If you love food and traveling as much as I do, then you know that one of the best parts of coming back from an epic trip is all the delicious, edible loot you stuff in your suitcase. And when I head to Israel, I typically have a laundry list of items I must bring back to enjoy all year, making sure to leave plenty of room in my suitcase ahead of time for the yummy provisions. Many food stalls and shops will happily vacuum seal your items or wrap wine and olive oil bottles in bubble wrap if you tell them you are bringing items back home, so don’t be shy about asking.
Note: In accordance with U.S. regulations, we do not recommend traveling with fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, soil, meat or livestock of any kind.
1. Za’atar, Sumac and Other Spices
Whether you go to the Carmel Market (Shuk Hacarmel) in Tel Aviv, the shuk (Mahane Yehuda Market) in Jerusalem or the Talpiot Market in Haifa, the abundance of spices to peruse and cart home can be exciting and overwhelming. I recommend buying smaller amounts of lots of spices, instead of large quantities, since spices do lose potency over time. Go for za’atar, smoky paprika, sumac, harissa, cardamom, ras el hanout or try one of the custom meat, fish, chicken, or salad blends that many spice stalls sell.
As you wander the lanes of the outdoor markets, you won’t get very far without encountering every variety of halvah you can imagine: with chocolate, coffee, pistachios, the list goes on. Ask to try a few varieties and bring home slices as gifts. Or late-night sweet indulgences. Or both.
3. Olive Oil (and Vinegar)
Israel produces an abundance of olive oils and corresponding products. You can definitely wait to pick this up at the airport. But if you come across Olia olive oil and its fig balsamic vinegar, make sure to buy two bottles — it’s one of my favorite products ever.
One of the best ways to enjoy the diversity of the land of Israel is to travel north and visit some wineries. If you can’t make it north, just make sure you buy a few bottles of wine to enjoy at home or share as gifts. Some of our favorites include the Mount Tabor (Har) line of wines from Tabor; any of the white wines from Sphera Winery; and the Pink Floyd from Na’aman (I mean, what a cool name, right?). Wines from Carmel, Yatir, Clot de Gat and Pelter all have excellent selections as well.
If you plan on enjoying some sabich while in Israel — an Iraqi vegetarian sandwich made with hard-boiled egg, potato and eggplant — you will likely encounter some amba, a sweet, savory and spicy mango sauce. Amba is made by pickling mangos with vinegar and spices, and it’s not terribly common outside of Israel. Stock up when you’re there (or try making your own with this recipe).
6. Rose Water
Rose water is certainly an item you can find in specialty markets in the U.S., but it’s far more readily available at markets in Israel. It’s common to use rose water in Persian cuisine and even fragrant sweets such as malabi or even these cheesecake bars.
7. Marzipan Rugelach
We know the famous Marzipan Bakery rugelach are now sold in the U.S. But if you have the chance to head to the mother ship in Jerusalem and grab a kilo of warm, gooey chocolate rugelach, it is a truly unparalleled experience. My husband typically picks up no less than 4 kilos when he visits and freezes them to relish the treats for as long as possible.
There is nothing like the bourekas in Israel – pillowy pockets of spinach, cheese, potato or mushroom. Sure, you can make them at home or even buy them frozen in the U.S. But they don’t hold a candle to the fresh, often hand-made versions sold in Israel. For some of the best in Israel, head to the Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv where some of the first Turkish-Jewish bourekas stalls first opened.
Throughout the Middle East, Arak is a popular drink, and Israel is no exception. The most common way you will see Arak served is with some slushy, mint lemonade as a refreshing cocktail. In Turkey, Arak is simply mixed with some water. No matter how you drink it, you’ll want to make sure to grab a bottle before heading home.
10. Hibiscus Tea
Ok, it’s not just hibiscus tea. In addition to spices, halvah, bourekas, olives, dates and so much more to discover at the outdoor markets of Israel, there are also mounds and mounds of various herbal teas. And hibiscus tea just happens to be my favorite. It can be sold alone, or in a mix with rose petals or chamomile. Either way it has a stunning pink hue when brewed, perfect hot or iced, and it’s also incredibly healthy: packed with antioxidants and vitamins, it can help with lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. I never leave Israel without stocking up.
The first time I had a chocolate bar filled with pop rocks was in Israel! And while it’s not my personal favorite, I love many of the other flavors of chocolate bars made by Elite, including the Mekupelet bars, Kif Kef (similar to Kit Kats) and the white chocolate cookie bars. Krembos, Twist chocolates and Klik chocolates are some other Israeli favorites to try. You can grab these treats anywhere from the shuk (outdoor market) to the corner makolet (grocery store) or even the airport.
Last but certainly not least: Make sure to grab some high-quality tahini! All tahini is not the same; in fact, a high-quality tahini can be hard to come by in the U.S. Look for one where the oil and solid isn’t separated in the bottle, and that says it is made with 100 percent humera seeds (sourced from the Humera region of Ethiopia). And then slather it, drizzle it, glop it on everything from falafel to salads to brownies once you’re home.