Common ingredients in Israeli cooking and where to find them outside of Israel, plus what to substitute if you can't track them down (if possible).
While American condiments make regular appearances on the Israeli recipe scene--stuff like peanut butter and maple syrup--the opposite is not always the case. Here are some common condiments that will give your cooking Israeli flavors.
Hummus | chummus | חומוס
Okay, hummus you know. In Israel hummus is definitely not a condiment, more like a food category, but... In Hebrew, hummus refers to both the puree made from chickpeas as well as the chickpeas themselves. Every Middle Eastern region has its own style of hummus, and Israel's is distinguished by having a ton of tahini in it and not much else, making it super creamy and mild but rich tasting.
Hummus is basically as common in the States today as Ranch dressing, and you can find many different kosher brands in any supermarket. Sabra brand is an Israeli-style hummus sold nationwide that sort of originated in Israel (its Israeli parent company is a separate entity; "sabra," pronounced tzabar in Hebrew, means prickly pear and is old-timey slang for native-born Israeli).
Substitute: It's easy (and delicious) to make your own hummus. There are different types of chickpeas, and for hummus you want the Middle Eastern kabuli variety, which are larger than Indian chickpeas but smaller than Mexican garbanzos (Sugat, a leading brand of grains and legumes in Israel, sells this last type as "giant chickpeas").
Tahini | techinah | טחינה
Okay, you know tahini too, it's been an it-ingredient for a while now and is what I'd nominate as Israel's peanut butter. And while tahini is just sesame seed paste, there are big differences in quality between brands. If all you can find is Joyva, it's still worth using. But if you can spring for Soom, do it. (The prices on Amazon are usually good; their regular tahini is OU though some runs may be OK instead.)
Date syrup | silan | סילאן
Look for one without artificial ingredients, added sugars, or other fillers, which most brands have. You want a thwack of unadulterated date. This stuff is golden in salad dressings, and it pairs nicely with raw tahini or halva in sweet applications.
Substitute: There is no real substitute, but you can try using honey instead, reducing it by about half as it's much sweeter. The flavor profile will be quite different.
Halva | chalvah | חלווה
Israeli halva always refers to sweetened tahini (sesame paste), whereas elsewhere the term halva or halwa can refer to sweets in general. This is a two-kinds-of-people, love-it-or-hate-it type of food. It's more than the sum of its parts and has a crumbly texture that sort of feathers apart. As with tahini, Joyva will do the trick but you'll elevate your game with an artisan brand, which are surprisingly difficult to find kosher certified, not that we're giving up yet.
Substitute: For use in baking, when halva is often used creamed, you can mix a 1:1 ration of tahini and honey or silan to make a makeshift halva. I believe it's possible to DIY blocks of halva, but I haven't experimented with this yet.
Pomegranate molasses| tarkiz rimonim | תרכיז רימונים
This elixir of a condiment, also called pomegranate syrup in English or rekez rimonim (רכז רימונים) in Hebrew, in packs a wonderfully tart punch. It's equally at home in dessert recipes and in savory dishes, like in a meatball glaze. I really like the brand pictured, Shemshad (Kehilla Kosher). Another I've been able to track down is Golchin (OU), and it's quite tart.
Substitute: If you can't find pom molasses, you can make it yourself by cooking down pomegranate juice with sugar and a bit of lemon juice.
Harissa | arissa | אריסה
Sold ready-to-go as a jarred paste, this Sriracha of the Middle East has a lot of aficionados among the hot-sauce crowd. You can also get it in mild versions.
Substitute: You can use dry harissa (sold like a spice in little spice bottles in some markets) mixed with olive oil to form a paste. You can also make your own with hot peppers, sweet peppers, garlic, and spices. A last resort would be to use a different hot sauce, preferably north African or Middle Eastern.
S'chug | סחוג
Yemeni hot sauce (we're talking really hot) that comes in green and red varieties. Sabra used to make some for the American market, but doesn't seem to be making it anymore. You might be able to track down Ta'amti brand (they make red and green), or you can make it yourself.
