The Land of Milk and Honey, Work and Play, Religiosity and Secularity: A Year in Review

A little over a year ago, Doug and I left for Israel. We knew we were going to stay until January 2012, at least, but were hoping to find jobs and stay longer. Luckily, we did find jobs, allowing us to stay through June 2012.

When people hear we spent a year in Israel, they ask, “So… how was it?” They watch me eagerly, seeming to expect some sort of grand story. I usually just smile and say, “It was amazing.” What else can I say? It’s hard to sum up nine month’s worth of experiences succinctly, especially considering the wide range of experiences we had in Israel.  But at this point, I’d like to reflect on some of the most memorable moments.

Arrival

We landed in Ben Gurion Airport on September 8, 2011. We made our way to a sherut (taxi service) to Jerusalem, where we needed to go to join our Career Israel group orientation.  To say we were exhausted, hungry, and disoriented would be an understatement.  So when security officials began shepherding people away from the airport exits, we were incredibly confused and frustrated.  As we stood with our four suitcases and watched the security personnel doing their thing, we couldn’t help but wonder what was going on.

We eventually managed to hear the story:

As the doors of a train that runs through the airport were closing, someone had thrown a suitcase onto the platform.  A “suspicious package.” So, as we waited and chatted with fellow travelers (one Oregonian, who had admired my Powell’s Bookstore T-Shirt, managed to get a picture with a security guard despite the prohibition on taking pictures of them), security personnel brought over one of those bomb-deactivating robots and rendered the suitcase harmless.

The sherut “lines” were terrible after that. Masses of people rushed to get on one and there was no rhyme or reason to who got on which.  Whenever we told a driver where we were going, we were turned away.  We eventually boarded a sherut.  We spent the next few hours on the sherut as it drove to Jerusalem and then zigzagged its way across the city, dropping off passengers until we were the only remaining riders.

As we sat on the sherut, I looked over at Doug, for whom this was the first trip to the country, and said, “Welcome to Israel!”

Slichot Tour

The night before Yom Kippur, Career Israel took us to the kotel (also known as The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall).  People were packed so thick that we only managed to get within a quarter of a mile of the wall.  The group of us stood huddled together, listening to the Rabbi over the loudspeakers. With all the excitement, I almost forgot that we were at a religious, very solemn site.  Despite the fact that many of the people at the wall that night would soon be fasting for 25 hours, there was an atmosphere of glee.

Yom Kippur

We returned to Tel Aviv after our amazing slichot tour just in time to prepare a pre-fast meal (it ended up being a little saltier than it should have been, considering we were about to fast, but it turned out ok).  After eating and going to a local, overflowing Sephardic synagogue, we walked back to our apartment.  Since it’s illegal to drive on Yom Kippur, the streets were taken over by bikers, skaters, and pedestrians.  The holiday has unofficially become known as the national bike day.  We got back to our building and spent some time playing card games with friends.

Our strategy for getting through the fast as easily as possible was to stay up incredibly late and sleep in incredibly late—that way, when we woke up, there would only be a few hungry hours left.  So, in an effort to keep busy while staying awake, we took a late-night stroll with a friend.  We walked around the then-quiet streets of the city, awed by the silence that lay over Tel Aviv like a blanket.  We ended up by the Azrieli Towers, where Doug and I enjoyed a short dance in the middle of the intersection while the traffic lights changed colors to direct non-existent traffic.  Little did I know that I would soon be working for Playtech, whose offices were in the round tower.

Little did we know, as we danced in the middle of the intersection, that we would soon be working in the round tower.

We frolicked a little on the deserted Ayalon highway before peacefully strolling home, where we promptly fell asleep and stayed asleep through the late morning, just as we planned.

Goofing around on the Ayalon highway during Yom Kippur

Playtech

I went to Israel hoping that I would be able to work at the Praklitut (Tel Aviv’s district attorney’s office).  Getting through all the red tape involved in working for the Israeli government was a time-consuming process (/non-process), though, and time was one thing I did not have.

While I was waiting on some paperwork from the Praklitut, I ended up babysitting for an attorney who worked for Playtech, a high-tech company that does software development for online games. She passed my resume along to the legal department and, within a week, I was offered a full-time position.

