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The flavors of the Middle East can be fiery, exotic, comforting, and sometimes hot enough to burn your kishkes out! If the way to a person’s heart is through his stomach, than the way to your love of the Middle East might just be through its food. The quintessential Jewish mother, imploring us to Eat! Eat! (and hence the reason for this page’s title) comes to mind as we kindly and fondly bring to you some of the foods and spices from the region.
Step back in time along the caravan routes in the spice trade, and enter the markets of the bazaars, piled high with fresh fish caught from the seas, dried spices offered from barrels, and plates of fruits and pastries showcasing the best that Israel and regional markets have to offer. Once you experience the tastes of this cuisine, you’ll crave its food again and again. As they say in Israel, B’teh Avon!
Also included is continental cuisine created in the lands of our dispersion (Galut). Many exhibit a commonality confined to its geography. Whether Jewish traditions influenced the styles of the region, or vice-versa, many of these dishes feature more prominently among certain Jews in certain regions and times; for instance: Ashkenazi comfort foods from Eastern Europe/Russia or Sephardic/Mizrachi Spices and Stews. Some styles are hardly known to the other.
See this page for general information, and further posts in the sidebar articles found under the subject: Eat. You’ll find food-related articles, recommended restaurants, historical backgrounds, manufacturing info — whatever might be associated with food and its production (for which our first thoughts go to G-d and his blessings bestowed upon us).
Falafel: A mixture of smushed chickpeas, combined with assorted spices, formed into patties or balls and deep fried until golden brown. Delicious accompanied by pickled vegetables, mezzes, and even “chips” (a British hold-over word, perhaps; also known as “French fries”) inside a flat bread pocket known as “pita”.
Hummus: Smushed chickpeas blended with a few spice variants (if at all) into a thick paste. Often served with pita bread as a dip, or inside sandwiches, such as the falafel sandwich. Some additions might be garlic, spearmint, a drizzle of olive oil, perhaps tahina. I particularly appreciate a bright squirt of citrus-y lemon on top, to brighten it up. Paprika, pine nuts, roasted red peppers, artichokes, etc., such as those found in the Sabra brand-line at your local supermarket, make nice, tasty alternatives to the main base-style of this favorite Middle Eastern dip. Pronounced with a “ch” sound, like the Spanish “j” (‘jota’) and either the long sound of “oooh” or the short “u” sound, heard in the word, “look”. If you have difficulty with the “ch” sound… No problem. We still know what you mean.
Tahina: I don’t know why this is often written and pronounced “tahini”, when it should be with the “ah” sound on the end. The middle “h” has the “ch” sound (like the Spanish letter, “j” — “jota”). Maybe that’s to throw everybody off-track to this delicious sesame seed sauce, a condiment often accompanying the ubiquitous falafel.
Schug: This hole-burner put me off hot foods for some time while waiting for my stomach to calm down from the effects of a schug addiction. That’s slightly over-stated, but it does come with my warning to proceed with caution. It is sooo delicious, but a drop will do ‘ya. I think it’s known from the Yemen region. My home brand, which you’ll probably be able to find in Middle Eastern or kosher marketplaces, is Pikante: http://www.pikantesalads.com (yeah, that title is a give-away…) and lists the ingredients as: Hot pepper, parsley, garlic, oil, salt, spices, and a preservative.
Harissa: Harissa is another fiery condiment which works well in sandwiches, on chicken, in couscous, and just about almost everywhere. It gives a massive kick and a heavy cry-factor, like schug, but it is just so good. If your taste buds could use a little excitement, this might take things up a notch. Way better than that bland American stuff from Heinz (wink…).
Amba – Amba is another great sauce condiment, used on falafel, shawarma, salad, eggs, or in other dishes. It’s a “warm” flavoring, and combines a spicy kick with the semi-sweet exotic appeal of the mango. Delicious.