Amba | עמבה
Rose water | mei veradim | מי ורדים
A common ingredient with a delicate but distinctive taste, rose water is used in Middle Eastern desserts, including Mizrachi Jewish recipes. Rose water is distilled from actual rose petals. Look for a brand that has minimal ingredients listed on the labels. There shouldn't be any flavorings. Depending on which community you live in, you may be able to find it locally with a hechsher (Golchin and Sadaf are two brands that do kosher runs). Otherwise, you might have to hunt it down online.
Substitute: None, simply omit it if you don't have.
Orange Blossom Water | mei prichat hadarim |מי פריחת הדרים
Used in a similar way to rose water (above), orange blossom water has a more subtle flavor. It's sometimes used along with or in place of rose water. It's a favorite of mine and sometimes I substitute it for rose water. As with rose water, look for a brand that's just distilled orange blossoms. It's slightly less common than rose water, and also made kosher certified by Sadaf and Golchin in the US.
Substitute: None, simply omit it if you don't have.
Israeli home and restaurant cooking relies on many of the same spices that reside in most Western spice cabinets: salt and black pepper, of course, and, in particular, paprika, turmeric, cumin, onion and garlic powder, and cinnamon, occasionally also allspice, thyme, or rosemary. White pepper is more common in Israeli recipes than in American ones. There are a few spices that are uncommon in North America and Europe that make frequent appearances on the Israeli culinary scene, detailed below.
Bouillon Soup Powder | avkat marak | אבקת מרק
Bet you didn't expect to see this one at the top of the list, but this old-school bête noire of food snobs deserves the spot. Actually, lots of food cultures use and love boullion soup powder, but what sets Israel's signature version apart is the fact that it's chicken-flavored yet parve (meat and dairy free). You can now find versions free of various additives. Close relatives include onion soup powder and mushroom soup powder. My advice? Go with it, this stuff is versatile and amazing. A note, most kosher Lipton versions (the ones in scoopable containers rather than packets) are manufactured in Israel and imported to the US, despite being a US brand.
Substitute: This is context dependent. If the recipe is using soup powder to flavor water, then naturally you can use chicken or vegetable stock. If the recipe is using soup powder as a spice, you can try an all-purpose seasoning or seasoning salt.
Baharat | בהרט
A signature North African/Middle Eastern spice blend that's especially good on meats, like the garam masala of the Middle East. I like Spice House and Pereg. Another brand is Lior, and I sometimes see versions made by an American spice manufacturer. It’s peppery and cinnamony.
Substitute: If you can't find baharat, I think this is one worth making yourself, plus you can futz with it, which is fundamentally supposed to happen to baharat anyhow. I'm working on a recipe for great baharat and will post it as soon as I have it ironed out.
Ras el-hanout | ראס אל חנות
Another delicious savory-sweet spice blend, ras el-hanout means "top of the shop" and is each Maghebi spice maker's signature belnd. The baharat of northwestern Africa (you keeping up?). It’s got more cumin in it and packs a hint of sweet undertone. Again, I like Spice House and also Frontier Co-op (KSA, organic).
Sweet + Hot Paprika| paprika + paprika charifa | תבלין לקבב
Paprika is a favorite in the Israeli kitchen, and the versions you'll find in Israel are a bit different from the generic paprika you'll find in American supermarkets (which is more in the style of Hungarian paprika). First, you'll often see sweet paprika specified in Israeli recipes (and my recipes on this site), which means mild as in not spicy. That's because Israeli recipes also use hot paprika, which is itself fairly mild, but has a little bit of heat to it. Secondly, Israeli paprika is often Moroccan-style, with oil. (It's still dry, but has a bit more moisture than regular paprika.)
Substitute: For sweet paprika and/or Moroccan paprika, you can simply sub in any generic paprika. Hot paprika is trickier to substitute when it's a central part of the dish, as in chreime. But if it's just a small amount, you can use another hot pepper powder. A pinch of cayenne works, but make sure it's a small pinch, because cayenne packs a lot more heat.
Shawarma spice | tavlin le-shawarma | תבלין לשווארמה
One of the key elements of the street food favorite, shawarma spice can also be used at home to flavor all sorts of meats and vegetables. It generally includes plenty of pepper, plus cumin, paprika, turmeric, garlic, and other spices, depending on the maker.
Substitute: You can make your own blend easily—stay tuned for the recipe.
