Just as the Gulf Stream flows invisibly through the history of the Americas to alter its course, the sesame seed -- small and pale and insignificant as it looks -- pervades the food of the Middle East, altering its character and forming a bond, strong and instantly familiar, between cultures from the borders of Pakistan to southwestern reaches of the Mediterranean.

Much goes into the common web of Middle Eastern food: milk fermented into yogurt, cumin as effervescent to the nose as champagne bubbles on the tongue, olives appearing as both firm salty berries and perva oil, rice and pale ocher beans and lamb and fish and coriander and vine leaves and eggplant and lemon and garlic and flaky leaves of filo dough.

To a native, any place in the Middle East the food is familiar. No matter where in the region you were born, you can feel as related to any table as to a childhood home, though perhaps a home with the furniture rearranged and subtle changes effected by a new tenant. Arguments continue endlessly -- through centuries -- over the origin of a dish. Did the Greeks introduce moussaka to Turkey or coopt it and call it their own? And whose kibbe is the real kibbe -- the Lebanese? the Syrian? the Iraqi? But, though wars have long been fought over the boundaries of the Middle East, and few even agree where the Middle East begins and ends, the food refuses to be dislodged by any temporary strife or to limit its influence by political fiat. You know -- even if mapmakers don't -- that you are in the Middle East when you see lamb grilling to the color of old brick after a long soak in yogurt, when you smell a hint of cinnamon in the tomato sauce and taste a strong bouquet of cumin in the tomato salad.

But the recognition is most unmistakable with the feel of oil-slickened hummus on the tongue. The sesame seed is present. The sesame seed may be used as an intense oil in China and occasionally as a crunchy coating in northern Europe, but only in the Middle East is it a basic staple, the main ingredient of a dish. Only there is it used in such varied forms -- whole, as a thick paste, and as oil. Sesame paste coats tomatoes and cucumbers and green peppers in salad. It is whipped with chick peas or eggplant as a spread. It is slathered on fish as a sauce. And trinned by lemon and spiked with garlic, it serves as a dip on its own. It coats the rings of bread sold all over the Middle East, whether they are as soft as new-baked rolls or as hard as pretzels. It makes desserts as varied as candy rectangles cemented by caramelized sugar and one of the world's richest tastes -- halva.Ali Baba knew more than one key to the Middle East when he called, "Open, sesame."

Following the sesame seed trail these days is not easy. The path one's palate would direct is far different from one prudence dictates. The very places that the newest cuisines in Washington whet one's curiosity to visit are those least practical to tour. The food of Lebanon is rumored to be the most delectable of the Middle East, but there are sound reasons why five Lebanese restaurants opened in Washington rather than in Beirut in the last couple of years. The same can be said for Washington's introductions to Afghan and Persian dining (as well as Ethiopian, but it would be stretching a point to include it in the Middle East anyway).

Thus, time and temper suggested a tour of the Middle East to include four countries: Turkey, Yugoslavia, Egypt and Israel. Their food is less familiar in Washington than Greek food -- which has been available in restaurants here for decades. Within those countries, also, one could sample food of their near neighbors: Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq. TURKEY

Arriving in Istanbul at 5:30 a.m., after sitting all night in the airport waiting for the curfew to lift, I could see only the shadows of the city, punctuated with armed guards along the roads like a row of tacks. But I could smell Istanbul, and one never forgets that smell, or those two smells. Depending on the part of town, the streets reek of lamb and grease or fish and grease, and underlying that is the universal smell of an ancient crowded city, of refuse and sweat so long fermenting that they have mellowed and concentrated into a liqueur of garbage.

Settled at last in my hotel, I started afresh -- and more appropriately -- by eating a red ripe fig and sipping raki, Turkey's firewater, on a balcony overlooking the Bosporus, watching the gray turn into a pink sunrise. As the last star disappeared, the city developed like a Polaroid print.

Gradually the minarets appeared -- Istanbul has more than 500 mosques -- and the Bosporus began its daylong change of mood. The shifting light can keep one hypnotized, lingering just one more minute until the sky turns purple and then a diamond-studded nighttime black.I broke the spell by midday; out on the streets the city had changed more rapidly. The sidewalks were jammed.

