Uncovering Israeli Cuisine with Tour Guide Orit Levi

There are tour guides and then there are tour guides. There are those who simply show the sites and those who are passionate about creating meaningful experiences through exploring local culture and cuisine. Orit Levi, one of Via Sabra’s beloved tour guides, does just that.

After spending years working intensively in the restaurant industry, Orit decided that she wanted to expand her skill set and pursue a certification in tour guiding. When considering what field she would specialize in, the answer came naturally to her: food. She began building culinary tours in places that spoke to her, ranging from the bustling markets to local family kitchens. Her goal was to showcase Israeli society, culture and geopolitics through its food. For what could be a more authentic (and tasty) way of getting to know a country and its people than through its cuisine? Yet what’s interesting, she notes, is that Israel’s food scene extends far beyond the restaurants. You can find the best of Israeli cuisine around a cozy kitchen table at your average home in Israel. Or if you dig a bit deeper beneath the surface, the secret flavors of Israel are found in those kitchen cupboards and in safta’s recipe book.

Orit brings her rich background from the restaurant world and her passion for food to her groups at Via Sabra. And as a result, her signature tours become more than just tours – they become special opportunities to uncover- and not just see – the true Israel. 

In between connecting with Jerusalemites over local cuisine and foraging for herbs in the valley by her home, we spoke with Orit about her role as a leader within Via Sabra’s tour guide community, culinary tourism and how our approach to food has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Creating a community of passionate tour guides at Via Sabra

Recently, Via Sabra launched its tour guide community: a place for Via Sabra tour guides to connect over their shared enthusiasm for unlocking Israeli culture while gaining new skills and insight into guiding through a series of workshops and webinars. Such a community has been the dream of Avihai Tsabari, Via Sabra’s CEO.  And together with Orit at the helm, this dream is taking off.

As a group, the guides expand their already impressive knowledge of Israel’s food scene by speaking with a variety of culinary professionals. At the same time, they also share with each other their own experiences and tips. As you can imagine, the end result is a community of passionate and highly qualified tour guides, eager to share Israel’s flavors with visitors from around the world.

When asked what makes a perfect tour guide, Orit let us in on an insider pro tip. Of course, a perfect tour guide knows how to take charge and tell a compelling story. But there’s an important – and very necessary – secret ingredient. They must also know how to host. For when it comes to giving a visitor a memorable experience, the guide – typically a local – needs to know how to introduce their home country to a guest in a meaningful  way. At Via Sabra, our guides do just that – and much more. 

Covid-19 has made us turn inward, particularly when it comes to food

When asked about how culinary tourism and how our own personal approaches to food are being impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Orit suggests that the trend is towards the more intimate. She foresees that there will be a greater demand for more private tours, including visits to private vineyards, family-run farms and safta’s kitchen, rather than larger scale “touristy” attractions.

What’s interesting is that this approach seems to reflect our more general approach towards food during the pandemic. With much of society closed, we have instead been forced to turn inward and rely more on ourselves. The sourdough bread trend has since evolved into taking on more daunting recipes that we once thought impossible. But the recipes are turning out delicious! People are realizing that they can have a quality dining experience from the fruits of their own labor, as opposed to relying on a restaurant.  In Orit’s opinion, the pandemic’s impact on how we approach food will continue to be felt long after restaurant’s reopen.   

Seeking out the local cuisine is becoming more central to a person’s experience abroad 

Via Sabra has taken note that food has become more central to people’s experiences abroad and has embraced the challenge of creating innovative ways to showcase local cuisine. Today, foodies and average travelers alike are looking for more authentic culinary experiences, more often to the theme of sustainable hospitality. As a result, opportunities to cook and share food in a local’s home has become increasingly popular. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Orit claims, you could see culinary tourism’s trend towards more intimate and private experiences.

Cooking with Jerusalem’s herbs and flavors

We ended our conversation with a final question: what special meal would you share with visitors in your home city of Jerusalem? 

While various holes in the wall across east Jerusalem initially topped her list, Orit concedes that due to the more inwardly nature of the pandemic, her kitchen would actually be her answer. Living right next to a valley, Orit forages for regional herbs which she integrates into her cooking. Her favorite dish that she has been making lately is memulaim with a local herb, mallow. Mallow has a presence in both Jewish and Palestinian culture and lately, Orit has enjoyed using this ingredient in a varity of dishes that cross cultural lines. Through these herbs, she has had the opportunity to learn more about not only her own heritage, but that of her Palestinian neighbor’s as well. 

Learn more about Orit’s tours and Via Sabra’s acclaimed culinary experiences today

 

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