What we ate in the Middle East
Food: a universal language, a way for humans to connect, and one of our very favorite parts of travel (who’s with us?!) We absolutely fell in love with Arabic food during our month in the Middle East. If you’re planning a trip to the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and/or Israel, check out this blogpost and plan your itinerary accordingly!
Be prepared to get some stares when you visit this local hole-in-the-wall, but you aren’t going to want to miss it! When we went, their tiny location was absolutely bustling with locals putting together their breakfast sandwiches. That’s right! You assemble your own. Start by grabbing their famous sesame-covered kaek bread off of the tower of freshly baked loafs. Then help yourself to their hard boiled eggs (you have to crack the shells, peel it, then crumble it into your sandwich), spreadable cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers, zaatar and chili oil. The end result for us was an incredible, fresh breakfast sandwich that costs us less than $2 USD for two. Check out Salaheddin Bakery off of King Hussein St. in the Abdali Neighborhood!
One of the things we were most looking forward to was to finally get our hands on authentic knafeh. We had tasted the savory-meets-sweet dessert for the first time at the Queens Night Market in NYC, but we knew we had to get the real deal in Amman. Our research took us to Habibah Sweets (they have multiple locations scattered throughout Amman). We spent less than $1 USD on a quarter kilo of knafeh (plenty if you’re looking for a snack) and it was absolutely delicious. We’ll admit: it was more delicious than the knafeh we had in Queens.
Rakwet Arab Café
Rakwet was one of our very favorite meals we had during the entirety of our trip. We decided to walk there and, though we had to climb many hills and stairs (because Amman is full of both), the walk is scenic and pleasant. The ambience in the restaurant is great, with beautiful decorations, peaceful Arabic music and a hookah bar surrounding the tables. We ordered a lamb dish that was served in tomato sauce with a thin layer of bread on top, a hummus dish topped with oil and tree nuts, and a chicken dish served to us in a clay pot! They cook the meats in these clay pots and then, before they serve them, they have to crack them open with a mallet. Every single thing we tasted was delicious and the portions were huge; a must visit when in Amman!
Dubai, United Arab Emirates:
During our day at one of Dubai’s beautiful beaches, we stumbled across Al Shorfa at La Mer and decided to eat there, not necessarily because of amazing reviews (we were too hungry to look up reviews) but because of their cheap lunch special. The lunch special came with soup, salad, an entrée and a dessert, all for $13 USD each (a steal for us New Yorkers!) We did add on a giant mint lemonades though because #worthit. Every aspect of the entire meal was so fresh. That’s what does it – NYC has awesome Mediterranean food, but it will never be the same because we don’t have access to the fresh ingredients that they do. Because of the language barrier, we still don’t even know what the entrees were, so we can’t really recommend anything specific (sorry about that), but the protein was definitely lamb; mine was covered in cream and Daniel’s was served on top of Israeli couscous.
Since my (Amanda) first visit to the Middle East in 2012, I’ve been searching for one thing: mint lemonade. I don’t know how, but it seems that nowhere else across the world can replicate Arabic mint lemonade! That’s why we were overjoyed to get an incredible mint lemonade on the morning of our arrival in the UAE. Eggspectation is actually a Vancouver-based restaurant, but because Dubai is such a huge international community (80% of its residence are expats!), we wanted to partake in some of the international foods too. Eggspectation was a highly rated brunch place, and we loved gobbling down those mint lemonades, while also filling up on a delicious goat cheese salad and a bagel sandwich. Not necessarily prime Arabic food – but delicious nonetheless. A great brunch spot we’d recommend when you’re in Dubai, especially for those mint lemonades.
Jachnun was recommended to us by a friend who had grown up in Israel; they have two locations – one in Mahane Yehuda Market and the other in the neighborhood Nahalat Shiv’a on Hillel Street. (Bonus: the Hillel Street location stays open on Shabbat!) We got ourselves the shakshuka, the malawach sandwich (a wrap filled with mashed tomatoes, egg and zhug) and the Israeli salad. Hands down, they served us the best shakshuka we got on our trip! For those who may not know: shakshuka is a dish of poached eggs served in a tomato sauce (usually mixed with peppers and onions). It’s amazing. And it also made us form a possibly unpopular opinion: the Middle East may just make better tomato sauce than Italy. All that to say, we highly recommend Jachnun; we actually visited their second location on our last day in Jerusalem just to savor one last shakshuka.
This place was mind-blowing. We can’t emphasize that enough. It was, hands down, without a doubt, the best hummus we’ve ever had in our entire lives. The restaurant is hard to find – it’s a little hole-in-the-wall hidden between bigger restaurants on Ha Nevi’im Street, right outside Damascus Gate. But it’s worth finding because we don’t think we’ll ever have hummus like this again. Their hummus is served with a concoction of whole chickpeas and spices on top, while lying in a (delicious) bowl of oil. On the side they give you little dishes of spicy peppers, pickles and raw onions to bite into and add to the flavors; and we asked for pita and falafel to enjoy with it as well. If you are going to Jerusalem, we can’t stress this enough: find this place!
Tel Aviv, Israel:
Keton Jewish Bistro
We figured we’d been tasting so much Arabic food, it was time to taste some Jewish food! When we got to Tel Aviv we decided to stop in at the highly rated Keton Jewish Bistro. They served the Jewish food we’re used to: we helped ourselves to a huge plate of schnitzel and a pile of pierogis, paired with latkes and cucumber salad. For a taste of Eastern European Jewish food, visit Keton!
Sarona Market in Tel Aviv is so comparable to Chelsea Market in Manhattan (for any of your New Yorkers out there) – it’s sleek, expensive, and a foodie’s dream. There are a lot of cool Hebrew or Arabic-fusion foods for you to choose between; we spent our afternoon sampling what we could and decided that our favorite was Junam. Their specialty was an open-faced pita sandwiches: we got ours with chicken shawarma on top. The flavors were traditional Arabic flavors mixed with citrus and a slaw. It was delicious! And the service was cheerful and talkative, too.
Want to give Greek cuisine a try while you’re in Tel Aviv? Visit Ouzeria! From the outside it looks like a hole-in-the-wall, but the food that is served is plated so fancily you’ll think you were at a five-star restaurant. In fact, we found it after it was featured in The New York Times! At lunch all of their entrees come with individual appetizers; I got goat cheese-stuffed beet ravioli before my moussaka (a Greek dish that is essentially a potato and ground beef lasagna) and Daniel got a parmesan cauliflower dish before his chicken gyro. Everything served to us wasn’t just delicious, it was also just really pretty!
My (Amanda) personal favorite shawarma that we had during our trip was at Yashka in Tel Aviv. We got chicken shawarma to split and it came on a giant platter. It also came with French fries, a salad, hummus and a pita – plenty of food for two people, but for the price of one! There was a little bar full of pickled vegetables and sauces that you could add to your platter if you wished. It was delicious and the restaurant seemed to be full of locals, and busy even up until nearly closing time.
Bread & Co in Tel Aviv
This place was hoppin’! We went on a Friday morning (essentially Israel’s Saturday morning) and there was a long wait for a table. When we finally did get seated, it was totally worth it because their brunch was incredible: we ordered the shakshuka (we’re suckers for shakshuka if you haven’t noticed), and an omelet sandwich on challah bread. Again, everything was so fresh (seriously, you want fresh food? Travel outside of the United States – ha!) The shakshuka was delightfully tangy and spicy, and it came with a plate of bell peppers and onions that you could sprinkle into it as you like. The challah was freshly baked and steaming hot.
Note: The name translates to Bread & Co., but it can only be found on google maps with the Hebrew name, so I’m copying and pasting it here: לחם ושות'
As New Yorkers, we love our juices! Now, imagine pairing your juices and smoothies with the freshness of Israel’s produce. Tel Aviv had Tamara locations all over the city, so we decided to give it a try (then we gave it a try two more times before we left!) By now you should be well aware of my (Amanda’s) obsession with mint lemonade; Tamara’s wasn’t the best I’d had, but it was good. Daniel, however, got a strawberry and banana smoothie with an orange juice base each time we visited and he loved it! If you need a refresher, definitely stop by.
While on our trip, we also ate a delicious Emirati breakfast at the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, took an incredible (five hour!) food tour with Bellies en Route in Cairo, and ate a Shabbat meal at Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem. Blogpost that cover these meals (and more!) are coming soon.