Zahatar/Zaatar: You’ll confuse an Israeli, who is familiar with a pretzel-like snack called “Beigeleh”, if you ask him where to find a bagel. What’s weird about Israel is that you expect to find lots of delicatessens and bagel bakeries. But they’re conspicuously missing from most of the landscape. Instead, you can purchase a giant, skinny bagel (which looks like a pretzel without the twist), topped with Zahatar (if you like), from the Arab boy’s pushcart in Jerusalem, much like the soft-pretzels you’d find from a New York vendor’s pushcart. Go figure! Zahatar uses that old Biblical ingredient called hyssop (whatever that is) as its main ingredient. The rest of the ingredients, read from my spice bottle from third generation spice manufacturers, Pereg, are: Hyssop, sesame seeds, wheat, extra virgin olive oil, coriander, salt, citric acid and a lot of love! I see I wasn’t original in adding it to toast or cream cheese, as those are some of the chef’s recommendations, but I’ll tell you what I did in my recipe, some time later.
Couscous: A small grain-like or pellet-shaped pasta of semolina wheat, used mainly as a side dish to absorb gravies and drippings from meats and chickens. Fine-grain is more commonly associated with Moroccan tagine-style stews and Shabbat cholents, and the Israeli pellet-style (heh-heh!) is different, but also a good accompaniment for the same.
Lentils: Whether as a side dish, or prepared into soups and/or stews, lentils find a proper place on an Israeli table. Green, brown, or red, all colors of the lentil rainbow are used.
Rice Pilaf: Rice and Orzo, or vermicelli pasta, cooked with slivered, toasted almonds and oil or butter. Near East brand in the box in the supermarket has the recipe on its package, and it’s good.
Stuffed Grape Leaves: Generally stuffed with rice and spice and everything nice, wrapped in lemon- and oil-marinated grape leaves. Meat or other edibles can find their way in there, as well.
Jerusalem Artichokes: Should be considered one of the seven species found in the Bible written about Israel (but it’s not). Braised artichokes are often a featured item at the Shabbat celebration. Done right, they’re spectacular.
Olives: Olive oil and regular olives are a popular item served in all manners — marinated, in main dishes, and as snacks with cheese or bread. Olives have been an Israeli agricultural product since ancient times.
Eggplant – Fried eggplant, sliced thin and possibly breaded, or pulverized into a dip known as baba ghanoush, find their way onto many tabletops as a nice vegetarian dish, quite popular in Middle Eastern and Israeli cuisines.
Stuffed Cabbage: A sweet-and-sour tomato-based sauce, baked over meat-filled cabbage leaves rolled. This dish is found in a few cultures.
Stuffed Peppers: Meat- or rice- or other filling mixture stuffed into peppers, and topped generally in a tomato-based sauce. This features in Turkish area foods, as well.
Shakshuka: Another dish found also in Turkish area, based on tomato sauce-topped eggs.
Shawarma – Vertically-roasted leg of lamb or fowl, shaved off the spit into thin strips for a pita sandwich, or a platter. Conceptually similar to a Greek gyro, of sorts.
Flanken: A long-cooked meat used often in stews.
Brisket: A meat served often as a main course during holidays.
Kishke/Stuffed derma: Sausage, Jewish-style, generally made with combinations of meats and meals.
Potato Latkes: Shredded potatoes, cooked pancake style, often served for Chanukah as one of the oily foods eaten to commemorate the finding of oil to relight the menorah in the Temple at Jerusalem, after Jewish victory during Roman wars of conquest against us in Israel/Judah. A holiday dating back to roughly the first Century of the Common Era.
Knish: Plural, Knishes: Savory dough-encased meat-, potato-, kasha-, or spinach-filled pockets. These are delicious.
Blintzes: Filling-filled egg-batter type crepes, made with soft farmer’s style cheeses, jams, etc.
Yotvata: A dairy in the southern Negev region of Israel. Also one dairy restaurant found in Tel Aviv, opposite the “tayelet” (large promenade) extending along the Mediterranean Sea. Their sorbets are incredible. I highly recommend the mango flavor.
