If you feel like everyone and their mother is brunching on shakshuka and drizzling tahini, well, you might not be wrong.
Catching a ride on the Israeli-food bandwagon can feel overwhelming—So many spices! So many new names!—so just in time for Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, which starts on the evening of May 1 this year, I put together a basic list of the things you should have in your pantry (or fridge) to give your meals an Israeli touch. Plus, a few Israeli blogger friends shared recipes for celebrating independence the Israeli way.
Cardamom: If you’ve had black, Turkish-style coffee in Israel and recall it having a unique flavor, you have cardamom to thank for that. The spice is great in slow-cooked chicken dishes and both creamy and baked desserts. And you’ll want to nix pumpkin spice for its cardamom-loaded Yemenite cousin hawaij. Go easy at first with cardamom—a little goes a long way!
Chickpeas: You know them from hummus and falafel, of course, but chickpeas are also great in salads that let them shine like this one and, in Israel where veganism is on the rise, in chickpea “omelets.”
Eggs: Israeli breakfast is quite the spread, but eggs—scrambled, omelet, sunny-side up or in shakshuka—are truly the star of the show (I’ve written more about them here). Hardboiled, they appear in other places: brown and creamy in the overnight Shabbat stew (cholent or hamin), alongside Yemenite breads or bourekas (savory pastries), in sabich (a pita loaded with fried eggplant, egg, salad, tahini and condiments), on top of hummus and as part of a light dinner.
Halva: If you’re a halva hater, hear me out. The halva most of us know from our American childhood is crumbly, cloying and seems to have a magical ability to suck all the moisture out of your mouth. Its real Israeli counterpart is moist and fudge-like, and will have you coming back for more. Enjoy it in small cubes with black coffee or crumbled over ice cream or in baked goods.
S’chug/Zhoug: Just when you thought you had perfected your pronunciation of sriracha, Israeli cuisine came to shake it all up with a Yemenite hot sauce to add to your repertoire—and this one is really a mouthful (womp). While heat is important here, it’s the flavor that really matters. Spread on sandwiches, mix into soup, dilute with olive oil and drizzle onto, well, everything—the possibilities are endless.
Silan: Scholars say biblical references to honey refer not to the bee-produced stuff, but to this date syrup, made of cooked-down dates. Silan is great drizzled over ice cream and in baked goods, granola and dressings/sauces. Note that it does taste like dates, with a slight bitterness.
Tahini: Tahini (also known as tehina or tchina) is Israel’s answer to the French mother sauces. A Hebrew novel I recently read described one character as well dressed whenever he was wearing something that didn’t have a tahini sauce stain on it. Light brown in color and a bit runnier than natural almond butter, raw tahini, as its known, can go sweet or savory: drizzled over salads or ice cream (along with silan) and used instead of/in addition to butter or oil in granola and baked goods or other nut butters in sauces in condiments. I recently made this tahini mousse pie, which was so delicious I am afraid to make it again.
When you mix tahini with water (and usually salt, lemon juice and sometimes finely chopped garlic), either in a blender or in a jar with some good elbow grease, something magical happens: it turns white and fluffy. Start with just a little liquid, shake and check the consistency: with less, you’ll have a spread/dip that’s mayonnaise-like in texture (Extra magical: Spread it, béchamel style, on top of siniya, a meat or vegetable casserole, pop it in the oven and watch it turn golden); with more, you’ll have a drizzleable sauce. (Tip: Try Soom, the tahini from our friends the Zitelman sisters.)
Za’atar: The name za’atar refers both to a fresh wild herb and a spice mix; here I’m talking about the latter, which is tangy, sesame seed-studded and fragrant. In Israel it’s often piled on top of wood-fired flatbreads, but it’s also delicious sprinkled on salads and plain yogurt, labneh or sour cream or served alongside pita or rustic bread and olive oil—rip off a piece, dip in oil, then in za’atar and repeat!
Top photo: Olives, pickled vegetables and all the tahini your heart could possibly desire at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. (Photo by Ted Eytan)