Istanbul is relentlessly gray. Though the shop windows display leather goods in luscious colors and jewelry glowing with gold, the city looks like winter -- probably even in summer. The mosques and the food relieve the monotone. The sidewalks may be cracking, grime may cover the landscape and the passersby, but the food is arranged like offerings to the god of design. And everyone is eating.

You could eat for days from the sidewalk stands and open markets of Istanbul without tasting the same food twice. Men carry entire tables on their heads and set them down on the sidewalk to peddle rings of bread encrusted with sesame seeds (simit). Other men carry flat baskets, a yard in diameter, on their heads. These hold sandwiches -- presicion-made sandwiches in careful concentric circles. Flabby, thin rounds of dough are flavored with olive oil and bell peppers. Flaky doughs are stuffed with meats, cheese or spinach. Even foods that are ordinarily considered unsavory are rendered delicious; kokoretz -- lamb intestines -- are highly spiced, rolled and charcoal-grilled to fill pita bread with wonderful tastes and smells. Vendors sell pickles and sauerkraut to eat -- and drink the salty brine -- from unwashed glasses, and one is tempted. The endless array continues -- corn on the cob, dried chickpeas, honey-soaked spongecakes. Pyramids of fruits are ready to be squeezed into juices -- pomegranate is sensational. In the market, fish are arranged like spokes, the mackeral and bluefish and sardines glistening like black pearls. Turbot looked hideous with nodules protruding from their flat sides, though later I found they were delicious. Red caviar and smoked sturgeon are amazingly plentiful in a city so poor that a shopkeeper has to send out to change the equivalent of a dollar.

The fish is inordinately tempting, and fortunately there is plenty to nibble. Skewers of pump mussels are dipped into flour and fried for a moment whiel you wait. Tiny shrimp are cooked and ready. In Istanbul you are never far from a charcoal grill or a pan of oil cooking just-caught sardines or mackerel -- whole, to eat with the bones in what cynics call "fishhead sandwiches."

Fish is everywhere. But coffee is now. With imports at a virtual standstill, Turkish coffee, thick and frothy and sweet, is mostly a memory. It can be found at fancy restaurants and hotels, but in the streets the beverage is tea in hourglass-shaped glasses, delivered on a brass tray carried swinging by chains.

Borek is standard cocktail food at Washington parties, but it is usually one kind of borek -- rolled and baked filo leaves stuffed with meat, cheese or spinach. In Istanbul the borek may be baked or deep-fried, of thin dough or thick or even of a kind of bread dough, or -- most popular -- baked with white cheese, butter and water, perhaps meat or spinach as well, into a kind of noodle pudding.

As with most things in Turkey, there is a special town known for its borek. Sariyer, an Istanbul suburb on the Bosporus, has a borek shop where a man in the window chops the borek on an inch-thick brass cutting board, so scarred with use that it is concave. Using something that looks a cross between a Chinese cleaver and a scimitar, he chops in a special rhythm -- bam da da bam bam da da da da bam bam -- that he keeps up constantly, even between servings of burek, as if the cleaver were switched on and he was only its handle.

As for the other special towns, there is one with the best yogurt and another that produces chefs. Forty of the Istanbul Hilton Hotel's chefs are from Mengen, a town of 6,000 and they claim that every male raised in the town becomes a chef. But is there good food in Mengen? No. The men never cook at home; in fact, they don't even learn to cook until they leave.

A chef from Mengen showed me the proper way to make doner Kebab. In America, doner kebab -- or gyros or schwerma -- is usually made in a factory and fetched from a freezer to be cooked. In Turkey, a restaurant may be measured by its doner kebab, which might be enthroned on an elaborately wrought brass stand for its grilling over wood or charcoal.

To make the best doner kebab, lamb is cut into thin lengthwise slices, pounded, and marinated for 24 hours in milk seasoned with cumin, parsley, pepper, salt and onion. Lesser quality cuts are chopped and similarly seasoned. On a wide, flat skewer each slice of lamb is alternated with a web of lamb caul fat and the chopped lamb. Thus is formed a large skewered loaf of five pounds or more. The higher proportion of sliced lamb to chopped, the better the doner kebab. It takes an experienced chef about five minutes to form a loaf; the chef who showed me the process has been practicing for 25 years. "My hands," he said, "are like a machine."