Nigella seed | Ketzach | קצח
This onion-y, umami, underappreciated spice looks similar to black sesame but is a little pointier (you’ll see). It’s hard to find in shops generally. I think it’s one worth ordering online (I get it kosher certified from The Spice House). Sprinkle it over your rolls or pashtida to ratchet them up a flavor level.
Substitute: None, though you can top with sesame seeds for crunch with a different flavor profile.
Sumac | סומאק
I’ve heard this spice described as lemony, which I guess it is but that’s sort of like referring to wine as “vinegary.” This stuff is great over labaneh, fish, and quick-pickled onions. It’s not a total deal breaker not to have it in your arsenal, but it will give certain dishes an incomparable flavor.
Substitute: None, but you can simple omit in most cases.
Za’atar | זעתר
Za'atar can refer either to a green herb called hyssop, or to a spice blend that uses hyssop as its base. The blend is usually what people mean when they refer to za'atar. There are many different styles, including one that has evolved as Israeli style za'atar, which includes sumac, sesame, and salt.
Dairy products are stars of the Israeli repertoire, and substantially different from North American versions. There's white cheese, of which there are a dizzying amount of outstanding options. And then there's yellow cheese, of which there is exactly one kind, known as—wait for it—"yellow cheese" (it's technically called Emek cheese). Okay, this is not really the case anymore, but it's still true that soft cheeses are a lot more exciting on the Israeli scene than hard, the opposite of Europe and North America.
Cheese is potentially the trickiest sector of Israeli grocery to replicate in an American kitchen. If you live in a metro area with a big Israeli expat community and/or one that observes chalav yisrael, you should be able to get your hands on a limited number of Israeli white cheeses. If you don't, I have hard-won substitution recommendations.
White cheese | g'vinah levanah | גבינה לבנה
This terrific cheese comes in various fat percentages, 3%, 5%, 7%, 9%, and is frankly irreplaceable. Its close relation is Ski Cheese (gevinat ski), a brand name, like Jacuzzi. They are both like mild, silky yogurt cheese. You can spread it on toast, stick it in quiches, bake it into cheesecake, or sweeten it up and stuff it in a blintz. This is one you'll find in kosher groceries, as well as supermarket chains in some neighborhoods. Costco carries it at select locations.
Substitute: While you can't replicate recipes calling for white cheese without the real thing, you can get passably close: for savory, sub sour cream; for sweet, sub Greek yogurt.
Israeli Cream Cheese | gevinat shamenet | גבינת שמנת
The Israeli cousin of Philadelphia cream cheese. Often known by the brand name Napolean, this has come to connote something akin to airier, though not whipped, cream cheese.
- Substitute: Softened cream cheese, the kind sold in bricks.
Labaneh | לבנה
This salted yogurt cheese spread is eaten as a condiment, often with olive oil and a smattering of sumac or za'atar. It's basically a dairy form of hummus. The major US brand is Karoun; it has three different labels (slightly different varieties) and all are OU. Tnuva USA is now selling it in the US in some locations, in different percentages (Karoun is all whole milk and/or cream based, as far as I can tell).
Substitute: Greek yogurt, preferably 3% or more, lightly salted.
Leben | Eshel, rivyon, chuvtzah | אשל, רוויון ,חובצה
This old-school dairy product used to play the part of buttermilk in Israeli recipes. People also slurped it straight out of the little yogurt-shaped containers in which it's still sold, a fact that continues to make me shudder. I used to think leben equaled yogurt. You'll generally see chuvtzah used as the term for American-style buttermilk. There can be shades of difference between Eshel, Sheli, Gil (all proprietary names) and the stuff sold as rivyon, namely that the some are more of a thin yogurt while some are more of a kefir. None of them are fermented these days, same as American buttermilk.
- Substitute: buttermilk, plain yogurt (not Greek).
Cream / Whipping Cream | shamenet metukah / lehakpatzah | שמנת מתוקה / להקפצה
This is the equivalent of heavy or whipping cream, so called because it hasn't been soured, as in sour cream (shamenet). The one thing you need to know about the stuff is that it comes in standard-size packages in Israel and many recipes will call for a 1 "package" (it usually comes in a little rectangular box) which is 200 ml or about ¾ cup.
