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Za’atar is extremely popular in Middle Eastern cuisine. I had never heard of Za’atar until I moved to Israel, and quite frankly the spice mixture wasn’t even on my radar until my daughter was born with a sesame allergy. That’s when I suddenly became hyper-vigilant against the spice mixture.

What is Za’atar? If you have Gil Marks The Encyclopedia of Jewish Cooking, I highly recommend reading his explanation about Za’atar. It’s really a fascinating description of how the herb transformed into this popular spice mix that consists of the dried herb, dried sumac, sesame seeds, salt and sometimes other spices.

For those with a sesame allergy, Za’atar spice mixture is a problem. Almost all Za’atar mixtures contain sesame seeds, and Israeli’s love to sprinkle Za’atar on top of breads, hummus and salad.

For those who suffer from a sesame allergy, it’s really important to ask about Za’atar on your bread, hummus or salads. I’ve even heard of some restaurants sprinkling their shakshuka with Za’atar. Hotels are also very fond of using Za’atar, I’ve seen Za’atar sprinkled over cheese at hotel buffets.

Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to avoid food items with Za’atar, it’s just something people with sesame allergies need to be aware of, and should ask.



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How to eat at a hotel buffet in Israel with a food allergy

This past Sunday night, after spending seven long hours on a wild goose chase courtesy of Waze, we arrived back in Jerusalem from our five day vacation in Eilat. We stayed at the Hilton Queen of Sheba Hotel, which boasts one of the nicest buffets I’ve seen in Israel. Unfortunately, for a parent with a food allergy, all of the amazing varieties of food can be extremely overwhelming. So much so, that by the time we got into the car to return home, I was exhausted from examining every morsel of food my 3 1/2 year old put into her mouth.

I also came away with some helpful tips to navigate a hotel buffet in Israel, especially when it comes to a food allergy.

Tip #1 – Before you even get into the dining room, speak to a manager about the food allergy and ask for a point person to help you navigate your way through the dining room. We did not do this, and it’s something I regretted afterwards. It would have been a lot less time consuming for me if I had spoken with someone in advance, as opposed to relying upon my own knowledge of native cuisine.

Dessert spread at the Hilton Queen of Sheba Hotel, Eilat. Photo courtesy of Hillel Fuld

Dessert spread at the Hilton Queen of Sheba Hotel, Eilat. Photo courtesy of Hillel Fuld

Tip #2 –  For people with a nut allergy, make sure to speak with the pastry chef before you pick out a dessert. The dessert spread is incredible at a hotel buffet; there is a ton of different options. During our second night at the hotel, my husband took our children to pick out one dessert. He asked the wait staff manning the dessert station to tell him which dessert had peanuts. The girls, meanwhile, were eyeing this delicious looking chocolate bomb that I assumed was a mousse. The wait staff pointed to the chocolate bomb and said there were no peanuts in there, and so the girls gleefully brought one back to the table. They took a bite each before my 6 year old told me that there were definitely nuts in her dessert. I quickly pulled both plates away from each child and examined the dessert. Sure enough, the dessert was about 25% nut and the rest cake. Truth be told, the nut was not peanut but rather walnuts. The wait staff answered my husband correctly, but he didn’t offer up that the dessert contained nuts. In the future, we realized that we have to be extremely careful with what and how we ask about the food. We can’t assume that the wait staff would offer up information, like that while this particular dessert didn’t contain peanuts, it did have nuts.

The last night we were at the hotel, I allowed the girls to try the dessert table again. This time, my husband made sure to ask about all nuts, since it’s very easy for cross contamination to occur and we try to avoid all nuts as much as possible. I was actually shocked to see my 3 1/2 year old with the peanut allergy, return to the table with a dessert item. I assumed she was going to have fruit salad again, but the wait staff had told my husband that the dessert she was holding was the only one without nuts.

I sighed when I saw what she had in her hand, and had to gently tell her she couldn’t have it. In the above photo taken by Hillel Fuld, who arrived at the hotel the day we left, she was given the cream filled wafer (towards the top left in a white bowl). I am familiar with these wafers as it’s my sister’s favorite go-to Shabbat dessert choice. I was pretty sure it was the Maimon’s brand of wafer, which are called Gliliot in Hebrew, and I know they contain traces of nuts and peanuts. Fortunately, my daughter is used to not being allowed dessert that’s not homemade, and she surrender it up without a fuss and went off with my husband to get a bowl of fruit salad.

This time, however, I went up to the wait staff to discuss the dessert pick. I wanted him to know that the wafer contained traces of nuts, and that’s important information to tell someone with a nut allergy. When I asked him about the wafer, he immediately took out his cell phone and called the pastry chef/dessert manager, and quickly confirmed what I had already known. That the Gliliot did contain traces of nuts and peanuts, and I was right to not give them to my child. I tried to stress how important it is for him to check these things before recommending a food item to someone with a food allergy, but he wasn’t that keen on listening.

If you have an allergy, do not rely on the wait staff! Make sure they call down to the kitchen to confirm, and reconfirm, that the item is safe for you to eat.

Tip #3 – Don’t leave home without your epi-pen, Benadryl/Fenistil and carry them with you to the dining room. We left diapers and wipes back in our room, but we made sure the epi-pen was with us whenever we went to the dining room or out to eat. At some point at breakfast one morning, I had to give my daughter Fenistil because she started breaking out in hives. We realized that the muffin cup she was eating had chocolate chips in it, even though it looked like it was plain and was not in the dessert section of the dining room. I have yet to find dark chocolate chips in Israel that do not contain traces of nuts. I have found that white chocolate chips were okay with my daughter’s peanut allergy, but she always breaks out in hives if she eats the dark chocolate chips.

 Tip #4 –  For those with a nut allergy, be careful with the salads. It’s probably better to avoid the pre-made salads altogether and just create your own from the cut vegetables. There was a delicious quinoa salad with parsley and craisins, and only when I got back to my table did I realize there were also nuts in there as well. Again, you must always ask before you put anything on your plate!

Tip #5 – Bring along safe foods, in case you have a difficult time finding safe items to eat. For the most part, we were able to find plenty of nut free food options for our child, but there was really nothing we could give her from the hotel dining room for dessert aside from fruit salad. Fortunately, I made sure to bring a box of Oreo cookies, which I was able to give her as a dessert treat when we got back to the room. It wasn’t the same as giving her one of the delicious looking desserts, but at least she didn’t feel deprived that all she was able to eat was a fruit salad while her siblings feasted on cream filled donuts and brownie bars.

Do you have a food allergy and have you been to a hotel in Israel? How was your experience? Got any tips for us? Let us know in the comments!


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