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When many people think of Israeli cuisine, their minds shift immediately to freshly fried falafel balls and juicy schwarma meat spinning tantalizingly over heat, both stuffed in a pita and loaded with white sauce. While these tasty foods are certainly staples of Israeli street food, assuming Israeli dinners subsist on these greasy dishes is like believing that Americans fill up on pizza and hot dogs.
On a trip to Israel this July, I was fortunate enough to visit several families’ dinner tables. While the cuisine ranged from Arabic to Druze to Yemenite to Moroccan, there was one element that remained the same at each hospitable dinner: salads.
So. Many. Salads.
Whether at a restaurant or a family home, mealtime in Israel always begins with a series of salads, or a “mezze” course, as many Americans know this course of appetizers.
Tables are laid out with brightly colored tomato and cucumber salads (Israeli salad), shredded purple cabbage, tabouleh salad with leafy herbs, roasted eggplant drizzled with fresh tahini, soft carrots sautéed with parsley, grape leaves stuffed with rice, and many more renditions inspired by local and foreign cuisine.
Israel has both desert and lush green lands, with grapes and produce abundant in the north. Modern irrigation systems have created plenty of useful terrain in the Negev desert.
One thing is lacking in Israel: grass. Basically that means there are no pastures for cows and livestock to graze on, and hamburgers are a delicacy rather than a daily indulgence. Perhaps this is how meat should be treated around the world!
I dined with the program Culinary Queens of Yeruham, a project that opens grandmothers’ kitchens to visitors who wish to enjoy local cooking and a family-style meal. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and abundance of vegetables offered—even before the main meal. Shula, our host, said that her favorite food was meat (basar in Hebrew) and no meal would be complete without it, yet the dishes she cooked were mostly vegetarian, showing that even a carnivorous eater can happily subsist mainly on vegetables.
Among her local delicacies was an enormous pot of homemade couscous (not those instant wheat beads from a box), topped with a melange of colorful stewed veggies. It was last-meal worthy. She also prepared stuffed artichokes and a pretty incredible platter of purple beets.
Our other meals, from Jerusalem to various kibbutzes (communal living situations), highlighted the same hospitality and vegetable-centric choices. A Shabbat dinner in the old city passed around so many vegetable dishes that by the time the main course of brisket and vegetables arrived at the table, most guests were only able to manage a bite of red meat before acknowledging their super-full bellies.
Perhaps this is why the Mediterranean diet is known as the healthiest in the world!
While most Israelis wouldn’t consider themselves vegetarians or flexitarians—though veganism is a growing trend in the larger cities—a mostly vegetarian way of eating is the norm in Israel. Perhaps if Americans adapted this way of eating, filling up on fresh cucumbers and tomatoes (which can take on a variety of flavors, depending on the dressings), and then indulging in a few bites of the main course, we would be happier and healthier.
Are you a carnivore, vegetarian or vegan? Tell us why in the comments!