"Food tours are an ideal way to see a place," said Inbal Baum, the founder of Delicious Israel, a small business that offers market and wine tours, culinary experiences and cooking workshops in Tel Aviv and the surrounding region.
And there's plenty to see. Like the U.S., Israel is a cultural melting pot, welcoming immigrants from more than 120 countries. Its cultural identity continues to take shape; 80% of Israelis are Jewish, and the food landscape draws from both secular and religious traditions.
There are plenty of misconceptions about what defines Israeli cuisine, according to Baum, who said you'd be hard-pressed to find any bagels, lox or matzoh ball soup, foods commonly associated with the Ashkenazi Jews who hailed from Central and Eastern Europe. She said many of the country's traditional foods originated from the Sephardic regions throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Foods such as hummus, tahini and falafel might sound like cliches, but those are cornerstones of the Israeli diet and when done right are terrific launching points to explore a vibrant dining scene.
The Sabich sandwich shop near the Carmel Market featured a traditional pita sandwich of fried eggplant and toppings. Photo Credit: Matthew Wexler
Baum, born in the U.S. to Israeli parents, moved to Israel nearly seven years ago after an eclectic career path that included law school and yoga certification.
"When I moved, I wasn't sure what to do with myself," she said. "I worked for an entrepreneur and did some of my own projects. Delicious Israel was a long time coming, and I thought, Why don't I give this a shot? I first wanted to tackle the entire country but settled on Tel Aviv, which is a hub for culinary experiences."
She began visiting the well-known Levinsky and Carmel food markets and acquainted herself with the vendors, aiming to offer something new for travelers: a truly immersive experience with a knowledgeable, bilingual guide. "A culinary expert can deliver a different kind of experience," she said.
Pereg Spices at the Levinsky Market has za’atar, a blend of sesame seeds, sumac and thyme. Photo Credit: Matthew Wexler
A recent tour with Baum to the Carmel Market revealed the breadth of the city's food culture. That culture dates back to the market's earliest days in the 1920s, and it remains a center for locals and tourists. The eating began on a side street with a sampling of sabich, an Iraqi dish often eaten for breakfast. A pita is stuffed with crispy, thinly sliced eggplant, tomatoes, tahini, pickled cabbage, a hard-boiled egg and for those who want to kick off the day with some heat, amba, a sweet and spicy mango chutney.
The market and adjacent streets overflow with spice stalls and have been an integral part of Tel Aviv's commerce since Zionist leader Arthur Rupin and a group of Russian immigrants helped develop the neighborhood decades before Israel's independence in 1948. Baum has made friends with the father-and-son team at Teva b'Carmel, whose side-by-side storefronts showcased dried herbs, chiles and spice blends, including za'atar, an Israeli staple that combines thyme, sesame, sumac and salt into an all-purpose seasoning blend.
No market tour was complete without hummus, the combination of chickpeas, tahini (ground sesame seeds) and lemon juice. Typically eaten as a midday meal, Baum had to sweet talk the owners at Shlomo and Doron to stay open a few minutes longer so participants could sample the palate-defying deliciousness that's been a local staple since 1937. Served with warm pita and zhug (a spicy cilantro-and-pepper condiment), the hummus stand shutters its doors for the day when its daily production sells out.
Turkey sausage from Levinsky’s Sausage Boutique. Photo Credit: Matthew Wexler
"One of the most interesting things is how different hummus can be using three simple ingredients. Nobody knows [Shlomo and Doron's] secret."
The eating and drinking continued with stops for malabi (a Turkish dessert similar to panna cotta), local beer and shakshuka (eggs baked in a spicy tomato sauce).
Some stalls offered nonedible items such as souvenirs, but it's those unexpected bites that will leave indelible memories to last a lifetime. From $100 per person, go to www.deliciousisrael.com or call (011) 972-525 699-499.