Haj Kahil

fried cheese

When I left the restaurant Haj Kahil after lunch, I said to someone – “That was the best day of my life.” When Erin, who was dining next to me, took a bite of the fried Halloumi cheese, her whole body softened, her eyes dimmed, and she looked as if she had been lulled into a trance.

Labna with wild mustardpomagranite juicefried haloumi cheesewaiter at Haj Khil

And when someone tried to talk to her, she said – “I’m sorry. I’m just…having…a…moment..with…this….cheese…”

prickly pearspickles

Haj Khilpita

And from the look on her face, it was clearly quite the moment, enjoying that first warm bite of soft, pillowy cheese sealed inside a firm, golden-brown crust. Of course, I made sure that the plate was set down near me, and I plucked one off for myself.

herb salad with pinenuts

bread oven room

Over on hundred cultures live in the small country of Israel, and thirty-three languages are spoken. Because people live so close together, the food traditions cross fluidly from one culture to the next here. Fresh produce is abundant due to the climate and the vegetables are still-crunchy and juicy, as if they are still alive, the herbs are deep-green and aromatic – I was intrigued by hyssop, which I’ve never had fresh before. Meats are complimented by the seared flavor of a grill, or a leisurely roast in the oven, cooked so they fall apart with just the gentle prodding of a fork.

bread-baked meat

And nutty tahini (sesame paste), is a flavor I thought I knew. But here, it is so revered and each spoonful tastes like it was just-ground to order. From hummus to baba ganoush, it’s a flavor that binds it all, the glue that is holding many of the flavors of Israel – and the various cuisines within its controversial borders – together.

Haj Khil in Tel AvivArabic lunch
chef omarchicken baked in pita

Olive oil, chickpeas, sesame seeds, dried fruits, nuts, filo dough, and plenty of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers come heaped in salads, are stuffed into meat dishes, and everything seems to get tossed with an abundance of fresh herbs, all cultivated from this culinary eden.

fattoush

lamb at Haj Khil

Lamb leg

Arabic food is one of my favorite things to eat; I love the lively bowls of pickled vegetables, Labna (thick white, creamy cheese) with pools of olive oil spilling out, and whole roasted leg of lamb stuffed with dried figs and pine nuts and roasted for seven hours.

leg of lamb with dried fruits

And Kanafeh, warm kataifi (shredded filo) pastries sprinkled with chopped pistachios and doused in orange-blossom honey. When pulled apart, hot cheese oozes out. Meals end with tiny shots of coffee with cardamom seeds clustered at the bottom, their aroma permeating the exotic, murky brew.

I’m with a small group traveling in Israel, learning about the foods and the cultures of this country that is roughly the size of New Jersey. Only sixty or so years-old, Israel is young. But it’s vibrant and brash; people will tell you what they think and expect the same out of you. (Kind of like blogging!) The uncertainty one might have about this country is tempered at the rickety linoleum tables in the back of markets where hand-pulled filo is quickly baked and drizzled with honey for you and at the juice stands which dot the streets near the beaches, pouring fresh, cold juices. But if you do want a taste of controversy, just mention the word “hummus” and you will be told by anyone within earshot where the best place is, and why it’s better than any of the other places you were at.

lamb

Here at Haj Kahil, the food is copious and dramatic – tangy cucumbers swimming in vinegar brine, a puffy dome of dough is lifted away, revealing ground lamb with herbs and nuts, cauliflower mashed with tahini (sesame paste), which is meant to be scooped up with breads, all accompanied with house-made pita.

seeded flatbreadmaking flatbreadflatbread ovenflatbreads baking

Each moist handful of dough is pressed and pulled, permeated with za’atar and sesame seeds, then baked for four minutes in a fiery oven until riddled with crisp bubbles. Minutes later, out comes a tambourine-size disk for bread flexible enough to be ripped into, but firm enough to wrap around an unruly salad of spinach and purslane.

flatbreads

I could not get enough of that bread, which they brought out to the table with nearly twenty different dishes for us, everything from miniature pickled eggplants to a salad heaped with fresh herbs and crispy nuts, whose name I can’t remember, but whose taste I will never forget.

Until I was warned that they were just the first course.

filo pastry with cheese

So many of the dishes were unfamiliar, yet I knew the ingredients but had never dreamed they could taste so good piled up all around me. It was like we were all on drugs or something, eating the salads and dips until we could eat no more. Then the main courses arrived, and we covered our laps with napkins, and began all over again.

dessert filo pastry



Haj Kahil
18 Raziel Street
Tel: 03-5188866
Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Israel



Note: I’m a guest on a trip with Vibe Israel, a non-profit organization dedicated to introducing Israeli culture and cuisine to others. This meal was part of that visit.

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135 comments

  • June 29, 2012 9:25am

    I was just talking about halloumi this morning…one of my favorite cheeses that I’ve never seen in France. Must look for it in Paris next time I visit.
    The food there looks completely delicious. Glad you’re enjoying your trip!

  • Gadia
    June 29, 2012 9:47am

    Beautifully and evocatively written. I can almost taste the foods you describe. The trip sounds like an injection of cultural and culinary energy. Wish I could experience it first hand.

  • dbelle
    June 29, 2012 10:56am

    Enjoy your time here! That meal looks unbelievable! If you want to extend your visit and come to Jerusalem for Shabbat, please be in touch.

    • June 29, 2012 3:15pm
      David Lebovitz

      Would love to extend my visit! If anyone from El Al is reading this, get in touch!

  • June 29, 2012 10:58am

    That’s what I LOVE about living in the Middle East…they have such elaborate yet spot on homey food :) Zaatar didn’t win my heart at first because I first brush with it left a bitter taste in the mouth. Then I learned that each establishment has a different zaatar blend. I gave it another chance and YUM! It’s perfect with labneh (strained yoghurt) on manousheh / manakeesh (plural word).

