After two years away, I’ve finally made it back to my home country. Getting to see my family here in Israel, witnessing my kids surrounded by all that love and attention and having them them exposed to that mother tongue makes every visit so priceless. But there’s one odd thing I always look forward to, which is filling my suitcase with random things that remind me of home every time I leave.
These items are mostly utilitarian. They’re actually things that I use around the house very often, and they make my house run more efficiently and make me feel more comfortable at home. I’m also not sure that I can’t replace them with whatever their alternative is in the US. Are they better? My heart and body and soul say yes, and my investigative streak is undecided. This list is also very specific to me, and I’m sure other Israeli expats have very different lists.
Still, if you find yourself in an Israeli grocery store or market on a trip to the land of milk (very good, but doesn’t travel well) and honey (also excellent, I bring mine home from my aunt’s moshav), here are some things you might want to sample – and possibly take back home.
Yes, breadcrumbs. My kids’ diet at this point is around 75% chicken schnitzel, the food that I grew up with at home and that no meat-eating child hates (that I know of, at least). The breadcrumbs here are just better. They also have such an assortment — from Bissli breadcrumbs to grissini breadcrumbs (for all the pizza bagels out there) to pretzel breadcrumbs. They’re all so delicious and they definitely level up our schnitzel game.
2. Herbal teas
Israelis love their herbal infusions (or as they call them, “chalitot”) — hot water with mint and other yummy, relaxing herbs. In the US, it’s a bit hard to find the low-brow version of these in teabag forms, but in Israel, the local tea purveyor Wissotzky tea has a great line of them called “HaGan HaKasum,” or the magical garden. When I tell you I stock up on these every time I go here, I’m not exaggerating, and they always seem to run out before someone can smuggle me a new stash. I especially love their verbena tea, but they’re all pretty good. If you’re especially fancy, you can also get fun, fruity infusion mixes at your local shuk, or market.
My go-to place for spices is Levinsky Market’s Tavlinsky. It’s a bit pricey, but they do have great stuff and their pretty packaging makes for great gifts. But there are so many wonderful spice shops and stands across Israel, especially in shuks. Some spices that I like to get are ras al hanut (which is basically the shopkeeper’s spice mix), hawaij and za’atar — these are all spices you can get in the US, but in my humble opinion, they’re just so much better here and we do use a ton of them at home.
4. Kids’ soap and shampoo
Are there smells that remind you of childhood more than the soap you grew up bathing in? Probably, but not for me. I love Dr. Fischer’s products for kids. The company was started by a Jewish immigrant from Czechoslovakia, Eli Fischer, and makes soaps, shampoos, sunscreen and other products. I love their Sarekal products — the name is a combination of the words sarek (brush) and kal (easy) — which are great for curly hair that tends to tangle and for lice prevention (Israelis are very experienced lice removers). I also love their line of kids’ hypoallergenic soap.
5. Toddler and baby snacks
“There’s nothing like bamba” was the tagline of a popular commercial for the Israeli peanut butter snack when I was growing up. And while bamba has been proven to help prevent peanut allergies and is now widely available in the US thanks to the likes of Trader Joe’s (I love you, Joe!), it does have quite a bit of salt in it, an ingredient not generally recommended for babes under one. So for my youngest one, I like to stock up on Katamtaminim, a peanut snack that doesn’t have as much sodium, is vegan and baby-friendly, and which I usually buy at Superpharm (I love Superpharm. No, they are not paying me to say that. Also, stay away from the makeup counters!). They have a sesame version of the snack which allows you to expose your babes to another important allergen. They also have a myriad of great vegan snacks for kids.
6. Pots and pans
I’m still on a search for the perfect nonstick pan for my daily omelet — or chavita as Israelis call them. But local company Soltam does have nice ones and some lovely pots. Are they worth schlepping in your suitcase? I don’t know. But they’re pretty good.
7. Stain remover
Most Israelis have a cleaning product that they love to bring home — for me, it’s stain remover. I find that the ones here work better, but maybe it’s because my Israeli mom is just better at removing stains and not so much thanks to some magical formula. Still, I can’t help it. I always bring home some Sano Oxygen and some rollers of Ideal from Jacobi, which have specialized formulas for different types of stains — from fruit stains, to oil stains, to blood stains (if you have kids, you are intimately familiar which each one of these). This visit, I’m also bringing Sil Saptil, a stain remover made in Hungary. I don’t know if any of these work better than OxiClean, but anecdotal evidence does seem to prove that they do.
8. Loungewear for me and the kids
Like my kids, I have sensitive skin and I love having comfortable cotton loungewear and daily basics. Some Israeli brands do this particularly well. My husband and I really love S. Wear, which is an Israeli brand of basics. Delta has some great cotton pajamas and kids’ clothes that are soft and lovely, with fun prints of familiar characters from Mickey Mouse to Batman (yes, they have a ton of them on adult pajamas too, which greatly pleases my inner child). If you can join their customer’s clubs, both shops also offer great deals. Go to an Israeli mall (yes, I do recommend this experience in general, but midweek), try some on, and see what you think.
9. Date honey
I love date honey, also known as silan, in everything: on toast with raw tahini or peanut butter and bananas, in savory stews, in marinades and salad dressings. Silan is a magical ingredient that adds both tang and sweetness to your food, and which you can get stateside, but I love getting it here because there are just more scrumptious options. I don’t have one particular favorite brand, but I often buy mine at local health stores or cooking stores.
10. Tahini and hummus
Well, welcome to the contentious part of this listicle. Everyone has opinions on these products, from political to personal, and every loves to fight about them. Personally, I love Palestinian tahini and I do think it makes for the best hummus — or at least the one that best fits my flavor preferences. So when we’re here, we may get a container or two of “camel” tahini, which is made in Nablus. We also sometimes get a couple of bags of quality dried chickpeas, which you can get for fairly cheap at a local grocery store (I will also not judge you harshly if you choose to make your hummus with canned ones — we’re all parents here). My family and I consume a lot of tahini, chickpeas and homemade hummus, and we do feel like a good quality tahini makes the latter infinitely better.
I’m personally not a huge fan of halvah, but I know it makes it to the list of many Israeli expats, especially as a gift for friends stateside. At local shuks, you can find a lot of shops that make it on location, and it’s really delicious.
11. All the snacks
This part of the shopping list is what I get when I still have room and time. I love Israeli chocolate bars and savory snacks. Bissli, Kif Kef, Pesek Zman, Twists bars (which are dried caramel-y wafers coated in chocolate that are definitely an acquired taste) — I love them all. If I can, I bring home as many as I can, especially packs of fun-sized ones. They make for fun gifts, but at home, they always run out too soon.
Some other snacks I like to bring are kosher gummies, which, if you keep kosher, are a delight to find in many technicolor varieties. Kosher marshmallows here are also particularly great in my humble opinion.
I also love getting fruit leather, which is one of my favorite childhood treats and which you can find at your local shuk, usually in giant rolls or sheets. If you cut it up into small strips, it makes a fun addition to your kid’s lunch box as a fruit roll-up alternative.
Something I wish I could bring but can’t: all the dairy products
From milk to pudding to cottage and feta cheese, I find every dairy product here absolutely superior to the ones readily available in the States. If you’re here and have access to a kitchen and fridge, I recommend sampling as much of your supermarket’s dairy section as you can.