Israel’s culinary traditions comprise foods and cooking methods that span three thousand years of history. Over that time, these traditions have been shaped by influences from Asia, Africa and Europe, and religious and ethnic influences.
The food of the ancient Israelites was based on several products that still play important roles in modern Israeli cuisine. These were known as the seven species: olives, figs, dates, pomegranates, wheat, barley and grapes. The diet, based on locally grown produce, was enhanced by imported spices, readily available due to the country’s position at the crossroads of east-west trade routes.
The Jewish community that lived in Ottoman Syria prior to immigration that began in 1881 was known as the Old Yishuv. The cooking style of the community was Sephardi cuisine, which developed among the Jews of Spain before their expulsion in 1492, and in the areas to which they migrated thereafter, particularly the Balkans and Ottoman Empire. Sephardim also established communities in the Old Yishuv. Particularly in Jerusalem, they continued to develop their culinary style, influenced by Ottoman cuisine, creating a style that became known as Jerusalem Sephardi cuisine. This cuisine included pies like sambousak, pastels and burekas, vegetable gratins and stuffed vegetables, and rice and bulgur pilafs, which are now considered to be Jerusalem classics.
Groups of Hasidic Jews from Eastern Europe began establishing communities in the late 18th century, and brought with them their traditional Ashkenazi cuisine, developing, however, distinct local variations, notably a peppery, caramelized noodle pudding known as kugel yerushalmi.
Beginning with the First Aliyah in 1881, Jews began immigrating to the area from Eastern Europe in larger numbers, particularly from Poland and Russia, they use local produce, especially vegetables such as zucchini, peppers, eggplant, artichoke and chickpeas. The first Hebrew cookbook, written by Erna Meyer, and published in the early 1930s by the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO), exhorted cooks to use Mediterranean herbs and Middle Eastern spices and local vegetables in their cooking. The bread, olives, cheese and raw vegetables they adopted became the basis for the kibbutz breakfast, which in more abundant forms is served in Israeli hotels, and in various forms in most Israeli homes today.
Tel Aviv residents in the period from 1948 to 1958 was a time of food rationing and austerity, known as tzena. In this decade, over one million Jewish immigrants, mainly from Arab countries, but also including European Holocaust survivors, inundated the new state. They arrived when only basic foods were available and ethnic dishes had to be modified with a range of mock or simulated foods, such as chopped “liver” from eggplant, and turkey as a substitute for veal schnitzel for Ashkenazim, kubbeh made from frozen fish instead of ground meat for Iraqi Jews, and turkey in place of the lamb kebabs of the Mizrahi Jews. These adaptations remain as a legacy of that time.
Khubeza, a local variety of the mallow plant, is high in iron and vitamins. In the past decade, food writers in Israel have encouraged the population to prepare khubeza. Local chefs have begun to serve khubeza and other wild plants gathered from the fields in upscale restaurants. The dish called Ktzitzot Khubeza is still eaten by Israelis today.
Immigrants arriving from central Europe brought foods such as schnitzel and strudels, while Russian Jews brought borsht and herring dishes, such as schmaltz herring and vorschmack.
Ashkenazi dishes include chicken soup, schnitzel, lox, chopped liver, gefilte fish, knishes, kishka and kugel. The first Israeli patisseries were opened by Ashkenazi Jews, who popularized cakes and pastries from central and Eastern Europe, such as yeast cakes (babka), nut spirals (schnecken), chocolate rolls and layered pastries.
There was a large migration of Jews from Turkey, Iraq, Kurdistan and Yemen, and Mizrahi Jews from North Africa, particularly Morocco. Mizrahi cuisine, the cuisine of Jews from North Africa, features grilled meats, sweet and savory puff pastries, rice dishes, stuffed vegetables, pita breads and salads, and shares many similarities with Arab cuisine. Other North African dishes popular in Israel include couscous, shakshouka, matbucha, carrot salad and chraime. Sephardic dishes, with Balkan and Turkish influences incorporated in Israeli cuisine include burekas, yogurt and taramosalata. Yemenite Jewish foods include jachnun, malawach, skhug and kubane. Iraqi dishes popular in Israel include amba, various types of kubba, stuffed vegetables (mhasha), kebab, sambusac, sabich and pickled.
The 1980s were a formative decade: privately owned dairies began to produce handmade cheeses from goat, sheep and cow’s milk, which quickly became very popular both among chefs and the general public. New attention was paid to the making of handmade breads and the production of high quality olive oil. Ethnic heritage cooking, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi, has made a comeback. Apart from home cooking, many ethnic foods are now available in street markets, supermarkets and restaurants, or are served at weddings and bar mitzvahs, and people increasingly eat foods from ethnic backgrounds other than their own. Overlap and combinations of foods from different ethnic groups is becoming standard as a multi-ethnic food culture develops.
In the 2000s, the trend of “eating healthy” with an emphasis on organic and whole grain foods has become prominent, and medical research has led many Israelis to re-embrace the Mediterranean diet, with its touted health benefits.
Jewish cuisine is a diverse collection of cooking traditions of the Jewish people worldwide. It has evolved over many centuries, shaped by Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), Jewish Festival and Shabbat (Sabbath) traditions. Jewish cuisine is influenced by the economics, agriculture and culinary traditions of the many countries where Jewish communities have settled and varies widely throughout the whole world.
The distinctive styles in Jewish cuisine are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Persian, Yemenite, from Jewish communities from Ethiopia, Indian and Latin-American. Israeli Jewish cuisine is both authentically Jewish and distinctively local "Israeli", yet thoroughly hybridised from its multicultural diasporas Jewish origins.
The laws of keeping kosher (kashrut) have influenced Jewish cooking by prescribing what foods are permitted and how food must be prepared. The word kosher is usually translated as "proper." Certain foods, notably pork and shellfish, are forbidden; meat and dairy may not be combined and meat must be ritually slaughtered and salted to remove all traces of blood.
Observant Jews will eat only meat or poultry that is certified kosher. The meat must have been slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in accordance with Jewish law and is entirely drained of blood. Before it is cooked, it is soaked in water for half an hour, then placed on a perforated board, sprinkled with coarse salt (which draws out the blood) and left to sit for one hour. At the end of this time, the salt is washed off and the meat is ready for cooking. Today, kosher meats purchased from a butcher or supermarket are usually already koshered as described above and no additional soaking or salting is required.
According to kashrut, meat and poultry may not be combined with dairy products, nor may they touch plates or utensils that have been touched by dairy products. Therefore, Jews who strictly observe kashrut divide their kitchens into different sections for meat and for dairy, with separate ovens, plates and utensils (or as much as is reasonable, given financial and space constraints; there are procedures to kasher utensils that have touched dairy to allow their use for meat).