Best Street Food in Israel
One of the many reasons people travel is to see and experience things outside their comfort zone, and that definitely includes trying new cuisine. And the good news for any ‘foodie’ going to plan a perfect vacation in Israel is that your taste buds are in for a delightful surprise. With its eclectic population (Jews here hail from Europe, Africa, South America and Asia), there’s a dish for every palate and Israeli street food really has its roots in immigrant experience.
Prepare Your Tastebuds
Moreover, whilst Israel has really upped its game on the food front (with plenty of high-end fine dining experiences) if you’re on a budget, or simply don’t want to blow a fortune on lunch/dinner, you’re going to be pleased. Whether you’re in the big cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv or tiny towns up in the Galilee or down in the Negev, you’ll be confronted with certain ‘street foods’ that the locals adore, particularly dishes made with simple but fresh Mediterranean ingredients.
Cheap, Healthy and Fresh
Vegetarians and vegans will be in seventh heaven. If you’re looking to eat without meat, Israel won’t disappoint you - indeed, you’re going to be amazed at how easy it is to find plant-based foods, without skipping on taste or flavour. And, as you can imagine, the other great thing about Israeli vegan street food is that it’s cheap - for less than $10, you’ll be chowing on dishes that will keep you full for hours (and won’t necessarily wreck your cholesterol levels either!)
Today we’re looking at some of the best street foods in Israel - many found in ‘holes in the wall’ in the backstreets and beloved by the locals for their down-to-earth atmosphere and warm welcome. Often run by families, for generations, you’re often going to have to wait in line but actually, that’s a good thing - after all, the longer the line, the better you know the food is going to be! Hungry? Then read on…
Famous Israeli Street Food
1. Falafel - you can’t talk about Israeli street food without first mentioning the humble falafel. For decades, it’s been Israel’s favourite snack and although some will tell you it’s had its day, don’t believe them - you’ll find falafel stands on every Israeli street corner (each with their own ‘secret’ recipe for making this delectable dish).
For anyone who doesn’t know, falafel are bite-sized balls made out of chickpeas, flavoured with herbs and spices and then deep-fried, before being placed in a soft pita (which acts pocket) and served with tahini (a sesame seed paste) fresh salads and sometimes even a slice of eggplant thrown in!
Falafel is popular all over the Middle East (it actually originated in Egypt, where it was first made with fava beans) and is incredibly popular amongst vegetarians. Every falafel you try in Israel is bound to taste slightly different, depending on how much garlic, parsley and spices are used, but few come away feeling disappointed.
2. Sabich - hot on the heels of the humble falafel is the sumptuous sabich. This Iraqi Jewish sandwich is made either of pita or laffa, and is made up of egg, potato, salads, tahini, parsley, eggplant and a delicious mango sauce called ‘amba.’ The ingredients are simple yet fantastic and when you bite into one, it’s a veritable flavour explosion.
The history of the humble sabich can be traced back to the Iraqi Jews who arrived in Israel in the 1950s. On Shabbat mornings when they were in a hurry to leave for synagogue, they would eat a cold meal of these foods, stuffed in a pita (having cooked the eggplant the previous evening). In the early 1960s, a stand in Ramat Gan (a suburb of Tel Aviv) began selling them and the trend quickly caught on. Today, it’s beloved by Israelis - some of whom enjoy it with hummus and sour pickles. The ultimate sandwich…
Hummus in Israel comes in all shapes and sizes - topped with pine nuts, sprinkled with sumac and cumin and some partnered with ‘foul mudammas’ (a fava bean dip). You’ll also see locals eating it with slices of raw onion and sour pickles - yes, it sounds very odd but - trust us - a lot of people try it and become instant converts.
Hummus is also popular in Arab communities all over Israel, especially in Galilee, Jerusalem and the small village of Abu Gosh and, just like falafel, every place serves it a little differently, sometimes using recipes handed down over the generations. Bottom line - you can’t come to Israel without indulging in a few plates of this delicious chickpea spread…
Originally from Turkey, (the word ‘borek’ in Turkish means ‘pie’) you can find them filled with potato, salty cheese, yellow cheese and spinach. They’re popular not just in Israel but all over the Middle East and particularly with Jews from North Africa, who serve them at festivals and family celebrations.
5. Shawarma - popular across the Levant, this roasted meat (which could be lamb, veal, chicken or turkey) is cooked slowly on a revolving spit, before being cut into thin slices and served in pita/laffa with different sauces. This is not the healthiest of snacks (watch out, arteries) although in Tel Aviv they’ve even opened a ‘vegan shawarma’ joint called Goodness, which promises all the taste without the possibility of a heart attack!
7. Shakshuka - introduced to Israel by Tunisian Jews, this classic North Africa/Middle Eastern dish is incredibly popular amongst Israelis, particularly for breakfast. It’s a simple concept but one that everyone seems to love - eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic and green peppers. Traditionally served with pita bread, it’s incredibly satisfying - spices always vary but prepare to taste cumin, coriander, caraway seeds and even turmeric in your order.