My time at Playtech was amazing, despite sometimes-stressful conditions and frustrating encounters (i.e. providing technical support for officemates from home without internet access, having my office phone line stop working every other day, having my internet inexplicably die while at work).  I am incredibly thankful to have spent the year working in an office where my coworkers were wonderful, the environment was dynamic, and every day was different. As if that wasn’t rewarding enough, I loved that the company had fresh made waffles for us for New Years, threw an amazing Purim party, and distributed lovely presents for Passover.

New Year’s waffles!

Purim Party

Oh, did I mention we got fun souvenirs? Say hello to my Pink Panther flash drive.

Release of Gilad Shalit

On October 18, 2011, Gilad Shalit was released after more than five years of being in captivity.  His abduction and imprisonment moved the nation.  People saw in him their own brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons.  For years, people prayed for his release; some protested in front of the Prime Minister’s house in an effort to get negotiations going. As I already wrote about his abduction and the exchange for his release (you can read it here if you’re interested), I’ll refrain from going into too much detail.

I will say that it was truly lovely to be in Israel when he was finally released, though. Netanyahu’s words to Shalit upon his return to Israel still ring in my head: “How good it is that you’ve come home.”

Bedouin

In 2007, I visited the Bedouin for the first time.  Through Birthright we stayed overnight in a large tent, hosted by local Bedouins.  It was a lovely experience (besides the less-than-spotless communal bathrooms and somewhat grimy sleeping bags), full of desert stories told over tea and good food.  In the morning, we took an early morning camel ride through the desert.  Unfortunately, our idyllic visit wasn’t representative of the actual Bedouin experience and lifestyle.

Our program arranged a visit to an unofficial Bedouin settlement.  The bus dropped us off a short ways away from the settlement since it wasn’t accessible by paved road.  A few minutes’ walk from the collection of lean-tos was their central “plumbing” area, if you will.  As the settlement isn’t connected to government infrastructure, they have to obtain water in an unconventional manner.  Somehow, they tap into the state water system and run rubber/plastic pipes to their homes.  But the pipes they use are all exposed, above ground, and without insulation.  This means that they are completely susceptible to breakage, leaking, and over-heating/freezing.  In the summer, the water is scalding; in the winter, the water is ice-cold.  Nevertheless, they record water usage using rudimentary meters.  One person in the settlement is responsible for recording each family’s water usage (the meters are located between the main road and the dwellings; each is covered by a little wooden box) and collecting payments.  Who they pay for the water is beyond me—it would seem odd if they paid the Israeli water supplier company, considering they were illegally taking the water, but I didn’t question it at the time.

Bedouin plumbing system

After a short walk, we arrived at the dwelling of a woman who agreed to have us over.  Our guide, who was studying the Bedouin, knew her.  In exchange for a small sum of money, she provided groups with tea and spoke with them.  She also graciously told us her story:

When she was a young girl, she went to school.  She never obtained her high school degree, though.  After marrying, she decided she wanted to continue her education.  She obtained her high school degree and was taking classes in Hebrew Literature part-time at a local university.  While she loved studying, she was frank about some of the difficulties she encountered.  Not owning a car, she would often need to get rides back home from university after classes ended as no public transportation serviced the route she needed.  But as a woman, she could only get rides with other women or her closest male relatives, lest someone accuse her of adultery.  She said that her husband had always been supportive of her, but that other people in her settlement were critical of her.  Her desire to be educated was looked down upon; women were meant to give birth to and care for children, home, and husband.

Despite this, the woman we spoke with said she was determined that her daughters obtain their degrees before marrying, a goal uncommon in the community.  When we asked if she would ever leave her community to live somewhere else, where equality between genders was greater, she replied with a resounding, “Never.”  Her community was her family and she had no desire to leave it.

Her story was simultaneously inspirational and upsetting.  This woman was clearly incredibly motivated, but the obstacles she encountered were great.  Despite everything, she had such an optimistic view of the world and had a wonderful sense of humor.  As a mother of several, including one set of triplets, she joked: “For my greatest enemies, I wish that they, too, have triplets.”

Tea with an inspiring Bedouin woman

Kibbutz Netzer Sereni

In January, Doug and I went to kibbutz Netzer Sereni with a small group of people in our program and our madricha (counselor), who was engaged to a kibbutz member.  We spent the day hearing about the kibbutz’s history and touring it on a tractor.