Dining in Istanbul is a matter of few choices but strong opinions. The few choices include whether to eat lamb or fish. If it is spring or summer, you would usually choose lamb; if it is winter, when the lamb has passed the spring of its life, you would opt for fish. And thus you would go to a fish restaurant rather than a lamb restaurant. You would probably take your children, and these days with a military curfew in force, you would dine early. Simple restaurant or fancy, the menu would be much the same -- kebabs of various sorts or grilled fish -- unless you dine at a French or Russian restaurant, which is very fashionable to do.

The difference in the food between the lower and upper prices ranges is likely to be most noticeable in the greasiness. Turkish food is elaborately seasoned but simply prepared, and the cheaper it is, the greasier it is (and the lower quality the grease).

A more expensive restaurant -- Abdullah is the most famous -- is likely to overlook the Bosporous. The garnishes will be prettier: very tiny cherry tomatoes, green leaves, lemon slices. And the service will be more attentive. Abdullah is said to grow its own vegetables, and the variety of vegetable dishes among the appetizers is sumptuous.

But when you get down to the basic quality of the fish or lamb and its grilling, price seems irrelevant. The best of Turkey -- just-caught fish, maybe the superb local blue-fish, charcoal-grilled so that its skin is crisp and its interior moist and steamy, sprinkled with olive oil and chopped parsley -- is everywhere. The best fish I tasted -- at Kuyu restaurant on a block of fish restaurant in a suburb called Arnavutkoy -- came from a kitchen the size of a closet. In it four cooks were working frying pans and broiling in an ancient wood-fired broiler painted aqua. The best lamb was at Gelik, a rustic, log cabin-style open air restaurant on the Sea of Marmara, where the lamb was barbecued in a hole in the ground sealed with mud so that the smoke permeated the meat, softened the flesh and crisped the skin. The pita at Gelik was baked in front of our eyes; the french fries and melon were unforgetable; and the meal cost $5, twice what it would have cost if we had eaten standing up, and 20 percent what it would have cost at one of Istanbul's elegant restaurants (two of which are above gas stations).

The point is that Turkey's best food is a matter of cooking the freshest of ingredients simply. You might go to a soup restaurant for tripe soup or a makeshift table by the sea for fish, or a storefront cafe for a bowl of beans and rice. Or you might go to an expensive, famous restaurant for the view or the chandeliers or the dancing. In Istanbul you don't expect to find grand cuisine, but you do find good food.

All of this has ignored the most important part of eating in Turkey -- the mezze. Ask a Turk what he eats for lunch: mezze. For dinner: mezze. This array of appetizers, as many as 25 (or 100 at a banquet), each on its own little dish, is at least the focus of the meal if not the whole meal. One may follow with lamb or fish. But one might just stop with the appetizers. If dining at home, one often stops at a delicatessen to buy an array of mezze ready-made, from pickles to chicken with creamy walnut sauce. Like the Swedish smorgasbord, mezze starts with cold dishes and moves on to hot dishes. You can order appetizers from the menu or simply ask the waiter to bring you a mezze. Cold dishes will be white chesse and melon -- those two alone being considered the purist's mezze -- plus hummus, baba ghanouj and several other eggplant dishes, olives, pickles, cucumbers, tomatoes, stuffed grape leaves, mussels stuffed with rice and currants, anchovies, stuffed peppers, smoked sturgeon, yogurt with vegetables, perhaps sliced sausages or pasterma. The sesame paste dips, the yogurt-sauced vegetables, the constant undercurrent of cumin are almost a ritual of communion with the entire Middle East -- and olive oil permeates all.Hot dishes will be fried smelts, fried mussels, fried squid, fried eggplant, fried squash, fried borek and crust fried meatballs -- plus ravioli. Even if the individual dishes are heavy or oily or too cold or too warm, under- or over-seasoned, the array is tantalizing and the mode of eating is relaxing -- particularly if you, as one must, drink raki with the mezze.