Tnuva: Because Israel is small and its resources are limited, many of Israel’s endeavors started off collectively socialized, although this is becoming a thing of the past. It got Israel up and running again in competition with the rest of the world, and established large industries which provided for the needs of Israel’s people. One of these industries of labor (both generally, and as Labor) established the Tnuva cheese brand. It is a giant endeavor, and has produced great products. You will find many Tnuva products (I have one of their catalogues), including the 5% soft white cheese so famous here.
Cheese: Emek; Gilboa (one of my favorites: I used to eat so much of just cheese and bread); 5% soft, white cheese; labneh (sour cream); others. Cheese has been a highly-developed Israeli product for a long time, due to the rulings interpreted as part of Halachic Jewish law. Meat and dairy are separated at the meals, and even in the markets. Many Jewish holidays, additionally, are celebrated with dairy products, or after a fast. Israel makes some very exceptional cheese products.
Pita: Flat bread, best served warm and fresh, generally with a central cavity in which to stuff sandwich ingredients. Also used as dipping scoops for hummus.
Prigat: Awesome Israeli juices. My favorite is plum juice, which is like freshly-squeezed plum. It’s light, sweet, and refreshing. Don’t confuse it with its dried/dehydrated-plum sister version of prune juice… It’s totally different. The mango flavor is also delightful.
Kedem: Another Israeli juice — mostly grape, in addition to sparkling versions, I think.
Chicken/Capon: Roasted Chicken/Capon. Often a favorite for Shabbat meal.
Chicken Soup with Kneidlach (Matzah Balls): A great soup, often served before the main course at holidays. Made generally with chicken, carrots, celery, onion and seasonings. The Matzah balls are made from matzah meal (finely-ground matzah), egg, and oil, and float in the soup, sometimes, as they cook. A source of pride for many, everyone’s Jewish mother makes theirs the best (including mine)!
Kreplach: Many cultures have their own version of dumplings or ravioli, and these are the Jewish version. A bit slippery, perhaps chicken-filled, and often fried in chicken fat (the good, old-fashioned way).
Kugel: A baked egg noodle or potato casserole, often served as a side accompaniment, especially at holiday meals. Often mixed with other dairy fillings, like a ricotta-type or cottage cheese, and often baked with a crusty top layer, of noodles or possibly crumbs. Both versions are delicious.
Tsimmes: A compote-like side dish, often served at holiday meals, made with things such as carrots, sweet potatoes, prunes, and occasionally meat, as well. It’s delicious.
Charoset: A holiday food specific to Passover, whose ingredients symbolically represent our slavery in Egypt. Made with apples, and sometimes nuts, such as chopped (fine) walnuts; combined with red wine, it is spread on Matzah like a mortar, a substance often used in brick-laying, to represent our spilled blood as slaves, and the making and laying of brick.
Kasha Varnishkes: This stuff is so good. It’s buckwheat, toasted in a pan with an egg-coat wash (just to toast it), mixed with cooked bowtie noodles. Easy and delicious.
Farfel: Flaky diamonds or squares of cut egg noodles, served en-masse.
Egg noodles: Noodles made from egg, rather than pasta, to cover religious requirements banning the use of other grains/wheats, at times. Used in many recipes, as well, such as noodle kugel, in chicken soups, etc. Goes very well served with goulash, cholent or stews.
Gelt: Means “gold” or “gilded”; a.k.a. “money”. Here, though, I refer to chocolate disks encased in gold foil to look like coins, often given to children at Chanukah.
Mandel; Mandelbroten: I can’t really describe these. They’re small, round cracker-ish balls dropped into soup. They float.
Mandl Bread: No relation to Soup Mandel. This is a dry, sliced loaf-cake, along the lines of Italian biscotti, but a tad more moist, I think.
Borscht: Cold beet soup with sour cream. Generally from our Russian-area of dispersion.
