In some countries and some cultures, food and culture are inextricably linked. And in the case of today’s destination, go back millennia. I’m so excited to share some background on Israel & Jordan cuisine, and some of the amazing food we tried (and places we visited)!
I can’t even begin to show you all the amazing stuff we did during our seven days there. I’ve done a whole post here on our trip itinerary (that links to several other individual in-depth posts). Suffice to say, it was a complete bucket list trip—including actually ticking my #1 bucket list item off when we visited the Lost City of Petra.
But one thing I didn’t get to go into tons of detail about in my travel blog posts was Middle Eastern cuisine and all the delicious things we ate and drank in Israel and Jordan. And when I returned home, I immediately started incorporating aspects into my recipe experimentation.
The hallmarks of Israel & Jordan cuisine
There are tons of similarities in Israel’s cuisine and Jordan’s, and both have been shaped by thousands of years of history and cultural changes. But there are some differences as well.
Like most Middle Eastern cultures, both rely on staples such as hummus, some kind of flat bread, tahini (sesame seed paste, used in many different things like halva, hummus, and sauces), meat roasted on a spit and shaved off (shawarma), lots of fresh salads and mezze (dips), falafel and other chickpea-based foods, flatbreads, and hot tea that welcomes you everywhere. And you’ll find olive oil in and around everything. While there are small differences in how each culture prepares each of these dishes, they’re very recognizable siblings regardless.
Then each has specialties and unique offerings. In Jordan, their cuisine is especially adapted to cooking over campfires in the desert, due to the Bedouin roots. For instance, zarb is cooked in an oven submerged over a fire in the sand out in the deserts of Petra and Wadi Rum, and yields super tender meat and vegetables. You’ll see a lot more za’atar (made from sumac that grows wild in Jordan) and yogurt served alongside main dishes (similar to what I found in Turkey). And you’ll be offered hot tea with mint (sometimes sweetened) everywhere you go—Bedouin hospitality is legendary!
In Israel, shawarma, falafel, hummus, and pita are omnipresent, with tahini sauce coating everything. You’ll find more sweets like knafeh and baklava as well. Shaksuka (a spicy egg dish originating in North Africa) is also emblematic of Israeli cuisine. What’s interesting is how all of the Jewish people returning to Israel after World War II from places like Eastern Europe have impacted the overall cuisine—seen in the presence of dishes such as rugelach, babka, and sufganiot (jelly donuts for Hanukkah).
Food experiences in Israel
There were three main ways that tahini and sesame paste were omnipresent. The first was halva, something I’d never even heard of before visiting. In fact, the first morning at our hotel in Tel Aviv, I kept looking at this bowl of weird stuff that looked kind of like nougat and trying to figure out what it could be. I finally tried some, and thought it was like interesting, sweet styrofoam (but good, don’t let that deter you…it’s just super hard to describe). But still had no idea what it was. Finally we found out it was halva, made from sesame flour and milk, and often flavored with all sorts of other stuff. It was served with breakfast all over Israel as well as in our Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum, Jordan.
The other two ways you’ll see sesame everywhere are in hummus—it’s a major component of Israeli hummus in particular—and in tahini sauce. The Israelis call it tahina, and put it on everything from shawarma to falafel to…well, everything. SO YUMZ.
Want to try tahini in your own cooking?
I’ve been experimenting with tahini since I got back from the Middle East, and love it because it’s so versatile. It can go sweet or savory, and often can be substituted for peanut butter or almond butter (and makes an amazing dressing or sauce!). Here are a few recipes to start with:
- Tahini Brownies (can be gluten-free)
- Tahini Pistachio Biscotti with Dark Chocolate & Sea Salt
- Dark Chocolate, Tahini, & Peanut Butter Bark (gluten-free)
- Spiced Chocolate Tahini Swirl Bread
- Sweet Potato & Chickpea Buddha Bowl with Maple Tahini Sauce
- Roasted Vegetable & Barley Salad with Tahini Lemon Dressing
Fresh hot falafel and shawarma
As I mentioned, one way tahini found its way into and onto everything was as a sauce atop all manner of delicious street food. You can’t go wrong with street food, really. Our first night in Tel Aviv we stopped at our friends’ favorite falafel place straight from the airport, and had AMAZING hot fresh falafel pita with tahina on it. Seriously the best falafel I’ve ever had.
We also ate shawarma a few times in different places, like Tiberius. The gentleman below shaved off the fresh meat for us and topped it with vegetables and tahina in a pillowy pita. Mmmmm.
Interested in other Middle Eastern cuisine? See all about the food in my Turkey travels!
Malawah or malawach
So this is a great example of Israel’s melting pot heritage, because malawach is a Yemeni flatbread that has made its way into Israeli cuisine with Yemenite Jews who emigrated. Different from pita, it’s a buttery, flaky flatbread cooked in a skillet, and then topped with all sorts of different things.
We experienced it at a Yemeni restaurant called Jahnun in Jerusalem’s incredible Mahane Yehuda market. They make the malawah and then you tell them what toppings you want…for me it was always things like roasted cauliflower, crispy onions, tomatoes, fresh herbs, sauces, and more! All of it is vegetarian at this restaurant, and a lot of Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine is fairly plant-based.
GIVE ME ALL THE BAKLAVA! I’m a huge pastry fan in general, and really good baklava is one of the ultimate treats. I ate gobs of it in Turkey, and made sure to try different types in Israel as well. Baklava is a rich, sweet treat made of super thin layers of filo (phyllo) dough, butter, and usually some kind of chopped nut filling, and soaked in a syrup or honey. But the variety of flavors and shapes is amazing.