Our ride around the kibbutz

Our madricha’s fiancée told us how he moved out of his parent’s home and into kibbutz dorms when he began high school.  He relayed stories of evenings spent drinking in the kibbutz’s orange grove, explaining how they would squeeze fresh juice into their glasses of liquor.

Picking oranges at the kibbutz

As if we didn’t appreciate his kibbutz roots enough, he later gracefully scooped up an agitated calf that managed to escape its pen and plopped him back inside it, letting the calf suck on his thumb to calm him.

Scooping up the escaped cow

Depositing the escaped cow back in his pen

Letting the cow suckle on his thumb to calm him

Afterwards, he took us to his parents’ home, where we had tea and were able to amass lemons and limes to go along with the bushels of oranges we took from the grove.  The day was absolutely lovely, heavenly in the stereotypical way kibbutzim once were.

Yom HaZikaron Sirens & Yom HaAztmaut

I was sitting at my desk at work at 10am on Yom HaZikaron.  I had never spent it in Israel before so, while I expected a solemn mood, I didn’t quite expect to see the entire country stop for a minute of silence as a siren sounded.  I looked out my office window, down onto the busy commercial area below, and was shocked by the sense of solidarity I felt with the men and women who stood below.

Drivers stopped their cars in the middle of the intersection and stood silently beside them.  Store merchants stopped working and customers stopped ordering.  People stood facing all different directions, scattered along a pedestrian walkway by Tel Aviv’s Savidor train station.  A shared history of loss united us as we remembered relatives, friends, co-workers, and neighbors, who were killed serving the country.

The view from my office window

As the siren wound down and people proceeded with their days, I understood the common thread Israelis shared, all religious and ethnic divides aside.

(The siren starts at 0:57)

It was also a privilege to be in Israel on Yom HaAztmaut (Independence Day). Weddings

Oh the weddings… What are weddings about, anyways? Love? Marriage? Family? The happy couple? Family? No; no; no; and maybe a little. Weddings are about eating, drinking, and dancing.  Luckily, Israelis have mastered those activities (particularly the first one).

The two weddings we went to were beautiful.  They were also incredibly different.

The first wedding we went to was one of a distant maternal relative who I had never met before.  The only people I knew were my late grandfather, his caretaker, an uncle I wasn’t close with growing up, and Doug.  Despite this, we had a wonderful time.  The location was beautiful, like a little orchard fairyland.  The food during the reception was amazing.  The meat was delicious, the fish was delectable, and the French fries were absolutely perfect!  We spent the hour bouncing between the stations and the bar, occasionally checking in with my grandfather.  The ceremony was blissfully sweet and was followed by dancing and good humor.  My 91-year-old grandfather even spent a little time on the dance floor.  By the end of the night, we were exhausted. But lo and behold, just as we ran out of energy, a “midnight snack” of fries, pickles, and mini burgers was brought out.  Smart folk, those newlyweds!

My late grandfather at the wedding

Looking out at the reception area from the dance floor

At the wedding

The second wedding we attended was also beautiful.  The venue was also outdoors, but less nature-y.  The pre-ceremony treats were arranged around a large circular area, making it easy to go from one to the next.  The food had an around-the-world theme, each station serving up something different (Israeli, Asian, Mexican, etc.).  We were able to socialize more at this wedding.  The groom was my grandmother’s cousin’s son—pretty distant, sure, but a lot of my dad’s family was there.  It was amazing to see some of my second cousins.  I reminisced with one in particular, who I remember watching the Aristocrats countless times with as a child.  As we finished reveling in nostalgia and I went to grab some more samosas, I ran into a co-worker who went to high school with the groom, my distant cousin.  Small world? I think so!

Holidays

Rosh Hashanah with my dad’s family

With my baby cousin on Rosh Hashanah

Sukkot

The dog is going for the abandoned food on the high chair… even she wants in on the delicious food we ate in the Sukkah!

Channukah

Channukah in Jerusalem

Shavuot, my favorite holiday!

