Dieting the Israeli way

By Bernard Josephs, February 25, 2010
Israeli salad — the classic accompaniment to most meals

Israeli salad — the classic accompaniment to most meals

Returning from Israel I was thrilled to find that despite having eaten well I had actually lost weight.

Two weeks earlier I weighed in at the airport at a hefty 15st. On my return I had rid my bulky frame of five pounds. Quite an achievement you might think when cafes in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem push cappuccino, giant sandwiches, cakes and chips.

Long gone are the days when half starved Israelis begged British relatives to bring them rare items such as chocolate covered digestive biscuits and Cadbury's Fruit and Nut.

Neither do they pine for an American-style burger. Indeed, en route to Eilat I was struck by the bizarre sight of a kosher McDonald's situated deep in the wilderness of Zin where the wandering Children of Israel had made do with manna without fries, onion rings or ketchup.

So how was it that I appeared such a svelte figure when I arrived back at Luton? The answer is two weeks dominated by traditional Israeli menus of salads, fruit, olive oil and all that goes into a Mediterranean diet.

Not that I didn't cheat. There were forays to Ashkelon's only Chinese takeaway and to Suzana, one of Tel Aviv's most sophisticated restaurants - which in the 1920s was a celebrated house of ill repute.

However, impressed by tales of the 120-year-old Israeli woman who put her longevity down to drinking a daily glass of olive oil, I tried to remain both green and healthy.

Doctors may have described her habit as "over the top", but olive oil remains essential to the dish with which health-savvy Israelis start the day.

The basic element of the much-renowned Israeli breakfast is a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, herbs, and a splash of oil, together with cheese, fresh bread, eggs, juice and a cup of coffee.

If it seems like too much, it is. It virtually does away with the need for lunch - which in Israel is the main meal of the day.

The midday repast often starts with another salad, salat aravi, fresh diced vegetables - in the winter including avocado - dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and chopped parsley.

Popularised by kibbutzim, different versions of this salad were brought to Israel by immigrants. Indian Jews added finely chopped ginger and chilli peppers, and North African Jews included preserved lemon peel and cayenne pepper.

A large variety of eggplant salads and dips, called salat hatzilim, is another popular luncheon meal. They are made with tahina and other seasonings such as garlic, lemon juice, herbs and spices or eggplant simply grilled to a smoky flavour over an open flame.

Hummus of course appears on almost every Israeli table. It is also an essential part of a meze including roasted vegetables, tahina, goat's cheese, spicy Turkish salad, carrot and roasted peppers.

For something hot and meaty then, apart from the ever popular shashlik and meat cooked on charcoal grills, there are stuffed vegetables that come in a variety of flavours, from meat to lentils.

Jerusalem-based Sephardim in particular have adopted Ottoman Turkish stuffed vine leaves filled with a mixture of meat and rice.

When it comes to supper, most Israelis pull in their culinary horns - although in the big cities there are restaurants serving everything from steak to sushi.

At home, however, they usually end the day with a light salad, possibly to ensure they have room for the next day's breakfast. This is the traditional Israeli way and if you stick to it then you too might lose weight without actually going hungry.

Israeli Salad

● Tomatoes
● Cucumber
● Onions, parsley
● Spring onion
● Bell peppers
● Lemon juice
● Salt and pepper
● Olive oil

● Wash the vegetables and peel the cucumbers.
● Slice and dice them on a cutting board. Remove and discard tops of the tomatoes and cores of the bell peppers.
● Combine the vegetables in a salad bowl and mix.
● Add olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Last updated: 2:08pm, February 25 2010