Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Land of Milk & Honey

Where do you even begin to retell some of the best ten days you've ever had in your life? The pressure's on with 47 new eyes awaiting the retelling of this incredible experience that we got to share together. I'm feeling that pressure not because I'm worried about judgment, let's face it, after ten days of spilling some of your deepest, darkest, and brightest secrets, memories, and desires, all the while creating a whole slew of new ones, all judgment has gone right out the window. No, the pressures on in my mind to represent this unforgettable experience with that same energy and magic that we all felt as we lived it, capturing the moments as precisely as possible so that maybe, just maybe, it can send us right back there, if only for a moment. 

After two weeks of adjusting back to reality here in Toronto, telling my friends and family all about the magical land of milk and honey and the amazing people I got to meet and learn from, I've come to realize that no matter how many stories you tell, how much details you give, how many photos you show, you really can't capture the way you felt as you experienced those special memories right there in that moment.  In fact, those memories that I can still see so vividly when I close my eyes, start to feel a little less real each time I share them.  Running down 140 slippery stone steps in Tzfat with a falafel in one hand, Israeli mango juice in the other, while trying not to trip on my floor-length, Tzfat-approved, modest dress to make it back in time for our tour; holding hands while dancing and singing on the Southern Steps of the Temple Mount surrounded by over 100 other Jewish Canadians celebrating Shabbat as the sun begins to set, the Western Wall just behind us, sending chills through out bodies; sleeping in the desert beneath a Bedouin tent surrounded by 47 new best friends, the smell of bonfire smoke and camels lingering in the air; bobbing around like buoys in the Dead Sea, the view of desert mountains behind us with Jordan straight ahead, running our hands down our arms and legs, feeling that slick and slippery dead sea water as it brushes our skin; feeling the lukewarm water from the Ein Gedi waterfall stream down our backs and through our sweat soaked hair, after just climbing down the snake path of Masada in 38 degree weather; on paper, you just can't do those memories justice. So instead of doing my usual, wordy blog post, going through my itinerary each day to share every last detail with you, I'm choosing to simply tell you a little bit about Birthright itself, seeing as many people are unfamiliar with the organization, share some photos, and, of course, fill you in on what I got to experience of the food culture in Israel.
First up, many of you are probably wondering what exactly is birthright? Taglit-Birthright is an organization that offers the gift of a free 10-day educational trip to Israel for Jewish adults between the ages of 18 to 26. This means Birthright covers your flights, accommodations, two meals a day, activities each day, a bus for all of your transportation during the trip, as well as hiring an educator to lead your trip, which I found priceless! Since its inception in 2000, Taglit-Birthright Israel has sent nearly 300,000 Jewish young adults to Israel. They come from nearly 54 countries, all 50 U.S. states and Canadian provinces, and from nearly 1,000 North American colleges and universities. The trip aims to strengthen participants Jewish identity; to build an understanding, friendship and lasting bond with the land and people of Israel; and to reinforce the solidarity of the Jewish people worldwide. Although there are many different trip organizers within Birthright, they all offer a very similar itinerary including: Israeli tour guides; 5 or 10 days spend with Israeli peers (mostly soldiers and students); tour of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall; tour of Massada and the Dead Sea; travel to other cities/towns like Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tsfat and Eilat; accommodation in three and four star hotels and kibbutz'; uniform safety and security procedures. What more could you ask for? (birthrightisrael.com)