———-

I’ve organized these gems of memories onto a virtual shelf in my brain.  This shelf holds dusty memories from before Israel, going back through my time at NYU, my experience studying abroad in Madrid and all of the traveling I did in those short months, my high school days, and my pre-NJ life in northeast Philadelphia.

My Israel memories are slowly but surely gathering their own layer of dust as I place new ones from law school beside them.

Pizza Cosi

Pizza Cosi
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Italian
Kosher
46 Ben Yehuda
03-716-6432
Sunday – Thursday (11am–12am)
Friday (11am–3:30pm)

My friends and I may have ended up at Pizza Cosi on its first night open—I’m still not sure.  Either way, the group was quite happy to be seated in the attractive restaurant after roaming about the streets aimlessly, unable to settle on a place to eat.

I found the name of the restaurant to be deceptive. When I hear “Pizza Cosi,” I think of a simple pizza joint.  But don’t be fooled, the restaurant was quite lovely, with booth tables and simple décor.  The music, however, made it seem like they were trying a little too hard to be hip.

Pizza Cosi

Pizza Cosi

After we placed our orders, our oddball waiter (who looked like he must have had a second job as a mime) brought us some delicious, warm bread with a tasty olive tapenade.

Our oddball waiter…

Bread and olive tapenade

Doug and I a ordered fried goat cheese salad to start, which was delicious.  The nuggets of cheese were perfectly crispy, warm and creamy on the inside, doused with an amazing dressing.  A few juicy plum tomatoes and mushrooms that came with the cheese made the dish seem fuller, but without need.  As one of our friends commented, the fried goat cheese nuggets were “hella bomb”—they could have been a dish of their own.

Fried goat cheese salad

Our friends ordered the bruschetta antipasti, which was nothing special—doughy bread with grilled veggies.

Bruschetta antipasti

My gnocchi with Bulgarian cheese was good.  The gnocchi was light, chewy, and soft, providing a pleasantly delicate texture with each bite.  The Bulgarian cheese definitely contributed a salty touch that was just right at first, but managed to get a little overwhelming as I continued to eat.

Gnocchi with Bulgarian cheese

My friend’s Napoletana pasta was basic—a classic that wasn’t done excellently or poorly.  Meanwhile, Doug’s Pestito dish was a little lacking. It was a little too oily and could have used some cheese and, surprisingly enough, more pesto.

Napoletana pasta

Pestito pasta

Our other friend’s pasta dish, salmon fesa, was tasty.  The salmon was well cooked and had a good flavor, but the dish itself would have benefited from some spiciness.

Salmon fesa

All in all, our restaurant experience was solid.  The food was good, the waiter was incredibly attentive (perhaps because we were practically the restaurant’s only patrons), and the environment was lovely.  What they lacked, however, was diners.  I’ll chalk it up to bad publicity for the restaurant’s opening, though, and wish them more diners in the future.

On Tap(s): Frozen Yogurt

Taps
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
http://www.tapstaps.com/he/home/a/main/ 
Frozen Yogurt
Not Kosher
2 HaArba’a
03-603-3330
Sunday – Thursday (10:30am-12:00am)
Friday (10:30am-3:00pm)
Saturday (an hour after Shabbat ends – 12:00am)

Taps : Tel Aviv :: 16 Handles : New York.

Taps is the type of place that makes any day better.

Taps

The frozen yogurt at Taps is self-served.  You can select as many flavors as you want and cover them with as many toppings as you please.  When you’re done loading down your cup, you put it on a scale to be weighed and pay by the gram.  I’ve always loved the concept—it seems silly to me to have to pay per topping (what if I just want one strawberry on my ice cream, just to brighten things up? Or what if I want to throw in just a couple of M&Ms for a surprise chocolatey bite here and there? What if I can’t pick between chocolate and caramel swirl and want both?)

Given my love for this type of frozen yogurt place, I’ve been to quite a few in New York.  Some have more flavors than others, most have basic fruit and candy toppings.  But Taps had more of both than any place I had ever been to in New York.  The selection of toppings was truly astounding—from cereals to chocolates (each one with milk, white, and dark options), dried fruit to gummies, nuts to fresh fruit, fudges to jams—they have countless options.

