In April of 2012, I took an early birthday trip, boarded a flight around midnight at Dulles International Airport, and was eating falafel on the cobbled streets of Istanbul by the next evening. It was love at first bite—not that I hadn’t had falafel before. The first time was in Amsterdam, actually, and I literally cried tears of joy. But there was something different that I loved about the falafel in Turkey, and something else I loved even more around every corner.
After the falafel came the fasulye, stewed white beans in tomatoes with bread or rice to soak up the broth. Next it was gooey, cheesy pide, a football-shaped flatbread with an egg in the middle that every Middle Eastern and Mediterranean culture has a version of (most well-known, perhaps, is Georgian khachapuri). At crowded hookah bars, I was delighted by small bowls of dried chickpeas served the way Americans serve beer nuts. And at seemingly every restaurant, I was thrilled by fresh, simple salads.
Maybe it was what the French call terroir—the way the soil made the vegetables taste, the way the air smelled, the way the breeze tousled my hair, and how crisp that Efes pilsner tasted on tap. But to me, it was magic.
Fast-forward three years and I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit a dear Israeli friend whose mother served us a full brunch in her apartment facing the Mediterranean Sea. The shakshuka tasted better than any I’d ever had, but maybe that was because it was imbued with the sense of place.
The table at Ima’s was bursting—salads, smoked fish, fresh cheese, creamy dips, flaky pastries, seeded breads, and three types of olives, at least. Among the pastries was something that reminded me of a breakfast I’d had in Turkey. It was paper-thin phyllo dough wrapped around cheese and meat filling and baked until golden and flaky. In Turkey, it’s called börek and is rolled like a cigar. In Israel, they serve bourekas, and the phyllo is layered and cut into puffed, stuffed squares.
While I love bread and pastries (who doesn’t?), the city of Tel Aviv had something my heart truly desires: fresh juice. Across from the Airbnb where I stayed was a stand overflowing with bright orange and yellow citrus, crisp green leaves, blushing pink apples, earthy ginger roots, and deep purple beets. In the week I was there I maxed out the stand’s punch card and earned myself a free smoothie. It was paradise.
Both trips gave me tremendous insight into food and life. It was in Israel, in fact, that I began plotting my move to Los Angeles to scout the food scene. Upon arrival in the City of Angels in October of 2016, a friend took me to a local Armenian institution: Zankou Chicken. I dipped an unusually soft falafel into the creamiest, dreamiest tahini and cut the richness with a beet-pickled turnip. Yep, there was some magic in there.