Field Assignment 3: Food From My Travels
During the long weekend, I travelled to Israel. I was able to see—whether by bus, car, train, or on foot—a fairly substantial portion of the country! This included Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva, and much of the south and Jordan border during an expedition to the Dead Sea.
Food is very prized in Israel, just as it is in Italy. Luckily, my tour guide and best friend, Eitan, has lived in Israel for about a year now and was very well able to advise me on what to eat, and from where. The very first thing I ate in Israel was a pita pocket sandwich with scrambled eggs, tomato sauce, onions, and tabouli. It was just like a vegetarian sloppy joe. According to Eitan, scrambled eggs and tomato sauce is a very typical combination.
Next, I tried Israeli gelato. Eitan and I split two flavors: cookie crunch and strawberry mascarpone. They were both amazing—certainly better than the US and neck-in-neck with some gelato I have tried in Italy so far.
The beautiful array of gelato!
The next day, Eitan introduced me to carrot juice. It was incredibly sweet and creamy—not at all like what I would have expected.
In Israel, juicing is a very popular trend. They juice everything, and dozens of juicing stands litter the streets.
A pretty typical juicing stand along the side of an Israeli market
I haven’t noticed this in Italy, and in fact, I haven’t noticed many cold drinks at all aside from some refrigerated Coca Cola. Perhaps because Israel is in the desert, cold drinks are much more available. Iced coffee, especially, was widely accessible, whereas I have only seen it on one menu in Italy. The coffee in Israel is also extremely watered down with copious amounts of milk. I prefer my coffee black, and have really been enjoying the strong Italian espressos, so this was a bit disappointing.
Very milk iced coffee, or “cafe cal,” as said in Hebrew
On Friday, I also ate two sandwiches (one eggplant and one smoked salmon), which Eitan and I picked up on-the-go in the morning and carried with us for when we got hungry later in Jerusalem. The sandwiches were probably at least 8 inches long but only cost the equivalent of $3 USD. I was amazed at the affordability, just as I have been in Italy as well.
Very cheap–and very delicious!–sandwiches
While in Jerusalem, we also visited an unbelievably huge market. It was similar in some ways to the Italian outdoor markets—hosts of fresh fruit and veggies displayed in all their colorful wonder, accessible prices, and tons of people. However, there were also restaurants and grab-and-go food stands interspersed with the produce, as well as juicing stations, clothing shops, and cafes. People aggressively haggled and were very boisterous. In Italy, I think the market experience is less hectic and much more relaxing, but I thoroughly enjoy both.
The outdoor market in Jerusalem
Another outdoor market, but this one is covered by beautiful tunnels swathed in string lights. This was right outside of the Western Wall, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims come together not only to pray, but also to buy food.
At the market, Eitan would come up to me with samples of food and tell me to I try them despite not telling me what I would be eating. So, unfortunately, I do not have the clearest picture of everything I ate. However, I do know that I had dried mango, dried kiwi, a cheesy pastry, and some sort of sugary, nutty dessert. I also tried what looked like French macarons, but Eitan informed me were actually Argentinian cookies called alfajores. Just look at the picture—it was an easy mistake to make. They were delicious nonetheless, with a somewhat similar taste to a plain macaron but with a chalkier texture.
My last meal of the day was a pita pocket covered in sesame seeds and filled with tomato paste, cheese, olives, and basil. I ordered this only after being talked out of a za’atar-covered pita. The worker at the restaurant thought the za’atar pita had been sitting out, and I would like the other better. I took him at his recommendation, and also thought about how nice it was for him to want to serve us a good dish, especially considering he was Arab making this recommendation to one American girl and my three male Israeli companions (Eitan, his brother, and his roommate). It can get tense between the Israelis and the Arabs at the market, so I appreciated my small window into seeing the other side of things—when people can really want to take care of each other with something as simple as fresher pita.