Taps

The toppings corner at Taps

Some of the cereal toppings at Taps

Some of the chocolate toppings at Taps

The sauces at Taps

At this point, I honestly can’t remember what I had.  It was probably a medley of tart flavors (plain, peach tart, and pomegranate raspberry tart probably filled the majority of my cup) covered in milk chocolate mekupelet, gummy bears, raisinettes, strawberries, pomegranate, chocolate chip cookie dough, mochi, passionfruit, pineapple, almonds, granola, craisins, dried passion fruit, M&Ms, and the type of chocolate fudge crunch that hardens upon contact with the cold frozen yogurt.  While I can’t recall exactly what I picked that night, I do remember loving every bite and forcing myself to refrain from licking the cup clean (we were with Doug’s parents, after all).

Pomegranate raspberry tart

My completed masterpiece of a treat

My only disappointment is that there aren’t more Taps locations.  Given that we moved out of Tel Aviv shortly after discovering it, we never got to go again before coming back to the United States.  We’ll just have to wait until our next trip to the land of milk and honey for our next Taps fix.

Mama’s Borekas

Mama’s Borekas
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Borekas
Not Kosher
16 King George
03-525-1111
Open 24-7

With the days of my grandmother’s homemade borekas recently behind us, I can’t help but think of our singular borekas outing in Israel.  While the borekas absolutely does not compare with my grandmother’s, it could certainly do in a pinch.

A mound of my grandmother’s DELICIOUS homemade borekas

Mama’s Borekas

Mama’s Borekas is open 24-7 and I could have actually imagined myself going a lot more often, if my grandmother hadn’t spoiled us with her delicious borekas.

We ordered a potato mushroom borekas, which was quite heavy, but in a nice, filling sort of way.  The potato filling was well cooked, creamy, and perfectly proportioned.  The accompanying tomato sauce was cool, giving a nice light touch to the starchy treat.  The dough flaky and, while just a bit too oily, not overwhelmingly so.  All in all, quite a satisfying treat.

Potato and mushroom borekas

The cheese and olives borekas was also quite tasty.  Filled with salty Bulgarian cheese and olives, it had a sharper flavor than the potato borekas.

Cheese and olive borekas

Each dish came with an assortment of sides, including the tomato sauce, tahini, some pickles, and an egg.  It was perfectly filling and, at 21 shekels, doesn’t break the bank for a late-night snack.  For 32 shekels, they throw in a 1/3L of beer; for 35 shekels, a 1/2L of beer.

Mama’s Borekas

If you’re looking for some variety, they also serve malawach and jachnoon.

Hummus Gan Eden

Hummus Gan Eden
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Hummus, Ful
Not Kosher, Vegetarian
46 Yona Ha’Navi
03-510-2230
Saturday-Thursday (11:00-23:30)
Friday (11:00-18:00)

From the outside, Hummus Gan Eden looks like any other hummus joint in Tel Aviv: non-notable furniture, vinyl tablecloths, a small outdoor seating area, and a Coca-Cola refrigerator for drinks.  But just one look at the menu, which lists Special Hummus Darfur (consisting of egg, ful, tahini, tomato, and chickpeas) and Special Ful Darfur (egg, grated cheese, tomato, chickpeas, and onion), makes it clear that this isn’t a typical Israeli hummus restaurant.

Hummus Gan Eden

Hummus Gan Eden

Hummus Gan Eden

Hummus Gan Eden was opened in December 2009 by three Sudanese refugees, Adam, Hassan, and Muhi.   They each fled war-torn Darfur in the 2000s, making their way to Israel through Egypt.

More than five million people have been affected by the violent conflict that has overtaken Sudan since 2003.  Millions of people have been displaced and approximately 400,000 people have died as the Janjaweed, with the assistance and aid of the Sudanese government, fight against rebel guerrillas.  Genocide is ongoing in racially mixed Darfur, which is home to African peasant farmers and nomadic Arab herders; the Janjaweed are persecuting, displacing, and murdering African farmers and others in the region.  Many Darfurians have lost family and friends and have been forced to leave their nation. Homes have been torn asunder as millions have become refugees in foreign lands.

In 2007, Hassan left his hometown after the Janjaweed raided the area, burning houses and shooting people.  He survived the raid by hiding with his two brothers, but unfortunately his parents were killed during the raid.   He fled to Khartoum and then Cairo before making it to Israel with a group of Darfurian refugees.