On our first day in Israel we drove around the north part of the country, mostly in the Sea of Galilee area but also up to Akko (or Accra, Acre, etc.). Akko is an Arab port town famous for its market, and we just walked around to soak up the ambiance and then decided to grab dinner before heading back to Tel Aviv. We ended up in this restaurant where we got this amazing mezze meal, just tons and tons of salads that kept being brought out.
And then I ended with knafeh, a pastry made of cheese or clotted cream and then covered in shredded filo dough or semolina pastry, then fried and soaked in syrup. There are tons of variations depending on the region (I’m partial to Turkey’s), but this treat is delish and a must-have in both Israel and Jordan cuisine.
We walked out of the restaurant to this view, an amazing Friday night (sabbath) sunset on the Mediterranean.
Palestinian grilled meats
We had an absolutely delicious traditional Palestinian lunch of grilled meats, hummus, pita, and salads, with fresh mint lemonade to wash it down. The tender spiced meat paired with the soft, creamy hummus and the tartness and crunch of everything else was absolutely perfect. You can find this type of meal in the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem’s old city (I’ve included directions to this specific restaurant here).
Wandering through Jerusalem’s old city is such an amazing experience…you truly feel the weight of thousands of years of human history and the mixture of cultures. I love all the alleys, the nooks and crannies, the little shops where you can grab a snack. And obviously visiting the Temple Mount is a must (which includes Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall).
Stuffed savory pastries
This is one of those things that every culture has in some way (e.g. Cornish pasties, empanadas in various Latin cultures, etc.). My dad and I enjoyed a lovely sabbath morning in Tel Aviv and Old Jaffa (more on that here), and picked up these delicious pastries at the famous Abulafia bakery in Jaffa. At the end of our trip we grabbed very similar pastries in Jerusalem’s old city to take with us for our crazy pre-dawn hike up Masada (absolute bucket list experience) and scarfed it down sitting on the edge of a cliff and watching the sun rise over the Dead Sea.
I don’t know what the exact name for these are, but they’re different from bourekas (which I also recommend). Bourekas use filo dough, so are flaky and lighter, more like spanakopita or Turkish burek. I mean, you can’t go wrong with dough filled with cheese and veggies…
While there is a lot of shared culinary DNA between Israel and Jordan cuisine, I found that Jordan also had some very different elements that I absolutely loved.
Jordanian food experiences
Hot mint tea
This is an ever-present aspect of a lot of Middle Eastern society (including in Turkey), and it’s completely lovely. Everywhere we went, from a Bedouin pit stop in Wadi Rum to a random shop in Petra, we were offered hot sweet tea with mint—it’s a major part of the Bedouin cuisine.
And you’d think that hot tea in the desert sounds like a terrible idea, but it was surprisingly refreshing and I started to really look forward to it to rinse the dust from my throat and have a moment of peace. Bedouin tea is a hallmark of their culture’s hospitality as well, something always offered strangers as a welcome.
Salads and vegetable stew in Wadi Rum
I found the Bedouin cuisine even more vegetable-based than Israel’s, such as the hot vegetable stew and mixed salads we had for lunch out in the desert of Wadi Rum. Other than the cucumbers EVERYWHERE (ugh), the flavors and freshness were delicious.
Our day doing a jeep tour in the otherworldly landscape of Wadi Rum and then staying overnight in a Bedouin tent were one of my favorite things of the entire trip…from sandboarding down a sand dune to experiencing the bright stars at night, it’s a lifetime must.
If I knew how to make one of those emojis with the googly heart eyes here, I would.
Similar to my feelings on Wadi Rum, the day and night we spent in Petra were probably my favorite part of the trip. Petra had been #1 on my travel bucket list since I was a teenager, so this really was the trip of a lifetime. We stayed in a lovely hotel in Wadi Musa, and the owner asked if we’d like to do dinner that night since they were making a traditional Jordanian dinner. My initial reaction to this is, “Hotel dinner? Thanks but no thanks!” But due to some scheduling challenges and my need to get back into Petra quickly for the Petra by Night experience, we said yes.
WHOA. This was one of the best things we ate the entire trip. Mansaf is the national dish of Jordan (with Bedouin roots), served on a large platter for communal eating. It includes tender meat (traditionally lamb, but chicken and camel are common as well) layered with thin flatbread and piled on fragrant rice. Then there’s a thin white sauce (jameed, a tangy yogurt sauce) poured on top and toasted nuts and fresh herbs are sprinkled over. IT’S AMAZING.
We also ate a similar traditional dish (zarb) in Wadi Rum where the chicken and vegetables were cooked in a pot underneath the sand all day in the desert, making it fall-off-the-bone tender. The flavors weren’t as great as the mansaf, but it was a really cool experience.
If you don’t know much about Petra or it hasn’t been on your radar, you definitely need to check it out. It’s like something out of your imagination. I’ve written about our experience of Petra overall and then specifically the magical Petra by Night experience if you want to see more!
Whew! So that was a lot to throw at you, but hopefully I’ve given you a glimpse of how amazing the food is in Israel and Jordan, and also how amazing the places themselves are! I’m still looking for ways to experiment with some of these foods myself at home, and would love ideas for recipes so hit me up in the comments.
Other travel and food adventures you’ll love:
- Travel Food Postcard: Croatia & Slovenia
- Sailing & Snacking in Sweden’s Gothenburg Archipelago
- Exploring Argentina’s Food & Wine
- Cinque Terre: The Birthplace of Pesto
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