Israeli Life: Tastes Great, Less Filling
When changing from an American to an Israeli diet, it is often the children who lead the way, switching from macaroni and cheese to hummus, za’atar and olive oil.
Last month, a woman hurried after me in the canned goods aisle of a local supermarket in Jerusalem. “Do you speak English?” she asked breathlessly.
“Yes,” I nodded, wondering what was so urgent.
“Where’s the tomato sauce?” she gasped. I could tell she was a new immigrant by her panic, probably a Nefesh B’Nefesh transplant. Usually there is one brand of decent jarred spaghetti sauce on the shelf—but, unfortunately, it wasn’t there that day.
“You can make your own,” I suggested.
Any Israeli 7th grader can tell you how to make tomato sauce: onion, garlic, tomato paste and water.
“But,” she said with a sigh, “that’s so much work. I want Hunt’s Tomato Sauce. I’m making stuffed cabbage.”
Dream on, I thought. (Actually, you can find Hunt’s here, even Aunt Jemima, just not on a regular basis.)
I know how this woman felt. When I first arrived in Israel 10 years ago, the supermarket was a conundrum. I couldn’t read the food labels and therefore did not know what was lurking inside the packaging. It was also hard for me to figure out what to cook. Half the popular dishes here seemed to consist of eggplant, but my family wouldn’t eat eggplant. In America, I served waffles, bagels, macaroni and cheese and fish sticks a lot. Here either I couldn’t find them or they did not taste very good. There were no Boca Burgers; cake mixes used to be a rarity. (Okay, I was not exactly a gourmet cook.) And during Passover there were no chocolate macaroons. No chocolate chip macaroons. In fact, no macaroons at all.
Too bad that woman in the grocery store didn’t want yogurt. Who knew so many different types of dairy concoctions existed: gil (buttermilk) and labane (yogurt) and 5-percent and 9-percent cheese and at least 8 different varieties of cottage cheese. In Israel, you can eat a different dairy product every breakfast each month of your life and not exhaust the cow’s (or goat’s) repertoire.
I’m glad that woman didn’t ask about meat, though. I have yet to meet any recent olim who can order more than a chicken in Hebrew. That’s because meat is not labeled as beef, chuck or shoulder, for example. It’s based on a number system: 1 to 10, like a report card. But few of us know what piece we’re getting. You learn by trial and error. By now, I know I like a 5—but I don’t know what it is.
Despite my ineptness, I’ve learned that it is the children who will teach the elders. When my kids started going to school, they refused peanut butter sandwiches in their lunch bags (no such thing as lunch boxes), I sent them with the ultimate Israeli sandwich—chocolate spread. Eventually, they grew tired of the novelty. Slowly, I became aware that something in our culinary vocabulary was changing. They started asking for cucumbers and peppers, whole, in their lunches.
My children were way ahead of me, requesting an appetizer of hummus with za’atar and olive oil instead of gefilte fish on Shabbat. Now my 11-year-old eats like an Israeli contractor: lunch is labane with a whole loaf of workers’ bread, oval-shaped with a hard crust you tear into instead of slicing. In the United States, he would be eating cereal and French fries and frozen pizza; here it is matbouka (eggplant and tomato spread), labane and kubane (Yemenite bread).
I’ve even started becoming—dare I say it?—a little bit Middle Eastern myself. We tried picking olives and pickling them. It didn’t work; they tasted funky. Clearly, I haven’t got that olive-making thing down yet.
But my children no doubt will one day. They understand and appreciate produce the way most Israelis do. They love pomelo, that large, misshapen grapefruit. They know how to peel kiwis and mangos. And they crave clementines. They have become what I think of as “juicy” eaters.
They have grown up where produce corresponds to seasons, a kind of Alice Waters heaven. I remember planning my first Sukkot menu in Israel and thinking: stuffed artichokes. Well, there were no fresh artichokes available then—they don’t exist in September. So we had to go with chicken and zucchini instead.
To become an Israeli cook, you have to think seasonal. You go to the market and see what there is and then plan your menu. You look forward to the arrival of the seasons because of the veggies they bring. Artichokes arrive in the winter. So do avocados. And who knew that strawberries are a winter fruit?
Spring brings the first watermelon, but you have to wait until summer for it to be really sweet. You have reached a certain level of assimilation when you know the time of the year to start looking for fresh asparagus.
And then you start cooking things you never even knew existed, such as knobby-headed kohlrabi or aromatic fennel. You begin serving Nile perch, Moroccan style. You learn about turmeric and cumin. You eat watermelon with feta cheese. You drink your tea with mint.
I don’t want to brag, but I will. I have been growing my own basil and making pesto. I grow my own parsley for tabouleh. I know how to peel a beet. I am on close terms with cilantro. I have even learned how to bake from scratch. And when I go to America, I want salad with my breakfast, like I have in Israel. When I get a tuna fish sandwich without slices of onion or tomato, I feel deprived. I feel cheated when I have to pay a dollar for a measly slice of tomato on a grilled-cheese sandwich.
I, too, have become a juicy eater. I have learned from my kids. In Israel, the vegetables are the main affair and tomatoes are practically a national treasure.
The Mediterranean diet is the Israeli diet. It’s easy to be healthier here, easier to cook in a natural way. Most of the foods travel less distance to arrive at our groceries. Perhaps that’s why people in this country are, let’s face it, thinner than Americans: Because they eat fruits and vegetables and rice and couscous. There’s less packaged food available (although more and more of it is coming on the market). The fruits and vegetables here taste like they’re supposed to.
I don’t mean to insult anybody—it’s hard to find a decent ear of fresh farm-picked corn in Israel—but in most ways, there’s more flavor here, the food is richer, more potent, closer to the source.
Grilled Eggplant Appetizer
– 1 eggplant
– 1 cup tahina
– 1/2 cup salsa
– 2 Tb chopped fresh parsley
1. Wash and pierce whole eggplant once with a fork.
2. Bake eggplant at 350° until it is black and pierces easily with fork, about 30 minutes.
3. When it cools a bit, peel, but leave on stem.
4. Pour tahina over eggplant, and then spoon salsa on top.
5. Sprinkle parsley over all.
6. Slice and serve warm or at room temperature.
Goes nicely with halla or crackers.