Muhi, who also fled Darfur after an attack on his village that led to his brother’s death, lived in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum until government agents began searching for Darfurians on the run.  He moved to Egypt with his wife and lived in Cairo for 18 months before determining to make the journey to Israel on his own; he and his wife decided that she would join him later if he survived the journey.  He now lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and two children.

Adam, meanwhile, left Darfur after a Janjaweed attack destroyed his village.  His family escaped to neighboring Chad while he fled to Egypt alone, where he lived for two years.  Circumstances were difficult there, he said, and Sudanese refugees were not welcome.  He left after Egyptian soldiers killed a number of Darfurian refugees.  After running from Arab country to Arab country, he said, he decided to go to the Jewish country of Israel to seek safety.  He knew close to nothing about Israel but had heard a lot of negative things.  He expected to find warfare and fighting in Israel but found nothing of the sort.  Instead, upon his arrival in 2007, he found people who were helpful and caring.  He worked at a hotel in Eilat for a year before moving to Tel Aviv, where he worked full-time at a metal factory in Azur before opening Hummus Gan Eden with Hassan and Muhi.  While at first he continued to work full-time at the metal factory and only helped at the restaurant on Fridays and Saturdays, he currently only works the restaurant’s evening shift, spending his mornings in Ulpan.  One of his partners, Hassan, spends his mornings at the restaurant before heading to English classes.

“I am Israeli,” Adam says.  While he knew nothing of Israeli culture or history and knew no Hebrew upon his arrival, he now feels comfortable in Israel.  But, he clarified, he would never forget his past and would gladly return to Darfur when there is peace.

Adam at Hummus Gan Eden

The combination of an Israeli present and the recollections of a Darfurian past can be seen in the food at Hummus Gan Eden.  The Special Hummus Darfur combines Israeli hummus and tahini with classic Darfurian ful and cooked, tender chickpeas.  In Darfur, Adam explains, they eat cooked chickpeas during Ramadan as they’re healthy and provide much-needed energy and nutrition.  They also eat ful (mashed fava beans) like Israelis eat hummus.  Not only is it a divine combination, including a hard-boiled egg and some fresh tomato, but each element also stands wonderfully on its own.  The hummus has a perfect texture—not too creamy and not too chunky—and is served warm with paprika sprinkled over it and olive oil drizzled on top.  The ful, meanwhile, is amazing.  It has a gentle, soft flavor and is both well seasoned and textured.  I almost wished I had a whole plateful of it.

The Special Hummus Darfur combines Israeli hummus and tahini with classic Darfurian ful and cooked, tender chickpeas

Luckily, I had a plateful of something else that was delicious: Hummus Shakshuka.  Traditionally, shakshuka is a dish comprised of an egg poached in a spiced tomato sauce.  Hummus Gan Eden’s version, however, was a little different.  Rather than poach the egg, it was scrambled into the tomato sauce.  I don’t know whether that made the dish that much tastier than its poached counterpart or if it was the combination of sweet paprika and warming, earthy cumin with the refreshingly garlic undertone that did it.

Hummus Shakshuka

I was hooked.  The only thing that was missing from the meal? Darfur-Style Eggplant.  The restaurant’s eggplant dish is so good that they were out of it when I visited!

As I wiped my plates clean with a fluffy, warm pita, I finally allowed my eyes the opportunity to wander away from my food.  I was in the smaller seating area in the back of the restaurant, which, with red brick accents and an inset floral painting on one wall, had a homier and more intimate feel to it than the front space.  The overall feel of the restaurant is very relaxed, even understated.  Ultimately, the restaurant’s appearance is rather unremarkable.  The story of the restaurant’s three owners, however, who fled their homelands and now found themselves preparing Israeli-style hummus with a Darfurian twist in a country they knew nothing about only a decade ago, is nothing short of remarkable.

