Today, we are featuring a guest post from Zoë, who is currently living in Tel Aviv. She found out about five years ago that she is allergic to wheat, soy, and nuts (what she considers the worst combination of allergies for Israel!). Zoë started the Gluten Free Tel Aviv website when she realized that there was a big hole that needed to be filled. Although there are many Hebrew resources for the gluten free, information in English is much more difficult to find! So she created Gluten Free Tel Aviv to be the English language resource and community for travelers and residents alike. Here, she shares a very thorough list of Israeli specialties that are typically gluten free, along with some of her favorite dining spots where you can find them.
Hello from Tel Aviv, Israel! I moved here only a few months ago and was overwhelmed with the whole new ALPHABET I had to learn! When I lived in Germany last year, at least it was easy to recognize “Gluten Frei” on the packaging, while here I had to memorize ללא גלוטן. To make things even more challenging, there are also two types of font here (kind of like cursive and block in the US) which can complicate things further as many of the letters look nothing alike.
My journey here has been interesting, and I have been enjoying the discoveries immensely. The overarching theme is that, while Israelis perhaps aren't as knowledgeable about gluten free dietary nuances as some other Europeans may be, Israeli cuisine itself is actually very gluten free friendly! If you've traveled to other Mediterranean countries before, you may have already experienced this -- tables filled with fresh light salads and vegetables, lots of grilled fish, lamb, and fabulous homemade spreads. In Israel, we have this -- and more! Below you'll find a list of Israeli (and regional) specialties anyone who's gluten free can enjoy!
Israeli cuisine in particular centers around one food: Hummus. If you're visiting Israel for the first time, prepare to have your mind blown. This is anything but your grocery store Sabra! Israeli hummus is warm, smooth, creamy, and delicious. But even here in the land of hummus, not all hummus is "good" hummus. I've listed a few of my favorites below.
Hummus is made of cooked and blended chickpeas and spices, topped with tahini, olive oil, and parsley. You can also add other things to the top of your hummus. Favorites include sabich (eggplant), egg, mushrooms, or even meat. For those of us who are gluten free, we have a few options as to how to enjoy our hummus. I've yet to find a Hummus joint that offers gluten free pita, so I often use French fries or or raw onion (an Israeli favorite - be sure it try it!) as my vessel. The French fries can be dangerous for those with Celiac disease, of course, if the fryer is used for other things (likely it's used for falafel, which can have flour in it...more on that below). So be sure to double check. If the fries won't work for you, there's always a spoon! Although Israelis wouldn't be caught dead eating their hummus this way, it's perfectly tasty (everyone will just know for SURE you aren't a local). If you're opting for this system, I'd recommend getting something like the sabich or the meat to help make it feel more like a substantive dish.
Alternatively, you can always resort to bringing your own gluten free pita. The best etiquette for this situation is to keep it in its original packaging and to double check with the waiter that it's okay. Many places here are Kosher, and there are strict rules as to what can be brought into a restaurant. However, at least one brand sold here, GreenLite's Pitas, are Kosher, so if your server can look at the bag, it should be no problem. They will definitely look at you funny.
One last word of advice...you may not understand your waiter or the cashier when he asks you what chhoooooomooous you want. Don't worry - he's not choking, that's just the correct way to pronounce it.
You can read about my favorite spots for hummus on GlutenFreeTravelSite, where I've submitted reviews. They include Hummus Ha Carmel, Shlomo and Doron, Abu Hasan, and Abu Zaki. One important note: On many Gluten Free Israel forums and Facebook groups, I have seen people posting about "hidden flour" being used as a thickener in some Israeli hummus, which seems like an absolutely CRAZY and almost sacrilegious idea here. I have asked these people multiple times for their sources regarding this, but no one seems to want to come forward and actually say where they have had this happen to them. My thoughts? Eating too much hummus can be a bit hard on your digestive system if you're not used to it. Excess consumption of chickpeas can sometimes cause gas, bloating, upset stomach, and constipation. Since these are some of the symptoms I experience when I eat gluten, it isn't a far leap to imagine that these "flour" criers were actually experiencing just plain old hummus overload. Ask the server if you're worried, but my best advice is to keep your hummus consumption at a reasonable level (I assure you this isn't as easy as it sounds!).
