Israel has been in the news a lot lately, unfortunately for the violence happening in Gaza and beyond. But Israel as a country, and an idea, is such an amazing place -- one I think is difficult to fully understand until you've spent time there.
I've always felt an affinity for Israel and Israelis. This started in the late '70s when I was a little girl, and we lived down the street from a house that was always lived in by Israelis, passed down from family to family as they came to America to work for one host company. Some of the kids living in that house were playmates, and some became long-term family friends (Amir, Irit and Ron, the list goes on...). I also have cousins who moved to the Negev Desert for kibbutz life, several decades ago -- I even had my bat mitzvah there on the kibbutz. Their children, now grown and married themselves, are Sabras. And suffice it to say I've dated my fair share of Israeli men. I don't know. We're simpatico.
So when I felt the need to get away and escape some difficult times in Rome a while ago, I decided to head to the place that I knew, besides Italy, made me feel happiness in my chest, in my head, and in my heart. And not incidentally, in my belly.
Tel Aviv is one of many cities around the world known as a "white city," here for its many whitewashed buildings and Bauhaus architecture, particularly concentrated in the city center along Rothschild Boulevard. Even the view from my point of first arrival (a deluxe hotel on the beach in the north of the city) was of a cityscape with a white haze about it. Part of this was the sweltering July heat that inched above 100 degrees on most days, with excessive humidity. But this was also the overwhelming color of the city itself: sandy-white, Mediterranean in feel, and now with an actual skyline. It had been 13 years since the last time I'd visited Israel, and Tel Aviv had really changed since then.
One thing that hadn't changed much, though, was the beach, and its focal role in locals' lives. On the whole, it's amazingly well-kept and clean for a city beach. During warmer months, this is the place Tel Avivans come to cool off, relax, play matkot (beach racquet ball), and maybe grab breakfast, lunch, a snack, or a cool drink.
And speaking of, Israelis are a casual people when it comes to most meals, and they're big on local street treats -- foods they've adapted from various cultures that comprise their population, perfected, and made their own. We're talking about falafel, hummus, shawarma, sabich, and the like. So for the uninitiated, a little background info.
Hummus is a chickpea puree made with tahina or tahini, a sesame paste also eaten on its own and frequently used as a condiment in Israeli cuisine.Falafel is a middle eastern deep-fried vegetable fritter, in Israel most often made from ground chickpeas, herbs and spices. They are served tucked into sandwiches in pita or lafa bread or served on their own with hummus and other dips and salads.
Shawarma is a spit-roasted meat, often turkey or lamb in Israel, seasoned with spices and basted in its own juices as it roasts, and is shaved to order in thin slices and piled into a pita sandwich or served in a platter.Sabich is a simple dish of Iraqi origin, most often in pita sandwich form and containing some or all of the following ingredients: fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg, hummus, tahini, chopped Israeli salad, potato, parsley, and amba (a mango pickle sauce). Most of these street foods are available in cafes, fast-food-style shops, or from street carts, and are served with a variety of homemade pickles and salads that are a wonderful contrast, and a wake-up call to the eyes and palate.
And since Israelis tend to worship at the altar of eggplant, as I do, I must give a little space to the local preparation of a roasted or baked whole eggplant. I had it served to me on the beach -- cold, with chickpeas, tomatoes, parsley, and tahina...or as presented to us at Abraxas North, Chef Eyal Shani's wonderful restaurant where fire and a few choice ingredients turn vegetables into something transcendent: cut in half and served warm, with burnished skin, and a swirl of tahina and tomato sauce, olive oil and egg. I can never really get enough of the eggplant dishes and their iterations, just as I can never really seem to get enough of Tel Aviv itself. Each time I go, it gets harder for me to leave. The energy of this metropolitan city, the beach side location and warm weather, the fabulous food, and not least of all the people themselves: these combine to create an irresistible pull. And I will be back, again and again.
More to come: Israel's cool city and hot restaurant scene + night life in my next Escapes: Tel Aviv.