Sour Cream | shamenet, sometimes specified as shamenet chamutzah |שמנת (חמוצה)
Same deal as with regular cream (shamenet metukah). It comes in standard packages (little plastic containers) of either 100 ml (between ⅓ and ½ cup) or 200 ml (between ⅔ and ¾ cup).
Bulgarian cheese | gevinah bulgarit | גבינה בולגרית
The Baltic cousin of feta cheese, and common in Israel. It's a smack more briny than feta, but has a less deep flavor and a slightly creamier texture. It's often used in burekas filling.
- Substitute: Feta cheese, sheep's milk if you can find it.
Safed cheese | gevinah tzefatit | גבינה צפתית
This authentically Israeli cheese really does comes from Safed. It originates with the Meiri Dairy that has been operating since the nineteenth century. This is a fresh cheese made from sheep's milk. It's silky and ranges from not-at-all to mildly salty. Farmer cheese is a good substitution, if blander. You can find it at most US supermarkets, though sometimes it's hiding in a specialty cheese fridge; Friendship (OU) and Lifeway (CRC) are two national brands.
Roquefort | רוקפור
It's just Roquefort. Difference is, it's more commonly called for in Israeli recipes.
- Substitute: Any bleu cheese.
Kashkaval | קשרבל
Hailing from the Balkans, kashkaval is for some reason, I'm guessing the Romanian and Bulgarian communities, Israel's answer to shredded cheddar and also, sort of, parmesan. It's nuttier and more rustic than cheddar but meltier than parmesan.
- Substitute: If you can find an asiago or elemental, that works nicely. You can also just use your garden-variety shredded melting cheese to great effect.
There's not a lot of difference in common baking ingredients in Israel and the US, but there are a few items you'll find much more commonly used in Israel.
Petit Beurre Biscuits |פתי בר
These are the graham crackers of Israel, playing the role in pie and bar crusts, crumbled atop desserts, in icebox cakes, and other key dessert functions. These are also known as "tea biscuits." The plain biscuit is mildly vanilla flavored, though they come in various other flavors in Israel. The largest American kosher brand is Kedem.
Substitute: Vanilla wafers, digestive biscuits, or shortbread. You could also use graham crackers in many places.
Malawach | מלאווח
A flaky Yemenite pan bread, malawach is also used as the base for savory pastries in Israel. The most common brand found, sometimes, in the kosher freezer section of supermarkets in Jewish neighborhoods, is Ta'amti.
Substitute: None. You could use regular frozen puff pastry, but the finished pastry will taste very different.
Osem Instant Pudding Mix
You'd think instant pudding is instant pudding, but it's not. Osem brand instant pudding mix, specifically, not only tastes Israeli but also gels better with nondairy milks for parve applications.
Substitute: Any instant pudding mix.
Vanilla Sugar | סוכר וניל
An old-school ingredient, you'll still occasionally find recipes that call for it, usually "one packet," the standard size it comes in, like yeast packets. An Israeli packet of vanilla sugar is about 10 grams or 1 tablespoon. Vanilla sugar is just vanilla-flavored sugar, and it used to be used where today we'd use vanilla extract. If you ever use a whole vanilla bean, you can pod the used pod (after you've scraped the seeds out) into a small jar with sugar and made real, wonderful vanilla sugar. Otherwise, just use 1 teaspoon vanilla extract in place of 1 packet of vanilla sugar.
Substitute: 1 teaspoon vanilla extract in place of 1 packet vanilla sugar.
Dutch Processed Cocoa
Most cocoa powder in Israeli goods is Dutch processed (alkalized), so this gives, say, classic Israeli kid chocolate birthday cake its Israeli chocolate flavor. Look at the label to determine whether your cocoa is Dutch processed; it'll usually say.
Substitute: It's a somewhat different flavor, but you can use any cocoa powder, 1:1.
Still more common in Israeli home cooking, self-rising flour is often assumed and not specified. The benefit of using self-rising flour is that the baking powder is machine-distributed very evenly into the flour. In my experience, it does behave somewhat differently and I'll spring for it for certain recipes. I like to buy the unbleached Israeli brands imported by my local kosher supermarket. You can also sometimes find self-rising flour in the regular supermarket baking aisle.
Substitute: Add 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder per 1 cup flour.