The second semester of my freshman year of college, I was lucky enough to study abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Although I’d been to Israel before on school, family, and youth group trips, my study abroad experience gave me a deeper experience of, and as a result, commitment to, the country than I’d ever had before. I got to explore the places that don’t usually appear on tourist itineraries and make friends with both native Israelis and Palestinians. Because I was so young when I studied abroad, it also happened that I learned how to do my own grocery shopping in the Israeli shuk. As anyone who’s been to Israel knows, the shuk is loud, colorful, and bustling - a far cry from the tidy fluorescent-lit Costco aisles I was used to commanding with my mother on Thursday afternoons.
At first with friends and then finally on my own, I became comfortable with the shuk, and learned to differentiate its many fruit- and fish-stacked rows of booths. I even made friends with some of the vendors, like the herb seller who always laughed at how delighted I was with the enormous bunches of parsley and cilantro a few agurot (equivalent to dimes) purchased. My friends and I reveled in the abundant and inexpensive fresh fruit, the rich cottage cheese, the pita still warm from the oven. I was spoiled by the ease of access to the best produce imaginable, and a fresh avocado sliced in half became a regular lunch. And, although I’d been a vegetarian for years before I studied abroad, I even ventured into the world of meat in Israel, hesitatingly selecting fresh chicken cuts for Shabbat.
In Israel, cooking and eating were events, and meals often were affairs that began as soon as we were out of class and lasted well into the night. A group of friends and I - three Jews, two Christians, and three Muslims - began having Shabbat dinner every week. The unlikely meal that quickly became our ritual was chicken tikka masala. Although it’s nowhere near an Israeli recipe, the fresh ingredients made it Israeli for me. The smell will always bring me back to my days spent roaming Har HaTzofim, delving into Kabbalah, Islamic history, and sudden adulthood.
Since I’ve returned from Israel, I’ve again become vegetarian, and it’s probably not a bad thing, as I can’t imagine chicken tikka masala ever again tasting as good as it did around a table crowded with friends and unbridled joy. But I have continued many of the habits I picked up in Israel, such as venturing into unknown worlds, doing my best to engage with and understand people from all walks of life, and making time to make food with the people I care about. Food, whether it be hummus, knafeh, or chicken tikka masala, brings people together. Everyone should take the opportunity to explore Israel’s diverse culinary offerings, wander the shuk, and eat delicious fresh food in an incredible place with the wildest of strangers.
If you are looking for an opportunity to explore Israel soon, check out the Hazon Israel Sustainable Food Tour, a six day trip in which participants get to learn about Israel’s sustainable food movement first hand. It is a completely unique opportunity to meet food movers and shakers, get a deeper understanding of Israel’s sustainable food movement, and explore its lush landscape. This tour sounds to me like a completely unique opportunity to engage with the earth and a range of people you would never otherwise meet, and maybe, to find your own tikka masala.
Molly Oberstein-Allen is a rising senior studying Letters at the University of Oklahoma. She’s interning for Hazon’s Thought Leadership department over the summer, and is thrilled to get to explore New York City. In her spare time, Molly enjoys traveling, reading, and looking at subway maps.
Photo Credit: Hazon Israel Sustainable Food Tour