Tel Aviv and Jerusalem
By Sabi Phagura
The locals in Tel Aviv proudly dub it the ‘vegan capital of the world’. And they are not kidding.
With 400 vegan and vegan friendly restaurants feeding some 200,000 vegans in Israel, they are serious.
Add to that the fact ‘vegan’ is currently the buzzword of the year, I had the chance to sample some of the best food in two cities – Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The boom in vegan haute cuisine has transformed Israel’s population of eight million into the largest vegan nation, per capita, in the world. Even the Tourism Ministry promotes the country as a ‘vegan nation’.
You can see it in the colour, taste the flavours and smell the aromas on every street corner.
And that’s exactly where my journey to sample vegan food started in the shape of vegan street food in the heart of the movement in Tel Aviv.
I was soon to learn that you don’t have to be vegan to appreciate plant-based food with the readily available high quality fruit and veg everywhere.
Our first stop was Sultana run by the amiable owner Harel.
Inspired by his grandmother to cook from an early age, the chef named the street restaurant after her as a testament.
It’s only been open under a year but it’s already creating a buzz among diners who travel far and wide to sample his cuisine.
“’Farm to table’ isn’t just a trend – it’s a way of life,” explains Harel.
“Tel Aviv is a young and vibrating city where people are open to ethical eating.
“What we do here is think outside the box which heightens the boring side salad into an explosion of dynamic and flavourful dishes. The vegetables are placed at centre stage.”
The proof is evident on the plates of food that swiftly arrive at our table.
Vegetarian shwarma, mushroom and aubergine patties, potato wedges accompanied by tahini and hummus dips were all vying for our attention.
They taste simply divine. So much so, I think to myself how easy it would be to become a vegan if I lived here.
With the bar set so high by this humble place, it was impossible to think vegan food could get any better than this.
But Manta Ray restaurant on the beach front gave it a good shot.
And although it offers many vegan dishes, it holds a high reputation as an excellent seafood restaurant. Not everyone in Tel Aviv is vegan but they are certainly foodies.
Our guide Igal Zeevi said that the best way to get to know the folk of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was to get to know them through their stomach.
Israeli’s love of food is balanced out with their passion for fitness.
Tel Aviv beach stretches for miles along the whole western edge of the city and is awash with outdoor gyms with separate cycling and walking paths.
Almost everybody is into their fitness in a big way. Honed and toned bodies engaged in some sort of sport are everywhere come day and night.
It made sense to follow their lead and I embarked on an early morning jog the next day to make way for the food I was to consume in the coming days.
The open-air Carmel Market selling everything from fruit and veg to falafels and baklawa is a foodies haven.
Stall holders are literally screaming at you to sample their produce. It’s a great way to be introduced to foods you’ve never heard of let alone tried.
The food available here is a melting pot of delicacies from far-flung locales such as Turkey, Yemen, Morocco, Persian, Greece and Iraq, adapted to appeal to the trendy Tel Aviv crowd.
And in such fashion, we munched our way through Bourekas (puff pastry filled with cheese, spinach, potato), Kubbeh (a meat-filled croquette), falafel, Burik (thin dough filled with egg and potato or other fillings) hummus and tahini.
Israeli staples like hummus and falafel are already vegan, and available practically everywhere.
Ali Karavan is like a fast food restaurant popular with office workers and locals alike enjoying hummus and falafels on the go.
Some office workers get vouchers to spend here – not a trend that is likely to be followed in the UK in a hurry, I sadly think.
Huge plates of freshly cooked round pitta breads arrived to be dipped in the various concoctions of hummus.
Before we dived in, Igal gave us instructions on how to perform a hand ‘flamingo’ type move demonstrating how to scoop hummus with pitta. Strictly no double dipping allowed.
Despite having had our fill at Carmel Market, we polished off the food licking our fingers clean for good measure.
Food needs a good beverage to wash it down with and with the Beer Bazaar not far, it makes for a great place to sample local beers.
But if you’re after something stronger, then a visit to Milk and Honey – head to Israel’s first whisky distillery.
Milk and Honey filled its first cask back in 2015 at a time when there were no other whisky distilleries in the country but the whisky industry is booming.
The first whisky was to be aged for a minimum of three years and will finally be ready for consumption later on this year.
