"Please, no more!" my eldest begged as we waddled to the next culinary hot spot on my Tel Aviv restaurant bucket list. How strange to hear this from my daughter, who loves food more than anything else.
As an Israeli chef cooking Israeli food in Auckland, going home is a crazy voyage of restaurants, market trips, street stalls, smells, dishes - madness, with the odd family member and friend dotted in between. I often tell my Kiwi friends that I wish I could pack a plug-in external stomach as I would an external hard drive for my laptop.
Israel is, in many ways, a melting pot. Many cultures, ethnicities and flavours, mixing, simmering and, as you may know, often boiling over. Israel is one of the most interesting places to eat. The mixture of Jewish ethnicities alongside the Arab population has produced a fascinating cuisine. Food transcends conflict - the love and passion of it is the centre of everyone's life.
My companion made my recent trip extra special. Nagham Sleiman is an Israeli-Palestinian who left her hometown of Nazareth at 18 to study in Tel Aviv. Upon becoming a Tel Avivi hipster she followed her heart to Auckland, and ended up working at my restaurant where we became the best of friends. In May we spent four weeks in Israel and the West Bank, meeting amazing people and eating ourselves silly.
Dining is by far my favourite thing; I'm always spoiled for choice on my trips home with some very fine dining as well as casual restaurants. Places like Rama's Kitchen in the Jerusalem mountains, the sophisticated Catit run by the talented Meir Adoni and its more casual sister, Hamizlala, next door; the sublime Herbert Samuel or Kalamata with its Greek feel and beautiful view of the Mediterranean sea. And then there was Shila, my old favourite food bar. All were spectacular gastronomic experiences and there were so many others I didn't get to.
I was surprised to see how well fine dining is doing in Israel because you can eat so cheaply and so well in a time of economic downturn among the rich tradition of street food, especially in Tel Aviv. But the whole spectrum of the dining and drinking scene seemed to be buzzing, particularly in Tel Aviv where the restaurants and bars spill on to the streets and are packed into the wee hours, any day of the week.
It's definitely not all fine dining - most of what you encounter in Israel is very casual and down-to-earth; some of my favourite meals are served in pita. You can eat really well and cheaply with great falafel, shawarma and the king of all sandwiches, sabich. The first thing I do when I get off the plane is make a beeline to my favourite sabich joint. Sabich is a pita crammed with fried eggplant, potato, hummus, salads, pickles, a spicy tangy sauce and a hardboiled egg. I would kill for one right now. The tradition of street food served in pita has been taken to the next level by the eccentric chef Eyal Shani. He makes everything from scratch with the finest ingredients, down to the Atlantic salt, and serves it in pita with no plates, the menu scribbled on a brown paper bag. It's so good I had to keep going back to try as many of his pita creations as I could fit in. Everything he makes is so simple but so good, like a dish called "flower": a whole cauliflower baked with plenty of olive oil and served in a piece of baking paper while you help yourself to some amazing sauces.
On our last day we wandered for the last time through the Carmel market and stumbled upon a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant owned by the 72-year-old Julie, who is an Egyptian - no staff, just her. We asked for a lunch menu and instead she took us into her small kitchen and pointed at a collection of pots and bowls - "this is what I made today" - while going through the different dishes she had just finished preparing. We tried everything; it was all great. I got a few recipes and we hugged as we said goodbye.
This part of the world, often referred to as the Fertile Crescent, produces an abundance of beautiful vegetables and herbs, making up the bulk of every meal including breakfast. Wherever you go, you will find a market with stalls overflowing with sun-ripened tomatoes, eggplant, small crunchy cucumbers, mountains of parsley and mint. Vegetables are a huge part of our diet and they are used in so many ways: fresh, cooked, fried, pickled and stuffed (there is a whole world of stuffed vegetables, even candied). We shared an exquisite meal in the mountains outside Jerusalem. For dessert - a candied, rose water-scented, tiny eggplant atop an almond concoction alongside sheep's milk icecream. It was divine. A Unicef report showed that children in Israel eat more fruit and vegetables than any other children in the world, which comes as no surprise to me. After all, everyone - even kindergarten kids - eat salads, cheese and olives for breakfast. Israeli breakfasts deserve a special mention. A relaxing holiday means more time to really enjoy breakfast and where better to enjoy it than in Israel? Nagham's mother introduced me to the Palestinian version - the salads are fattoush with hard, salty goat cheese and tabbouleh, olives and then either freshly fried falafel or a herb omelette flavoured with cumin seeds. On the Israeli side, the Arab salad and olives are joined by at least two cheeses and smoked fish and eggs, but other options are flaky pastries filled with salty cheese, or North African shakshuka (eggs with spicy tomatoes). These early meals go so well with the bright sun. I look forward to introducing them to Auckland when this dreary weather gives way to sunshine in a few months.
The meals I had in private houses were really special; the warmth and hospitality I experienced everywhere was overwhelming. In every house we went to, tables were laden with beautifully prepared food, and so much of it must have been very labour-intensive - like stuffed vine leaves and tiny stuffed courgettes, or intricate pastries served with cardamom-scented coffee.
If there is anything that Palestinians and Israelis do agree on fiercely, it's that food is integral to enjoying life. It must be made with passion and love. There has to be lots of it and it must be shared with family, friends and strangers alike.
• Join Yael this Friday and Saturday night at Ima for a Chef's Degustation inspired by her culinary adventure in Israel. Ten small courses (allow at least three hours), $75 per person. To book ph (09) 300 7252 or email email@example.com