The Turks produce very good wine, by far the best I found in the Middle East, but they ignore it and drink raki, which is cousin to Greece's ouzo. They also drink a lot of vodka. Since Western European liquors are unavailable, it is fashionable to flavor vodka for variety. Now one drinks lemon vodka or peach or apricot or cherry. Restaurants are known for their particular flavored vodkas. The Hilton alone produced about 2,000 bottles of home-flavored vodkas this year. Two fascinating, though very sweet, liqueurs, however, are produced locally, one rose-flavored, the other raspbery. The latter was my favorite, not only for its fresh flavor, but also for its name: ahadudu. Teetotalers are well treated, too. Often a tableful of diners will be sipping from stemmed glasses something gloriously sunny looking -- fresh peach juice.

One leaves Istanbul remembering, above all, the bread. Nowhere is bread more respected or better made. People line up in front of the woodburning ovens for loaves of crusty, chewy, magnificent bread -- called ekmek. Around the world people are eating pita and thinking therefore that they are dining Turkish style. They don't even know about ekmek. Ekmek, it seems is the world's best-kept culinary secret. The Turks, one discovers, are making-- all day, every day, in every part of town -- loaves as good as anyone dreams existed in the good old days. Yugoslavia

Yogoslavia is a country on the make. In an explosion of expansion, the country has grown restaurant conscious (as in "self-conscious"). Zagreb's tourist guidebook is color-coded to show which restaurants serve which dishes. Many newspapers have restaurant critics, and radio stations broadcast diners' complaints about restaurants. The country has started a major public relations blitz in America for its wine industry, and the tourist business is big business. Along with it, however, comes precooked foods rumors of adulterated wine, overcharges in restaurants and, in the best hotel in Dubrovnik, instant coffee.

I was last in Yugoslavia nearly 17 years ago, and have treasured ever since the memory of spit-roasted lamb and charcoal-grilled cevapcici and charcoal-singled whole fish in every motel dining room or cafe. i kept the location of the best strudel I'd every eaten; now the bakery, like most of them, is served by the central bakery of the town. So, while Yugoslavia had particularly interested me as the culinary meeting point of the Middle East and Europe, it now startled me as the junction of a traditional culinary world and the efficient new business of feeding. These days, before a restaurant invests in a dishwasher, it invests in a huge freezer.

The market in Split is in the shadow of Diocletian's palace, but the ancient and modern hit head-on. A woman in black sweater and scarf sits with a lapful of garlic. Whole cabbages are fermenting into sauerkraut in kegs. Peppers in five shades of red, green and yellow perfume the entire area. The apples are tart and winey, the olive oil is dark green and put up in old wine and whiskey bottles. The baskets of lettuce are wrapped in lace tablecloths. And behind a pile of cabbages a man plays a single-string yellow lacquered instrument with a bow, providing just sound, no discernible melody. But the yogurt is in plastic containers and the sausages are labeled with their nitrite and vitamin C content.

Dubrovnik, a walled gem sitting out over the water, is a citadel of few aromas. The color of sunlight and its shadows against the town walls is unforgettable and the Slavic-tinged disco music will jangle in your memory; your feet will always remember the feel of slick stones, and your hand the hard porosity of the stone railings. But your senses of taste and smell are under-nourished in Dubrovnik.It is not an eating town.

Dubrovnik's restaruants offer -- or claim to offer -- tourists a wide range of traditional dishes from throughout Yugoslavia. In the three kitchens of the Jadran restaurant complex, which seats 1,000, the cooks regularly make pohani sir (breaded fried white sheep's milk cheese), cevapcici (ground neck meat of pork and lamb, beaten with baking soda and set out for 12 hours to lighten before it is charcoal-grilled), ajvar (a paste of roasted red peppers mashed with garlic and stewed in oil) and the marvelous prsut, the prosciutto-like paper-thin ham from nearby farmers.

The Sarajevo restaurant, also with a long menu, actually has few of the items it offers. But those available are fresh and charcoal-grilled. The stuffed tomatoes, cabbage and yellow peppers are redolent with the paprika-pungent, oily, tart flavor characteristic of Serbian cooking.

The old Yugoslovia is still represented by a few restaurants on the tourist-oriented coast. In Ston, the Koruna restaurant is right on the water, just six tables, a mosaic mural, a photo of Tito and a counter full of soda bottles. The oysters -- small, briny and firm -- are brought straight from the sea to be eaten with a squeeze of lemon and a pitcher of golden wine. Mussels are steamed with onion, parsley, garlic and bread crumbs to absorb the juices -- plus a dash of wine.