If you like a strong spirit, this one is for you The whisky at 46 per cent ABV will set you back 169 shekels, which is around £37.
Currently guided tours end with a tasting of gin they already produce and there was a good few gins we tasted. So cheers to that.
Back in Tel Aviv, we dined at Yulia restaurant that evening before making our way to the Ivry Farm in Moshav Azaria in the morning.
We were advised to take a light breakfast at the Lighthouse Hotel we were staying in and with good reason.
During our talk with dairy farmer David, we indulged in no less than three flatbread type pizzas with various cheese toppings, Calzone, (a sweet version of the flatbread with mascarpone with Nutella), all washed down with wine.
David’s family became farmers almost by default when they moved from Iraq back in 1951.
It was more by way of survival and farming seemed to be a way to feed the family and provide an income at the same time.
But as pressure mounted from neighbours to supply more milk, cheese, eggs and meat, the family decided to take it more seriously.
It didn’t come without its difficulties though but with hard work and determination the business survived.
Today their cheeses (Monchego, mozarrella, gauda etc) are sold in restaurants and pizzerias in the area and they open their dairy farm doors to tourists who come for the whole farm experience before buying produce from here directly.
They count Italians as one of their popular tourists. “It’s mad to think Italians who are renowned for their cheeses come here to buy cheese”, David contemplated.
The Israeli’s may not be that well known for their wine making, so like me you may be surprised to learn there are over 300 boutique wineries in the country.
We stopped by the Karmei Yosef Winery in the rolling hills of the Jedean Plain, in Samson Wine Region southeast of Tel Aviv, not far from the Mediterranean sea.
A joint venture between professors Ben Ami Bravdo and Oded Shoseyev, they set up the Bravdo vineyard in 2001 which today produces 80,000 bottles annually.
Bread and wine have long been used in Jewish religious practices – the most common is the Shabbat rituals during Kiddush prayer when they are blessed as gifts from God.
Back then the wine was pretty foul and basic so it’s encouraging to see that it’s come a long way since.
And if you want to learn about wine, then a wine tasting is a must at Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem.
Efy Kotz, director of wine at Mirror bar, gave us a crash course on wine while selecting a few for us to enjoy from the 120 Israeli only wines they stock.
Located in the heart of the city with magnificent views of the Old City walls, the Tower of David and Jaffa Gate, this five-star hotel (member of the Leading Hotels of the World), is great if you’re looking for a spot of luxury.
Although we were unable to stay here (the hotel was fully booked), we did get the chance to dine at the Roof Top restaurant.
The views are on par with the food which is prepared using fresh natural ingredients infused in simple cooking from grilled meat and fish dishes, fresh salads and pastas.
With so much choice, we were only too pleased to have an array of dishes picked for us to share. The shredded duck and lighted cooked salmon with harissa paste on the side were the showstoppers for me.
Perhaps one of the highlights of the trip for me was a visit to Jams and Roses in ‘The Old House’ in Ein Kerem.
Owner Shoshana Karbasi, is an art and folk story teller by trade, but has been making jams and pickles from her kitchen for a few years now.
She was inspired to take on this role when she lived in Greece and saw local women making jam and selling them outside their home.
Today, she has coach load of tourists descending on her doorstep to watch her make the gooey concoctions before buying them to take home.
We too had the privilege to watch Shoshana at work as she made her popular ‘love jam’ while telling us folk stories from her Moroccan heritage.
Legend has it the jam was made my women to reignite passion in their marital relationships. The secret ingredients being the Abraham bush and neroli essential oil which helps balance hormones.
Suffice to say, not only did we load our breads and crackers with the jam, we also left with jars full of the stuff to bring back home.
Like the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem has a thriving market of its own called Machne Yahuda where you will find everything you need to stock up your kitchen, as well as street food stalls.
People can be seen shopping, eating and drinking here in their hoards during the day and by night the place turns into a real social hub.
Trendy Tel Aviv and Conservative Jerusalem are definitely worlds apart. But what they do have in common is their love of food and drink – and that is a recipe for success right there.
Fly from London to Tel Aviv from Luton, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead
When to go
High season is June-September, when it’s warm but humid. There are so many activities during winter that these months are growing popular for tourism too.
£1 = ₪4.36
$440 per night including breakfast
11 King Solomon St
Jerusalem 94182, Israel
Tel: +972-2-5482200 (reservations)