> Judaism 101 > Hebrew > Learn Hebrew Series

Learn Hebrew: Israeli Foods

November 26, 2009 | by

This nation of immigrants has a wide variety of national foods.

What is Israeli food? It is rather difficult to answer this question. Actually, we are still developing a recognized cuisine in the "land of milk and honey;" a cuisine that reflects the diversity of Israeli society, rooted in the Jewish tradition, and utilizing the regional customs.

Hence, we find a very eclectic cuisine that integrates local dishes as well as "emigrated" dishes -- plus local fresh fruits and vegetables and notable dairy products to create a unique Israeli flavor. On a typical Israeli table, you can find Romanian eggplant salad served besides a North-African Chirshi pumpkin salad, and Mediterranean Pita bread holding Wiener schnitzel and French fries, not to mention the Arab-Israeli vegetable salad.

Often, it is easier to recognize your home food when you're away from home. So I ran a little non-scientific survey on an Internet forum of Israelis who live abroad. I asked them about the food they really crave for, the food they want to eat as soon as they land in Israel. The list turned rather long, and few discussions evolved around the level of authenticity of certain foods to the Israeli culture. We can’t cover all the Israeli-related dishes, but you will get a general taste of our gastronomical cravings.

Related Vocabulary Words

Many Israelis emigrated from the Mediterranean and Arab countries and brought with them the flavors of the Middle Eastern food. Others came from Balkan and European lands. In addition, the Arabs that have been living in the area contributed a lot to the developing cuisine of the young country.

So let’s begin our culinary tour. And don't worry -- desert is being served at the end.

Burekas is a type of baked or fried filled pastry, made of a thin flaky dough such as phyllo (filo) or puff pastry. It can be filled with cheese, mashed potatoes, meat, spinach, etc. It is sometimes served with hard-boiled egg. The burekas was brought to Israel by the Balkan Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire.

The word “burekas” is singular, so you would not refer to one as a “bureka.” Rather, one is “burekas,” and many are “burekasim.”

Now here’s a piece of burekas trivia: In order to avoid confusion when keeping kosher, burekas that are pareve (i.e. neither milk nor meat) are almost always made square/rectangular in shape. Whereas burekas that are dairy (e.g. filled with cheese) are generally made triangular in shape.

Humus (in Hebrew, chumus) is a dip or spread made from cooked, mashed chickpeas, blended with tahini sauce, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic. Humus in pita is a common school sandwich and is a standard at almost every dinner table.

Pita is a double-layered flat or pocket bread traditional in many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. When the pocket bread is filled with humus, it may serve as the base of many dishes such as falafel, French fries, salads, and shish-kabob. It is also customary to take a piece of the pita bread and dip it into humus or tahini sauce while picking at some spicy olives and pickles on the side.

Falafel is a fried ball or patty made from spiced, smashed chickpeas and/or fava beans (פוּל, fool). Although Israel doesn't have a universally recognized national dish, the closest thing is undoubtedly falafel.

Salat yerakot yisraeli (Israeli vegetable salad) consists of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, finely sliced and spiced with olive oil, lemon, salt, pepper and minced parsley. And always fresh!

La’baneh is a yogurt which has been strained in a cloth to remove the whey, giving a consistency between that of yogurt and cheese, while preserving yogurt's distinctive sour taste. The word La’baneh is derived from the word לָבָן (lavan), white.

Schnitzel is a kosher variation of the Wiener schnitzel made of chicken or turkey breast, coated with a mixture of beaten eggs and bread crumbs, and fried. The Israeli schnitzel is often served in pita bread accompanied by humus and French fries. The schnitzel tradition was brought to Israel by Ashkenazi Jews coming from Europe. Many Israelis were of Viennese or German origin, but during the early years of the State of Israel, veal was unobtainable and chicken or turkey proved an inexpensive and tasty substitute.

Petitim (literally: baked flakes) is one of the foods considered to be a unique Israeli culinary contribution. Petitim is a wheat-based baked pasta, which is shaped like rice grains or round pearls was invented during the austerity (צֶנַע - tzena) period in Israel, when rice was scarce. Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, challenged the Osem food company to quickly devise a wheat-based substitute to rice. And the rest is history -- adored by children everywhere.

Now here’s some trivia: Petitim has a few nicknames: “Israeli couscous,” and "Ben-Gurion's Rice."

Gevina Tzfatit (literally: Tzfat cheese) was first produced by the Hameiri family in Tzfat (צְפַת) right after the big earthquake of 1837. Although the original cheese is still produced in the same dairy by the sixth generation descendant of the Hameiri cheese makers, it is also produced with many variations by other dairies, and varies in the amount of fat and the origin of the milk (cow, goat, etc.).

Krembo (a combination of the words for “cream” and “in it”) is a chocolate-coated marshmallow treat. It consists of a round biscuit base on the bottom, whipped egg whites cream from above, all coated in a thin layer of chocolate. Although the "krembo season" is only during the winter months (given that these melt easily and would make a mess in the summer), 50 million krembos are sold each year -- an average of nine per person in Israel.

Now for some Krembo trivia: In the summer months, a different form of Krembo is sold, enclosed in an ice cream cone to prevent melting and mess. This treat is called Glida Cham -- literally, “hot ice cream” (because it is not in frozen form).

Related Hebrew Names

- Shamir
A boy’s name, from the Bible, meaning a dill plant or an emery stone. Shamir is also a type of worm described in the Talmud as being capable of cutting through or disintegrating stone, used in the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.

"Shamir" is mentioned in the Bible as the name of a certain Levite (1-Chronicles 24:24) and was also the name of a city in the mountains of Judah (See Joshua 15:48; Judges 10:2). Today, Shamir is the name of a kibbutz in the Galilee.

- Irit
A modern girl’s name, meaning chives or asphodel.

Hebrew Word Search

See if you can find all the words in the puzzle below:


Watch a video clip of the Falafel Song.


Bon Appetite!

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram