In September 2010, I moved to a small city in the south of Israel with two suitcases and no knowledge of the language or culture. I had never been to the country before I left New York City to join my husband, who would be attending medical school in Be’er Sheva. I was filled with excitement as well as fear that I was in over my head. When an older Israeli man helped me with my luggage, I realized that I didn’t even know how to say “thank you” in Hebrew.
I arrived a month after my husband did. The first place we went together was a spice shop in a shopping center not far from our apartment. We walked in the sweltering August heat to get there, stopping along the way for a cold fresh fruit smoothie to hydrate. Even the oppressive, still air of the subway in August hadn’t prepared me for the raw intensity of the desert sun.
As a culinary writer, food breaks down barriers for me. I explore by way of my taste buds. And as soon as we stepped foot inside the spice shop, I knew I would be okay in this foreign place. It was dim and cool, quiet but for the shopkeepers’ footsteps and the bits of Hebrew they’d fling across the store at each other. And positioned appealingly around the shop were large bowls piled high with spices and dried herbs in warm shades of red, brown, yellow, and green. There was an entire section devoted to paprika, and another for various peppers and pepper flakes. I started dipping the spoons in and smelling, trying to interpret each seasoning based on aroma since I couldn’t read the signs written in Hebrew script.
While my husband went to work, I set about exploring our new home the only way I knew how—through its food. I quickly discovered the shuk, or outdoor market, and loved walking through its buzzing, crowded, colorful stalls. It was a place where all walks of Israeli life mingled, Bedouins amongst Ethiopian Jews alongside atheist Russians next to Orthodox women with long skirts and wigs. And there we all were, buying fruits and vegetables and meat and eggs and grains and housewares for our families.
On my first trip to the shuk, I stocked up on avocados, fresh figs, pomegranate, dragon fruit, and passion fruit, awed by the abundance and low price of these fruits that had been considered exotic in New York. When I learned basic Hebrew and worked up the courage to speak, the shuk was where I felt comfortable practicing as I counted change and eventually made small talk with the vendors.
I ate falafel and shawarma and hummus, of course, but also discovered the national obsession with shashlik, or grilled, skewered meats. I started seeking out North African shakshuka, Iraqi kubbeh, and Balkan borekas. I sampled chicken hearts and Moroccan braised lamb brain. I bonded with the woman who would become my best friend over food and our shared desire to eat our way through the country. We went on adventures to wineries and farms, markets and cheese shops.
Traveling by train or bus, I tried new restaurants in Tel Aviv, tasted my way through each quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, and was welcomed into Bedouins’ homes for meals. I took a cooking class in the West Bank, discovered the amazing Arab food of Nazareth, and feasted on succulent, freshly caught fish near the ocean in Acre.
Food was also an approachable entry point into a gruff culture. Israelis like to call themselves “sabras” because they are thorny on the outside but sweet on the inside, much like prickly pears (called sabra in Hebrew). Showing interest in their culinary culture was a surefire way to soften that tough exterior.
Eating in Israel changed how I cooked, too. Slowly, without even realizing it, I began including ras al hanout and pomegranate seeds in my dishes, sprinkling sumac and za’atar on top with abandon. I incorporated chopped fresh herbs—the more the better—into everything I made. I became accustomed to large Israeli breakfasts with eggs, yogurt, cheeses, salads, breads, tuna, olives, and jams.
When I moved back to New York three years later, my belongings had multiplied to fill six suitcases. My bags were heavy with spices from the very spice shop my husband first took me to, bottles of dark date honey, a brightly decorated tagine, falafel scoop, maamoul cookie press, Bedouin tea set, jars of freshly made tahini.
Now, back in my native city, I find myself seeking out Israeli food. My face lights up when I find Israeli feta cheese at my local supermarket, or when I stumble upon a Middle Eastern shop that carries Krembo. Just as food was a way to connect with the culture while I was there, it’s now my link to it from abroad.