Have Food, Will Travel: Israel As a Culinary Tourism Hot Spot

Israel has long-since been the destination for those looking to connect with their religious roots and cultural heritage. But in recent years, trips to Israel have become a bit of a rite of passage for many food aficionados. As the culinary landscape here has exploded, the fresh and flavorful cuisine keeps foodies coming back for seconds. But what exactly draws ravenous tourists to Tel Aviv, the Galilee, and Jerusalem?

What Is Food Tourism, Anyway?

“Food tourism” is a phrase coined by the World Food Travel Association, a non-profit dedicated to exploring the connection between tourism and cuisine. The organization defines this term as “the pursuit and enjoyment of unique and memorable food and drink experiences, both near and far.”

Why Israeli Cuisine?

First of all, Israel is unique in its versatility and quality of ingredients. Of course, you can find plenty of traditional fare when you travel here, but you’ll never want for variety when it comes to your meals.

Tel Aviv is known for having the highest number of sushi restaurants per person on the entire planet. And one restaurant located in Israel was described by the Italian government as having the best Italian cuisine outside their own country. In Israel, only the fittest survive; restaurants must prove themselves if they want to stay in business.

With so many high-quality restaurants serving all types of cuisine, it’s no wonder that Israel’s Ministry of Tourism wants to use these eats to spark a travel resurgence. Whether it’s to convince Americans to come for the first time or to give those who have explored the country on birthright or for other religious reasons to return, officials think the nation’s edible offerings play a big role in tourism rates. Considering that American tourism to Israel increased by 20% from the first half of 2016 to the first half of 2017, they may be onto something.

Must-Try Culinary Treats

If you do decide to experience a taste of Israel (and you absolutely should), there is a long list of dishes you need to sample. While there are countless innovative dishes to tantalize your taste buds, you can’t forget about these scrumptious staples:

  • Shakshuka -- there’s no better way to start off your day than a pan of eggs, tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, and spices. While its name means “all mixed up,” you’ll definitely feel like everything is coming together when you eat this traditional breakfast dish.

  • Falafel -- this one might be quite familiar to you even if you’ve never been outside the U.S., but the falafel you’ll find in Israel is the OG. It’s a delicious and budget-friendly option made of chickpeas or fava beans (and sometimes both!) and spices, formed into balls and fried. Served in a pita and alongside tahini, pickled vegetables, salad, and other accoutrements, this is one dish that will leave you satisfied.

  • Hummus -- although a lot of Americans eat hummus pretty often, what we get in the states just can’t compare. This dish is made from chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon, garlic, and salt. It’s simple, it’s healthy, and it’s delectable. Whether as a side dish or a full meal, make sure to scoop up every last bite with a healthy portion of pita bread.

  • Shawarma -- If you’re a fan of the Greek gyro, you’ll probably feel right at home with this Israeli street food. Thin sliced pieces of turkey, lamb, or chicken are stuffed into a pita along with salad, hummus, tahini, pickles, or even french fries. It’s a meal you can get on the cheap without sacrificing on flavor.

  • Sabich Sandwich -- Want something a little less familiar to the American palate? Sabich might be your new favorite. In this dish, pita bread is stuffed with fried eggplant, overnight-cooked egg, tahini, pickled mango sauce, chopped vegetable salad, sliced onions, cooked, potatoes, and hot sauce. It might sound like it’s an “everything but the kitchen sink” concoction, but for many, this pick wins out over some other well-known staples for its complexity and freshness.

So while many come to pay homage to their religious roots, Israel is reeling travelers in with its original and flavorful eats. If you’re trying to find a new tourism hot spot, Israel may well be a foodie’s paradise.