In any case, I also wondered whether the same sort of interaction would happen in Italy. Italians are so very serious about their food and its quality, that I am not sure if a vendor would want to admit that his or her product had been sitting out in the display all day. Especially because of limited air conditioning, I have found myself sometimes hesitant to order from shops as I watch the sun pour in through the windows and bake the sandwiches behind the counter. I would hope that an Italian shopkeeper could be as upfront as those I experienced in Israel—who seemed always willing to lower prices, make their recommendations, and alter the food with substitutions and additions (whereas in Italy I have gotten some very strange reactions to asking for a waiter’s recommendation).
The next day, Saturday, I went with Eitan and his brother to visit their cousin. She prepared an amazing spread for us—an omelette with sautéed onions, two different kinds of pita bread, guacamole, egg salad, tomato salad, tahini, olives, cookies, nutella, apricots, grapes, and surely some other items I must now be forgetting. It was incredibly generous of her to have me over for this meal that must have taken her hours to prepare. The spread she put out seems to be fairly standard for Israeli house-parties, as I have also seen similar items prepared by Eitan’s mother back in the US. According to Eitan, tahini is “the national goop of Israel” and makes its way to most luncheon tables. Also, of course pita is the bread of the Middle East and is a staple in or accompanying many meals. To top off the outing with Eitan’s cousin, we also went to a market and had roasted chestnuts and knafeh.
We then visited a different relative’s house and had a wonderful spread of small snacks: dried apricots, raisins both golden and regular, and walnuts. We also drank ginger-infused water, red wine, and lemongrass tea. For dinner, there was a mushroom quiche and for dessert, both cheesecake and banana bread. Again, I was so thankful for the hospitality of Eitan’s relatives. I found it wonderful that in my short time in Israel, I was able to observe how not one, but two families entertain and feed their guests.
Sunday was my last full day in Israel. In the morning, we stopped for a quick breakfast before heading to the Dead Sea. I ordered a falafel-in-pita sandwich with hummus, onions, pickled veggies, and tabouli. This is probably the most iconic dish one could have in Israel. Falafel can be ordered at any time, for any meal. It is the center of the dish, with many different options for garnish on a pita sandwich. It is also possible to just eat falafel without the bread. Falafel is a great meat substitute, with a somewhat hazy origin. Many people believe they originated as meat substitute for those observing Lent in Egypt, but of course now they have grown into a widespread street food.
My falafel sandwich–yum!
My particular sandwich was fantastic! I don’t really care for falafel in the United States—it tends to be dry and crumbly without much flavor. In Tel Aviv, it was an entirely different ball game. The falafel was prepared right in front of me. The vendor reached into a bucket of ground chickpea and onion, scallion, and spices, pulled out a small handful, rolled it into a ball, and put it right into the fryer. Within a few minutes, they were ready and went right into my sandwich. Its simple and cheap ingredients made this amazing sandwich less than $4 USD.
While at the Dead Sea, I tried some hazelnut gelato that was of somewhat better quality than what one would expect from a tourist trap ice cream vendor. After that, I didn’t eat again until in a train station on the way home. I tried a vegan chicken sandwich wrapped in a gigantic pita round and accompanied by numerous dipping sauces. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the fake meat, but it was one the best I’ve ever ordered.
Eitan and I at the Dead Sea
In the airport the next day, I tried a Pizza Hut personal pizza with eggplant and za’atar (the fact that they have those toppings at a Pizza Hut is mindblowing), and that about concluded my experience with Israeli food. Overall, it was an amazing experience that made me think so much about comparisons between Italy and the rest of the world (more to come in my blog). So many things are similar—the emphasis on food as the center of social interaction, the rich cultural history of many dishes, the vibrancy of the markets, and accessibility of great food—and yet so many things are unique between the two countries. Something as simply as bread is drastically different in pita form when compared to that of Italy. It just goes to show that my travels aren’t anywhere near over yet. I have so much more to see, experience, and eat!
Airport pizza with eggplant? Mind-blowing!
