Foodie Tourism Just Got Sweeter
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Foodie Tourism Just Got Sweeter

A gold medal-winning Tel Aviv chocolatier, quality craft beer and gourmet takeout, all in or near Tel Aviv.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

It’s easy to walk straight past Ika Chocolate without realizing what you’re missing. After all, it’s a small shop in an unassuming Tel Aviv neighborhood, on a street where the smell of a hummus factory dominates.

But this adds to the charm of the place, and the satisfaction of finding a real culinary gem — not a choreographed food-themed “experience,” but a place where one woman is innovating and inviting people to watch, learn and taste.

It is remarkable to think that such a small workshop is creating such an impression in the chocolate industry. In London last December, it won a gold medal in December’s International Chocolate Awards.

Visitors enter to a small shop, and are met by the cold air necessary to keep the chocolate at its best; the smell of hummus is effectively blockaded outside. A large cabinet holds the different filled chocolates, and various other products are on shelves on the walls. The confectioner Ika Cohen, who set up the company three years ago, is happy to chat about chocolate, her production processes, her vision and her achievements.

The best part is that the shop gives a full view of the workshop through glass, so you can see the actual process of chocolates being made and packed. With only a couple of people working alongside Cohen most of the time, you can see that this is truly a boutique business.

ika2.jpgCohen’s flair is found in her fillings, not the actual chocolate, which is made by the French company Valrhona. But if filings don’t seem like major players, spend five minutes talking to her and you will end up with a whole new perspective.

A marine biologist by training, Cohen studied the art of confectionary in France. She is wide-eyed with excitement about what she is achieving — she proudly reveals a French chocolate guide that lists her shop, and speaks excitedly about the shops abroad that are selling her products.

ika.jpg

What is getting her noticed in the chocolate industry is the fact that she isn’t just making classic chocolates with a high level of proficiency, but also innovating. And some of her creations are specifically Israeli. For example, it was her experimentation with the herb-mixture za’atar, widely used in savory dishes in Israel, that won her the gold medal last year. The medal went to her “za’atar ganache,” which plays with the taste buds by presenting a warming savory flavor in a sweet chocolate. Indeed, Ika Chocolate is one of the many treats awaiting foodie travelers in central Israel.

Anyone with culinary interests must pay a visit to Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. Enjoy the kaleidoscope of colors and the glorious wafting of different smells, and observe the the Middle Eastern bustle and the lively rivalry between the different shop owners.

Here is the place to buy your edible souvenirs from Israel — Middle Eastern herbs and spices to enjoy long after you return home. The shops turn over large quantities so you know that what you are getting is fresh, and certain spices like turmeric and saffron are of a very good quality. If you have a sweet tooth, pay a visit to one of the stores with sticky Eastern treats piled high.

At the market, look out for Joliat and Halavi Pero, an Arab husband-and-wife from Haifa who make their own kind of flat laffa breads to order and top them for you with olive oil, sour cream and/or spices.

For many foreign visitors, one of the most surprising stalls at the Carmel Market is Beer Bazaar. Over the last few years Israelis have started to fall in love with quality beer, and there are now boutique breweries dotted around the country. Beer Bazaar is a celebration of this growing sector, serving some 90 Israeli-brewed beers.

If the growth of Israeli boutique beer interests you, consider a trip to Jem’s Beer Factory in Petach Tikva, a 30-minute drive from Tel Aviv.

You can book a brewery tour, and then sit down to a feast of hearty (kosher) food. There is beef capriccio, homemade beer batter tempura, and a citrus-wood charcoal drill that turns out dishes including a “Meatball Hero” and an entrecôte steak. There are homemade sausages and kebab skewers, and side dishes include bar favorites like potato wedges and onion rings.

Jem’s was set up by two American immigrants to Israel — Jeremy Welfeld and Dan Alon — who share a passion for beer. Its Petach Tikva brewery has proven so popular that it has two other branches with more limited menus, in Ranaana and Kfar Saba.

Even if you are headed to do some general sightseeing, you can indulge your foodie sensibilities by picking up excellent food to take with you. A new Tel Aviv business just made this easier than ever. Lunchbox sells boxes with freshly cooked meals and snacks that can be slipped into a carrying bag.

Unusually for Israel, the boxes are labeled with full nutrition information, and many of the items are all natural and/or vegan. There are also meaty options, such as a box with two succulent meat skewers and whole wheat couscous, and another meal with chicken breast. Some are microwavable, and some are designed to be eaten cold.

While it wouldn’t stand out in Manhattan, Lunchbox is a godsend for tourists trying to eat well during packed days of sightseeing in Israel.

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