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Food, Manners and Unrequited Love: What Every Visitor to Israel Needs to Know

In previous installments of this series, I've suggested famous (and not so famous) must-sees on your trip to Israel. You won't want to miss your chance to float in the Dead Sea, snorkel with exotic fish in Eilat and fire a gun or two at Caliber 3 in Gush Etzion.

Now, onto some helpful hints and observations about everyday cultural cornerstones like food, language and manners.

PLUS: a crash course on words -- like "settlement," "refugee camp" and "checkpoint" -- that don't mean what you think they mean, at least in Israel.


The Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years because they couldn't decide where to eat.

Food is a very big deal in Jewish culture, so it's not surprising that you can eat well in Israel, and as cheaply or as expensively as you wish or can afford.

Contrary to what you may think, not all restaurants there are kosher. 

Many people believe that kosher food, wherever it is served, is healthier and cleaner. I for one do get this sensation when I'm in Israel, that somehow the food is fresher and more carefully handled. When it comes to kosher food, a bug on your lettuce isn't just a faux pas -- it's a serious violation of the law.

Every hotel offers a breakfast buffet. It's an Israeli institution, and differs little from a similar spread in North America except for the addition of chilled fish like herring, and the absence of bacon and ham.

In fact, the presence of dairy at these buffets means that no meat -- pork or otherwise -- will be on the menu. Milk and meat are not combined because -- to put it simplistically -- milk represents life and meat represents death. (So while there are McDonald's in Israel, they don't serve cheeseburgers. Coffeemate was invented so that Jews could enjoy "cream" in their coffee while eating, say, a steak.)

One dish that's standard fare in Israel, and that we fell in love with, is shakshuka. "Dr. Shakshuka's" restaurant was closed the day we visited Jaffa, which is too bad because it is world famous:

We went to the charming Nelly's Kitchen instead, and really enjoyed it.

In the evening, across Israel, a "switch" takes place in restaurants and dining rooms: meat is offered but dairy is not. The types of cutlery at your table setting will be different, too.

Expect your lunch or dinner order to come with bountiful plates of appetizers like humus and salad. THEN your main meal arrives. Keep this in mind when ordering (and eating.)

Since I'm from Toronto, I'm familiar with the cuisine of most cultures, and have long been a falafel fanatic. The falafel is the "hamburger" of Israel, so be sure to try one. If you're a bland "meat and potatoes" person, this and other Israeli dishes may be an acquired taste.

Starbucks isn't there yet, but the Israeli equivalent -- Aroma -- is arguably superior anyhow. You get a little piece of dark chocolate with your cup of coffee, and their sandwiches are exceptional.

In Jerusalem's Old City, treat yourself to a poppy seed bun or other fresh pastry sold by the Muslim merchants who push their wares along on old wooden carts.

Israelis love their baked goods and hard candies, too -- those are for sale everywhere, especially in "shuks" or markets: