumber salad as breakfast, but I’m sure Israelis find our carb-heavy first meals weird, too.
Also, expect to eat a lot of falafel and shawarma while in Israel. As a vegetarian on a budget, I found myself eating falafel at nearly every lunch break I got. Authentic Middle Eastern falafel is way better than whatever you might find in the states, so be sure to try this dish, which consists of fried chickpea balls, hummus, cucumbers, and tomatoes stuffed inside fresh pita bread. It’s a filling but light lunch option that you can grab for cheap at practically any restaurant or food stand.
Many of the meals I ate on Birthright were pre-arranged, but we did get time to explore and eat on our own. One of the coolest things to note about Israel, and many other Middle Eastern countries, is the outdoor markets. Find fresh produce and baked goods piled up at each stand lining these open streets. If you feel up for the challenge, haggle with the vendors to get a better price. If you’re wearing a Birthright t-shirt and speaking English, they’ll probably brush you off as a stupid American, so enlist the help of some Israeli friends if you need it!
I visited Mehane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon, where practically every single person in the city had gathered to prepare for the Shabbat meal that would begin at sundown. The streets were absolutely packed, and though it was so interesting to experience the market this way, visit at another time if you want to leisurely stroll through the stands to make your purchases. Admire the beauty and taste of the pastries, loose leaf tea, challah, nuts, and dried fruits; these should also be fairly easy to transport home for edible souvenirs.
I highly recommend stopping by Hachapuria, a small restaurant off a side street of Mehane Yehuda, to try some adjarian khachapuri, a Georgian dish consisting of a hearty bread bowl, cheese, spinach, and a runny egg. After a long day of walking, I needed this kind of comfort food (and a break from all that falafel).
Also stop by Marzipan Bakery just outside of the market, which sells arguably the best rugelach in the city. If you’re a fan of flaky, rich chocolate pastries, this is the Israeli dessert for you. Grab some fresh ones to eat there, but if you think you can fit a box of them into your luggage, pick some up for your friends back home!
There’s a lot to see, do, and taste in Israel, and you should never overlook how important food is in a culture. If you have the chance to visit, do so! Just bring me back some Marzipan rugelach, okay?