11 Israeli Foods You Can Eat in Gainesville

If you’ve ever been to Israel, you know exactly how incredible the food is. Israeli cuisine has diverse influences – Jews have lived among various countries and cultures over the years, and the land of Israel itself has a prime location along the Mediterranean Sea. It is also in close proximity to other parts of the Middle East and to northern Africa. Naturally, its flavors will be just as diverse as its people.

And once you’ve tasted it, how could you not fall in love? When you have rugelach dripping down your shirt in the middle of the Jerusalem shuk, savor six-shekel coffee along the Tel Aviv coast and sip fresh-pressed juice in the hills of Tsfat, you know what it’s like to make priceless memories. Unfortunately, between busy schedules and the typically high costs of international travel, it’s not so easy to enjoy these things on a whim. But what if you could find a sampling of Israel right here in Gainesville? Listed here are 11 foods to try. Some are full-on meals, while others are snacks or garnishes – and all of them are insanely delicious.

1. Bamba

Imagine puffy Cheetos, but with peanut butter instead of cheese – and without neon orange fingertips! Bamba is wildly popular in Israel, making up 25 percent of the snack market. People even feed it to their babies, and this practice has been found to potentially reduce the risk of developing peanut allergies. Pretty cool, don’t you think? Bamba can often be found in the kosher food aisle at Publix (I’ve found Butler Plaza West most likely to have it in stock.).

2. Falafel and Shawarma

Falafel balls are made out of chickpeas and deep-fried, while shawarma is meat (usually chicken or lamb) that’s been grilled on a rotating skewer. Many restaurants that serve one will also serve the other. In Gainesville, you can find authentic kosher falafel and shawarma at Chabad’s café, which is open most weeknights throughout the school year. You might also be able to find frozen falafel balls or boxed mixes in local grocery stores – try them with hummus and tehina! Israelis usually eat these with French fries in a pita.

3. Hummus and Tehina

You probably already know what hummus is, but have you heard of tehina? It’s a paste made out of sesame seeds, and goes great with salads, pitas and more. Tehina is easy to make from a creamy sesame base that’s typically available in the kosher food aisle. If you’re looking for some good hummus to pair it with, check out Sabra’s selection for traditional flavors or Hope (found at Lucky’s) for more unusual ones.

4. Trader Joe’s Feta Cheese

Trader Joe’s carries imported Israeli feta under the Pastures of Eden brand. It’s perfect to crumble into salads or omelets. For a more adventurous option, try throwing it in tacos!

5. Israeli Couscous

Couscous is made up of small balls of crushed durum wheat semolina and easily absorbs water. It’s sort of like a cross between pasta and rice. Trader Joe’s has authentic Israeli couscous that costs only about two dollars per box, and it makes a great base for a variety of dishes such as this flavorful pomegranate chicken recipe.

6. Shakshuka

Shakshuka is a tomato-based dish that originally hails from Africa and usually contains poached eggs, peppers and lots of spices. It makes for a great meal any time of day and is relatively easy to throw together. Endless recipes are available online!

7. Halva

Halva (also spelled “halavah” or “halvah”) is a sweet treat made out of sesame seeds. The texture is hard to describe – and often depends on the particular batch – but it can be crumbly, sticky, chewy or fluffy. Halva is extremely fattening, so be careful with it if you’re watching your diet. Pre-packaged bars can sometimes be found in Publix.

8. Magnum Bars

Although Magnum doesn’t originate from Israel, if you’ve ever visited, you’d notice these ice cream bars all over the place. Freezers filled with treats are located in virtually every convenience store, at the beginning of many hiking trails and all along the beach – I even found one in a winery! Once you try one of the chocolate-covered pops, you’ll understand why the brand is so popular. You can find Magnum bars in Publix, Target and Walmart.

9. Pomegranate

Pomegranates have always been considered special to the land of Israel. Images of pomegranates were stitched into the robes of the high priests of ancient times, and the fruit’s many juicy seeds symbolized blessings of abundance. In the United States, pomegranates are mainly grown in California’s Mediterranean climate, and are in season from September or October through January or February. Pomegranate seeds are great to throw into salads or eat straight up as a snack, and pomegranate juice can be found in the produce aisle at many grocery stores.

10. Soup Nuts

Soup nuts, also known as “mini mandel” or shkedei marak in Hebrew, are little yellow croutons made from flour and palm oil. Despite their name, they’re also great in salads, and some people even like to eat them straight out of the package. Soup nuts can be found in the kosher aisle at Publix. If you visit Chabad for Shabbat dinner on a Friday night, you’ll also find them served alongside their signature matzah ball soup.

11. Iced Coffee

In Israel, iced coffee has a slushie-like consistency. If you wanted coffee served over ice cubes, you’d order “cold coffee.” It’s sold everywhere, usually for the equivalent of about $1.70, and it is so good that it literally put Starbucks out of business after just two years. Although you can’t buy it in Gainesville (no, Frappuccinos are not comparable), you can make your own version using a blender. Try it with chocolate, Nutella, or Oreo cookies!

With these little tastes of Israel, you can say hello to your next culinary adventure. As they say in Hebrew, bete’avon – bon appétit!

Photos 2, 5, 7, 8 and 11 by the author, Valerie Berman.