We are sitting at the bar and waiting impatiently for our food. The smell wafts out from the kitchen, tickling our noses and taunting us. I’m dining with a friend at Santa Katarina in Tel Aviv. It’s our first night in the city and we are starving. The restaurant is on a pedestrianised square off Allenby Street, slap bang in the centre of town. The whole place is buzzing, packed with hungry diners and vocal locals enjoying a drink (mostly while they wait, reservations are generally hard to come by in the city’s best eateries) on this balmy summer night.
We order a selection of shared plates, including a taboon, an Arabic flatbread cooked in a wood fired oven. It’s like a pizza, except without tomato sauce. Traditionally the bread is covered in a mix of peppery olive oil and zaatar – a classic Middle Eastern spice blend made with wild oregano, thyme, sumac and sesame seeds. This version is inspired by lahmacun, a typical Turkish snack of minced lamb, seasoned with onion, parsley and Aleppo pepper flakes, thinly spread over delicious, flat bread. I rip off a large piece. The bread is chewy, salty and crisp, and the lamb, beautifully spiced and perfectly seasoned. Slithers of sweet red onion and a scattering of aromatic mint leaves cut through the richness of the meat. It’s a dreamy combination of flavours, and a cool,
culinary clash of cultures.
I’m in Tel Aviv for a long weekend to soak up sun, sand and sea, and of course eat my way around the city. It’s not my first visit and won’t be my last. The next cookbook I am writing is on The Levant and Israel is proving an amazing resource. The food scene is quite unlike anything I have ever experienced. Israelis love to eat out, and The White City is brimming with exciting restaurants and sizzling street food. From Iraqi sabich (a spicy aubergine sandwich), to succulent seafood and zesty salads, everything is absolutely delicious. It’s my kind of grub; healthy without meaning to be and full of flavour. Being a young country, Israeli food is evolving quickly. Chefs are mashing up traditional dishes and turning them into something slick and exciting. My taboon is the perfect example; ancient Arabic bread made with tasty modern toppings.
For any foodie flying into Tel Aviv, the first port of call is Inbal Baum, a glamorous ex-lawyer who came to the city eight years ago, and launched Delicious Israel. Her walking tour around the markets and knowledge of the local food scene is legendary. We meet the next morning at Shlomo and Doron, a small, family run hummus shop that’s been on a quiet side street in the centre of Tel Aviv since 1937. It’s only 10am and it’s already packed. Inbal orders and then asks if I like Jaffa Cakes. It’s a weird question, but I roll with it, nodding. I mean they are not my favourite, but I fondly remember dunking the ‘irresistibly orangey’ biscuits into cups of milky tea with my grandmother. She always kept a
secret stash off them in her kitsch, yellow laminate cupboards above the kettle. Inbal smiles and excitedly tells me how the old port of Jaffa was actually built up around a roaring citrus trade. The sweet Shamouti orange, aka the Jaffa orange, was grown all around the city and was exported to Europeans (who had developed a taste for the exotic fruit) by the Jaffa Company. As the citrus-exporting brand grew, it re-energised the port – local industries expanded; banking, shipping and exports also created more opportunity for immigrants arriving into the city. So you could say that Jaffa, and Tel Aviv as a result, was partly revived by our taste for oranges. Now back to the biscuits. To illustrate just how popular the Jaffa orange was in Britain in the late 1920s, McVitie’s named their newest, innovative sponge sensation after the illustrious fruit, to capture some of the mania. But was the zesty flavour made from the fruits of Jaffa? We can’t be sure, but we don’t really think it’s likely.
So, Tel Aviv was really built around food and nothing has changed, even today. Eating is woven into the fabric of society, and there is so much just waiting to be discovered. Our breakfast arrives: three bowls of hummus, a basket of fluffy pitta breads, zhoug (a spicy Yemenite dipping sauce) and portioned, sweet, white onion. Hummus is a big deal in Tel Aviv and I have eaten some of the best that I have ever had here. Over in Jaffa, Abu Hassan makes the most incredible hummus I have ever tasted. It’s also a cause of contention as it originated as an Arabic food. Hence, many get fiercely territorial about where this creamy dip comes from. A brunch-time Instapost of mine turns into the next #HummusWars. But a comment from a Palestinian follower saves me, reminding people that a dish, whatever the origin, can be served anywhere and appreciated by anyone. Despite the argument, it’s clear that hummus is adored in Tel Aviv. It’s not sold in cheap plastic pots. Oh no, huge bowls of silky smooth hummus, topped with paprika, herbs and a slick of olive oil, are served as a meal for one. Inbal explains the eating etiquette: grab a spoon and tuck in. Use the zhoug for a kick, and remember that the onion is here to help. If you were to bash back your bowl of hummus using pitta as a scooping vehicle, you would get too full. So the quartered onion, which is naturally spoon-shaped, is the much lighter option. Clever!
We plough into the first bowl. It’s their standard hummus and it is a delight. Then we have mesunlash, made with whole chickpeas and loads of tahini sauce, served on top of creamy hummus. Finally we try the shackshuka-hummus, a new idea where the chefs sit piping hot shakshuka over their regular hummus. I rip off some pitta – sorry onion, I heart carbs – and get dipping. The bread pierces the egg. It breaks. Joyous yellow yolk oozes over the spicy tomato sauce. I keep dunking, pushing on into the creamy concoction and take a huge bite. It is so insanely good, the contrast of the hot egg and cold hummus is off the scale. This is a food-first for me and I am all over it, greedily digging out massive spoonfuls and ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ like I’m at a fireworks display. It’s such a clever combo and another example of how an age-old recipe can be given a new lease of life with such a simple twist.
After our heavenly hummus experience, we stroll over to Shuk Ha’Carmel, the city’s biggest food market. It’s packed with butchers, fishmongers and fruit and vegetable traders. There’s an absolutely electric atmosphere to the whole place. The sides are lined with stalls selling everything from Yemini breakfast to delicious craft beers and chewy nougat. We walk and talk and eat, stopping to adore and graze on some sticky, sweet rugelach pastries and cheese straws at Inbal’s favourite baker, Lechmaier. She tells me how the cuisine has built up from the land and the people. Her grandmother arrived in the 1930s. Back then, she ate what she could cultivate: vegetables, fruit, eggs and cheese. As well as the produce they could grow, there was also the food found in Arabic villages, which – like hummus and falafel – was adopted into the Israeli diet to become everyday staples. Then the people. Jews came to Israel from all over the world: Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Algeria, Poland and Russia.
The list goes on, she tells me. Each Jewish community that arrived brought their own style of cooking and each had their own personal touches; and countries that were once segregated, melted together. Tel Aviv rapidly became a place united by cooking.
Today the food is all about the freshness of the ingredients. Field to fork dining is massive, although local chefs wouldn’t ever term it in that way – all cooking in Israel is field to fork. Different cuisines have amalgamated, ideas and techniques have been updated and exchanged, and spices swapped and added. New, young chefs are fancying-up traditional recipes and adopting influences from across the world, particularly South-East Asia, Mexico and Italy. Israeli cuisine has become purposefully undefined and this fusion of old cuisines and new ideas is what makes the food here so fantastic. So it seems that the thing about Israeli cooking, particularly in Tel Aviv, is that it isn’t all that ‘Israeli’; instead influences come from all over and literally contribute to the big, hot melting-pot.
Inbal takes me to see Irit, who runs a tiny café on the side of the market. Irit is of Yemenite descent, with a large and infectious personality. As I arrive, she is still serving breakfast to a throng of hungry customers. I watch keenly as she expertly whips up a batch of lachooch, pancakes of a simple batter, flavoured with fenugreek. She swirls the mix around an ancient frying pan until it sets and then tops it with scrambled egg. She folds the pancake in half and grates over a little fresh tomato, before serving it with spicy zhoug. It’s divine.
Inbal explains that I am a chef, and before I know it, Irit has me prepping pancakes for the mid-morning rush. She studies my technique, but seems pleased, as the next thing I know, she runs off, leaving me in charge of her kitchen to feed several hungry diners, before returning with hot coffee for us both twenty minutes later. When noon comes and the kitchen closes, the fun begins. She cranks up the disco music and has us dancing and singing out loud while she teaches me how she makes her infamous eggplant dish – delicately slow roasted whole on the stove, then coated in lemon, garlic and tehina. I’m told that the recipe has been a secret, but I guess her showing me was pay for my morning’s work.
That night I head to celeb-chef Eyal Shani’s restaurant, North Abraxas, which Inbal describes as truly modern Israeli cuisine. He has restaurants all over the city that are known for their mouth-watering menus and party vibes. It doesn’t disappoint. I sit at the counter and order several dishes, including his infamous cauliflower. It arrives whole and blackened, the leaves still on, all charred and chewy from the oven. The chefs are dancing around the open plan kitchen to a Balearic sound track. Suddenly the waiter in front of me grabs a bottle of liquor and pours everyone a shot. I sling it back and tuck into my next dish, a massive entrecôte steak. I love everything about this place, it sums up Tel Aviv as a city for me – infectious, utterly delicious and effortlessly cool.
OutThere’s culinary adventure through Tel Aviv is courtesy of Inbal Baum, who is the authority when it comes to food in the city, packing up her life as a high-flying lawyer (and yoga instructor) back in 2009 to start Delicious Israel, one of the country’s most enticing ways to explore what it truly means to be an Israeli through mouth-watering, intimate culinary crusades.