1. A Limonana, or mint lemonade.
The blistering heat of Israeli summer demands that you stay hydrated, and one of the tastiest way to quench your thirst in Israel is with an ice cold Limonana. According to food blogger Liz, “The name limonana is simply a combination of the word for lemonade, limonada, and the word for spearmint, nana.” Whatever you call it, this mint lemonade really hits the spot. Mercedes tells us “The mint lemonade (limon nana) you find in the Middle East is not like what you find in the States, but rather a mixture of fresh lemon juice, mint leaves, and plenty of sugar whirled in a blender until a thick green concoction is poured into your glass.” (source: Desert Candy) Yes, please! Quality varies, with some only having the mildest hint of mint (see, Aroma Coffeeshop) and with others where it tastes like they ground up an entire mint plant in your drink. I’m a fan of the latter.
Make your own with Liz Steinberg
2. Freshly squeezed juice
Freshly squeezed Pomegranate juice and Orange juice are ubiquitous in Israel. When we visited, persimmons were in season and oranges were out of season, so the ones you saw around the country were not the freshest fruits on the tree, if you get my drift. I was excited to try fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I didn’t really like it. Luckily besides the orange juice (actually very tasty), gourmet fruit stands like the one at Shukhanamal gourmet market at the Tel Aviv Port sell an amazing variety of delicious fruit drinks. I think my favorite was a passionfruit concoction with crunchy seeds and a totally unique flavor that Toddler Yum and I shared. I’d never had anything like it before or since. Jamba Juice eat your heart out. PS Looking for Shukhanamal, my favorite spot for organic produce and other gourmet goodies at the port? Walk to Aroma and then scan the horizon for the Sea Horse logo.
3. Meze or Tapas
Besides the breakfasts, my favorite dining experience in Israel was at seaside restaurants serving assorted meze with bread and grilled, salted, or fried seafood. Especially when traveling overseas, I tend towards a pescatarian diet because when you cut out gluten sometimes there aren’t enough vegetarian gluten-free options to keep well-fed and satisfied. I read another blog where they were talking about a gluten-free diet in Israel and listing the options- and halfway through said, the author commented that it would be hard to keep gluten-free and meat-free in Israel. Well, I didn’t feel the need to eat meat persay but consuming seafood really helped make restaurants feasible and satisfying options. Here is one of the nicest meze spreads we enjoyed at a place in Caesarea called Pondak Hatsalbanim (crusaders) that we read about in Frommers. Although I used a gluten-free dining card at some restaurants, after it often seemed to make things more complicated than not, I ended up just telling them “no wheat/bread” and ended up with an amazing assortment of tapas. I skipped one bean sprout dish that I suspected was seasoned with soy sauce, but I enjoyed the eggplant with mayo, baba ghanoush, olives, beets, hummus, tomato salad, and tahina without bread and then we had a grilled fish that Toddler Yum absolutely loved.
4. Roasted Eggplant with Tahina (tahini)
Make that, roasted eggplant with tahina, hummus with tahina, tahina with tahina. One of my favorite things about food in Israel has to be the availability of tahina and tahina enhanced dishes. Barring cross contamination in the kitchen, roasted eggplant with tahina was usually one of the safer things on the menu, and something that I could eat for almost every meal given the opportunity. Keep an eye on the spices, but for the most part, it was served with nothing more suspicious than a little sprinkling of paprika. I loved the eggplant itself, cooked to sweet and silky softness inside the papery charred, smoky skin, but it would have been just another burnt vegetable without that addictive sesame sauce. If you think you don’t like tahini because it is bitter, honey, you aren’t buying the right tahini. I switched from that cheapo version in the metal tin to the real stuff in glass jars available in Middle Eastern markets and wow, the difference is amazing. The un-toasted health food store variety doesn’t cut it either, if you’re wondering. I don’t know what the difference is, but hunt down some REAL stuff at a market. I think you’ll taste the difference.
5. Hummus with Pine Nuts
Speaking of Tahina, another gorgeous dish that I couldn’t get enough of in Israel was the hummus. Served like this with an almost obscene amount of toasted pine nuts, it was a transcendent dish. And I know you are supposed to eat it with lots of gluten bread, but you can ask them to bring it sans bread. The waitor may look at you strangely, but they’ll do it, and then you can just dig in with a spoon. I might have felt awkward about it, but I saw plenty of Israeli’s doing the same thing, even when they had a big mound of bread next to the dish. It is just that tasty. The stuff in the refrigerator case at Whole Foods has nothing on freshly made hummus at a good Israeli restaurant. Or, even a hole in the wall restaurant in a touristy town next to a Mosque. Try it, you’ll be impressed. Again, do watch the spices, because you never know when gluten will creep in.