Down the coast is Konovarski Dvori, a grill restaurant specializing in lamb -- plus local trout. Off-season, the lamb is poor, and the hammered copper folkware and long black costumes for the waitresses look somewhat contrived. But the trout -- stuffed with a bay leaf, rubbed with olive oil and rosemary, charcoal-grilled to crispness, is wonderful.

The new Yugoslavia is represented by Ribliji, a fish restaurant that was famous -- and very good as well as expensive -- on my last visit. It is still famous and expensive, though not very good. One night I ate -- or tried to eat -- spoiled shrimp -- mushy and foul-tasting -- that the waiter insisted were fresh, then fish that was not-quite-fresh, overcooked and sprinkled with raw garlic and parsley and olive oil as stale as the shrimp. The long menu was a sham -- only fish, shrimp and a mussel rissoto that tasted like cafeteria Spanish rice were available. The beet greens (the only vegetable) were a soggy, pasty mess. No desserts.

The restaurant, however, had been attractively redecorated. The next night I interviewed the manager, who talked of his corporation's expansion to 32 restaurants. He proudly showed his frozen fish -- not even wrapped -- and his electric griddle -- faster than charcoal. The peas were canned, the beet greens and potatoes sitting in water, ready and waiting for hours. He told of fresher fish in the summer, but said people don't complain about the frozen fish. How did he know? They have a complaint book, and it was empty.

I asked for the complaint book, to include my spoiled shrimp (which had been imported frozen from Japan) and the overcharging (the second night's dinner was far cheaper). At that moment a rat ran underfoot and the staff chased it out. Later, the interpreter told me that the animal had been caught, and the manager wanted me to know that it was a cat.

Yeah, and the shrimp were fresh.

The future, one hopes, is represented by Belgrade, where a revival of tradition is brightening the restaurants. Belgrade bustles with street food -- corn cake know as proje, corn on the cob, porridge of wheat and nuts with whipped cream, halva. In Skadarlija, a cross between Chicago's Old Town and Greenwich Village, 19th-century restaurants are being restored and stocked with national dishes.

The cooking combines folk dishes and sophistication. In the Arhiv restaurant, dark wood and bronze lamps frame old Serbian photographs. Formally dressed waiters roll carts of roast lamb to carve tableside. The restaurant is grand and handsome as any London classic. And it serves filo dough stuffed with cheese and mushrooms, cold stewed beans with hot peppers and onions, an extraordinary soup made with a roux of cornmeal and paprika, dill and yogurt. The distinct aroma of Serbian soups and stuffed vegetables comes from that cornmeal roux, dill, paprika and cooked red and yellow peppers. The result is red-gold, pungent and unforgettable.

As a main course, Archiv bakes chopped lamb innards in a wrapper of caul fat, surrounded by a custard and topped with yogurt. It is unique, wonderful. And for dessert, apples are stuffed with ground nuts and boiled whole.

Like America, Yugoslavia has a burst of enthusiasms for cooking and eating, for discovering and refining traditional dishes. Also like America, it has innumerable cultures in one country from which to draw these dishes. And a range of commitment, from the greasy, lukewarm and stale tourist-oriented dishes of the coast to the enthusiastic urban revival, such that, in Belgrade, a very good traditional dish might yet meet scorn from urbanites who know that they can cook it better at home. EGYPT

My first impression of Cairo, exotic though it may be, is far from comforting. My taxi, like every other car within sight and earshot, speeds through crowded streets, using its horn instead of brakes.

Armed guards are everywhere, their bayonets fixed. At hotels your belongings are searched. Cairo is harsh. The dust, the heat, the constant noise and all-day traffic jams are unnerving. Even when it isn't the dusty season, cars are wrapped in dust covers for the day. The city smells of rotten fish and lamb fat -- a typical Middle Eastern smell, but here more pervasive. The contrast of sumptousness (midnight dinners at nightclubs, the women in gilded, ruffled and spangled gowns and headdresses, the children plied with sweets to keep them awake) and excruciating poverty (scrawny, hardened-looking children and sick, malformed adults packed into the muddy aisles of marketplaces) is disturbing.

