Any time a friend returns from a trip, the first thing I ask them is what they ate. This is for several reasons – one, to get tips if I ever go to the destination from which they just returned, two, to find out if they heeded any suggestions I may have given them, and three, because no matter where you are in the world, there is something gastronomically unique about it, some particular local specialty that developed for a particular reason, and is representative of at least something about that place. And usually it’s pretty damn good.
While I have not reached the stage of traveling for the sole purpose of eating somewhere or something specific, the local cuisine of my destination does usually play a large role in my planning. Really, what that amounts to is that I am more than willing to spend two hours wandering around a city or town I’ve never been in before to track down a three-breasted cookie (looking at you, Frascati), or a restaurant that looks to be authentically acceptable – a rather intangible qualification for which I cannot offer a rubric to determine acceptability – but I’m not about to drop some serious cash on a plane ticket to Copenhagen for the sole purpose of eating at Noma. Not that I wouldn’t, their damn reservation system keeps foiling me, but at this point I have not yet.
Which is why traveling to Israel this summer was such a strange experience for me, gastronomically speaking. Well, it was a strange experience for me on many levels, as it was the first time since high school that I participated in a big group, bus all of us around, feed us in hotel basements, kind of trip. This is not to disparage that type of travel in any way – it’s just not normally the way I choose to do it. But, having Jewish heritage and a desire to check out at least part of the Middle East, I finally got my act together and signed up for a Birthright trip at pretty much my last opportunity to do so. And it was awesome. We had a fun, easy-going group, a fantastic tour guide, and spent ten days experiencing the history and natural beauty of this complicated region.
But the food sucked. I will admit that it was for good (enough) reason – from a logistics point of view, when you are trying to herd a group of nearly 50 people around a country, packing as much in to 10 days as possible, you cannot just let everyone wander off and feed themselves for every meal, allowing them ample time to seek out the afore-mentioned “acceptable” restaurants serving whatever is most typical of that region, or have them wander through the shook (market) on a daily basis, acquainting themselves with the vendors, produce, baked goods, and other ready made delicacies on offer. What makes the most sense is exactly what we did – mediocre buffet breakfasts and dinners at the hotels where we respectively began and ended our days, with “on your own” lunches on the go. Unfortunately, even for the on the go lunches, we were generally on time and location constraints, and ended up in food courts more often than not, with their passable shopping mall variations on the more delicious street food we did track down once in a while.
Still, it was a strange experience. Everything I had read or heard spoke to the incredible Israeli cuisine. Fresh fruits and vegetables abound, revelatory hummus, iced coffee that would make Dunkin Donuts but a fuzzy dark spot in your past. And while I did manage to snag some decent – nay, more than decent – tasty, shwarma and falafel tucked into fluffy laffa, and, while we’re on the subject of fresh fruits, a truly incredible fresh squeezed passion fruit and ginger elixir from some scary looking lady in the Tel Aviv shook, the whole time I felt like there was a gastronomic wonderland just out of reach. Like, with just a few extra minutes I would stumble into some kind of Technicolor produce paradise, dotted with heaping bowls of hummus, tahini, and other saucy delicacies.
But I never managed to find it, which raised a few questions in my mind. First of all, if all that fresh produce is supposedly so abundant, what was up with the twelve varieties of pickled carrots we were served at every meal? Basically – if there is such a strong culture of fresh food, why weren’t these hotel buffets representing it? Knowing very little about Israeli food systems or economics, I don’t really have an answer, I’m just curious.
The next question was whether I felt like I had missed something. First of all, let me be clear that what we ate wasn’t disgusting, it was just obviously not the best example of what the region has to offer. That being said, there were some notable exceptions – a few instances of excellent street food, and a fantastic final night feast of shakshuka – steaming skillets of spicy tomato sauce, topped with poached eggs, and scooped up with laffa. I could, and sometimes do, eat that on a daily basis.
But for me, what I eat when I travel is just as much a part of the experience as what I see. So, was this not a fulfilling experience? On reflection, however, I think I need to go back to my earlier point about group travel. As I said, it is not generally how I choose to travel, and a large part of that is because it is geared toward seeing as much as possible, which requires tight schedules and logistically easy meals, not the barebones outlines itineraries I usually make for myself, to ensure certain stops, and still allow plenty of time for taste-directed wandering and serendipitous stumbling.
So what we have here is an incredibly packed 10 day trip – few parts of which I would have wanted to forgo – and a desire to experience something that is generally central to my travel itinerary, but here was only tangential. There is a lot to get from travel by just seeing the sites and the topographic diversity of the region, and a single trip will never introduce you to everything about a place. So, as long as I am convinced that there is an Israeli cuisine that I did not get to taste, but am satisfied with a ten day extravaganza during which I visited historical sites both ancient and modern, climbed mountains, swam in assorted bodies of water both living and dead, rode a camel, learned about and began to understand a complicated history, and survived a horse trampling, there’s really nothing to do but file Israel into the “return” column. As they say, next year in Jerusalem – hopefully this time with decent food.