    Hope you could stop by Dubai as well…the food here is from all over the Middle East and the rest of the world (Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, Korean, African,etc)

  • June 29, 2012 10:59am

    You’d be amazed how different Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Iranian, Emirati, Syria cuisine is from each other :)

  • Elle
    June 29, 2012 11:03am

    Would love to see the handmade filo process documented – I cannot imagine how it’s done with such uniformity. Not to mention the shredded filo, kataifi. Everything sounds absolutely delicious and looks really well-made and beautiful. Great trip!

  • Joolian
    June 29, 2012 11:11am

    Wow! I never imagined. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • June 29, 2012 11:20am

    You are killing me with those photos David. I am literally drooling!

  • Cathg1g2
    June 29, 2012 11:50am

    Oh, my husband reminded me again that we need to go Israel.
    Your photos and descriptions are brilliant and so enticing. The food looks so fresh and appetising.
    I adore the tiles around kitchen.
    Thank you.

  • June 29, 2012 12:23pm

    Looks gorgeous! I love absolutely everything you’ve described and photographed in this post! Looking forward to reading more posts from your trip. :)

  • June 29, 2012 12:55pm

    I am just about to head off for lunch, starving…these photos and words make me what to jump on a plane and head on over NOW. Yummm.

  • June 29, 2012 12:56pm

    What does fresh hyssop taste like? The oil used to be common in flavor and perfume formulas at one point, but eventually it just disappeared. It had a really beautiful scent–like lavender and rosemary, with a licorice accent.

    My cousin lives in Israel and keeps inviting me to visit. I think that between her descriptions of the place and your posts, I’m ready to go.

    • June 29, 2012 3:14pm
      David Lebovitz

      Hyssop is very strong – almost thyme-like and slightly medicinal. But the flavor goes really well with foods from the region because it’s so assertive.

  • bridgit
    June 29, 2012 1:21pm

    Oh David, thank you for such a lovely description. Enjoy your trip!

  • Bee
    June 29, 2012 1:42pm

    I called my husband over to see this post and now we’re both swooning over those dishes. Someday…

  • June 29, 2012 1:44pm

    it seems to be like the perfect restaurant
    I wrote down the address for my next trip to Tel Aviv !!

  • Emma
    June 29, 2012 1:44pm

    Prefect timing David – I have a trip planning to Israel with my brother in a few months. I will be taking notes of all of the delicious food you eat. Bring on more Israel posts!!

  • Sarah
    June 29, 2012 2:20pm

    Isn’t hyssop wonderful? My husband bought me a little seedling when we first moved into our house as he assumed that since I love mint, I would like mint’s cousin, hyssop. He was right! It’s quite difficult to find dried here, practically impossible to get fresh, so I have several bushes and start new seedlings every year to make sure we have an ample supply. It makes a delicious syrup for cold drinks, as well as being a nice change from herbes de province on things like roasted potatoes. A little goes a long way when dried, though!

  • June 29, 2012 2:45pm

    This Post is my all-time favorite, because it sums up the israeli food and israel’s general vibe in a web page.
    I live in Israel, and all the dishes you portrayed are daily and regular to me, but it was beautiful thing, experiencing it (and tasting it) through a newbie eyes.

    I just ate a scilian pistachio gelato in Tel Aviv, it was my first time eating a pistachio gelato and I’m pretty sure i’ve seen god after the first bite.
    So i highlly recommend it,the gelato shop is called Vaniliya (http://www.vaniglia.co.il/about.html) and it has several branches in Tel Aviv, you can see their website in english so you can find the nearst shop to you.

    Anway.. that brings me to the point of my overly long comment. I felt so strongly about the ice cream that i, well, immediately ran away from the place (so that i won’t have a chance for second serving, and a third, and a forth) and the second thing i did was to google a recipe for pistachio ice cream. I ran across yours and was very happy.
    Though.. i don’t have an ice cream machine, and i read your post on how to make ice cream without a machine and wondered, since you wrote that this method works best for creamy based ice creams, would it be okay if i replace the milk in the recipe for cream? the 28% fat kind? or will that mess the whole thing up?

    Thankyou in advance, and keep having a great time in Israel!

    • June 29, 2012 5:05pm
      David Lebovitz

      If you replace the cream with milk in ice cream recipes, the results will be firmer and in many cases, icier.

  • June 29, 2012 2:56pm

    MMMMMmmmmmmm!!!! You make me want to go to Israel…..if only to eat the bread!

  • June 29, 2012 2:59pm

    That restaurant is amazing! I have eaten there twice and really enjoyed the food,especially those salads! And their knaafe is amazing!

  • June 29, 2012 3:30pm

    Thank you for taking the time to share your adventures with us!
    Such a privilege to come along with you and see all this great food.

  • June 29, 2012 3:33pm

    Amazing photos and the description has my mouth watering. Israel is an incredible country. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so well as when I was there.

  • Arlene
    June 29, 2012 3:39pm

    That dessert-looking thing in the last right-hand photo – what is that called? I think I had something similar in Egypt many years ago and have been searching for it since but I can’t figure out what’s in it or its name!! It was a sort of shredded wheat like topping over a creamy base.

  • June 29, 2012 3:45pm

    I LOVE halloumi cheese… When I was in Sydney you could get halloumi on or with anything you wanted and I brought some back to France from London last time I was there and cooked it up for the Frenchies I live with… needless to say, it wasnt such a hit haha I ate nearly the whole lot too myself! Looks like an amazing trip! I love all those types of foods too so I’m very jealous of you right now!

  • Warren
    June 29, 2012 3:51pm

    Middle Eastern food is among my favourite !
    My 9 days in Jordan and a week in Dubai and Abu Dhabi were a culinary dream come true. I’ve since been planning my special visit to Israel for 2 years and want to see and do (and eat) so much that the logistics were baffling me but I’m nearly there. Eagerly look forward to the trip next year.
    In the meanwhile, your excellent photos and drool-inducing food descriptions will be the perfect precourse. Thanks for a great read.

    • June 29, 2012 5:04pm
      David Lebovitz

      I’ve heard Jordan is great. I was in Dubai a few years ago and the food was amazing – especially the Syrian and Lebanese food.

  • Maya
    June 29, 2012 4:06pm

    If you’re looking for *really* good food, you could stop in Beirut :) You’ll get all the original knefeh, manakeesh, halloumi, etc. you want!