Special Hummus Darfur and Hummus Shakshuka

Habesh

Habesh (also spelled Habash)
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
http://www.rol.co.il/sites/habash/
Ethiopian
Kosher
8 HaNegev
03-516-4264
Sunday – Thursday (10:00 – 10:00)
Friday (10:00 – Shabbat begins)
Saturday (Shabbat ends – 11:00)

Back in January, we went to Habesh with some friends from our long-term Israel program just a few days before the program ended and we all went our separate ways.  Two were going to Europe to travel for a month, one was returning to the US to look for jobs, one was going to grad school, and another was just starting a Masa program in Israel, while Doug and I were continuing our stay in Israel while working full-time.  Knowing that we would soon scatter, we relished the opportunity to spend time together.  And what better way to spend one of our last chances to all be together than to dine on communal, hand-eaten Ethiopian food.

The bar at Habesh

The understated interior of Habesh

While the menu listed tons of things that appealed to us, we were limited by what was available on mozei Shabbat (Saturday night after Shabbat ends).  What with the kitchen not working all day and the staff comprising of one individual, they were unable to provide any of the lamb dishes, chick pea stew, angocha, or desserts.  Despite this, we managed to pick a fair assortment of dishes to try.

Does anyone know what this is?

Instead of lamb, we settled on a chicken dish.  The meat was still on the bone, which was interesting to get at in a communal setting, but was worth it as it was wonderfully tender and had a sweet and spicy thing going for it.

Our platter of deliciousness

While I definitely enjoyed the chicken, I liked the beef far more.  While it wasn’t what I would call tender, it was incredibly juicy and flavorful and I couldn’t help but try to sneak more than my fair share of them onto my plate.

Eating by teff

In addition to the meats, we had yakaklit wat, a mix of fresh green beans, carrots, green peppers, potatoes, and onions.  Despite my aversion to onions, the split peas were rather tasty and the potatoes looked and tasted lovely, thanks to the turmeric.

Then there was miser wat, a dish of split red lentils cooked in Ethiopian red pepper sauce.  It was beany, warm, and delicious.  Later research led me to find that miser wat contains berbere, a reddish mixture of spices that includes chili, garlic, cayenne, ginger, basil, and black pepper, amongst others, that is a staple of Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine.

But the kik alicha stole the day as everyone’s favorite dish.  Turmeric, ginger, garlic, and cardamom contributed to the sweet pureed root vegetables that were prepared in such a way that they fell apart in your mouth.

At this point I’d like to point out that we had no silverware.  None. So how, do you ask, does a group of six people share a single drumstick, pieces of beef, and various piles of vegetables? Using teff, the Ethiopian equivalent to bread.  With the appearance of a sponge or a pancake cooked on one side right before flipping and about the size of a standard crepe, the various dishes were served on a platter of teff.  In addition to the platter teff came several rolls of the spongy bread.  At first bite, it seemed quite sour and lemony, but as we continued to eat I came to appreciate the cooling feeling and palate-cleansing purpose it served.  Beyond that, it was the perfect thing to pick things up with as it was rather flexible and tactile.  The best part? The spongy holes absorbed and retained sauces and spices, giving the pieces under each dish an amazing flavor.

Ethiopian teff

By the end of the meal, I knew I’d be coming back for more… but next time on a day when they have every dish on the menu available for my devouring.

Devouring our food… and each other

Tapas in Israel

Tapeo
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
http://www.tapeo.co.il/
Tapas
Not Kosher
Hertziliya Pituach
Muro theme
9 Shenkar St
09-954-6699 / 09-954-8030
Tel Aviv
Gaudi theme
16 Ha’arba St
03-624-0484 / 03-561-0489

After having spent a semester living in Madrid, you’d think I’d be incredibly familiar and naturally accustomed to eating tapas.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  In Madrid, the majority of tapas are meaty, a major issue for someone who doesn’t eat non-kosher meat.  Luckily, tapas bars in Israel are more conscious of those with dietary restrictions.

Tapeo is no exception.  With a section of the menu devoted to vegetarian tapas, there was no lack of options for us.  Jackpot!

Our trip to Tapeo was rather spontaneous and, in hindsight, Doug and I are both thrilled that we ended up going.  We initially planned to have dinner in Tel Aviv, but were too tired to bother with the idea of public transportation on a Thursday evening.  So, on a whim, we decided to go to Tapeo.  We made a last minute reservation to the local restaurant, which is apparently quite the hotspot on Thursday nights.

