It’s the eve of the Jewish Sabbath. The Machane Yehuda food market in Jerusalem, Israel, heaves with energy. Everyone is scrambling for the breads—especially the challah, the braided Jewish bread—and other foodstuff that often goes for knockdown prizes on this day. Stalls spill over with fresh produce, fruits and vegetables that look like they’ve just been plucked. Falafel stands offer scores of dips and toppings, kosher meats and fish. Roadside stands are piled high with green and black olives, spice mixes, organic olive oil, sickly sweet halvah and artisanal cheese. Women sift through couscous with their fingers, men bake bread behind glass panels.

For a people better known for their austerity and strict dietary laws, I am surprised by the extent to which food dominates the day of the average Israeli. Breakfast tables are always laden with food, especially fresh dairy products: innumerable varieties of yogurt and cheese, luscious piles of fresh fruit and smoked or pickled fish, besides juices, eggs and breads. “These large breakfasts have their origins with the kibbutz workers, who woke up at dawn to work the fields on empty stomachs before gathering for the first meal of the day," explains Sharon Pelleg, our Jewish guide.

As I pile my plate with a variety of cheese, mezze and fruits, I remember that in the Bible, Israel was called “the land of milk and honey". “The food on your plate actually tells the exciting story of how the first settlers transformed this arid land into one bursting with fresh produce," says Pelleg. The seeds of the legend that is Israeli agriculture were sown back in the 19th century, when settlers cleared rocky tracts and created terraces; their successors would develop ingenious irrigation systems that countered a perpetual water problem even as community farming models—the kibbutz and the moshav—thrived.

If cuisine is a fabric, Israel’s would resemble a tapestry, meshing the diversity of its immigrant communities with native Jewish customs and traditions that date back at least 3,000 years. “In biblical times, seven products were considered the cornerstones of Jewish cuisine. They are still important today: olives, figs, dates, pomegranates, wheat, barley and grapes," Pelleg tells me. The overlayer comes from North African influences—think Morocco and Libya—and Middle-Eastern neighbours such as Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, as well as from the Jewish diaspora which came to Israel from all over Eastern Europe and Russia in the 1990s.

For a vegetarian like me, every meal in Israel is a revelation; the cuisine shines even without the convenient crutch of animal protein. All my meals start with a first course of salatim—small salads and dips that are Israel’s answer to tapas. They typically feature finely chopped tomatoes and cucumbers dressed in olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Every day of my stay, I crunch my way through herby tabbouleh, diced red or green bell peppers, grated carrot flecked with cumin, beets with tahini, shredded lettuce, spring onions and chives, chopped parsley and herbs. Everything is served family style, on shared plates.

As ubiquitous as the salatim are the falafels—fried balls or patties of spiced, mashed chickpeas and fava beans—the hot dogs of the Middle East. They are supposed to have originated in medieval Egypt, where Christians ate fava-bean falafels during Lent, when meat was banned. I eat it as a sandwich—served in a pita, with pickles, tahini, hummus and a vegetable salad and, often, harif, a hot sauce, washing it down with freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juice.

Though Palestinians claim it as theirs, the street food is commonly identified with Israel. “Falafel is an international snack now, like a burger or a pizza. How can anyone steal this from a country?" asks the owner of a small falafel stand in the Old City of Jerusalem. The first falafel stands in Israel were apparently set up in the 1950s by Yemenite immigrants, who served it with chopped salad and tahini in pita bread.

Ah, bread. The 600-odd references to bread in the Old and New Testaments possibly have nothing—or everything—to do with the place lechem (Hebrew for bread) has in Israeli society; it is virtually synonymous with food. The bread basket is a part of every meal, be it full of the fluffy pita, which can be used as a sandwich or to scoop up various dips, or the leavened flatbread called laffa, made by frying the dough in a pan after it has been left to rise.

