There are deeper pieces written about Israel. They dive into the critical geo-political discussions of history, borders, ethnicity and religion. This post is about food. Yes, Israeli food. While it may not be on the front page, it is a highlight that should not be lost in a discussion of this wonderful country.
Of course if you are traveling to Italy or Latin America, expectations will certainly focus on the cuisine. That is not the case in Israel. Yet, it is at the large, full and colorful Israeli table that life is worked out over warm breads, complicated spreads, charred meats and deep Golan Heights’ wines.
So why the title, “Indigestion.” The indigestion doesn’t come from the significant topics and the intense Israeli mannerisms, it simply comes from the amount of food. There is a deep love for people and community in this culture and it shows at the meal table. The tables are filled with enough that no one will be left out and that all will leave full.
Each meal was served family style. I don’t do well with family style or at a tapas place. I’m simply too competitive. There was no competition at this table. This was family…others were first, everyone looked out for everyone else and most incredibly, you couldn’t out eat what they provided.
There was only one time that a plate did not return full. We were eating a catered picnic at a park just a mile or so from the Syrian border. Our table devoured a delicious burrata covered in balsamic and tomatoes. We were so taken by the flavor that our compulsion was to ask for a second. We forgot that this was a picnic in the middle of nowhere. Needless to say, we did not get seconds…for the first time.
We usually didn’t need to ask for seconds at a meal simply because there was so much. Each meal started with a broad spread of salads and dips. Dinner would include two main dishes served individually, first a fish and then a beef. Following the meal there was always a broad selection of a half dozen or so desserts, fruits, chocolates and a mash of sesame seeds called Halvah.
The last dinner of the week, a few folks returned their steaks. The steaks looked great, my traveling companions were just full and didn’t want to waste the food. A confused chef came out to see what was going on. It was a bit of an awkward cross-cultural moment. The lesson is to take the steak and eat a bite or two if at all possible.
I found this bounty not only in restaurants and hotels but in individual houses. We stopped at the home of a family of Aramaic Christian near the Lebanon border. While we only had a moment at their house, they set an entire table for 14 of us. They had a number of desserts and coffee, tea and drinks. They were ready for an event, unfortunately we were Americans on a schedule.
I had a similar experience on a street corner of Nazareth. There was a group of Muslim men drinking Turkish coffee. Sitting around a hookah with their coffee, they invited me to join them. The coffee was strong and had the smell and taste of delicious cardamom. For them the moment was for coffee and conversation. Unfortunately for the American, the moment was the next moment. It was a miss.
There are many cups and plates to be enjoyed in community, but you wont find a serving spoon. Again, being American, I would request a serving spoon for the dishes and servers would comply. I then sat next to Senior Fellow on Israeli Affairs and she told me, “They don’t have serving spoons because they see everyone as family. You don’t need a serving spoon when you are with family.” I discovered that “double dipping” is deemed just fine in Israel.
The real blessing of a meal in Israel isn’t found in the delicious food, the copious amounts or the community culture, it is found in the length of meal and depth of discussion. Not unlike an Italian dinner, though not as late, dinner in Israel takes a couple hours. It’s not just about the courses, it’s about the real conversations about varied lives lived together.
If you needed one more reason to go to Israel, here it is. Go for the food. The deepest experiences of Israel are not a meal, but your deepest experiences will be enhanced, remembered, noted and savored around a delicious, broad menu shared in community with others, who are also experiencing the beauty and depth of Israel. Take it in!