Blog 3: Food From My Travels
For my travels, I visited Tel Aviv, Israel and some surrounding cities such as Jerusalem and Masada. In my Field Assignment, I extensively detailed my experiences in the market, the use of pita in replacement of regular bread, the history and significance behind falafel, the difference between eating in a restaurant and eating at a local’s home, and several other concepts that I picked up on while traveling including many comparisons to what I have observed so far in Italy.
What I didn’t get as much of a chance to elaborate on in my Field Assignment was the element of control over one’s food that I feel people in Italy and Israel have, disproportionately to the people in America. In both Italy and Israel, it is possible to just step outside of one’s house and be footsteps away from amazing, fresh, vibrant outdoor food markets. The ability to buy this produce and interact with vendors is such a common phenomenon that locals do not seem to even bat an eye at the idea. On the other hand, I am totally awestruck by this because in America, it is rare to have access to food in this way. Aside from Farmer’s Markets, which may only set up shop once a week, and do not visit every town or city, Americans are hard-pressed to find fruit and veggie stands, and to ever make a real, lasting connection with a food vendor. Furthermore, Farmer’s Markets in America have elitist undertones, because they tend to be very expensive and only attract people who have the time and money to leisurely stroll and experiment with goods on a Saturday morning. In Italy and Israel though, the outdoor markets are completely normal ways to obtain food, and there are very low prices which are accessible to people from all walks of life.
Aside from the outdoor markets, people in Italy and Israel also have traditional grocery stores as well as an array of different specialty food shops—dessert places, delis, wine shops, cheese shops, butchers, etc. While these specialty shops do exist in the States, they are few and far between, and are only becoming more and more rare as consumers push to be able to obtain all of their grocery needs in one convenient location. I feel that this is really a shame, and ultimately does a disservice to the consumer, because it causes us to have less control over what we are able to buy. In shoving out the “little guys” who operate smaller, more specialized shops, we are eliminating their goods from the market and turning our backs to the extensive craftsmanship that goes into a skill like cheese-making or artisanal gelato. People who have these skills and operate these businesses rely on consumer demand to continue their operations, so their goods will truly be wiped from the market if consumers do not purchase. When this happens, consumers feel that their options are expanding because they are able to buy more and more from one grocery store, but actually their options are becoming more limited because many, possibly more excellent, goods are being placed on the chopping block.
Furthermore, eliminating the experience of the mom-and-pop shop is another limitation that has caused the American experience of grocery shopping to become highly standardized. Whereas in Israel and Italy, people have their favorite shops and often know the people from whom they are buying food so that their grocery experience is customized, people in America will all cluster around the same large shop in which they are often anonymous and cannot find knowledgeable staff to help out. Also, when shopping in a smaller, more intimate market, consumers are able to have better control over what foods are available and at what prices. Haggling is able to take place, or someone can request that more of a certain vegetable or a different variety of one fruit be brought back to the market at its next availability. Vendors will actually listen to their consumers and allow the consumer to, to an extent, control their market. This is largely absent in the US, with perhaps again the exception of Farmer’s Markets.
Personally, I really dislike that the choices of American consumers (choices with which I disagree) are causing this epidemic of large and impersonal groceries, as well as the collapse of smaller vendors. Of course, this is how an economy works, and I am at the mercy of everyone else’s decisions. However, I wish that Americans could begin to value smaller grocery experiences and see the beauty in these little shops and corner fruit stands. The people of Italy and Israel alike are so lucky to have these elements at their fingertips, and to be able to control their consumption in such a personalized and meaningful way. It truly makes me sad that I will have to trade this experience in at the end of my six weeks in Italy and return to the lonely aisles of Whole Foods. Out of everything I saw in Israel, this realization was probably the most eye-opening…that for all the grandeur of the huge American grocery stores, Americans are actually more limited in the food choices available for them to make, than are people in other countries with their smaller markets. I wonder if that trend will ever turn around for America, and I surely hope that it stays the same in Italy and Israel.