Looking for the best Mediterranean food in Israel? Make it yourself
A self-made meal at Te’amim cooking school beats five-star restaurants, hands down.
A whopping 3.6 million tourists visited Israel last year, and most will admit they’re there for the incredible cuisine – with the natural and architectural sites a close second. During my recent two-week visit to Israel, I sampled some outstanding dishes in a variety of markets, restaurants, and wineries. But by far the best meal I had was the one I cooked at Te’amim Cooking School in Jerusalem, with Chef Yuval Attias. There’s just something about preparing the food yourself that makes the flavors, freshness and textures so much more alive.
Chef Yuval Attias worked in some of Israel’s finest hotels for a decade, including serving as head chef in the King David Hotel, and serving many dignitaries – including two U.S. presidents and a French Prime Minister. “I remember when Secretary of State Warren Christopher came to Israel, and he just wanted cornflakes and banana for breakfast, so that’s what I served him. When the French Prime Minister visited, I served him a complete Israeli menu – which he loved. All the other hosts were making him French food, but he wanted to try the local cuisine!”
I asked Chef Yuval what it was like making the switch from that high-pressure environment to his current role, leading tours and cooking classes. “I was working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week,” he explains, “and a friend was pressuring me to come lead the cooking school.” So when the time was right, he made the switch and never looked back.
Our day started out with a tour of Machane Yehudah with Chef Yuval, who gave us a history of the market, and had us sampling some of the shuk’s well-loved foods and flavors – from dried fruit teas and flavored halvas, to Marzipan pastries and fresh juice shots. We marveled at the beautiful produce, the massive melons, the smells and sights of the shuk, and got a lesson on the differences between cold-pressed stone ground tahini vs. factory prepared tahini (factories typically use machines that produce higher heat, killing off some of the medicinal properties of the sesame. You can spot stone cold-pressed tahini by its smoothness; factory prepared tahini will typically congeal at the bottom).
We then headed over to the cooking school, donned aprons and chefs hats, and got to work.
To start off our menu, Chef Yuval guided us in mixing up a stretchy dough for Mediterranean focaccia, and preparing fragrant makluba with homemade veggie stock, bahrat, and other Israeli-Arabic spices. Then we moved on to a highly aromatic sizzling chicken dish – muschan – in a skillet that was so heavy that when I managed to lift it off the fire for a good shake, I flipped a juicy piece of chicken right over my shoulder.
The next dish, tabbouleh salad, took us away from the heat and straight to the chopping board where Chef Yuval showed us techniques for perfectly diced veggies, and how to mince herbs quickly and smoothly. Looking over the recipe sheet, I learned that ‘burgle’ in a Mediterranean recipe has little to do with theft, and actually refers to bulgur, a cracked whole wheat grain and the main ingredient in tabbouleh. As we squeezed lemon juice and chopped cucumber and mint, the fresh smells were overpowering and mouth-watering – but it wasn’t time to eat yet!
Chef Yuval showed us how to roll out the Mediterranean focaccia (similar to oversized pitas) and smooth it into a ball, and we churned out a dozen beauties – half of them coated with olive oil and stripes of black and white sesame seeds, and the rest sprinkled with diced tomatoes, garlic and za’atar.
Our last task was basboosa cake – made with semolina flour, and drenched with a sticky-sweet spiced simple syrup after baking. I was dying to claim dibs on licking the bowl, but being a quasi-chef/foodie/grown-up individual, resisted the urge and taught myself patience – and the end result truly was delicious and worth the wait.
While our food was doing its thing in the oven, we cleared off our work space, whipped out a tablecloth, dinnerware and glassware, and set the table for royalty. Aprons and hats came off, wine was poured, the meal was served, and we swooned – one by one – as we tasted the best Israeli food we’d ever eaten.
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