Because I was on an organized trip, most of our meals were planned out for us, which meant a lot of big Middle Eastern buffets for breakfast and dinner.  Some were better than others, but they all had a very similar spread.
Thanks for the olive photos Shafir!
I had heard a lot about the breakfast buffets in Israel, so I was looking forward to checking our what all the hype was about.  I have to say, being non-kosher, I couldn't help but feel a little let down walking into a breakfast buffet and not smelling the enticing scent of bacon and sausages, but then again, the addition of delicious, super creamy and smooth Israeli hummus and tahini at each buffet made it worth it! Something that came as a surprise to me was the selection of raw vegetables and dressings that were present at each meal, including breakfast.  As many times as I tried, I could never really get into the whole vegetables for breakfast deal, but I enjoyed making a habit out of eating a boiled egg, cottage cheese, cheese slices, and toast each day. Speaking of cottage cheese, the yummy cheese is a staple for breakfast in Israel and tastes 50x better than any cottage cheese I have had in Canada, which I suppose is thanks to those notorious Israeli cows (which are known for producing more milk than any other cows). Cottage cheese is so popular in Israel that when Israeli's began noticing that the price of cottage cheese in Israel is even higher than any other parts of the world where Israeli cottage cheese is shipped, the citizens went on a cottage cheese boycott until the prices were lowered. Because Israel relies on the popularity of cottage cheese for their economy, the price was lowered in next to no time! Shakshuka is another Israeli breakfast item that I was looking forward to. Similar to my Italian-style Fried Egg with Tomato Sauce and Mozzarella, shakshuka is eggs that are baked in a tomato-based sauce with vegetables and Middle Eastern spices.
Amazing fresh passionfruit juice in Tzfat
On one of our final days of the trip we went to Neot Kedumim where we learned about the popular herb hyssop (the humble herb), which is ground to make za'atar, which is often sprinkled on pizza, pasta, and pita bread. One of the Israeli soldiers that I befriended on the trip, Tali, told me about the most popular way to eat za'atar, which is to dip warm pita bread in olive oil, then dip it into the za'atar, and voila, you have a delicious and simple appetizer! Tali was kind enough to give me her baggie of za'atar that we ground together so that I could experiment with it at home. Thanks Tali! Despite being extremely nervous carrying the marijuana-resembling herb through customs, I'm glad to have a little bit of Israel in my kitchen to cook with!

The olive press, grinding za'atar, and Golan Heights Winery
Another great foodie find that I was able to take home with me was Israeli olive oil. Our incredible educator, David, who led our trip was able to pull a few strings one day to fit in a visit to an olive press where we got to taste a selection of different olive oils that they press right there.  The selection included some oils that came from different types of olives (ie. black, green, and another type, which was the strongest in flavour), as well as a number of flavoured oils such as lemon, garlic, and chili pepper.  Their olive oil was so delicious and fragrant, I had to take a bottle home! Although we unfortunately didn't see much fruit at our buffets (we were still pretty early in the season for ripe produce) Israel is known for its abundance of figs, grapes, pomegranates, and dates as well as olives, barley, and wheat, which are known as The Seven Species.  The Seven Species are the seven types of fruits and grains named in the Torah as the main produce of the land of Israel.

Me (Danielle Rose) & some good friends!

