Written by: Chelsea Truesdell
When you come to Israel, you can expect to encounter an array of Mediterranean food; rich hummus, hot falafel, fresh salads, or creamy feta. As your mouth salivates at the thought of all these delicious foods, I want to stop and introduce you to something different to our traditional concept “Israeli” food.
Modern-day Israel has slowly become a melting pot of different cultures, religions, and customs. Some may think of Israel as the “Jewish homeland,” but just like any other country dealing with contemporary issues, Israel is not only becoming the Jewish homeland, but an asylum for immigrant refugees coming from all parts of the world. Major influxes of these refugees are coming from Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. As political turmoil occurs in these countries, civilians seek refuge in other economically stable nations such as Israel. When these refugees come to Israel, they contribute elements of their own cultures; language, customs and of course, cuisine.
As I took a tour through South Tel Aviv, an area where most refugees work,live and congregate, a whole new world within Tel Aviv unveiled itself. It is easy to stay within the bubble of beaches, night clubs, restaurants, and boutiques when living in the heart of Tel Aviv, but to completely understand Tel Aviv, it’s important to pop that bubble and explore outside the familiar parameters.
The refugees in Israel are far from home, however they have built a community in Israel with the resources they have been given. Today refugees own and run their own businesses and stores, they have boutiques with customary dress from their homeland,and of course, restaurants serving traditional foods of their birth land. In this neighborhood the smells emanating from each food stand are so good it’s intoxicating. I’ve never had Sudanese food in my life, but I knew now was the time to change that.
My friends and I settled on a random restaurant with delicious scents permeating out the front door. The atmosphere in the restaurant was unlike any Tel Aviv restaurant I had encountered.We requested that the cook bring us “traditional” food. The next thing we knew, there were a slew of trays at our table filled with fresh cut vegetables, warm slices of pita, spicy pieces of meat, rich bean stews, and hot rice. The bean dish was savory and zesty at the same time- its creamy texture melted in in my mouth while leaving a fresh aftertaste. I never knew beans and rice could be so ambrosial! As we poured the beans over the pita stuffed with veggies and rice, our mouths watered. We devoured the meat dish, eating pieces of it as if it were popcorn. As soon as one dish was finished, they enthusiastically served us aother fresh hot dish in its place. Although we were stuffed, we couldn’t resist filling our plates again and again. When we couldn’t fit even another grain our rice into our engorged belles, we had the opportunity to sit back, relax, and thank the humble chefs. We we’re truly satisfied customers, in every sense of the word.
In my experience, a lavish atmosphere, superb service, or inflated prices do not an amazing meal make. Sure, these help. But it’s the love that makes great food. With every bite we had, you could taste the chef's pride and love for Sudan and their enthusiasm to share their culture with us through their cuisine.
As the diversity in Israel grows, the culture and the land become more well rounded, today’s reality in Israel is that the cultural dynamics are changing, therefore we need to acknowledge that. I will never forget my meal, or my experience, and I encourage everyone to pop their bubble and start exploring the world around them- bite by bite.