When I was preparing for my move to Tel Aviv last year, I knew my mind would be expanded in more ways than I could probably anticipate. One area that I didn’t expect to learn so much about, however, was the culinary customs of the region.
Here are five things that the Middle East has taught me about food:
1. Seasonal foods are best.
In the States, we have the luxury of being able to find berries all year long, green beans in the height of summer, and citrus fruits anytime our hearts desire some tangy sweetness. In the Middle East, however, foods are eaten seasonally. You can’t really find berries at all, except strawberries for a short time in the winter months. Peaches and nectarines can only be enjoyed in the summer and early fall, citrus fruits are at their tastiest in the winter months, and I haven’t seen any brussel sprouts at all since moving here.
While at first I lamented not being able to find some of my favorite fruits and vegetables when I wanted them most, I soon learned that this was for the best. Eating seasonally meant that the foods that were available were at their freshest and most ripe. It meant that the produce at the grocery stores and markets was some of the best I’ve ever had, not to mention cheap!
2. Try the unexpected thing on the menu.
Be adventurous when it comes to food. When I arrived in Israel, I only knew the Hebrew alphabet and didn’t know what anything listed on the menus was, aside from hummus and pita. Once I started to learn the language, I could read the words but still had no idea what they meant or what the dish was comprised of. As a result, I had to order on a whim and hope that I liked whatever arrived in front of me.
Nine times out of ten, I loved whatever I ended up having. It allowed me to try dishes I maybe wouldn’t have gravitated towards and opened my eyes (and taste buds) to many authentic dishes and flavors.
3. When in doubt, dip and sauce it out.
Israelis love their dips and sauces. It is customary for appetizers to automatically be brought with a little array of dips and sauces that you eat plain or with bread, raw onion, and pickles.
The most popular dip is tahini, which is a paste made from ground up sesame seeds. In restaurants, a bread basket will be served with a little dish of tahini sauce, rather than the customary butter as in the States. Tahini is used in so many Middle Eastern dishes and kitchens, and there are dozens of different kinds available at any given grocery store.
Aside from that, traditional Middle Eastern meals will come with an array of little dishes of sauces and dips for you to enjoy before your meal arrives. Ones you would probably see at a restaurant are muhammara (a spicy red pepper dip), baba ganoush (made from eggplant), hummus, pickled cabbage and carrots, a red cabbage slaw, pickled beets, grilled eggplant, tahini, labneh (a savory white cheese very similar to yogurt), and a yogurt sauce with herbs mixed in.
I’ve gotten used to this array of small dips and sauces and now think the States should adopt this culinary custom as well.
4. Rethink breakfast food.
My favorite breakfast growing up was my grandma’s silver dollar buttermilk pancakes. Every time we visited her and my grandpa in Pittsburgh, I looked forward to the morning when I knew I’d wake up to the sweet smell of pancakes cooking on the griddle. We Americans tend to love our sweet breakfasts made up of pancakes, waffles, french toast, granola, and warm cinnamon rolls drenched in a sweet sugary glaze.
While I still love a good pancake drenched in maple syrup, living in Israel has taught me to rethink my definition of breakfast food. A typical Israeli breakfast is actually made up of almost entirely savory foods: warm pita bread, two eggs any style, labneh, hummus, jam, and lots of Israeli salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onion chopped up very small into uniform pieces). The different textures and flavors that make up this meal go so well together and is such a pleasant and refreshing way to start your day. I’ve definitely grown accustomed to it and look forward to sharing it with family and friends when they visit Israel.
5. Give all foods equal opportunity.
While vegetarianism and veganism are becoming more popular in the States, the US is still a strongly meat-centered country. Growing up, I knew veggies were important and my parents fed me plenty of them. Still, I was under the impression that meat is served as the centerpiece of the meal.
The Middle East, however, does not think in this way. Instead of having a big steak as the meat option of the meal, here you would find meat and veggies incorporated equally. You’ll see hummus and pita with meat on top and a hefty drizzle of tahini, a kabab with grilled veggies, or shawarma meat in a wrap with all the veggie fixings. Menus will frequently have just as many vegetable dishes as meat dishes listed, which further exhibits the equal amount of love both vegetables and meats get here. This results in balanced meals that have just the right amount of heft, giving both vegetables, fruits, and meats equal importance and attention.
Food is such an integral part of Middle Eastern culture. It’s been really fun and fascinating to learn about culinary customs during my time here in Israel. Wherever I move to next, I can say with certainty that one aspect of life here I’ll miss the most is that surrounding food. I hope to share a compassionate, delicious, holistic attitude about food with friends and family back home.
By Maddy Wolfe