Beyond matzah and couscous

Ataste of Israel is no farther away than your local grocery store — and not just in the kosher aisle.

No one’s surprised to find Israeli matzah on a shelf, but what about sliced Mexican turkey from a company called Hod Golan (motto: “The Height of Good Taste”), which is offered at many Ralphs stores?

That’s just the beginning when it comes to the varied food products being imported from the Holy Land these days. There’s also tea, spices, cheese and even frozen herbs.

Consider it food for thought as Buy Israel Week approaches. The effort to promote products made in Israel, which is co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal, will take place Nov. 28 through Dec. 4.

American grocery stores have seen an influx of products hailing from Israel. In the first half of this year alone, the country exported $85 million in food to the United States, an 8 percent increase over the same period last year, according to Lital Frenkel-Porat of the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute.

A document by that nonprofit organization, which is supported by the Israeli government and private sector and charged with promoting the country’s business abroad, suggests a few reasons for the boost:

• A blend of cultures due to geography and immigrant populations has created a variety of unique food products;

• A national health awareness has translated into increased meatless and sugar-, lactose- and gluten-free products;

• A strong commitment to research and development has led to advancements in food-ingredient technology and innovative products.

The result? Hundreds of products trickling into American grocery stores, even if the average consumer isn’t aware of it.

Whole Foods Market, for example, sells more than 200 products nationwide that are made in Israel by 14 companies. Among them are Elyon’s fat-free, gluten-free marshmallows; Gefen’s gluten-free ziti noodles; and a host of spices by Pereg — including mixed spices for the all-American hamburger. (Availability varies by store.)

“Whole Foods Market is proud to sell products from Israel and many other countries around the world,” Marci Frumkin, executive marketing coordinator for the company’s Southern Pacific region, said in a statement. “In fact, our 365 Everyday Value team recently took a trip to Israel to investigate products we may want to include in our line.”

Other major chains stock up on Israeli goods, too. Ralphs lists about 275 products from more than 30 companies. Vons counts more than 80 items from eight Israeli businesses.

Trader Joe’s was the first to carry a line of frozen foods by Dorot, a kibbutz located at the edge of the Negev in southern Israel. It produces all-natural, flash-frozen herbs and other products that are packaged in ice cube-like trays for individual servings.

“A few hours after the harvest, it’s already frozen,” said Tal Tal-Or, CEO of the company’s U.S. subsidiary based in West Hills and vice president for all Dorot export markets. “We always say it’s faster than fresh.”

Now Dorot products can be found in nearly 4,000 stores, including Whole Foods, Bristol Farms and Ralphs.

“There are a lot of struggles, but our company is growing in the U.S.,” Tal-Or said. “Our product is not like bread or cheese or milk. It requires a lot of explanation. People don’t expect to find basil in the freezer.”

Trader Joe’s carries Israeli couscous, too, but perhaps more intriguing is what consumers may find a few aisles over: Pastures of Eden feta cheese. Produced by the Israeli Sheep Breeders Association, it’s a creamy, Balkan-style cheese made from sheep’s milk.

“In terms of feta, this is really the highest quality that we have found,” said Melissa Shore, marketing director of importer Arthur Schuman in New Jersey. “It’s very different from the Greek feta. It’s just a totally different texture. I think people are surprised by it.”

Israeli grocery imports go beyond just food. Ralphs, for example, carries a number of drinks by Prigat, a brand that has been in the United States since 2000. It produces mango and peach nectar, as well as other flavors.

Then there’s the wine, especially that being produced in the Golan Heights. Brands like Yarden are widely available — Ralphs is one carrier — and up to world-class standards, according to Martin Weiner, who runs the Los Angeles School of Wines.

“In the last 20 to 30 years, there’s been a marked increase in quality,” he said.

Tea drinkers can indulge in Wissotzky Tea, available at Ralphs and Vons. Flavors include everything from Mango and Passion Fruit to Nana-Lemon (a mix of lemon and mint). The company has a manufacturing plant in the Galilee and has been producing tea since 1936.

So the time is good to be an Israeli food exporter. But it’s not without its challenges. Dorot, for one, has been caught up in campaigns by pro-Palestinian organizations to boycott Israeli goods, according to Tal-Or.

Trader Joe’s, however, told the company not to sweat it.

“[They] told us, ‘Look, since these protests have started, your sales have gone up 20 percent. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the U.S. … were exposed to the product. That helped us increase sales,” he said.

Still, he concluded: “A lot of Israeli products really suffer from these Palestinian organizations, and it’s making us feel uncomfortable. We try to fight it as best we can.”