Until a few years ago, Israelis craving a fast lunch in a pita would opt for shawarma, falafel, or sabich. In recent years, though, a new and tempting contender has joined the game: arayes.
Arayes are crispy, grilled pita bread sandwiches that are stuffed with seasoned minced meat. The meat can be beef or lamb. The pita can be baked, grilled or toasted. The main thing is that it’s crispy outside and juicy inside. The word arayes is the plural of arusa, which in Arabic means “bride.” Some ascribe the connection to the marriage of the pita and meat, or to the meat that is wrapped in the pita the way a bride is wrapped in her wedding dress, or just to the fact that this sandwich is beautiful, like a bride on her wedding day. Other experts, however, maintain there is no linguistic connection whatsoever.
This Levantine street food, which was virtually unknown in most parts of Israel until recently, has become more and more trendy in the past three or four years, with its appeal ever growing.
Many Israeli Jews tasted arayes for the first time in northern Israel—for instance, at Alzaeem restaurant in Nazareth, which is known for it—and they fell in love with it. In the last few years more places serving it have been popping up all over the country. A year ago, a new arayes stand called Arais Mahneyuda opened on Jerusalem’s busy Agrippas Street, opposite Mahane Yehuda Market. Arayes are so beloved that a Tel Aviv restaurant specializing in meat is named after it: Arais (as its owner spells it) opened in Sarona Market in 2015. As its website states, Arais “recruited one of the most talented and praised chefs in Israel, Yaron Kastenboim, who formulated a rich, diverse, Israeli-oriented menu, wrapped in modern Mediterranean flavors.”
Avi Sharabi, the owner of Arais, credits Kastenboim for starting the arayes trend in Tel Aviv at the meat establishment M25 at HaCarmel market, which he co-owns. Eran Laor, street-food critic for Haaretz, agreed: “Perhaps other places made it before, but M25 are responsible for making arayes trendy,” Laor told me. “They served it as an appetizer and it became their signature dish. It became super popular and other places serving meat or shish kebabs started offering it, too. There is no wonder that it became so popular and also that it’s managed to stay trendy for quite a while—it is the perfect marriage of meat and dough.”
Sharabi told me how his restaurant’s arayes are prepared: “We grill the meat inside the pita,” he said. “Some people grill the meat before they insert it in the pita. We insert the meat raw into the pita, grill it and then roast it in the oven. But the most important thing about arayes is that the pita is crispy on the outside and that the fat from the meat is absorbed in the pita from the inside.”
Of course, others disagree. Fared Hassona, the owner of Arusa Israelit—one of Tel Aviv’s most talked about fast food joints of the past year—says that his arayes are better because of the way they’re prepared: “The others insert raw meat into the pita and then grill it,” he told me, “and that is wrong! We grill the minced meat first. Then it goes back in the kitchen, where we grind it again, together with our special spices. Then we insert it into the pita and grill it again. This is the correct way of making it.”
I met Hassona for lunch at one of his two Tel Aviv branches, located for about a year on the central Ibn Gvirol Street. (The other, newer, branch stands on Salame Street in the south of the city, next to Haoman 17 club, catering to hungry clubbers.) Hassona—who grew up in the Arab village of Kafr Misr, located south of the Sea of Galilee—claims to have perfected his recipe before he opened in Tel Aviv, during the decade he spent in his two branches up north: one in Kafr Misr (which is no longer operating), and one (which is still active) in the industrial zone Alon Tavor, between Afula and Kfar Tavor.
“All the others that call themselves arayes saw what we do up north and copied us,” Hassona boasted, “but they are doing it wrong.” Arusa Israelit’s classic version of the dish is made with minced veal, but the restaurant also serves chicken arusa, a vegan version with grilled vegetables, and a more expensive option with entrecote and lamb’s rib. Hassona’s arusa is a tasty street food, great for anyone on a budget. It costs 15 shekels (just over $4), which is the price of falafel, and is way less than shawarma or any other meat dish in a pita. Adjacent to the branch on Ibn Gvirol, Arusa Israelit recently opened another section serving baklava, knafeh, and other Middle Eastern sweets.
Hassona insists his arusa recipe is unique: “Our pita is special, our meat is special—and above all, our spice mix is special.” But he’s not revealing what’s in the “top secret” spice mix, which he invented: “Like Coca-Cola do not divulge their secret, I do not reveal mine.”
Arusa Israelit’s website claims its arusa is “the perfect Israeli meal,” based on “authentic Israeli Galilee” cuisine. “We invented the arusa,” Hassona told me. “It’s an original Israeli dish and it’s worlds apart from what people call arayes.”
But not everyone agrees that arayes are properly Israeli. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, a chef specializing in Arab food who also won first place in the Israeli Master Chef reality-TV show in 2014, believes that portraying arayes to the world as an Israeli dish is wrong. “This is not right and people shouldn’t be saying it’s an Israeli dish,” said Atamna-Ismaeel, who was born in the Arab city of Baqa al-Gharbiyye in northern Israel. “Sure, Israelis make it, but when they make sushi they say it’s Japanese, when they make spring rolls they say they’re Chinese—they don’t claim these dishes are Israeli. When it comes to Arab food, Israelis feel they have the right to claim it as their own, which isn’t right. This food isn’t ownerless and it isn’t Israeli. Arayes is a popular Arab dish, made in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine.”
When I tell her that many claim that in Israel the origin of arayes is the northern region of the country, she also doesn’t like the sound of that: “This is also very annoying. The whole idea of Galilee cuisine is something people invented. People call it Galilee-style cuisine in order not to say Arab cuisine. As if giving this cuisine a territorial definition legitimizes non-Arab people living in this area appropriating certain dishes. Maybe Jews met arayes for the first time in the Galilee, but in reality, this is not Galilee-style cooking because it is no different from Lebanon, Jordan, or Syria. If you go to Tulkarm or anywhere in the West Bank, every butcher shop has a grill and makes arayes.”
I asked Hassona what makes his arusa Israeli—and why his restaurant’s logo boasts a giant blue Star of David and a smiling, mustached Turk in a red fez. “He’s not a Turk,” Hassona replied. “Why a Turk? Because of the hat?” Arayes, I told him, are a popular street food in places like Syria and Lebanon. “Perhaps,” Hassona conceded. “But those who make it in Israel are copying us. We are the original.”
Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.