On a recent trip to Israel I had warm hummus topped with a luscious fried egg and a small dollop of Israeli sour cream, a smidgen of hot peppers and a basket of warm pita at a restaurant looking over the Mediterranean. At a Tel Aviv market, I piled my falafel high with salads and rained tahina sauce on it.
I waited with my mouth salivating for the man at the Jerusalem bus station food stand to slice my spiced shawarma lamb and drop it into a pita with chopped purple and white cabbage, Israeli salad and schug or spicy sauce. I sat on a stoop with a friend in her small town and devoured the best, steaming green falafel sandwich I had ever tasted.
At a restaurant in the parking lot of a gas station near the Ben Gurion airport, I ate grilled meat, hummus with a dozen small plates of salad and steaming, crispy fries. I even waited in a long line of soldiers in Jerusalem for a plate of grilled lamb, chicken livers and chicken hearts.
In Israel, I could happily spend every day eating a new or old version of Israeli food, and my taste buds would be dancing the hora from sunup till sundown.
So what gives back here at home?
If the Washington, DC area is as full of foodies as the proliferation of new high quality restaurants and chefs suggests, where are all the delicious Israeli restaurants?
Turn to Yelp with a query for “Israeli foods DC” and you get Greek, Turkish, Afghan, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. There is Amsterdam’s falafel, Figs Lebanese Café and even Zaytinya. Only Distrikt Bistro in the lobby of the downtown Jewish Community Center is actually Jewish-Israeli.
Put “Israeli restaurants in DC” in Yahoo’s search engine and you get Mama Ayesha’s, Moby Dick House of Kabob and Lebanese Taverna heading the list. And there is as much confusion on as off the Internet about what constitutes Israeli versus Palestinian or Lebanese of Mediterranean food.
It’s not surprising that Lebanon considered suing Israel several years ago for claiming that falafel, tabouleh and hummus are Israeli. Lebanon also wants to take credit for those foods. Who can blame them? Most Israeli foods sprang from Arab sources.
“Any time I write about foods with an Arab origin (even those I’ve learned from my Jewish-Iraqi side of the family), I find a comment box full of angry Arab readers claiming that ‘Israelis took our land, now they’re taking our falafel/hummus/freekeh,’” Israeli food writer Vered Guttman wrote in an April Washington Post article.
But, Guttman argues, the Palestinian influence on Israeli cuisine is a natural process, especially because it’s based on what the land has to offer: olive oil, herbs, eggplant, tomatoes, wheat and chickpeas.
Whatever your political stand on Israeli food, the sad fact remains that there is precious little of it offered in DC, Maryland or Virginia.
In the Maryland suburbs, Israeli food can be had at Aroma Espresso Bar and Café, an Israeli restaurant franchise that opened recently in Bethesda, CrèmCaffe in Rockville and Max’s Kosher Café in Silver Spring, which serves kosher shawarma and falafel. In Rockville, Koshermart supermarket serves Israeli fare in their on-site restaurant while Café Shawreen has an emphasis on kosher Persian cuisine.
Another way to buy Israeli foods and other goods is via the Internet or at larger chains that sell Israeli products. Buyisraelgoods, a product of America-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Stand With Us, lists a slew of local and international Israeli businesses that sell Israeli products, including foods and wines.
But for a really fine and authentic Israeli meal, you’ll need to book a table at Zahav and hop on a train to Philadephia. The restaurant offers small plates with influences from Persia, Eastern Europe and North Africa, including five varieties of hummus, bread cooked in a wood-burning Taboon and sizzling skewers of meat. Philadelphia Magazine named Zahav the #1 restaurant in Philadelphia in 2009.
Finally, you can always cook it yourself. Check out recipes here or on Guttman’s blog and bring a little taste of Israel into your kitchen. Or hire Guttman’s catering company, Cardamom and Mint, to do it for you.
If you have discovered good Israeli food in the area, please share it with us. We would love to check it out.
Join the Jewish Food Experience for cooking demonstrations, tastings, book signings and more at Israel@65, a food, wine and music festival on Sunday, June 9.