  • June 29, 2012 4:10pm

    You make me want to eat it all! Whenever I hear someone talking about food in Israel, they always keep repeating the word “fresh.” Sounds like the best endorsement one could want!

  • June 29, 2012 4:36pm

    Hi David, Wonderful pictures of Middle Eastern cuisine. I thought for a moment you were in Beirut.By the way, for your information, the language is Arabic but the cuisine is Arab.Thanks for the inspiration; now I think I’ll go make some Lebanese dishes!

  • June 29, 2012 4:49pm

    What a wonderful post. I love the way you write about foods we in Israel have on a daily basis in a way that makes me want to run out and eat them all again through your “eyes”.

    And thank you for taking the time to explore our culinary culture – it’s such an exciting one with influences from all over the world, it deserves to be experienced and enjoyed.

    Hope you’re having a great trip. We’re off to Paris tomorrow ourselves (so much for my fantasy of running into my favorite blogger while we’re there, as you’re here!) and look forward to experiencing many of things you’ve written about over the years.

    Thanks for a great post!

  • Janan
    June 29, 2012 4:50pm

    im glad you injoyed the Food…
    but everythink you ate in that restaurant in Palestinian and not israeli…
    just for your Information!

    • June 29, 2012 5:02pm
      David Lebovitz

      The food in Israel is pretty much considered a mélange of the various cultures that live here, including (but not limited to) Iraqi, Palestinian, Iranian, Syrian, and many (many) more. The chef of the restaurant is of Palestinian descent. More information about the restaurant, and the chef, can be found at their website, linked at the end of the post.

  • callie
    June 29, 2012 5:00pm

    haj kahil is a fantastic restaurant — i used to live just a couple of blocks from there, i wrote much of my master’s thesis at the cafe right across the street.

    an important correction, though: haj kahil isn’t in tel aviv — it’s in jaffa. technically, these two cities were joined under a single municipality back in the fifties, but there’s still a major dividing line between the two. it’s kind of like saying that chez panisse is in san francisco, or that a restaurant is in manhattan, when it’s actually in brooklyn… you know, plus the incredibly fraught politics.

    • June 29, 2012 5:11pm
      David Lebovitz

      Yes, there’s plenty of room of “controversy” here in Israel, yet the restaurant itself says it’s in Jaffa, Tel Aviv. Either way, it’s worth checking out and luck you for being so close. (And Jaffa is a great area to wander around in!)

  • Debra
    June 29, 2012 5:00pm

    Enjoy every bite of your trip, and thanks for sharing it with us!

  • Vicki B
    June 29, 2012 5:03pm

    Will someone please take pity on those of us who have no hope of ever travelling to Israel and teach you how to make these wonderful dishes so you can share the recipes?

  • callie
    June 29, 2012 5:04pm

    ps, if you’re sticking around tel aviv-jaffa, definitely make sure to try out the kyurtush (kurtush), this incredible hungarian pastry cone. there’s a kyurtush place in the flea market in jaffa and another one in tel aviv on bograshov st. trust me on this one.

  • ma
    June 29, 2012 5:24pm

    fab …all round….cant the management and the chef[s] all be praised for their great food and atmosphere and the giving of quality….

  • Diane G.
    June 29, 2012 5:39pm

    My 22 year old daughter is there for the first time right now! She has been in Israel on a Birthright trip for the last 9 days. She just left Tel Aviv. You could have walked right by each other. I can’t wait to show her your blog.

  • June 29, 2012 5:44pm

    I love this post. It is allowing me to live (eat) vicariously through your wonderful experience. My daughter is in Israel for 5 weeks – working. We were hoping to meet up with her at some point but the trip just didn’t come together. I’m even sorrier about that now that I have read your post. And the hummus – I had to laugh. The last time my daughter visited Israel she came home waxing poetic about the hummus. She said there was nothing to compare to it in our country. I am sending her to Haj Kahil just so I can continue this new love affair I am beginning with the foods of Israel. Thanks David! BTW – beautiful photos!

  • Judith Basham
    June 29, 2012 5:44pm

    I lived in Saudi Arabia for 8yrs and your lovely story brought back many memories accentuated with sighs and yearnings for that delightful food. Please, may we have some recipes too?

    • June 29, 2012 5:57pm
      David Lebovitz

      I’m traveling and staying in hotels, not at home. So don’t have access to recipes or anywhere to test and write them up for the site. But I’m sure there are places where you can find reliable recipes on websites – or in cookbooks. I did link to a few recipes of mine here on the site that are similar.

  • Susan
    June 29, 2012 5:56pm

    David, if you have time, you MUST go to Acre, where the old prison is (EXODUS was shot there.) It is truly beautiful and historic, and there are some wonderful hidden food treasures there as well!

  • Greta
    June 29, 2012 5:58pm

    David, this might be the first dinner we have when we land in Tel Aviv. Your descriptions and photos are mouthwatering. Looking forward to your next report.

  • Susan
    June 29, 2012 6:01pm

    I believe you, too, were having a moment with the food you’ve been eating as you wrote this! I don’t think I’ve ever heard you wax as poetic about anything you’ve eaten quite like you do in this piece. You have made me very hungry for middle eastern food today!

  • Sarah
    June 29, 2012 6:01pm

    I haven’t been to Israel since 1984, I was 11 years old. The trip was eye opening and life altering. The whole experience still resonates with me. I’ve yearned to go back several times. This post of yours only intensifies my urgent need, thank you David. Toda & Beteavon!!

    I will speak to just one of my revelations from that trip that changed my life, I’ll stick to a food related one ;-)

    So even though I was a well traveled and a pretty adventurous eater at age 11, Israel blew my teeen foodie mind wide open.

    Pita. I had eaten more than the bland mass produced stuff sold at US supermarkets, but I had no idea how jaw droppingly delicious it was until my Uncle, a tank driver with the Israeli army, ushered us down ancient stone steps underneath the Old City in Jerusalem. My Dad, 6 ft 5 inches, nearly knocked himself out from not ducking :-) a skill he mastered by the end of our trip. The tourists all disappeared and we were in a labrynth undeneath a city that both amazed and svared me. The heat was sweltering, I assumed it would be cooler underground, he didn’t tell us we were entering one of the worlds oldest bakeries! The ovens were deep and roaring with wild orange flames. Seemingly endless wooden paddles shoved in fresh formed pita and then just as quickly shimmied out dozens at a time, the workers were so close to the ovens. I was afraid the shirtless bakers would catch on fire. The pitas were carried in tall stacks by hand up the steps & loaded onto wooden carts stacked high with the flame hot disks of wondrous smelling bread. These pita carts roamed the city all day. But i soon learned that eating this bread cold ftom a cart wasnt the way to go.

    Only men did this work. My uncle made a rapid transaction, my first known experience buying wholesale, and handed us each some freshly torn pita. The smell and puffs of steam were intoxicating. Even though it was almost burning my fingers I couldn’t get in my mouth fast enough. No exaggeration, it was like my first true taste of bread, or what bread should be. I was never going to eat a Roman Meal Sandwich slice ever again. Before I could ask for more he pointed out a man in the corner with a few crates and a paddle or two of his own. He was making magic, poring fresh eggs and cheeses I’d never tasted before onto raw pita and pulling them out a minute later. My Mom was worried the eggs were undercooked, so my Uncle asked for something else. It was so wonderfully foreign this experience, intensified by the Hebrew I didn’t understand. This time he cooked the eggs in an old tin pan I think scrambling them up to satisfy my Moms anxiety. Then he’d slice open a fully cooked steam laden pita and shove them inside. Utterly delicious, I even tasted my Uncles fried egg pita when my Mom wasn’t looking, heaven. I liked it so much my Uncle then ordered me my first taste of zaatar.

    I didn’t know these flavors even existed, it was a heady food experience. My uncle laughed st me, my eyes must have been bugging out of my head. I was mesmerized by pita bread, it had never occurred to me that food could be this exciting & new.

    All these years later I still remember my many varied food experiences all over Israel. The crap hot lunches we got saddled with on a day tour. The crowded rickety cafes that grilled up lamb and vegetables so deliciously and served family style at l long skinny rickety TAbles with young male and female soldiers talking wildly seemingly unphased by the automatic weapons slung over all their soldiers. The orange soda that my Mom bought for me after I climbed Masada at dawn. I was a chubby late riser kind of kid, this was epic. The fresh almonds and kumquats hidden in my uncles army vest & cargo pants, he had enough snacks stashed on his person for days. My first look and bite into Turkish delight, so many firsts I enjoyed in Israel.

    Thank you David, for reminding me of all of them. I can’t wait to visit my parents on July 4th. I’m going to get out the enormous photo albums from that trip and relive it all with my family.

    Toda Raba David, Sefarad eretz nifla, Shalom.

  • June 29, 2012 6:09pm

    This post is amazing, we love reading your blog! Bye bye from Italy!

  • June 29, 2012 6:16pm

    A moment with cheese sounds perfect. I’ve been loving your Instagrams (especially the brioche – heavenly!).

  • June 29, 2012 6:21pm

    Wow – this makes me want to travel to Israel asap. My roommate went when she was on her Birthright trip, and that moment made me envy her travels. She didn’t mention the plethora of delicious food – I’m a sucker for any type of cultural cuisine. This trip looks amazing, and any place that serves fried cheese is high in my book!

  • Anne
    June 29, 2012 6:30pm

    The look of this food alone already makes me happy. I wanted to take the train to Paris tomorrow, but unfortunately it’s a bit further from home. The beautiful pictures remind me of the food they serve at Ottolenghi’s in London.

  • Liron
    June 29, 2012 6:56pm

    I have to agree with you about the Tahini- I’m an Israeli living in the states, and although it is not a problem to find tahini here, it’s flavor is completely different. Every time I have someone coming for a visit, they bring me some Tahini from Israel- there are 3-4 best producers, mostly based in Schem, who are just out of this world.

  • michele
    June 29, 2012 7:02pm

    Ohh, I’m HOME SICK just looking at the pictures. David, how about some recipes.

  • michele
    June 29, 2012 7:06pm

    To Sara, when you wrote Sefarad, did you mean Spain or Israel.

  • BelleD
    June 29, 2012 7:07pm

    Sarah, love your stories. I felt like I was there with you. My next big trip needs to be this part of the world. Now if only I could convince my very jittery husband to go…

    David, I understand your friend’s ‘cheese moment’. I understand it quite well. I had that moment with my first taste of gelato.

  • June 29, 2012 7:14pm

    God that was spectacular, David. Wonder if I can afford a ticket back to Israel…
    I first had Halumi in Cyprus in 1995 and had to search for it in NYC and Cali. It’s easier to find now, but not the fresh stuff, of course. I dream of that stuff friend and in a fresh roll. Thanks for my morning food porn!

  • Valérie
    June 29, 2012 7:16pm

    To add to my bucket list – visit Israel and have a DL experience, culinary, I mean. This particular post is one of your best. Thank you for sharing.

  • June 29, 2012 7:17pm

    Oh my. I am indeed drooling over the food!

  • Marg Courneyea
    June 29, 2012 7:21pm

    Wooo David
    From away over here in Canada
    This looks devine and I can almost smell it .
    Need to get a chance to try this .
    Thanks for your post David I most enjoy them .

  • juv
    June 29, 2012 7:49pm

    Hi david.well reading your post i felt very lucky that i am in the middle-east and am able to relish all those great foods you mentioned.i just love these foods.hummus and kunafe being my favourite.there is a limitless variety to choose from in arabic food.

  • June 29, 2012 7:54pm

    David, increibles tus fotos!!!, me hacen viajar…
    Estoy esperando un libro tuyo con recetas del mundo…

  • June 29, 2012 8:00pm

    Any thoughts about what went into the purslain and spinach salad? The former has been part of my eating history since it’s common in Mexico and Peru, two countries where I lived as a child. I saw it growing like a small bush in Morocco and they too eat it raw and cooked. Now I’ve got it growing between the bricks in my patio so combining some with baby spinach leaves and those nuts certainly sounds doable. What dressing bind it all together?

