By Dane Feldman
Additional Contributors: Tanya Silverman
In honor of Vacation Week here on BTR, Tanya and I share our most favorite vacation locations for cuisine. As a vegetarian, Tanya discusses the great experience she had in Vietnam, while I revisit my travels to Israel.
Between the two of us, there were plenty of places to choose from both domestically and across the globe, but these two countries stood out most.
Tanya in Vietnam
Open-air market in Dalat. Photo by Tanya Silverman.
“Toi an chay.”
That was the token Vietnamese phrase I memorized for expressing my dietary habits as I traveled throughout the Southeast Asian country: “I’m a vegetarian.”
“Toi an chay” came in handy when I made a pit stop at a small rural cafe–which doubled as the open-air front section of a family’s dwelling. As I sipped a lukewarm green tea, chickens clucked around the dusty ground and motorbikes whizzed along the dirt road.
The hospitable father encouraged me to sample his kin’s traditional specialty of sticky rice and beef wrapped into a banana leaf. While I probably pronounced “Toi an chay” completely incorrectly, my communication was clear enough that they weren’t offended.
In other circumstances, keeping an eye out for the chay label inscribed onto cafes’ awnings and windows was essential to navigating the Vietnamese towns and cities to find a bite to eat. Those found bites, I must say, were marvelous, fresh, and cheap, ranging from a one-dollar bean-sprout laden seitan banh mi at a city cafe in Da Nang to a 75-cent plate of gingery tofu on rice at a cafeteria next to a countryside Buddhist monastery.
Soups were savory; light pho noodles as mains and heartier curry broths as sides were often available in meatless versions.
A monkey snacks on dragon fruit. Photo by Tanya Silverman.
Eating around Vietnam wasn’t just about the chay opportunities, but also the access to lots of locally cultivated crops. Coffee bean bushes grew all over the hilly highlands, while rows and rows of dragon fruit bushes speckled the lower fields of the south. Smelly, spiky jackfruits were another piece of produce I first tasted while in Vietnam; I took a favoring to their tart, slightly moldy flavor.
Whether the hungry traveler craves meat or no meat, food fresh or fermented, Vietnam has plenty to offer.
Dane in Israel
Breakfast in Tel Aviv. Photo by Dane Feldman.
Like many Jewish Americans, I spent 10 days in Israel on Birthright and felt completely blown away by the experience. For me, it was all about the food.
While the small nation is generally involved in some not-so-peachy relations with the surrounding countries, Israel gets by largely on its own and doesn’t import much aside from grains. I believe I’ve mentioned this in the past, but because of this fact, eating in Israel feels mostly like a farm-to-table experience.
The freshness is absolutely wild even with items like cottage cheese, but the cuisine on the whole is what separates Israel even further from the experiences we have here in the United States. The Mediterranean diet holds strong in this land where cucumbers, tomatoes, and other fresh vegetables are consistently available along with falafel, pita, and shawarma.
If you’re going to try hummus in Israel, be prepared to spend the rest of your life searching for hummus as delicious. Nothing I have found (or made at home) has held a candle to Israel’s hummus.
Lechoch in Tzfat. Photo by Dane Feldman.
Beyond hummus, I strongly encourage travelers of Israel to venture to Tzfat where they can find the local favorite, lechoch, which includes local sheep milk cheese.
Lastly, for coffee lovers, Turkish coffee can be found everywhere, but folks shouldn’t skip out on Aroma. There are a few locations in the US, but Aroma in Israel is famous for its iced coffee. Iced coffee in the US means coffee with ice, but in Israel that’s cold coffee. Instead, if you order an iced coffee at an Israeli Aroma, you’ll receive the godly concoction of blended coffee, milk, and ice. It’s like a milkshake, only without the ice cream.