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Israel in a jar, a bottle, a plastic bag

A sampling from the suitcase(s). (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

I’m back from a trip to Israel (hardly news for anyone who suffered my meal-by-meal tweets), and boy are my arms tired.

That’s my standard airport repartee, delivered to whoever comes to take me home. But this time I meant it. I hauled back so many edible souvenirs that I had to buy a second suitcase, borrow a carry-on bag from my friend’s parents in Tel Aviv and pay an overweight baggage fee. What was I thinking?

Well, for starters, food gifts are better than snow globes, refrigerator magnets and leather goods (an especially close call). Depending on the place, you can bring home a taste of it and make the sensory memories last a bit longer. Just steer clear of meat products, wrap in plastic anything that might leak and stash the items in your checked luggage.

I also wanted to compare the quality and brands of some Middle Eastern products and spices with those I’d purchased in Washington-area stores. And nothing goes over better with office mates than signature sweets -- pastel taffy from the beach notwithstanding.

Some of the goods are available in the United States; some aren’t and ought to be. I’ll leave tales about the pomegranate wine and liters of olive oils for blogposts in future weeks, along with some recipes Israeli chefs were kind enough to share with me.

Here’s a quick rundown of the rest. If you see any of your favorites, let me know what you like to do with them. I'm looking for ideas. And if you have found these around the Washington area, lead me to them!

  • Black tahini with ground nigella seeds: Intense flavor, good for a smearing on hot flatbread or mixing with vegetable salads. This family manufacturer in the Galilee (Saba Habib) sells it only at their shop at Kibbutz Farod.
  • Organic tahini: Dark, almost peanut-butter color, made with sesame seeds from Syria. An amazingly better taste than tahini I've had previously.
  • Silan (date syrup): You can find a few brands at Yekta Grocery in Rockville. This one's organic and not too thick.
  • Marzipan honey: A little dab'll do, on breakfast toast. Made by and sold at Lechamim in Tel Aviv, a crazy-busy bakery. Picked up the housemade granola, too.
  • Dried Persian limes: So cheap (about $2 per kilo) at several shops along Tel Aviv's Levinsky Street. Their piquancy is a good addition to sauces and stews. You can grate them like nutmeg as a finishing touch. They're even nice as atmospherics in a bowl on the table.
  • Pomegranate delight: Pure, silky pomegranate preserve, with only a bit of lemon, salt and pectin. Available in the Shop of Galilee at Tel Aviv's Nemal (sometimes spelled Namal) port. Picked up the red grapefruit jam, candied grapefruit peel and quince preserves as well. Flavors are fresh and pure-tasting. No added sugar in the Galilee preserves.
  • Avocado flower honey: Dark and deeply aromatic, almost like a sulphur molasses. Also from the Shop of Galilee.
  • Almond “tahini”: Made from almond milk and finely ground nut solids. Great for drizzling over ice cream and using in pastries.
  • Olia kumquat vinaigrette: From a lovely olive oil boutique in downtown Tel Aviv. Besides more than a dozen kinds of oils (categorized by type of olive and flavor profile), spice blends, tea made from olive leaves and lots of soaps, etc., this vinaigrette is slightly sweet and a real winner. You may see it/the company represented at the upcoming Fancy Food Show in New York. Can't believe I left without a jar of the shop's other new product, dried tomato powder.
  • Liveo black olive salt: From another boutique olive oil manufacturer with a beautiful shop close to Olia; fruity and aromatic. Perfect for the saltoholic in your life. Liveo was at the Fancy Food Show last year (or 2008?) and plans to be there again.
  • Roasted fava beans: From a nuts and spices shop in Jaffa (more on that later). Delicious, almost creamy inside.
  • Ground sumac and za'atar: From King of Spices in East Jerusalem, which has mounds and mounds of freshly made spices, dried fruits, nuts and candies. These two spices were the most outrageously fragrant and beckoning of the lot. The za'atar came in several blends, some with sumac, some with sesame seeds. Both spices can be used as ingredients in cooking stews and sauces, as well as finishing touches.
  • Shredded ("floss" or "curly") halvah: Looks like raffia, melts in your mouth. Made from sesame paste and honey or sugar; goes on top of or in desserts. Or straight from the carton.
Oh, dear. There's more on my dining room table.

-- Bonnie S. Benwick

By The Food Section  |  February 16, 2010; 4:30 PM ET
Categories:  Shopping  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, Israel, food shopping, travel  
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Hi Bonnie - glad you made it home safely - was great to meet you on the trip and share some of the wonderful culinary experiences in the Holy Land... Come to Houston sometime soon so we can treat you to some serious gourmet comfort food at MAX's!!

Posted by: jonhorowitz | February 16, 2010 6:06 PM | Report abuse

I'm fairly sure I've picked up date syrup and za'atar at Koshermart. I think my husband wasn't impressed by the za'atar we go there, though.

I'm so jealous! I'd give anything just to be able to pick up some shwarma at the little place next to the bus station in Jerusalem. My mouth is watering just thinking about fresh pita stuffed with meat and salads and chips. Max's shwarma is good, but it's not quite the same.

Posted by: marag | February 17, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

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