    Mind-blowing post.

  • Debbie
    June 29, 2012 8:25pm

    I lived in Tel Aviv for two years in the early 80’s. I guess it’s time to go back because in those days the only intresting food to be found was in Jaffa or the old city of Jerusalem…best shwarma ever! It was a joke trying to find some place interesting or semi-decent to eat. I loved my time there, and became quite the cook due to the dearth of good restaurants….a good thing!

  • Sandy Castro
    June 29, 2012 8:29pm

    Thank you for sharing,it all looks delicious,on what are the chicken legs served?

  • June 29, 2012 8:46pm

    I love fried Halloumi cheese, but I have not cooked it for many moons, thanks for reminding me how good it is. Diane

  • Ann K
    June 29, 2012 8:50pm

    David, I love this post! Please, please, please identify the foods in the last 3 photos. My mouth is watering.

    • June 29, 2012 11:29pm
      David Lebovitz

      One of the desserts I mentioned is Kanafeh, which is basically made by moistening shredded filo with butter, and baking it with a slice of soft cheese in the center. Then serving it with a sugar syrup. I don’t know the name of the other dumpling-like pastries – since the name was written in another alphabet : )

  • suedoise
    June 29, 2012 10:52pm

    Being allergic to nuts and almonds the wonderful kitchen of the Near East is a rather dangerous feast.

  • Dewi
    June 30, 2012 12:55am

    OMG, David, my husband send me this link today. I guess he really misses Israel, and especially the bread like the one here. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • theremina
    June 30, 2012 1:12am

    Mouth-watering post!
    I lived in Lebanon and all of the foods are instantly familiar, right down to the prickly pears served with ice cream :-)
    The way to cook halloumi cheese like in the picture here is to dredge the pieces of cheese in flour, dip in water, and dredge again in flour, then fry in hot oil. This method of frying cheese is called “saganaki” in Greek, and I’m sure there are plenty of recipes on the net for it. The difference between halloumi and other cheeses fried this way is that the halloumi is softened and desalted first, by soaking it in water or milk. Hence the divine texture and flavor.
    The kataif & cheese pastry is a staple across the former Ottoman empire, and can also be found in Greece, Turkey, and most Arab countries. The pronounciation varies but it’s essentially the same word: kounefe, kunefe, knafe, knafeh.
    If you can find a place that makes “kaak knafe” it is to die for. A piece of Nabulsi style knafeh (thick-ground semolina instead of kataif strands) served in a bread roll with a generous ladle of syrup, and eaten like a sandwich!
    The chicken on a bed of chopped onions & sumac atop a round of bread: I’m surprised the restaurant’s menu doesn’t list it with its local name, musakhan. Also, they say the thick bread base is Iraqi, but I know it as “taboun” bread.
    The salad with purslane, pine nuts and greens seems to have a fattoush-type of dressing, from the looks of it – I can discern the specks of sumac. In fact, the salad identified as fattoush (on Flickr, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidlebovitz/7465007130/in/set-72157630308500480/ ) I don’t recognize as fattoush, it’s more like a chopped salad. It has a generous topping of zaatar, which isn’t usual for fattoush. The next photo, with the purslane, pine nuts and greens, is more like a fattoush.
    The little crescents (photo above, to the left of the dish with cut-up knafeh) are atayef, small pancakes filled with cream (ashta) or chopped nuts and folded over. I’m guessing the ones served here are filled with nuts, as they are sealed shut ( the ones filled with cream usually have one tip left open, forming a cone shape).
    The zaatar bread is an ubiquitous street food snack in Lebanon, known as man’ousheh.

  • Jane
    June 30, 2012 1:33am

    Nitpick: Arabic refers to a language. Arab is the correct adjectival form.

  • theremina
    June 30, 2012 1:35am

    One more thing about the fattoush salad.
    If it tasted like no other fattoush you’ve had before, try the follow: a dressing of sumac/garlic/lemon juice/olive oil/salt on top of purslane, parsley, mint, green onions, purslane, with radish greens as the main green ingredient. Then add cucumber, tomatoes, and pita bread croutons. My mom (who lived in Jerusalem in the 1950’s) also adds a touch of cinnamon and allspice.

  • Jeanne
    June 30, 2012 1:44am

    Please write another book ….. on Israeli foods. You bring such poetry to it; so different from other authors… please, please….

    Enjoy your trip! Safe travels –

  • June 30, 2012 2:01am

    This is one of your best posts, David, with amazing photo’s. I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Israeli food for some time & have a great book on modern Israeli food written by Janna Gur. Your pictures have really brought the food to life – thanks so much for sharing.

  • Rebel
    June 30, 2012 2:31am

    If you are going to Nazareth there is a superb spice shop (where you can buy wonderful dried cherries) and a bakery with indescribably delicious baklava. You probably have contacts that can locate them for you. I currently don’t have access to the names.

  • Dia
    June 30, 2012 2:46am

    Ann, the dumpling like pastries are called “Katayef” its a Lebanese and Palestinian type of pancake that is eventually stuffed with cream or walnuts sugar rosewater and orange blossom water. It can be eaten either fried or not and usually you add sugar syrup pistachios and orange blossom preserves when you serve (in the case of Lebanon).
    And as some mentioned the food presented is mainly Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian cuisine (all regional recipes that each country has a different twist to).

  • sassy
    June 30, 2012 2:52am

    Mumtaz!!

  • Valerie Matteo
    June 30, 2012 2:59am

    David, your style of writing about food makes my heart sing and reminds me of all the wonderful things the world has to offer us if we are open to new experiences. All of your posts have inspired me to add MANY things to my bucket list! Thank you for the gift you share. I want to go to Isreal.

  • Mari gold
    June 30, 2012 3:32am

    I loved Israel, and all the food I ate in my 2weeks there…..your article, blog just makes my really want to go back. What a wonderful country to be in, truly a trip that is life changing.