This is no food-oriented culture. Egypt was making wine 4,000 years ago, but the present-day wines are as close to undrinkable as any I have tasted. The Egyptian Museum displays carvings from 3,000 B.C. of roasting geese, straining beer, baking bread and grinding grain. With Tutankhamen were buried raisins mixed with juniper berries, pitted dates, coriander seeds and melon seeds. Today, however, the most popular dishes are stewed beans mashed to look like mud -- which actually taste good, in a stolid sort of way -- and cold macaroni sold from street carts and doused with a bit of red hot sauce. The national meat dish is pigeon. Flattened and grilled over wood, it has a fine smoky flavor, but it's a bony and often tough little morsel.

Beans -- called ful -- are what people eat as the mainstay. Huge metal urns of cooked beans are distributed around the city early in the morning, and people bring their bowls to be filled. These beans are delicious, warming and filling, with a distinctive and unforgettable flavor seasoned by a long tradition.

The best Egyptian food is said to be in the homes. When Egyptians dine out, they appear to favor food as European as they can afford. Except for the fish (when it is fresh and not overcooked and doesn't taste of questionable waters), the finest of Cairo's food is international. Besides French and Italian restaurants, there are Lebanese, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and even a Korean restaurant from Iran. A Roy Rogers is in the works.

Cairo's Egyptian restaurants are not without good food, but it is encountered unpredictably. A crimson drink -- called karkade and served hot or cold -- is tart and sweet, with a taste like berries in the summer sun. Stelle beer is good. At the Seahorse, on the Nile, the sea bass is cooked just right, and a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and black olives is salty with a crumbly white cheese. Felfella is considered a touristy restaurant; it looks a Middle Eastern version of Trader Vic's. But its ful, baked with a hard-boiled egg and cheese, is like bean butter, and the felafel -- called ta'ami locally -- is lacy-crisp. The crowd is mostly Egyptian, and most eating stand-up, either meats grilled over wood or ful sandwiches. The Cairo Hilton serves Egyptian as well as European food, and some say it is the best in town. If offers the most glamorous dining, its mezze arranged like a palette on a single plate, the tahini striped with red and green spices. But the brass and crystal garnichsed room and its view of the Nile are the strongest draws. The Hilton is the place to try om ali, a classic Egyptian dessert of filo and custard that tastes like light bread pudidng with nuts and raisins.

Lebanese food can be good in Cairo. The Rex is hard to find -- a half block west of Taalat Harb, a main shopping street. Its menu is in French, its dishes French and Italian, but it serves that odd-flavored Egyptian green called molochia as a soup or a sauce and a sensational chicken casserole with cubes of bread, rice and hazelnuts, seasoned with vinegar and topped with yogurt.

Limited to a single night in Cairo, I would spent it at the Arabesque. You dine late there -- at midnight it is lively -- and dress to the hilt. Off a cacophonous street, the Arabesque is entered by a cool marble hallway edged with mosaic tile and hung with gallery-caliber paintings. Lacy brass lanterns throw colored lights into the dining room, which is set with high-backed chairs and roses on the heavy linen cloths. The waiter warned us away from the meat and toward the fish and the pasta -- al dente, with fresh peas and mushrooms. The shrimp, giant ones with the heads served on the side, were smoky from the charcoal grill. The fish kebab came with sauteed peppers and onions and intriguing oily green rice. But the highlights of Arabesque was hardly Egyptian. The bartender makes the best bloody mary I have tasted. Fresh tomato juice is the secret, with lots of lime and cracked pepper. A colonial legacy has its culinary assets. ISRAEL

Iarael has taken a bum rap. There was a time when tourists took cans of tuna fish on their vacations to Israel, having heard of the country's dreadful good.

It was never that bad, though good food sometimes took searching, but now a restaurant renaissance has turned Tel Aviv and Jerusalem into an agony of choices for diners. Nouvelle cuisine has hit Israel, and Moroccan restaurants are the rage. Foie gras is being produced -- and sold to France (though the one time I tried it, at Jerusalem's luxurious Mishkenot Shananim, it was garnished with canned pineapple and maraschino cherries).

There are Chinese, Persian, French, Italian, Yemenite, Armenian, Kurdish, Russian and Hungarian restaurants. There are restaurants for crepes and souffles, and one extraordinarily expensive restaurant, Cow on the Roof, that serves shervet between courses to clear the palate -- a practice which alone has made the restaurant locally famous.

