I am so thankful that on a daily basis I get to do what I love: cook and take photos. I am also very grateful for all the wonderful opportunities that come with having this blog. I recently experienced the trip of a lifetime when I was invited by Vibe Israel to be part of their Vibe Comida tour with a group of Latin/Spanish food bloggers. This trip was supposed to be about the food. And it was about the food, the food was amazing: tasty, colorful, vibrant, and full of flavors and influences from many different cultures. But there was a lot more than the ridiculous amount of delicious food I tasted, this trip was also a wonderful experience thanks to all the incredible people that I met in Israel. From my fellow Latin & Spanish food bloggers: Clara from Dominican Cooking, Heidi from AromasnSabores, Bren from Flanboyant Eats, and the lucky only guy Txaber from El Cocinero Fiel, to the warm and welcoming local Israeli bloggers who took us into their homes for an afternoon and taught us how to prepare their favorite local dishes: Natalie from Oogio.net, Raheli from Food Page, and Efrat from What Efrat blog. Huge thanks to the amazing Vibe Israel team for the invitation, to Joanna Landau, and especially to Rotem Wiesman who organized our tour and was extremely patient as we constantly stopped to take photos of everything in our way (which tended to make us late for the next event). Thank you Haim Yosef for taking so many photos of us – and also for being a very knowledgeable source about Israeli food. Thank you to all the chefs, waiters, guides, restaurants, hotels, local food experts, and everyone who helped make this trip so memorable.
So, is it safe? I’m sure this is a top question on many people’s mind when they think about traveling to Israel. Yes, it is. I felt very safe and didn’t have that “I am tourist and I stand out” feeling that I get in many places. I was very comfortable taking my camera everywhere we went. Even in my home country of Ecuador I am usually extra careful about which places I take my main camera and which places I take my smaller less valuable camera. I love Ecuador and haven’t experienced any theft in my recent trips, but I always go there mentally prepared that my camera/phone/other physical belongings could be stolen. In most crowded places, including cities in Ecuador, but also big touristy cities like Paris, London, Venice, I almost always carry my bag/camera in front, and am constantly keeping a cautious eye on my surroundings. I didn’t feel like that extra paranoia was needed during my trip in Israel, everywhere from religious sites to markets to walking around at night, I felt at ease.
I’m planning to do a more detailed series of post about the places I visited, especially to share more specifics on all the amazing food and the recipes inspired by this trip. We saw and experienced so much during our short seven day trip, and I want to be able to do it justice by sharing it all. However, I want to start with a quick overview of my amazing week in Israel. After a (long) flight and a very smooth arrival (in terms of customs/immigration) we were driven from the airport to Jerusalem, where we checked into the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Guesthouse. For our first meal in Israel we had dinner at the restaurant Beit Hakavan, a very fun and casual place in an old railroad station run by Chef Avi Levy, winner of Master Chef Israel. The food was a wonderful contrast of flavors – I can still taste the shakshuka with merguez.
The following morning, after a tasty (and quite healthy) breakfast at the hotel, we took a tour of Old City of Jerusalem – we visited the Western Wall, walked the Via Dolorosa, and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Next we headed to the Mahane Yehuda (Mahne Yehuda) food market for a culinary tour of the market with local chef Tali Friedman. After the tour, and tasting many of the market’s goodies, we headed to her atelier – which overlooks the market – to prep and cook our lunch. We had some wine on the terrace and then enjoyed a delicious meal – my favorite dish was this roasted eggplant with tahini sauce.
Now, that already sounds like a lot for the day, but it wasn’t over yet. We headed back to the hotel, rested a bit, and then went out again for a night on the town. We started with some drinks, including arak – which is an anise based liqueur (similar in taste to ouzo/pastis). This is probably the best time to mention that toasting with arak at the beginning of a meal is a very common (and very awesome) custom in Israel. Next we crossed the street to Chef Uri Navon’s trendy restaurant Machneyuda. We enjoyed several delightful courses at Machneyuda, more rounds of arak, cool music, great company, and a wonderful front row view of the kitchen.
The next morning we said goodbye to Jerusalem and headed north to the fishing town of Akko (Acre). In Akko we met Chef Osama Dalal, a young upcoming and very passionate chef . He took us on a quick boat tour around the port, and then we met up with Nurit Poran – a local culinary tour guide. I love visiting markets and this one was no exception, we tried samples from the local vendors – the most popular was the falafel – which many commented was the best falafel ever tasted. The tour finished with a stop in the Turkish bazaar at Dalal restaurant for a tasting of some of his dishes. It was really just a tasting since we immediately headed right next door for wonderful outdoor lunch – with a perfect blue sky – at Savida Sea Food Bar. Lunch was delicious and featured a never ending amount of tasty dishes, many featuring very fresh local fish.
After lunch we headed to the Mizpe Hayamim Spa Hotel in Rosh Pina. We had tour of this beautiful hotel, which is located on the top of a mountain with a great view of Galilee. It includes an organic garden and dairy farm, we got to sample some of the cheese they make in-house, as well as some of their fruity liqueurs. That night we had another perfect dinner at the hotel’s Muscat restaurant. The following morning we had one of the best breakfasts of the trip. The hotel features an amazing buffet breakfast with a huge selection of freshly baked breads and pastries, savory salads, fresh fruits, local cheeses, cured fish, and more. I’m still dreaming about that breakfast.
Our next stop was a visit to the Biriya Forest with local expert Dr. Uri Meir Chizik, a food historian and chef. He taught us about the different local edible wild plants – most of which did not seem edible to me at first sight. Then we drove to the Galilee Sea to have lunch at Magdalena restaurant, which specializes in modern Arab food. The lunch was beyond incredible and we enjoyed course after course of delicious and beautiful food.
That epic meal marked the end of the non Tel Aviv portion of the trip and after lunch we headed to the city. After a decent drive –and a good nap on the bus – we arrived at the very cool Diaghilev Hotel in Tel Aviv. We spent the remaining three days in Tel Aviv. Some of the highlights included lunch at Claro restaurant in Sarona, visiting the Ancient City of Jaffa, dinner at Eyal Shani’s North Abraxas restaurant, barhopping/wine drinking/chocolate tasting, a tour of the Levinsky market with Chef Gil Hovav, meeting and cooking with wonderful local Israeli food bloggers, brunch at Manta Ray overlooking the Mediterranean, the amazing pastries at Dallal Bakery, our final lunch at Raphael restaurant, and much more.
I really loved this experience and found Israel to be a beautiful and very diverse country. It reminded me of my home country of Ecuador, which is also small and diverse, but also because the people are very friendly, welcoming, and proud to tell you all about the food and culture of their country. Many of landscapes reminded me of the south of France: the olive trees, the vineyards, the Mediterranean style architecture, drinking arak vs drinking pastis, the abundant use of local and seasonal produce, the pastries, etc. I was also pleasantly surprised by the incredible variety of fruits and vegetables that grow in Israel, besides the obvious pomegranates and citrus, I saw everything from passion fruit to cherimoyas at the market, and even saw banana trees as we drove through Galilee.
One of the first–and most useful I would add – words I learned during this trip was l’chaim, which means to life and is used when toasting with a drink of arak. Our first meal started with some arak, learning to say l’chaim and enjoying delicious food with soon to be great friends. There were also many l’chaim’s at our farewell cocktail party, so it’s only natural that one of the first things I made inspired by my trip to Israel was an arak mojito cocktail with pomegranate and citrus. L’chaim! Cheers! Salud!