Falafel traditionally should be gluten free, but as with so many things these days, sometimes wheat is added! Such a bummer, because it's such an easy and convenient food to find. There is some good news for gluten free folks, however...when you do find gluten free falafel in Israel, it will be is the best falafel ever. That's because the falafel that are safe for you to eat are prepared traditionally, without cutting corners, and made with simpler, better quality ingredients.
Falafel is a simple food, but the spices used and the quality of the ingredients really make or break these little fried balls of delight. At a falafel joint that boasts gluten free falafel, be sure to confirm that a dedicated fryer is used so that you don't get sick from cross contamination. However, it is unlikely there would even be any other fried items on the menu.
Traditionally falafel is made from chickpeas, spices, herbs (parsley and cilantro give it it's green color), and some sesame seeds. That's it, and yet, those ingredients, in different combinations, make for some truly stunning variations.
Shawarma is certainly a staple here in Israel, though, I admit I haven't tried it yet. However, as lamb-on-a-spit is common throughout many parts of the world, I am quite familiar with the product from when I lived in Germany. There they call it Dönner, but it's the same thing. Heat + stick + meat + turn, repeat. Here, you can get a plate full of nice slices of Shawarma accompanied by colorful salads or French fries (ask about the fryer again, of course). The aforementioned HaKosem is typically listed as one of the top places for shawarma in Tel Aviv.
Grilled or baked whole fish is very popular throughout Israel. Restaurants are often divided into the categories of either Meat or Fish or Dairy because of Kosher citizens (you'll notice as you walk around that many places will specify "Meat" or "Fish" on their awnings). I have to say, the fish is exceptional here -- and very fresh. If you go to a smaller fish place, just ask them what is freshest and then have them prepare it however they think is best (usually it'll be grilled or baked with some lemon butter and fresh herbs, and a side of baked potato). Be prepared for your fish to be looking at you - it'll come with it's head and fins intact, unless you specifically order fillets. My fish experience in Tel Aviv is limited so far, but I've had whole fish dinners in both the North (Golan) and South (Eilat).
If you're looking for a special pescatarian treat - head to Shuk HaCarmel on Fridays. A young woman has a stand set up selling ceviche and beer, and there's always a line! She's closer to the parking lot end (not the Allenby end), off the main isle between some fruit and veggie vendors and the meat section. Good luck! Her sign says: Ceviche and Beer at Shabta's, Kapach Street/Shuk HaCarmel, Fridays.
I LOVE breakfast. I go to sleep every night dreaming of what I'm going to eat the next day. It's usually the same thing (oatmeal, chia seeds, some variety of dried fruit, cinnamon), but when the occasion calls for it, and go out. My go-to breakfast here in Israel is Shakshuka.
Shakshuka has been making the rounds on the internet and social media, so maybe you've seen it without realizing what it was. Red stuff in a skillet with some eggs in it? Sound familiar? Then you've seen Shakshuka! The "red stuff" is a mixture of tomato, bell peppers, and spices, and like falafel, subtle variations can really make or break the dish. Normally it is served with bread to help soak up the sauce, but some restaurants who have rice will be nice enough to substitute that for the bread. Mix a little rice in the dish and voila! Carb-y, starch-y goodness achieved. (This might also be one of those times to keep a GF roll in your bag, just in case!)
Almost all restaurants offer a Shakshuka on their menu, and be sure to note the different variations offered. You can have yours topped with Eggplant (perhaps this can satisfy the need for starch!), or meat, or other veggies. Some restaurants even make Vegan Shakshuka, without the eggs. Also, Israeli style breakfasts come with an assortment of 'salads,' so get ready to eat when you order Shakshuka. There are likely multiple small bowls of deliciousness coming your way, and I would venture to guess that about 90% of these offerings are gluten free.
The best part is that, although Shakshuka is a breakfast food, it is also an all day food. So, it you can't find anything satisfying (and gluten free) on a dinner menu, Shakshuka to the rescue! And unlike eating Hummus for dinner, something that many Israelis would raise an eyebrow at, there is no judgement for Shakshuka consumption at any hour of the day or night! Spots I've tried and liked (or that have been recommended to me) include Benedict, Shakshoukia, Shuk Shuka, and Dr. Shakshouka.
If you're coming from another country, prepare to have your definition of salad challenged! Okay, so we are familiar with cucumber and tomato salad, but the Israelis have really perfected it. Fresh, crisp, and colorful, Israeli salad is really a cut above. But that's just where salad starts in this country! When you order a variety of things here, hummus, shakshuka, breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you may have your table soon buried under a mountain of small plates, boasting all the colors of the rainbow.
More than once, we've dug in with gusto and had to have been reminded by our Israeli friends that we still had a main course coming. So if you're gluten free in Israel, you never have to worry about being hungry or feeling unsatisfied at the end of a meal, even if you "just eat salad." If you're looking for the Salad Experience to end all Salad Experiences, then The Old Man and the Sea is your place. For a set price you get an entree with somewhere between 18-23 different salads.
Traditionally, Malabi is a milk based pudding flavored or topped with rosewater. Malabi is an extremely popular dish across the Middle East, and in Israel, it's as common to see it as a street food as in an upscale restaurant. The Malabi base consists of sugar, milk, and cornstarch. Different spices and extracts can be used on top of that. The traditional recipe calls for rice flour instead of cornstarch, but nowadays the corn starch is said to yield a smoother texture (Ha Malabia, my favorite spot, uses corn starch).
To be honest, I don’t know how to adequately sum up my ocean of love for this little dish. I hate rosewater, and I’m really not into heavy dairy puddings, but this cup of perfection takes everything I don’t like and transfigures into something I love. I’m probably going to put on ten pudding pounds from Malabi consumption. This is a must-try while in Tel Aviv.
Apparently, there are two types of Halva, flour (semolina) or nut butter based. Israel is the land of tahini (sesame), and therefore Israeli Halva is supposed to be the nut butter based variety. Made properly, Halva is a sweet, dense, dessert of tahini and honey, often topped or stuffed with nuts and or chocolate. If you're gluten free, it's always best to ask and be SURE what you're buying is NOT the semolina based variety. Therefore, getting Halva at the Shuks can be daunting because the vendor may not speak English well, may just want to make a sale, or (most likely) may not be able to hear you over the dozens of shoppers all trying to talk over each other in the isle way!
So, when purchasing Halva, you've got to be careful. If you've got an Israeli friend or guide, have them ask for you. If don't don't have someone helping you, a safer solution for your Halva craving would be to buy some in a grocery store (but then again, you need an Israeli to read the package for you) or in a dedicated shop.
That all being said, Halva Kingdom in Shuk HaCarmel offer the tahini based Halva (main isle of the Shuk, they have two separate stands). They say their Halva is "80% tahina, 10% honey, and 10% other things." Wait, other "things?!" That word is the bane of the gluten free existence! But the "other things" in this case are the chocolate, nuts, or spices that they use to make different flavors. If you're highly sensitive, pick and choose your varieties carefully. The nut "mix ins" will probably be safe for you while the chocolate varieties may be trickier. If you're worried about hidden wheat, you can also just buy honey and tahini at the grocery store! Slather it on everything you eat for a delicious, albeit calorie dense, treat.
Did you know that Israelis have the lowest percentage of peanut allergies globally? Studies are tracing it back to this delicious, Cheetos-reminiscent-peanut-flavored snack that Israeli children start devouring at around 4 months old. Israeli's consume Bamba like it's their job, so join in and help increase productivity!
The regular Bamba is "technically" gluten free, but if you are a very sensitive Celiac, you need to search for the brand that states so right on the packaging (featured in the picture here). The chocolate filled one isn't gluten free, unfortunately. The best part is that Bamba is available everywhere - so if you're starving and stopping at at gas station while trekking across Israel, this salty sweet gluten free snack is almost always an option.
I hope you’re all salivating as much as I am for all the amazing foods Israel has to offer! If you’re ever in my area, feel free to contact me and I’d be happy to point you in the most delicious direction. Many thanks to Karen and her website, GlutenFreeTravelSite, for being such a great resource for our community! Gluten Free Travel doesn’t have to be boring!
Note from Gluten Free Travel Blog: You can find all of Zoë's reviews consolidated on this page of GlutenFreeTravelSite. As always, you can also enter any city (i.e. Tel Aviv) on the Search/Mapping page of GlutenFreeTravelSite to find places that have been reviewed by all reviewers. They're even mapped, and you simply click on any business in the listing to read the review. Be sure to use this page as you're planning your next trip...or even searching for new spots to try close to home!