Hamantaschen: Triangular-shaped cookies made at Purim, a crazy feast of costumes, gift-giving and the celebration of the story of the decree of Iran’s king, based on conspiring of Haman, to have all the Jews of Iran killed, lessened to allow Jewish self-defense, based on the petition of (Jewish) Queen Esther/Hadassah in tribute to her relation, Mordechai, who overheard and reported Haman’s devious plotting (to overthrow the King, I believe). The Jews were victorious.
Rugelach: These are delicious chocolate- or jam-filled roll-up cookies, made generally with apricot, raspberry, or chocolate innards, and often dusted with ground walnuts on top.
Matzah: A hard, cracker-like bread made without yeast, eaten at Passover.
Gefilte Fish: Carp, a fish, ground and formed into kibbeh-shaped logs, preserved in a viscous liquid, and served as an appetizer to holiday meals. Usually served with ground horseradish.
Chopped Liver: Liver formed into a spread used atop crackers.
Pickled and Marinated Vegetables: Half-Sour Pickles; Half-Sour Tomatoes; Kosher Dill Pickles; Garlic Pickles; Onions; Cabbage; Beets; Okra; etc.
Delicatessen Meats: Pastrami (really good fried); Jewish Salami; Kosher Hot Dogs; Tongue (yeek); and others.
Cholent: A stew made of meats or poultries with vegetables and/or grains and starches, set to cook at low temperatures over long duration in observance of the command to kindle no flame (fire, flame, stove, lamp, etc.)/nor to do any work during Shabbat.
Schnitzel: Chicken Schnitzel, a.k.a. “Weiner Schnitzel” is a thinly-pounded chicken breast dredged in an egg wash, floured, and crumb-coated topping, fried lightly in a pan until golden. Most cultures have some form of this breaded chicken cutlet found among the staples of their own menus. Veal may also be used.
Breads: Rye bread; Brown breads, such as Pumpernickel; Kaiser Rolls; Poppy Seed Rolls. Challah is the bread served weekly during Shabbat in religious Jewish homes.
Mustards: Stone-ground; Yellow; Deli mustards.
Horseradish: Grated horseradish, a root vegetable with a hot kick, used often as the accompanying condiment to gefilte fish.
Israeli Salad: Diced cucumbers and tomatoes, often served as breakfast food, or as a side salad accompaniment to lunch or dinner.
The African and Middle Eastern Cookbook; Josephine Bacon and Jenni Fleetwood. ©2006 Anness Publishing Ltd. Published by Hermes House, an imprint of Anness Publishing, Ltd. Hermes House, 88-89 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA. email: email@example.com. ISBN: 0-681-37582-5.
Sufganiyot: Otherwise known as jelly doughnuts. An Israeli tradition has developed to serve these at Chanukah, because it is a food fried in oil, and we eat oily foods to remind us of the miracle when oil was found for use in the Temple menorah, after re-sanctifying it from Roman defilement. This is the Chanukah holiday.
Nana Tea – Hot spearmint tea, served sweet with sugar.
Bamba: Peanut-flavored corn puffs.
Bisli: Barbecue-flavored snack; very salty and highly-seasoned (too much for my tastes; but, oh, well…)
Elite Chocolate: Made in Upper Nazareth. I love the tri-style bar they make, with milk, dark, and white-chocolate layers, but I’ve never found that particular import elsewhere. They do offer several other varieties in the United States, though, and those can be found in kosher-specific markets or sections in your local market.
Salmon: A popular fish, conforming to Halachic kosher requirements that it have both fins and scales. Served in filets, or sliced thin, possibly smoked, as in “lox” to serve atop bagels, or mixed into cream cheese as a spread.
Whitefish: Generally smoked; often used in dips.
Pickled Herring: Marinated pieces of herring, served cold.
Things of the Bible:
The Seven Species (of the Land) — Barley; Wheat; Pomegranate; Figs; Vines; Honey; Olives.
A Land of Milk and Honey.
The Four Species (for Sukkot): Etrog (Citron); Lulav (Palm Branch); Aravot (Willow); Hadassim (Myrtle).
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