  • kathryn
    June 30, 2012 3:57am

    Oh, David. What a wonderful post. My favorite food is middle-eastern. I used to cook a lot of it before the “troubles.” Then I felt kind of unamerican if I offered this
    wonderful food to my guests. I got looks. I wish I had thought to say that it was Israeli or Armenian food. Please, please write this book.

  • June 30, 2012 4:09am

    I’m in a trance. It sounds like one of those meals that, no matter how jaded the palate, is utterly transformative. I had a similar, though probably less sublime, experience with a piece of spicy fried chicken yesterday. Hey, what can I say? Not nearly as refined, but transformative nonetheless.

  • Elle
    June 30, 2012 4:20am

    @Theramina: Thanks for the fattoush recipe – sounds perfect. When I lived in DC in the late 80’s there was an incredibly good Lebanese take out place that made the best fattoush! My roomates and I feasted on that at least every other day for years.

  • June 30, 2012 5:19am

    there is a parallel universe and you have landed in it- complete with a rainbow of a different color!

  • June 30, 2012 5:59am

    Oh my God… I’ve never wanted to crawl through a monitor with a fork before – not until this post.

  • June 30, 2012 6:15am

    Damn. Thank you. Thank Vibe Israel, too. :)

  • Brittany
    June 30, 2012 7:45am

    erading about everything you’ve described made my mouth water.


    I’m suddenly very hungry!

  • Hoda
    June 30, 2012 11:13am

    Hi ,
    Thank you david for acknowledging and loving the arabic cuisine.For the readers who wanted to know the name of the pastries , the folded moon shape one called qatayef .In Egypt we eat it just during the holy month of Ramadan. The other pastry is kounafa belqshta that means kounafa with cream or custard. I hope you visit Egypt one day . The Egyptian food is simple but tasty and underrated. If it possible you can join my family on our next visit to Egypt next year and we will be your guide to the delicious food that some of it go back to the time of the pharaohs.

  • June 30, 2012 2:09pm

    Hello David,

    Thanks for a nice description of Palestinian food.

    That family has lived in the Palestinian city of Jaffa for 120 years – long before the creation of Israel in 1948.

  • stephen
    June 30, 2012 4:48pm

    That Palestinian food looks divine.

    It brings back fond memories of visiting with my friends a few years back in Ramallah and enjoying fabulous home-cooked meals (Maqluba definitely comes to mind).

    And of visiting Iblin, a Palestinian village in the Galilee and eating Muskhan (the chicken dish you showcase above) straight from the taboun (outdoor oven).

    The Levantine cuisine is a culinary treasure to be cherished.

    Sahtein as they say in Arabic!

  • Chef omar
    June 30, 2012 5:00pm

    Dear david
    Thank you for the time you spend withe us and for the kredit that you give me.
    It was nice to meet you.
    See you next time in the resturant.
    Chef omar elwan

  • tonia pugel
    June 30, 2012 5:17pm

    Great post*

  • June 30, 2012 7:22pm

    Incredible David, just incredible! I want a moment or two with fried cheese myself.

  • dana
    June 30, 2012 7:40pm

    I watched you on the Israeli TV.You and the other bloggers were eating in the some of the most successful restaurants in Israel.It seems that you are having a great time .Waiting for more details

  • Melina
    July 1, 2012 2:33am

    Your post just killed me.
    I kept reading it, thinking, where the hell was that Israeli restaurant that I didn’t know yet in Paris, I should try it first thing tomorrow at lunch — to eventually find out it’s in Tel Aviv…
    AAArghhh ! Looks sooooo delicious it made me want to go back to Israel instantly. Enjoy your time there !

  • July 1, 2012 3:07am

    my brain is screaming right now that i do not eat enough arabic food, and i need to turn my life around right quick.

  • July 1, 2012 4:00am

    I am simply amazed by this post. Beautiful food, written about in a gracious manner. Thank you for serving up such a treat. :)

  • Elizabeth Bennett
    July 1, 2012 4:39am

    Every now and again I think I have read your best.post.ever.

    I am always proved wrong, eventually.

    Thank you for writing and enjoy your trip.

  • July 1, 2012 10:59am

    I knew just how Erin felt when she bit into that Halloumi cheese… it can be a special moment! Have a fantastic time… It’s a long way for me to go for a dinner…. but you make me wish that I could… xv

  • Yonatan
    July 1, 2012 1:04pm

    “Shalom” David! You whet the appetite and now I must take a trip there… ASAP!
    Thank you for great post – and enjoy!
    Yonatan (Israel)

  • July 1, 2012 6:21pm

    I had my first taste of halloumi not long ago, and I think I had that exactly same dreamy cheese moment as you described (and I’m sure the one I ate wasn’t as good as the one at Haj Kahil). My mouth is watering!

  • July 2, 2012 12:03am

    Oh man, David, this all looks incredible! I’d been seeing a few mouthwatering things popping up on your instagram feed but this post just makes me want to book the first flight out to Israel, stat! Halloumi, tahini, hummus, lamb, cardamom…. love it.

  • shari
    July 2, 2012 2:00am

    Oh baby.

  • Olivia
    July 2, 2012 2:49am

    I have unsuccessfully tried to make the kanafeh here in Australia, but the cheese just isnt the same. Could you find out what type of cheese they use?

  • Dana
    July 2, 2012 3:38am

    Having traveled extensively, Israel remains and will always be my favorite country to eat in (Italy, Greece and Spain vie for 2nd place). The freshness of the produce and meats means you need to do very little to bring out the flavor. The schug and other condiments complement and enhance the natural flavors. So glad you are finding joy in my favorite country.

  • Tali
    July 2, 2012 4:17am

    Oh. My. God. You made me hungry in front of the computer and really really home sick. Haj is my favorite resturant in Jaffa.
    Need to visit home and go eat there. Fast.

  • Nicole
    July 2, 2012 4:43am

    Whoa. I mean, seriously, whoa.

