Cooking and grocery shopping in Israel

In the wake of my hummus post, I realized that I hadn’t written a comprehensive post about groceries and cooking yet–odd, because it’s something so basic to living. I wrote about the shuk early on, but it was during the honeymoon period where you’re too blinded by the newness of it all to think about the big picture of how your life fits together.

When you go to another country, it’s a struggle at first just to put food, any food, on the table, let alone healthy, palatable, economical meals. 

In addition to the usual difficulties of learning where to shop for what, you have to learn to read labels in another language. I’m a big label reader. It took a while, but I’ve learned enough sight words that I can skim a label without breaking my head over it. I didn’t realize how far I’d come until a friend who is gluten intolerant came to visit and was breaking her head over trying to read the label on the hummus container. It took me less than two seconds to find the information for her (not including the accumulated hours of reading labels over the course of the past year).

In Israel, food additives (stabilizers, thickeners, preservatives) are listed as “E-numbers” according to the European system, which is good because it makes the ingredient list easier to read but bad because you don’t really know what you’re eating. “Oh, just some E-numbers, like preservatives and stuff” vs. an American label, “Holy crap, this label is three inches long and what the heck is sodium benzoate??? It sounds so chemical.”

It took me a while to learn that trans fats are not regarded as a health hazard in Israel, at least not by the mainstream. Last spring I bought an “ice cream” bar for Rafi at Nesher Park and was horrified to learn that the main ingredient was hydrogenated coconut oil. I had even asked first if it was ice cream or not, but I should have been more specific. I subsequently found out (from reading labels and asking around) that all grocery store ice cream, and some ice cream sold in shops as well, has hydrogenated fats in it; it’s just standard. Oh, except Ben & Jerry’s imported from America–at 35 shekels a pint, which works out to $10.

As I’ve mentioned, fresh produce is cheap but only seasonally available. I’m okay with that because I’m used to eating seasonally. As for frozen, there seems to be no such thing as frozen spinach, and other frozen vegetables are very expensive unless you can find a good sale. But you can find frozen cubes of garlic and dill!

Some ingredients are just not available, are hard to find, or are too expensive. It took a long time to find real soy sauce that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Some things I do without: cider vinegar is not worth 20 shekels a liter when white vinegar is 7 shekels. Steel cut oats cannot be found, only “quaker” (used as a generic term for rolled oats). Cayenne pepper is supposedly available “somewhere,” but we’ve never seen it. At least I finally found falafel mix.

Cheeses are different: different brands, varieties, etc. Cheddar isn’t popular and our local market doesn’t carry it. Many of the cheaper cheeses are cut with vegetable oil (like in America); at the cheese counter you don’t get to scrutinize the label, so I’ve learned by trial and error which ones taste like they aren’t. I can kind of tell by the price point now. Under about 8 shekels for 100 grams and it’s almost sure to be not 100% cheese. 100 grams is about three ounces so for 200 grams (6 oz.) we’re talking 16 shekels or $5.

Even meat, which you think would be the same, is different. It’s hard to explain, but I recently found a great website, Culinart Kosher, that puts it nicely: “Meat in Israel is a long-standing source of frustration for new olim, especially those from North America. It’s as if cows in America are somehow built with different parts, and trying to find the right piece of meat for your recipe becomes more confusing than it should be.” (Chickens are cut the same way, however…it’s a small bird after all.)

It then proceeds to list the cut numbers, names, and uses. I wish I had found this website right at the beginning instead of guessing what number cut I want. I have a “map of the cow” magnet on my fridge, but it doesn’t tell me how to cook the different cuts. (Whenever I see the primal cuts chart, it always reminds me of Richard Feynman, exploring outside his field as usual, going into the anatomy library and asking for a “map of the cat” because he doesn’t know what to call a zoological chart. Still makes me laugh.)

I could go on and on about groceries, but I just want to conclude by saying that there are tons of ingredients widely available here that can’t be found in America except at a few specialty stores or online. It’s all about what you expect to be available when you run through your mental repertoire of recipes.

Because of difficulties in buying standard ingredients I’m used to, I’ve sort of fallen into a food rut. I have a few go-to recipes that I make all the time: mujadara (lentils and rice), baked chicken, beef stew…things like that. Sometimes we make pasta; Jeff makes excellent sauce. I’ve been having trouble incorporating a lot of variety. It’s especially bad when I don’t feel like doing a big stock-up grocery trip. Although I love having a car-free lifestyle most of the time, I’m sure we wouldn’t always be running out of staples if we had a car.

With Jeff in America I don’t have to cook as much and find myself making omelets for dinner (it gets Rafi to eat spinach!) and sort of grazing more throughout the day. It works…mostly.

No particular end to this post except to say that it’s a new day and, as usual, I’m overdue for grocery shopping.

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2 thoughts on “Cooking and grocery shopping in Israel

  1. Buying kosher meat here isn’t a picnic either as they tend to label things generically as “stew meat” “pepper beef” and the like. What CUT is it? No one knows.

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