Tapeo in Hertziliya

Whether you’re taking in the restaurant’s décor from the wrap around wooden bar, from a table on the raised platform, or from the upstairs seating area, it’s quite apparent that the theme isn’t entirely Spanish, as one would imagine given that it’s a tapas bar.  While a Muro-esque painted adorned the length of one wall, the color scheme and other images were reminiscent of Aztec symbols.  The indoor wrought-iron street lamps, however, gave the place a more European metropolitan feel.  All in all, not an entirely unified theme, but it came together to look fantastic and elegant, if nothing else.

Tapeo in Hertziliya

Tapeo in Hertziliya

We had some trouble choosing our tapas from the long list of vegetable options, but we eventually settled on four of the dishes along with a salmon tapas.

Our asparagus tapas came out first, looking simple but tasty with its pickled lemons & spiced aioli sauces and little char marks from the grill.  The asparagus was cooked absolutely perfectly, not too hard or soft, but tender and easy to bite.

Asparagus with pickled lemon & spiced aioli sauces

The patatas bravas came out next.  Each potato cube looked beautifully and evenly crispy, a true marvel worth admiring (from a potato lover’s perspective).  It tasted even more amazing than it looked.  The inside of each potato piece was soft and melty, a perfect contrast to the crusty outside.  The potatoes were perfectly salted and covered with a tiny bit of tomato sauce and spiced aioli sauce, which gave each piece a creamy, refreshing touch.  The one thing I would have added was a little more spice.

Patatas bravas with tomato and spiced aioli sauces

The paprika-crusted salmon was next.  As people who aren’t huge fish fans, we didn’t expect much.  But the salmon was shockingly good!  It was cooked such that the outside was beautifully crusty and crispy while the middle was still slightly raw.  While usually not our thing, it was amazing how tender it was and how the fish really just melted in our mouths.  The beans that went along with it weren’t too flavorful, but added a chewy texture to contrast the crunch of the outer part of the fish and the buttery consistency of the inner part of the fish.

Paprika-crusted salmon

The cauliflower that came after was probably my favorite (with the patatas bravas a very close second).  The chefs somehow managed to get the cauliflower to brown perfectly and evenly.  It looked, quite accurately so, simply mouthwatering.  The cauliflower was not only perfectly colored, but also perfectly cooked—it had a nice, toothsome crunch to it.  The creamy anchovy aioli sauce was cooling and refreshing, with a nice garlicky bite.  Simple and delicious.

Cauliflower with creamy anchovy aioli sauce

Our final tapas were the mushrooms.  Neither of us eats many mushrooms, but both of us seem quite curious about them and open to trying them.  Consequently, the mushroom filled with cheese topped with saffron sauce intrigued us.  Luckily so, since the dish was quite tasty.  The mushroom and hearty goat cheese made for an incredible combination along with the very mild, but defined saffron sauce.  Earthy and comforting.
By the time we finished all of our tapas, we were appreciative of the restaurant chefs’ skills.  They clearly knew how to handle their vegetables: cooking them to perfection, putting together dishes that highlighted the flavor of each one, adding only simple sauces that completed their flavors.

Mushrooms filled with cheese, topped with saffron sauce

Despite our desire for more of each of the dishes we tried, we restrained ourselves in the interest of having a dessert.  The waitress described numerous options, but the first one she mentioned stuck: churros con chocolate.

The classic Spanish dessert called to me at the moment and I was glad they did since they were divine! Never had I had churros so good, so tasty, so addictive! While they weren’t truly Spanish in prepartion (the Spanish eat their vhurros without anything sweet, really), they made me want to go back to Spain and survive off churros for the rest of my life.  They came out, mini style (so cute!), covered in sugar, along with three dips: dark chocolate, white chocolate, and dulce de leche.  All of them were amazing! The churros themselves were crunchy on the outside, but smooth and creamy on the inside.  They were gentle, but incredibly flavorful.  When eaten with the dark chocolate (which was unfortunately a little frozen), one enjoyed the sensation of richness.  The white chocolate gave a sense of luxury, while the dulce de leche contributed an added sweetness. So. Good!

Churros

Churros con chocolate

Despite my sadness when they were gone, I was thrilled that they left a noticeable and amazing aftertaste, reminding me throughout the rest of our night that we had a lovely dinner followed by the most delicious churros ever—truly a great way to end a meal!