Why it’s time to get the Israeli nut habit

In Israelis’ love of seeds and nuts there is a nutritional - and culinary - lesson for us all.

By Bernard Josephs, August 27, 2009

The taste of freshly baked sunflower seeds and roasted nuts, typically bought in 100g brown paper bags from kiosks, provides one of the greatest pleasures of Israeli street cuisine.

It is Jerusalem’s version of the hot chestnut men who used to ply their wares in the streets of London. Such is the demand among Israeli ex-pats in the UK that kosher stores and some supermarkets are now stocking seeds, known in Hebrew as garinim.

While plastic sachets of anaemic, unsalted sunflower seeds and pumpkin kernels are often marketed as whole food by health food emporiums, they bear not the slightest resemblance to the tangy garinim on sale in such places as Mehane Yehuda in Jerusalem.

There, on Friday mornings, crowds gather in front of stalls piled high with flavoursome seeds as well as salted almonds, pistachios, peanuts and (my favourite) cashew nuts.

Despite no sign of a shortage, there is much jostling for position at the head of the queue. An Israeli friend explained to me that a weekend without garinim is like Shabbat without challah.

Israel, said one nutritionist, probably holds the world record for seed and nut consumption. According to a study by the American Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 69 per cent of Israeli children regularly eat them compared with 10 per cent of their British counterparts. Sadly, most Brits use them as bird food.

So how does one tackle a mouthful of garinim? Firstly, accept that there is no polite way to do it. It is a tricky technique but the resulting flavour is worth it. Israelis crack the salt encrusted seeds between their teeth, fish out the soft kernel with their tongue and spit out the remainder. The true expert can do this while reading a newspaper or even holding a conversation.

The downside is that at football matches or when sitting on a bus it is not unusual to find yourself under fire from a salvo of expectorated husks. And small piles of discarded shells on the ground are a common sight.

You can always spot a new immigrant or a tourist. He is the one who is coughing and spluttering after swallowing the entire seed and shell rather than leaving unsightly litter.

Apart from the danger of annoying your neighbours by continuously cracking the seeds with your teeth, there are some less frivolous health warnings.

It can result in a sore tongue and other ailments because of the high salt content and, in some cases, it can have a laxative effect.

However, overall, nuts and seeds are a healthy nibble (assuming that is, you don’t have an allergy). Sunflower seeds in particular are highly nutritious and packed with healthy fats, protein, essential minerals and vitamin E — which protects against heart disease. They are also said to have cholesterol lowering properties.

Almonds too have some surprising benefits. American nutritionists say that chewing almonds increases the absorption of unsaturated fat and reduces hunger pangs.

Pasta with Sunflower kernels

Serves 4

● 225g tomato, spinach or plain spaghetti
● 3 chopped parsley sprigs
● 3 minced cloves of garlic
● 1 tsp teaspoon grated lemon peel
● 8tbsp sunflower oil
● half a teaspoon each of salt and pepper
● 75g grated Parmesan cheese
● 60g roasted sunflower kernels.

● Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions and then drain in a colander.
● In a small pan heat the parsley, garlic and lemon peel along with the oil for one minute.
● Season to taste with salt and salt and pepper then pour over the pasta.
● Add the Parmesan cheese and sunflower kernels and toss lightly before serving.

Last updated: 12:00pm, August 27 2009