A Gluten-free Exploration of Israel
I begin with an apology for my silence over the past few weeks. I have a good excuse: Mr. Green Bean and I have just returned from a trip to Israel and are processing our 10 days filled with the sights, smells and tastes of this magical Middle Eastern nation. You can be sure I ate my way through our journey in order to report back to you on the status of Israel’s gluten-free awareness. I was aided tremendously by my hard-working Israeli correspondent who spent days preparing for my visit, as much for my comfort and health as to be awarded a spot on this blog. Aunt Fudgie deserves major recognition for the information I am about to divulge. I consider Aunt Fudgie now a top resource for gluten-free dining in Israel, and I personally volunteer her consulting services and delicious home-cooked meals to any glutie traveling through Tel Aviv. (you can thank me later, Aunt Fudgie.)
In planning this trip, I was comforted by the fact that Israeli cuisine is fairly gluten-free friendly. The country’s Middle Eastern fare, influenced by numerous cultural migrations over centuries, tends to be free of unnecessary wheat. Rye is hardly ever used and barley, cracked wheat and couscous show up only in obvious places. In all my restaurant experiences, whether a top-rated foodie destination or a casual Druze village restaurant, I found gluten-free (or “l’lo gluten” in Hebrew) to be a familiar phrase. Servers were often prepared to guide me through menus and answer my questions confidently. (I pause to make the first of a few generalization about Israelis, all meant to be non-offensive observations. Sabras have a tendency to talk with confidence, even when they are not completely sure. Gluten-free travelers should be persistent and emphasize the severity of their “allergy”.)
Fresh off the plane and hazy with jetlag, Aunt Fudgie took us for our first dinner to Gehalim, a typical Middle Eastern, family style restaurant. Dozens of salads and dips accompanied by warm fluffy pitas were sprawled across the table as the server took our order for meat skewers to round off the meal. Israelis love to break and swipe pieces of pita through plates of hummus (chickpea spread), baba ganoush (pureed eggplant), and labneh (soft strained cheese), leaving traces of flour on table tops and in shared spreads. Gluten-free diners can advocate for serving spoons. But as habits are tough to break (and Israelis are a stubborn bunch—generalization #2), I reached for the spreads first and served myself a sampling before the rest started dipping.
Our introduction to Israeli dining revealed some trends we would encounter throughout our trip. Salads and spreads are usually prepared without added gluten. However, be cautious of fried vegetable purees cooked in contaminated oils and the very rare addition of wheat to spreads like hummus. Grilled meats, such as chicken hearts, chicken livers, chicken thighs, and lamb, are most often simply grilled with olive oil and pure spices.
Gluten-free breads are occasionally available at restaurants, and can be found in many grocery store freezers. Aunt Fudgie was well stocked with g-free pita, challah, and bagels. Pita pockets by GreenLite—an Israeli gluten-free bakery with fresh and frozen products available in major cities throughout the country—were particularly satisfying, tasting quite like their glutenous counterpart. I always kept a piece close at hand as some restaurants, like Gehalim, are agreeable to bringing your own bread.
Falafel, those scrumptious deep-fried chickpea balls available at every street corner, whether it be in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv or ancient and mystical Tsfat, is the bane of a gluties Israeli food journey. Pitas stuffed with falafel, Israeli salad, spicy skhug, hummus, tahini, and chips (french fries) are the go-to quick meal or snack. Falafel’s sensuous aroma wafts from the tiny stands that each claim to serve “the best in Israel”. Unfortunately most of their falafel recipes include pesky wheat. But ask around and you will find that there are a token few that make their mixtures purely from chickpeas. One such gluten-free (and organic) falafel establishment is Hippo Falafel, with two locations in Tel Aviv. Named for the vegetarian animal, Hippo offers a slightly more nutritious version of this indulgent treat, with a healthier frying method and no added wheat fillers in their falafel, spreads or salads. The restaurant tried their hand at gluten-free pitas as well, but failed to develop a pocket that could bear the weight of its fillings. I enjoyed every bite of the hot crispy fritters on a plate surrounded by fresh salads. Picky Mr. Green Bean and his discerning Israeli cousin both gave the thumbs up (a challenge while holding onto a bursting pita pocket).
When a gluten-free falafel stand isn’t close nearby, an Aroma Cafe probably is. This popular Israeli coffee shop is accustomed to handling gluten-free diners. They offer a number of hearty salad options and a safely packaged gluten-free roll that is airy in consistency and mild in flavor. Portions are huge, as is the case in most restaurants (Like your typical Jewish mother, Israelis never want guests to walk away hungry—generalization #3). But the profusion of bright, fresh vegetables served with every meal leaves one feeling healthfully stuffed.
For some finer dining, a couple of restaurants are worth noting both for their superior food and service. In Jerusalem we were generously hosted by our good DC pal, Lox, who spends a few months each year working out of her Jerusalem office. She had been waiting for an occasion to try out Machneyuda, a modern Mediterranean, upscale establishment with a lively and homey vibe. The menu changes daily and all ingredients are sourced from the local Machane Yehuda market, for which the restaurant is named. Dishes like fish tartar with watermelon soup, creamy polenta with mushrooms and parmesan, and risotto ragu cooked with soft sour cheese delighted our senses. The surprisingly patient staff (Israelis tend to be short fused—generalization #4) took their time to parse nearly every dish in search of hidden gluten ingredients.
At northern Rosh Pina’s Mizpe Hayamim Hotel and Spa, Muscat offers an elegant dining experience with a breathtaking view of the mountainous Golan Heights. Highly regarded chef Haim Tibi gathers fresh produce from the hotel’s farm to cook up French influenced Mediterranean cuisine. Aunt Fudgie mentioned my “allergy” when making the reservation and our server was prepared with two freshly baked gluten-free rolls, served with a dish of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a poached tomato slice that melted at the touch. My snapper fish was served over creamed cauliflower, with a bouquet of beautifully arranged vegetables. Our halva and pistachio semifredo dessert was the best sweet treat of the trip, with a chocolate crunch and creamy, subtle sesame flavor that wowed both me, a halva fan, and Mr. Green Bean, not such a halva fan.
I end by thanking Aunt Fudgie, the Fudgie family, Lox, and my patient partner, Mr. Green Bean, for their attention to my dietary needs throughout our travels. While our dining experiences were fantastic, it deserves to be said that Aunt Fudgie’s home cooked meals were some of my favorites. She outdid herself with quinoa and cabbage salads, eggplant and squash purees, stuffed chicken, roast beef, turkey legs, chopped liver and more, combining Israeli, American and Persian flavors into festive meals. My gratitude goes to Aunt Fudgie for transforming her home into a gluten-free friendly zone. Even if you don’t have your own Aunt Fudgie, I am happy to report that Israel is with, if not ahead, of the times when it comes to gluten-free awareness.