At Abulafia, a famous Arab bakery in Tel Aviv’s Jaffa, a crowded port area, I taste bourekas, salty pastries brought to Israel by Jews from Turkey and the Balkans. One bite into these flaky dough pastries filled with chickpeas, Bulgarian feta cheese, spinach and potatoes, and topped with sesame seeds, and I am in love.

I am also introduced to the neon orange kanafeh, another Arabic dish, very popular as a dessert in Israel. It’s basically sheep’s cheese pastry soaked in sugar-based syrup and topped with vermicelli and pistachio bits. It reminds me of a bird’s nest but I find it oddly comforting despite the sickly sweetness.

Non-Jews make up about a quarter of Israel’s population; their culinary traditions add weight and diversity to the Israeli table. For instance, hummus—cooked chickpeas mashed with garlic, olive oil and lemon—is everywhere, from domestic kitchens to special hummus eateries and small stands. Who owns hummus, though? “The Lebanese; this is one Arabic dish that Israelis have made theirs," admits Pelleg.

So, visiting Ali Karavan, aka Abu Hassan, an iconic hummusia in Jaffa, feels like a pilgrimage. A small bare-bones place that has been in the business since the 1950s (when the family patriarch moved up from his handcart), it is believed to serve the best hummus in Israel. After a long wait in a queue, we get a place at a communal table, where super-fast waiters serve us plates of fluffy pita bread fresh from the oven with three kinds of hummus: one plain, one topped with ful (a bit of mashed fava beans) and a third kind, called the masabacha, laden with iridescent olive oil, specks of parsley, tahini, garlic and lemon along with a side of chunky raw onions and a tangy garlic-lemon-pepper sauce called tatbila. The creamy masabacha tastes divine, with subtle spices and an unctuous olive oil.

Mizrahi Jews from North Africa added the shakshuka (an onomatopoeia that translates into “all mixed up") to the Israeli vocabulary. This messy, cumin-spiced tomato and bell pepper stew topped with poached eggs is probably Israel’s most popular egg dish today. Its origins are hazy: Some believe it was a Moroccan Berber dish, some that the first version appeared in Ottoman Turkey, some that it came from Yemen, where it is served with zhoug, a fiery paste of fresh parsley and coriander, while Libyan Jews argue that it originated in Tripoli.

“In the early days of the Israeli state," Pelleg tells me, “the shakshuka was served en masse to the army as it was an uncomplicated dish. That’s how it became popular. And today it’s eaten as breakfast or a light lunch, with a slice or two of challah. Of course, its worldwide fame owes much to its inclusion in a very popular 2012 cookbook by the London-based Israeli super-chef Yotam Ottolenghi."

Shakshuka comes in multiple forms: with meat, aubergine, even spinach and asparagus. For the most authentic version, we visit Dr Shakshuka, in the middle of Jaffa’s flea market. It’s owned by a Libyan family and housed in an old stone-arched building with colourful Arab-tiled floors and brass pots and lamps hanging from the ceiling. Rotund owner Bino Gabso bends over battered cast-iron pans of the stew on the fire, cracking eggs expertly as I point my camera at him. One mouthful of the tangy stew and I am hooked. To me this robust dish seems to represent the country, which is a stew of cultures, culinary traditions and religions: the tanginess of tomato juxtaposed with the spicy overtones of jalapeño and paprika and the underlying taste of garlic and cumin, all coming together with the taste of poached eggs. The ultimate comfort food made with the simplest of ingredients.


For the memory bag

u At the Machane Yehuda market, pick up the Bite Card for 99 shekels (around 1,735) for a self-guided walking tour, complete with a map of the market, a smartphone-based audio guide and six well-curated coupons for snacks.

u For a takeaway, pick up a falafel-maker. For edible gifts, consider a delicious sticky date honey called silan and packets of hawaj, a Yemenite cardamom-based spice blend of cinnamon, ginger and cloves that can be used in soups, stews and black coffee.

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