  • Ron
    July 2, 2012 9:29am

    every thing looks great it it seems like you are having lots of fun here,
    I just wanted to comment that: hyssop = zaatar its the fresh herb form of it, but in Arabic it still is called zaatar, and that Kadaif is not a kind of filo pastry cut into slices it’s made as tiny strings of Dough – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NV19r48LtwA&feature=related

    • July 2, 2012 3:56pm
      David Lebovitz

      I always thought zaatar was made with thyme but I was corrected and told it was made with oregano by a local chef. Interesting that it’s made with hyssop – I’ll have to check that out since it’s a new flavor to me, and I like it a lot.

      I use the term ‘shredded filo dough’ since that’s how it’s often presented in the states by companies like Krinos and others. There was a couple in San Francisco that had a wonderful filo bakery and they made the dough there, which was amazing to watch. Am not sure how they made their Kadaif, though, or what the process was. But thanks for the link to the video.

  • Dana
    July 2, 2012 4:48pm

    David, this post made me so homesick. I don’t know if all you meals are accounted for, but when I come visit from the US, I try to make a stop directly from the airport and on the way back to the airport at Abu Hassan in Yaffo for hummus (try to go to the original one on Dolphin St., and not the restaurant they own). DO NOT order the hummus, but get a plate that is half fuul (fava bean paste) and half masabha (warm chickpeas in tahini). Then dip every piece of pita in the spicy lemon sauce before you load it up with fuul and masabha. And were it not that I was heading to Israel next week, writing that last sentence would have made me weep with longing.
    Another amazing place for traditional, mind-blowing Palestinian food is a place called Azba way up north, ask your hosts. They specialize in cooked vegetable dishes that are rare to find in restaurants.

  • Dennis Brennan
    July 2, 2012 5:05pm

    Shalom David!
    Your post on Haj Kahil indicates 110 comments – there is only one along with your response to it. This was such a wonderful post and makes me want to visit Israel again, but I’m betting some of the comments contain actual information and I’d like to see them. Can you make them magically appear?
    All the best from Toronto

    Dennis

  • July 2, 2012 5:44pm

    Knafeh is made with a shredded pastry called Kadaif. The cheese that they use here in Israel is called Nabulis, which refers to the town of Nablus where the cheese originates. You will also find in other Middle Eastern countries use the same type of cheese called Akkawi. I have found it in London at Middle Eastern shops, but I have friends abroad who have used buffalo mozzarella as a substitute.

    The spice shop in Nazareth is called Elbabour and it is a wonderful place!

  • Charlie
    July 2, 2012 6:12pm

    David:
    A Country I long to visit!

    Beautiful pictures.

    I wish though when you post a picture of a dish you would label each one. That way

    we would have a chance to google a recipe and make it :~)

    Have a Joyful Day :~D

    Charlie

  • R Pasion
    July 2, 2012 7:19pm

    Haj Kahil is the one restaurant that Is most memorable visiting (outside of the pre packaged/ buffet-heavy tour ) in Israel, a year ago. Thanks for reminding me of the fantastic meal!

  • Dina
    July 2, 2012 8:32pm

    Oh my god…. i would love to be able to travel and eat my way around the world… hahah Living in N. America but coming from south-eastern Europe, come summer I miss the ripe fruits & veggies bursting with flavour! There may be organic food here, but there is part nostalgia part what you grew up with that I can’t find anywhere else! Where I come from, we just do the kadaif with syrup & walnuts, but cheese? THANK YOU for that tip! :-D So, keep travelling & blogging, all of this is fascinating!

  • July 3, 2012 12:40am

    omar fine sehr gut, you are now a very good chef, made by shady your brother. a big smile for your food.

    i love it

    see you soon

    shady

  • Natalie
    July 3, 2012 12:53am

    Beautiful! Israel is definitely on my list…
    My mother had been several years ago and said they have some of the best food she’s ever eaten- especially the produce.
    Do you have any idea why that might be?
    Breakfasts were very different from the typical American breakfasts, with a variety of unexpected offerings, but it was apparently phenomenal. Good enough for her to still gush about after 15 or so years!

  • July 3, 2012 5:10am

    That kanafeh looks devine. I’ve been trying to reproduce it ever since I had it first in a Turkish restaurant in Menlo Park but had no luck.

    • July 3, 2012 8:27am
      David Lebovitz

      They made some at a bakery and I watched, and it was simply kadaifi dough moistened with butter, then pressed into a mold. (They used silicone.) A round of fresh goat cheese was pressed on top, then it was topped with more of the moistened shredded pastry and baked until crisp.

  • July 3, 2012 12:50pm

    Hey David, glad you enjoyed your time here, I’m loving reading about Israel through your eyes. Regarding the zaatar spice mix, I think the source of confusion is that in some countries it does contain thyme or oregano. Plus, I’ve seen the word zaatar translated inconsistently into English as various different herbs. As far as I know, in Israel the mix contains hyssop (a.k.a. zaatar or ezov in proper Hebrew; zaatar is Arabic), sumac, sesame seeds and salt. Good luck with your experimenting!

  • July 3, 2012 12:57pm

    BTW the scientific name of Israeli zaatar is either Majorana syriaca or Origanum syriacum. OK, now I’ve written you a dissertation on zaatar :-)

    • July 3, 2012 1:25pm
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks. Yes, some things don’t always translate from other languages in to English as well, as precisely as folks think they do.

      Many people in the Middle East are very passionate and, um, ‘dynamic’ about things – including food – and there’s so many regional variations, especially in spice mixtures. But I really love all these kinds of foods and they’re all so interesting to learn about. And, of course, eat.

  • Olivia
    July 3, 2012 1:54pm

    Beautiful, extraordinary! Arabic food is one of my favorites. Those explosions of flavors and colors are unbelievable. Thanks for sharing and…are some of these recipes will be published in your new book? ;-)
    Liebe Grüße

  • July 3, 2012 3:26pm

    I wondered if you’d publish my comment because I wasn’t as enthusiastic about Israel as your other commenters.
    Apparently, you decided not to and I also read your hummus post statement – I am not sure, however, if I fit into the group of people questioning your trip.
    I have been to Israel, I lived in Jerusalem for a couple of month, I loved the country and met a ton of amazing people. It is certainly a country worth visiting, partly to get a glimpse of the Arab-Israeli conflict if one cares about these things.