Tel Aviv's businessmen can afford to support a restaurant industry, but Jerusalemites have less to spend. When they eat out, it is snaking: hummus, felafel, borek, schwerma, filo-wrapped Moroccan "cigars," chickpeas in paper cones, bug puffy bagels, sesame rings. Jerusalem's restaurants are supported by tourists -- 60 percent of them European and most of the rest American.

Not only is Israel the meeting ground of many cultures, it is a melange of many Middle Eastern cultures. At the Zion Exclusive restaurant in Tel Aviv, the Yemenite chef stuffs squash and eggplant, tomatoes and vine leaves, much as any Middle Eastern chef makes dolmas. But he also stuffs pears. And for dessert he serves compotes -- of vegetables. Squash slices, mushrooms, black olives, asparagus, radishes and artichoke hearts are his exotic and nearly unidentifiable sweets, but sweetened only with fruits, rosewater or date water, no sugar or honey. Au Sahara restaurant in Jerusalem is just as Middle Eastern and just as exotic, but totally different. A Moroccan accent is added to the braided poppy seed rolls, and the filo-wrapped Moroccan "cigars" are obviously related to borek but stuffed with raisins and almonds, meat and cumin.

In Jerusalem you can find hummus as fluffy and tangy and smooth and fresh as anywhere in the Middle East, and just down the street you can buy Eastern Europe's stuffed derma and the rendered cracklings from chicken fat. As elsewhere in the Middle East, you enter an Arabic restaurant -- the Philadelphia or the National Palace -- and they ask simply whether you want meat or fish. Unless you express strong resistance, the rest takes care of itself.

Israeli diversity also allows specialization: A new Yemenite cafe called Stekiat Hachatzer looks like a Ponderosa Steak House, but its charcoal grill is lined with skewers of spleen and breast and -- truly -- cubed steak fat. In the Old City, a shop with a plainly lettered sign, "Zalatimo Sweets" seems to hold only one muscular baker and a wood-fired oven. When you enter to buy his m'batak (which is all he bakes, except for baklava), you are shown to a rear room filled with silent people waiting at tables for his laborious handwork. The large, paper-thin dough envelope filled with salty fresh cheese and drizzled with butter and thin sugar syrup is one of the half-dozen most delicious pastries I have ever eaten in my life.

At a truly Israeli restaurant, you don't just order from the menu. You talk with the owner, and he decides whether you are worthy of something special he might have or be ready to make, and maybe he offers it, and sets the price according to how much he likes you.

Israelis are addicted to informal rating systems. Everyone has a personal list of "the best." The best burek (the bakery half a block up the hill from Zion Square). The best hummus (Taami restaurant). The best kibbe (the big torpedo-shaped ones in the snack shop across from 40 Yaffa Road).

European urbanity and Middle Eastern tradition bear their most beautiful fruit at Tel Aviv's Carmel Market. No scrawny stands these; the fruits and vegetables are in grand mounds, mountains of dewy produce. The radishes are as large as avocados, and some of the avocados are as tiny as dates. The corn looks juicy enough to have come from Iowa. One stand has 15 kinds of olives. Dill. Okra. Chives. Persimmons. It is hard to think of something the market doesn't have. Think of a category, any category. White: there are parsnips, cauliflower, horseradish root, celery root, kohlrabi, and small melons the size of Florida oranges. Green: there are green clementines and green oranges and green guavas. Smoked meats: goose breast, turkey pastrami, sausages -- and smoked fish, too. Beyond the pristine quality and the variety, though, what one notices about this market is that it is uniquely urban and contemporary, a reworking of inherited practice.

This synthesizing of old and new, East and West, is most apparent in the Israeli breakfast. Breakfast in this hot, arid country is ecpected to be salty enough to make you drink enough water to replace evaporating body fluids. And labor, particularly on the Sabbath, is scarce in this land. Enter the Israeli breakfast, a buffet of mammoth proportions that is part Middle Eastern -- hummus, baba ghanouj, pickled eggplant, olives -- and part European -- sour cream as well as yogurt, smoked and pickled fish, biscuits and croissants as well as pita and cornflakes. If is both sophisticated and simple, extravagant and efficient, unique yet composed of borrowings of many cultures. It is quintessentially Israeli.

Thus it is in Israel that the sesame seed meets the kiwi fruit.