6. Turkish Coffee
This stuff is thick, rich, and has a layer of coffee sediment on the bottom you could eat with a spoon, if you were so inclined. We drank the smooth coffee on top and left the grit. Very invigorating (and sometimes very necessary) after a morning hiking around events. Probably the best one we had was at a little middle-eastern place in German town in Haifa. Cardamon adds the perfect touch and I like turkish coffee best when it is spiked with the stuff. It is also naturally dairy-free and gluten-free, which is handy.
I could eat olives at every meal, and that option definitely exists in Israel. They are served with breakfast, lunch, and even dinner. Works for me! Toddler Yum liked the green olives, without the pit, but I liked all of them. This photo was taken at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. I didn’t actually buy anything there but enjoyed soaking up the sights and sounds. If I hadn’t gone so late in our trip I probably would have stocked up on fresh produce to prepare in our kitchen.
I had no idea how central dairy was to the Israeli diet until I sat down for my first breakfast in Tel Aviv. There was an entire section of the buffet dedicated to dairy in various forms, from curdy cottage cheese to soft cuttable cheese, to my favorite, silky smooth labneh which can be enjoyed plain or with diced scallions or even fresh dill. I ate quite a bit of dairy as part of my breakfast and enjoyed it, although towards the end of the trip I felt like I had eaten so much dairy I might start to moo in my sleep. My favorite unexpected dish involving dairy was this roasted pepper stuffed with feta-like semi-soft cheese, but I only came across it once at a hotel in Haifa. It was so good I’m going to have to try to recreate it. And I’m already trying to figure out how to acquire some real Labneh in the Bay Area.
9. Breakfast Salad
I have never been that crazy about salads, but Israel tested that and made me think maybe I just hadn’t been eating the right salads. When we stumbled down to our breakfast buffet on the first morning, there was this amazing salad with fresh arugula and greens, walnuts, fresh slices of plum, and crumbled cheese. I topped it with olive oil and vinegar and dug in. That salad was a great start to the day, and I vowed to recreate it at home after we got back. Unfortunately after that first day, they switched to apples rather than plum, but it was still good, if not divine. I found that rather than olive and vinegar, I loved drizzling my salads with tahini. A hard boiled egg, some soft cheeses and some olives and I had a nutritious breakfast of champions. Later hotels had a do-it-yourself nicoise salad with boiled potatoes, green beans, and eggs, and sometimes there were basil mozzarella salads with either real fresh mozzarella or a local substitute. You won’t miss salads while on vacation in Israel, that’s for sure!
10. Health Food Store Treasures
I found quite a few health food stores in Tel Aviv and surrounding metropolitan areas, and while they were a little difficult to navigate due to my Hebrew illiteracy, they usually had clearly marked gluten-free sections with extensive selections of gluten-free breads, cakes and cookies. I was a little gun-shy after the first gluten-free bread I tried seemed to bother my stomach, but besides the breads, health food stores are full of great gluten-free pastas, cereals, and crackers. After a while I stopped trying to buy the more exotic stuff and went for the imported stuff with labels I could read. Wimpy, but safe, and it was reassuring to have a staple in my suitcase I knew that I could trust. The pictured health food store was inside the Carmel Market, and had all sorts of goodies. I loved being able to combine a tourist adventure with a quick health food store run. I picked up some gluten-free corn cakes, which turned out to be a brilliant move because the international flight home had (soggy) gluten-free rice cakes with tuna and egg sandwich fillings. I swapped out the soggy rice cakes for corn cakes and had a tolerable, if boring, lunch. I acquired one of the famous gluten-free pita pockets from Adittas at the port, and tried it in my hotel kitchen. It wasn’t bad, but tasted a little beany for my taste. If only I had the nerve to chase down one of the falafel stands offering their famous gluten-free falafel. I had some stomach issues while on my trip and was paranoid about cross contamination, so I didn’t pursue it- but if I go back, you can bet that I will get me some real falafel. I have a feeling that if it doesn’t hurt my tummy, it might be the highlight of the trip for me.
I hope you enjoyed my list of the top ten yummiest (naturally) gluten-free foods in Israel. I enjoyed my trip, and I think if I could read hebrew, I would have enjoyed it even more. I was a little surprised at how stressful it ended up being not able to read even the simplest labels. However, having waitpeople generally able to speak fluent English and researching online ahead of time did help quite a bit, and I learned a lot about a cuisine that I started out knowing very little about. Next, I’m going to try to make Shakshouka at home, one of the most popular hot breakfast dishes in Israel. I can’t wait! And never fear, as soon as I come up with a recipe that I enjoy, I’ll share it with you!
PS I know that you may have your own ideas about what you think the yummiest gluten-free foods are in Israel. I only spent two weeks there, and was a bit conservative about what I ate. I’d love to hear your list of the top 10 gluten-free yummies in Israel. Share in the comments!
PS2 While these foods generally worked well for me, there is no guarantee that they will always be gluten-free. Ask your server at every place, every time as ingredients may change and cross contamination risks will differ from kitchen to kitchen.
My Reviews of gluten-free friendly restaurants in Israel:
Fresh Kitchen: Vegetarian Friendly GF Menu
more coming soon