    There is just this one thing I take issue with: the Israeli label. I am repeating myself when I say that the foods you have shown us are Arabic not Israeli. And I insist on this distinction. Israel calls itself a Jewish state therefore abiding by Jewish food rules. The meal you were served didn’t take that under consideration. And why should it? Palestinians do not care if a meal (like mansaf in Jordan) mixes milchiges and fleischiges. If the NGO you traveled with aims to promote tourism to Israel, why do they serve you Palestinian food (the very country the Israeli government is trying their hardest not to have established)?
    I know Israel is a mélange of nations – why not focus on that instead of the Arabic/palestinian heritage? You see I don’t mean to disrespect you or anger you.

    I am happy to hear you enjoyed your trip – sadly you didn’t get to spend much time outside of restaurants it seems. Come to Jordan next to dip into the Dead Sea!

    • July 3, 2012 5:07pm
      David Lebovitz

      To be honest, I was surprised by the barrage of messages this seemingly innocent post, about a wonderful lunch with great people, terrific food, and an engaging chef and staff, brought up. All sorts of criticisms were leveled and I wrote this during an extremely hectic week, but was so overwhelmed by how great the food was, I literally used my two hours of free time to write it up, process and edit the photos, upload them, and publish the post. So when the flood of people coming forth with all sorts of messages, about everything from politics to geography, started showing up, I was so busy trying to see the country that I decided to stop publishing messages of a negative nature. I decided to try to appreciate the time I was traveling and not spend my time in the hotel room sorting through messages.

      Thank you for writing back. I did say in the paragraph right under the picture of the long-baked lamb that this was, indeed, “Arabic food” – am not sure where I said this was Israeli

      (At the end of the post, I wrote in a general statement about the purpose of my visit, and as a disclosure, that I came to Israel to check out the culture and eat Israeli food. During my visit, we also had food that was influenced from other places, including France — as in, chocolates!)

      As regular readers know, I am happy to engage in discussions here on the site that are civil and educational and like most people, I do not know everything. (Although I wish I did!) I am always happy to learn about other cuisines and cultures so thanks.

      I don’t want to dwell on this because I really enjoyed my meal at the restaurant and the staff was exceptional, and I don’t want to cloud that. But appreciate your message – and would love to go to Jordan, too!

      : ) -David

  • Suzanne
    July 3, 2012 7:55pm

    Hi David,
    So funny that you used the drug analogy. Your descriptions are so vivid that this blog really came to life. Like that 80’s INXS video, “The One Thing!”
    I miss the authenticity of the Arabic food at our markets and neighborhoods of the 16ème. But, I have found the best fresh hummus in Fairfax county! About to read your blog on that subject. Miss you and enjoy! Suzanne and Reggie

  • July 3, 2012 9:46pm

    Sorry to step in, David :)

    Annika – I trust we were all very much aware that Israeli is a pluralist country in terms of its ethnic make-up. Haj Kahil restaurant wasn’t labelled as Israeli, but “Arab lunch” in Israel. The English-language material we were given at the restaurant by stated correctly that Haj Kahil specialises in “Palestinian food and charm”, their chef Omar Iluwan (the guy with a big smile on the 15th photo in David’s post, if I counted correctly) was introduced as being Palestinian Israeli etc etc. So nobody was trying to downplay the fact that there was Arab/Palestine focus on the restaurant – even if it’s situated in Israel.

  • Shady
    July 4, 2012 8:28pm

    خلي الاكل الفلسطيني يعم الدنيا.
    احلى اكل واحلى شف

  • July 6, 2012 6:47pm

    I always thought zaatar was made with thyme but I was corrected and told it was made with oregano by a local chef. Interesting that it’s made with hyssop – I’ll have to check that out since it’s a new flavor to me, and I like it a lot.

  • July 9, 2012 4:58pm

    This makes me miss the Marais in Paris! YUMMMMMMMM

  • July 12, 2012 10:59am

    I have never before encountered a blog that I actually visit frequently to read. You are a wonderful writer and photographer. I moved to Paris from San Francisco, and have been missing fresh veggies. Don’t get me wrong, I love French food, but there are days when I just want a good fresh salad, with cold lettuce and ripe tomatoes, and seeing all these wonderful salads makes me wonder if you’ve found any good places Israeli or not that offer fresh salads composed mostly of vegetables (as opposed to fried potatoes, cheese and charcuterie with 2 leaves of lettuce)

    • July 12, 2012 3:22pm
      David Lebovitz

      It’s hard to find leafy salad with lots of greens and good, fresh (ripe) tomatoes in Paris. There are a few newer places that are picking up on the trend of “fresh” foods – places like Rose Bakery, Tartes Kluger, Bread & Roses, are doing fresh salads with lots of grains and other things.

      Many of the places in the Marais no longer live up to their reputation. I like going to Maoz, an Israeli-owned falafel chain that has a lot of “help yourself” salads and pickles, and four different kinds of hot sauce.

  • Nina
    July 16, 2012 5:50pm

    David, I’ve so enjoyed your posts from Israel, a country in which I gained more weight than I feel comfortable revealing. I take great issue with the commenters who are trying to defend the “Arab”ness of the foods you tasted, suggesting one cannot be both Arab and Israeli– Israel a country comprised of citizens from many backgrounds, including a good many thousands of Arab-Israelis who serve in the IDF, some members of Parliament, etc. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is but one facet, one that too often obscures the vibrant multiculturalism of the country. Additionally, much of the cuisine you sampled is due in large part to the intra-Jewish dynamism of the country. Israeli Jews hail from Eastern Europe, sure, but also Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the Caucasus. Each community brought with it its own cuisine– certainly influenced by the surrounding culture, but modified in significant ways (ie, Jewish cooking’s heavy use of olive oil rather than lard or butter). For a great primer on worldwide Jewish cuisine and how it relates to the surrounding culture, see Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food.

  • July 27, 2012 4:34pm

    Great review of a great restaurant = just ate there myself and reviewed it as well.