9. Knafeh - this Middle Eastern dessert is made with spun pasty then soaked in a sweet syrup, before being layered with sweet cheese, nuts and pistachio. It’s particularly famous in Nablus, in the West Bank, where it’s made with their traditional Nabulsi cheese. Whether you eat it soft or crispy, the gooey cheese, sweet taste and orange flavouring are to die for and we’re sure you won’t settle for one piece.
10. Halva - this delicious sesame seed candy is beloved by Israelis and the perfect snack if you’re on the go. Mixed with sugar, or honey, it's often flavoured with vanilla or swirled chocolate pieces and look out for the pistachios too! Flaky and dense, you’ll see it sold not just in supermarkets but in huge wedges at food markets (vendors will cut off pieces for you, so you can mix and match!)
Halva at the Carmel market shop. Photo credit: © Dmitry Mishin
Street food in Tel Aviv
So, what are the 10 best-kept street food secrets in Tel Aviv? From the Carmel Market to the mean streets of Dizengoff and the alleyways of Jaffa, we’ll tell you…
1. Abu Hassan, Jaffa - this family-owned hummus joint in Jaffa has been voted best of its kind in Israel and we know why. Simple and delicious, this is local food at its best and the servings are so large, they can often feed two. A must visit.
2. Ha Kosem, Shlomo HaMelech Street - In English, the name means ‘the Magician’ and this downtown Israeli street food joint is an institution. Whether you want falafel in a pita, shawarma in a laffa or chicken schnitzel on a plate, they’ll help you out - and whilst you’re waiting in the long long line, they bring out piping hot falafel balls to keep your spirits up. Our tip: try the ‘rimonada’ (a cold drink made of lemonade and pomegranate juice).
3. Sabich Frishman - always busy with the locals, they’ll stuff your sabich with goodies you can’t imagine and the mango sauce is superb. Worth every minute of waiting and every shekel - and the guy behind the counter will make it as spicy as you like.
4. Mashawsha, Pinsker - this Galilee-style eatery is close to the Tel Aviv beach and specialises in mashawsha. This is a ‘light’ hummus with tahini which has a more airy texture. They also serve falafel balls, jugs of sweet lemonade and excellent knafeh. Great value and friendly staff to boot.
5. Dr Shakshuka, Jaffa - known for its Libyan-style home cooking, this place is a real institution. Enjoy breakfast there on Friday morning, whilst lingering over a coffee in their courtyard, before spending time at the Jaffa Flea Market, full of second-hand goodies and hipster bars.
7. Shlomo and Doron - street food in the Carmel Market never was this good. Creative preparation makes the taste exceptional and the prices are very reasonable. Don’t worry about the basic appearance of the place - this hummus is top-notch, so grab a table outside and indulge. Our tip: if you’re not too full from lunch, try the malabi dessert.
8. Burika Centre - the twist in this snack is that it’s put in a fresh pita, and accompanied by sauces and vegetables. Our tip: try the potato and egg with tahini and tomatoes. Unbelievable!
9. Shakshuka - just off the main drag of the market, you’ll find this unpretentious little place. Their homemade shakshuka is fab and they also do Greek, Italian and Spanish versions! With some of their crusty bread dipped in the dish, you’re going to leave happy.
10. Sabich Tchernikhovsky - prepared lovingly and with great attention to detail, this tiny place is well-known in Tel Aviv. Stand in line, order one then sit on a bench opposite and enjoy it. The fried eggplant is wonderful and if you really want to push the boat out, order one with cheese!
Street food in Jerusalem
Lina, Old City - in the Old City’s Christian Quarter, just off the Via Dolorosa, this popular hummus joint has six tables but is always popular, particularly for its hummus with pine nuts, creamy eggplant dip and crunchy fries. Run by two brothers, who took it over from their dad (his pictures are on the wall) the food is good value for money and super tasty.
Arafat, Old City - close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, this tiny place has no menu, friendly staff and just a few tables. They only serve two things - hummus and chicken with rice, but no one ever complains! The hummus is creamy, flavourful and made every hour. The only problem is they often sell out early, so don’t arrive after 2 pm!
Street Food at Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem
Falafel Brothers Levy - a renowned spot in the Jerusalem food market, on the corner with Agrippas street, this falafel joint is a legend - the crispy balls are crunchy and flavourful, the pita is soft and the salads are fresh. There’s almost no seating so you’ll have to get it to go, but you won’t be disappointed.
Ha Agas - this family business is beloved by locals and vegans alike for their hummus, stuffed vegetables, black lentil patties and vine leaves with rice. Just a few tables inside but there’s always something good boiling in a pot. Cheap, yummy and friendly - it’s a must-try! Our tip: try the hibiscus juice!
FishenChips - this fast food joint in Mahane Yehuda Market features the British classic, but without the mushy peas and swapping mayonnaise for salt and vinegar on the chips! Crunchy batter on the outside and soft flaky fish on the inside, you can order either red tuna or cod. There isn’t much seating so head for the benches across from the stand and soak up the market atmosphere.
If you want to try Israeli street food, join either Carmel Market Food Tour or Israeli Street Food Tour.