• In recent times, sabich might also appear as a plate, similar to modern iterations of falafel and kebab. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Have you tried Druze pita, hibiscus flowers or Jerusalem's answer to the pretzel?
Mariam Digges

16 May 2019 - 12:35 PM  UPDATED 3 Jun 2019 - 11:15 AM

Israel's melting pot of ethnicities has powered one of the most diverse and flavour-packed street food cultures in the world, which is fascinating when you consider how geographically small it is. From Arabic sweets in the Islamic markets of Jaffa Old City to Tunisian boureka, Druze pita and Iraqi sabich in Tel Aviv, every street tells a colourful story, punctuated by big flavours and age-old techniques.

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Growing up in Tel Aviv, sweet snacks always won over savoury for Michael Rantissi.

"My siblings and I would be much more excited [about] going out to eat knafeh rather than something savoury that we got to eat every day," the Kepos Street Kitchen and Kepos & Co chef, restaurateur and author tells SBS Food.

Tel Aviv-born chef Michael Rantissi grew up eating street food classics like falafel, hummus and sabich.

The "every day" snacks Rantissi is referring to are hummus, falafel, kebabs and sabich, which he would eat daily.

Brought to Israel by Iraqi immigrants in the early 1950s, sabich is a pita filled with roasted or fried eggplant and hardboiled egg and dressed with either tahini, amba or zhug, a Yemenite green chilli sauce. In recent times, sabich might also appear as a plate, similar to modern iterations of falafel and kebab.

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Israeli-born chef Roy Ner has just returned from a trip to his birth country. Ner, who mans the pan at Middle Eastern restaurant Lillah Kitchen in Sydney’s Lane Cove and has spent time at Surry Hills' Nour, is still reeling from the experience.

Sambousek are another popular fried pastry dish in Israel.

"There's a lot going on in Israel at the moment – so, so much," Ner tells SBS Food. "The markets have really taken over. The Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, it has become a hub with a lot of restaurants around it: we're talking 10,000 people in one market. What's beautiful about it is everybody is doing something a little bit different."

Ner rattles off a memorable Tunisian bourek he devoured, sambousek with a satisfying shatter at first bite, an excellent Yemenite-style falafel, and lachuch, a crumpet-like Yemenite pancake piled with eggplant and tahini.

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"What's special about it is it's very light and fluffy, and the tahini actually comes from Africa.

"It's a dark, raw, unroasted tahini that’s very nutty and transforms everything."

Ner also travelled to Tel Aviv where he unearthed a beautiful Turkish deli doing something he'd never tried before.

"There was a Turkish artisan doing dried hibiscus flowers – they were just to die for."

The Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, it has become a hub with a lot of restaurants around it: we're talking 10,000 people in one market. What's beautiful about it is everybody is doing something a little bit different."

He's recreated some of these flavours at Lillah Kitchen, where he's introduced a Yemenite lamb malawach dish and a Jaffa-style hummus, which he serves as bowls beefed up with lamb, eggplant or beef.

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"Just like the pizza in Napoli is different from the pizza in Roma when you go to Israel, hummus isn't the same everywhere. Some do it more chunky, others do it with meat or with lots of Arabic pita bread."

Lisa Goldberg, Merelyn Chalmers, Jacqui Israel and Natanya Eskin have been cooking together since 2006 as part of Sydney's Monday Morning Cooking Club (MMCC) and have gone on to release three popular cookbooks.

"We collect recipes and stories from the global Jewish diaspora, which includes Israel," Goldberg tells SBS Food.

Goldberg recounts one of the best falafels she's ever experienced at a stall on Tel Aviv's bustling Dizengoff Street with her family. Her fellow MMCC member Eskin prefers hole-in-the-wall chain Miznon's more modern take on the crisp chickpea pattie.

But for Jacqui Israel, her first stop in Tel Aviv is always at Hakosem for one of their juicy sabich.

All four members agree that a beigeleh, those large doughy pretzels coated in olive oil, za'atar and sesame seeds and carted around by mobile vendors near the gates of old Jerusalem, are also a must.

"Eating this takes us right back to the Old City, with flavours so often found in the Middle East," Goldberg says.

The floppy and thin Druze pita flatbreads cooked on a large black dome and served either plain or with lashings of labneh are another essential Carmel Markets purchase. The snack was created by Druze Israelis living in the village of Maghar in the Galilee region, an area known for its fertile soils and rolling green hills.

And finally, poppyseed biscuits, which are baked for Shabbat, are mandatory tea-dunkers.

When it comes to home cooking, Goldberg reassures that Israeli food isn't overly complicated.

"Remember to buy your spices in small quantities as their shelf life is limited, particularly when purchased ground."

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Biblically described as flowing with milk and honey, Israel’s food has its roots in both Jewish and Arab cuisine.