One of the most frequent questions I get when someone find out I have been to Israel is “What is the food like over there?”

The best answer I can give is that it’s the same, but different.

That might sound like a cop out, but it’s really true. As far as raw ingredients, the Hebrew culture uses most of the same things that we do. Milk, flour, vegetables, meat, spices, etc. It’s just put together in unique (to Americans at least) ways.

There are some foods, obviously, that you won’t find at all. Because virtually the entire country is kosher (which means that it conforms to Jewish dietary laws found both in the book of Leviticus in the Bible and the Rabbinical codes) if you are a seafood lover, your options are going to be limited. No shellfish such as shrimp, lobster, clams, oysters or crabs are available, and catfish is out as well. If it doesn’t have fins and scales, you won’t find it in Israel. You also won’t find any exotic meats like bear, bison or deer. And, of course, you won’t be able to find any pork products, since the pig is explicitly singled out as being unclean.

There’s also one dietary restriction that is not well known here in the states but is followed very explicitly in Israel. Three times in the Old Testament (Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21) the Israelites are forbidden to boil a goat in it’s mother’s milk. Rabbinical Jews extend this to forbidding the mixing of meat and dairy products, so if you go to McDonald’s in Jerusalem and want a cheeseburger, you are out of luck. You can get a hamburger, and you might be able to get a piece of cheese, but it’s up to you to put them together.

So back to the original question. All tours with TLC Holyland Tours are half-board, meaning that breakfast and dinner and included with the price of the tour, but, with a couple of exceptions, as far as lunch goes, you are on your own. Lunches are generally quick and more ethnic in nature. Twice we stopped for falafels, which if you remember are ground, fried chick pea balls stuffed into pitas with various garnishes and sauces. Other times it was St. Peter’s fish (grilled tilapia) or choices in the Jewish quarter of the Old City, etc.

Breakfast and dinner were always at the hotel and always all-you-can-eat buffets. At dinner, most Americans would fare pretty well. There’s usually a decent salad bar with Israeli dressings that approximate what we have here in America (Thousand Island, Ranch, vinaigrette, etc.). You can also get several different kinds of olives as well, and the hummus is to die for. There’s always at least one beef, chicken and fish entree, and side dishes of rice, potatoes and grilled, steamed or roasted vegetables of some kind. Desserts are light, tasty and plentiful.

It’s the Israeli breakfast that is most unlike what we have here in the U.S. Obviously, not are not going to find any bacon or sausage. There are also no biscuits, and gravy is nonexistent as well. Forget about waffles or pancakes.

So what can we start our morning with in Israel? Let’s take a look.

The first thing that is going to greet you is usually going to be the bread table. There you will find several different kinds of bread, such as holeless bagels (wheat and white), white and wheat sliced bread, sour dough bread, sesame rolls, etc. There’s also toasters and warmers, as well as butter and jelly. You can also get cereal (in limited flavors such as corn flakes, bran flakes and fruit loops) and milk. So far, so good.

Next you will find the hot bar, where you can get scrambled or hard boiled eggs and warm pastries. The Crowne Plaza in Jerusalem also had someone making omelets each morning, and he could also be talked into doing fried or sunny-side-up eggs.

There’s also going to be a fresh fruit area, where you can find an assortment of fruits such as apples, pears, peaches and pineapple.

Now is where it starts to get interesting. Israelis are big on cheese at breakfast and there is usually en entire table filled with it. Different varieties, different fat content, different spices added. Not going to find any cheddar or American or Swiss, but if you like Havarti, goat’s cheese or cream cheese, you are in heaven.

By now your plate is probably pretty full, but hope you have saved some room for the salad. Yes, you read that right, salad. Israeli breakfast buffets have a full salad bar with everything that is available at lunch and dinner, plus some extras. The bowl in the foreground in the shot below is filled with tuna salad. Not sure how many Americans are craving tuna salad at breakfast, but hey, it’s there if you want it.

But that’s not all. In addition to the salads, you can also get smoked salmon or tilapia. Again, not something on the Cracker Barrel breakfast menu.

So what did I eat for breakfast? Well, while I am usually up for trying about anything for lunch or dinner, I am more mundane in my breakfast choices. I usually had scrambled eggs, with a bagel and cream cheese and a couple of pieces of sour dough toast and butter. I would hit the fruit bar for some pineapple and peaches, and usually get one or two different kinds of cheeses (my favorites were what is called “Yellow Cheese” and “Melting Cheese; the goat’s cheese was a bit strong for me). No tuna salad or smoked fish for me.

All in all, the food in Israel is very good and if you are even the slightest bit adventurous in your eating habits, you’ll do OK. If not, well, you might want to pack some pop tarts or snack bags.

More, as always, to come.