Our last supper in Israel
If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you'll know that I was most looking forward to the falafels in Israel! It was only a few hours after we landed at Ben Gurion airport just outside of Tel Aviv that I experienced the most amazing falafel ever! None of the other falafels that I ate on the trip (and oh, there were A LOT) even compared to this falafel perfection.  First off, you need to understand that falafels in Israel are like a whole other animal.  Unlike the burrito-like falafels we enjoy here in Toronto, Israeli falafels are not wrapped.  The fresh and fluffy pita's (unlike Toronto's dry pita's) are simply cut in half, and stuffed with the falafel balls, and lots of fresh and delicious toppings and sauces. This particular falafel stood out because of its unbelievably fresh falafel balls.  Just behind the topping counter was something I had never seen before and have yet to see again, a falafel ball maker! The falafel ball maker consisted of a stainless steel vat containing the chickpea mixture, which, on command, would pop out a stream of the chickpea mixture for the cook to swiftly cut into balls, which would then drop directly into the hot oil to deep fry. These unbelievably fresh falafel balls were crisp on the outside, with a soft and fluffy interior, and loaded with lots of fresh flavours. To die for! It's interesting to note that a very popular falafel topping in Israel is actually french fries! I tried it one day and really liked it, although it made the street food even more filling than it is already. Although I've never been a big fan of shwarma, I knew that Israel would be able to turn me into a shwarma lover! The first couple of shwarma I ate were OK, but nothing to write home about. But it was on one of our last days that I got to eat the type of shwarma that I have always dreamt of. The meat was uber tender, moist, and flavourful turkey and I chose to wrap mine in laffa bread as opposed to pita, which is thicker, softer, and more flavourful. Loaded with lots of Israeli sour pickles, roasted eggplant, and amba (a spicy and savory mango condiment), this shwarma was fantastic!
My amazing shwarma
Our dinner at the Bedouin tents. Thanks for the photo Elena!
Because we were on such a strict schedule and would often only have 30-45 minutes on our own for lunch (which can fly by when you have 52 people waiting in lines) we would usually pick up some quick street food to quickly fill ourselves up.  Of course there were lots and lots of falafel and shwarma options, but one of my favourite street foods of the trip was actually pizza! Before exploring the Nachalat Binyamin Artist Market, two friends and I decided we had to eat something other than falafel, shwarma, and hummus, and found ourselves inside this quiet, little pizza place.  I've gotta say, I was definitely skeptical of the idea of Israeli pizza, but after taking a quick glance at the selection of pizzas they had in their display, I knew it wouldn't disappoint.  We all decided on the most unique pizza of the bunch, a thin crusted pizza topped with a bit of tomato sauce, tomato slices, eggplant, olives, green onions, and one lone bocconcini ball at the end of each slice. The veggies were all topped with a light grate of some sort of cheese that I wish I knew the name of! White and very salty, and not melted, just warmed until slightly softened on the pizza, this cheese was absolutely delicious and helped to make this pizza one of the best I've tasted! After the pizza we went to the Nachalat Binyamin Artist Market, which is an outdoor market filled with vendors selling lots of T-shirts, toys, games, accessories, novelty items, and my personal favourite, lots and lots of food! It was really cool to get to see all the different types of spices, olives, condiments, pastries, breads, and more that Israel has to offer. I felt like I was in foodie paradise, taking photos at every turn (that is until my camera died). 

The incredible pizza outside of Nachalat Binyamin Artist Market
The many delicacies at Nachalat Binyamin Artist Market
With a good portion of our trip spent on our tour bus, snacks were absolutely essential! Growing up with an Israeli friend as a child (hey Noa!), I was already looking forward to snacking on Bissli, a savory snack food that comes in all different flavours such as onion, grill, smokey, pizza, falafel, taco, and hamburger. Going into the grocery store to buy some Bissli, I found myself totally blown away, and quite frankly overwhelmed, by the abundant and unique array of snack foods and chocolates that are available in Israel. I was so taken by them that I actually brought my sister home a whole selection of some of the favourites, as well as bringing home my little cousins some special Israeli chocolate bars (that I now wish I had also bought for myself). Although there were so many delicious snacks and chocolates in Israel, the clear standout for everyone was a type of snack called Bamba. Bamba have the exact same texture and shape as cheese puffs, but are flavoured like peanut butter. When most people tried their first bite of Bamba, they seems unsure of they think: "Oh, that's different...I don't know if I like this..." (takes another bite) "...oh hmm...this is different...Do I like this?" (takes another bite) and before you know it, you've eaten the whole bag and are begging for more! Oh how I miss my Bissli and Bamba!
I feel so lucky to have been able to take part in such an incredible experience.  This trip was so much more than I ever thought it would be and I will never forget it! I want to send out a great big thank you to CIE Birthright, our amazing educator David, our wonderful leaders Courtney and Kyle, and our medic, security guard and good friend Ben for helping to make our trip as fantastic as it was. If you are eligible to participate in Birthright, I highly, highly recommend applying and taking part in this incredible opportunity yourself.

Listening To:
Diddy-Dirty Money - Coming Home (Feat. Skylar Grey)

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2 comments:

Colores said...

Looks so yummy:-))

Constance Todd said...

Israel sounds like a food heaven! The way you described the food just made me want to try out everything too! No wonder it is also called the land of milk and honey, because food is so abundant in the country.

Constance Todd