Why it's rise and shine for the Israeli breakfast

By Michal Levertov, June 19, 2008

The morning meal is now so fashionable that cafés are specialising.

The four 32-year-old men who sit down at Mattina, a restaurant in Tel Aviv’s picturesque Neveh-Tzedek district, on a sunny weekday morning do not hesitate much before making their choice.

Although the restaurant’s menu consists purely of breakfasts from around the globe, they immediately pick “The Israeli breakfast”: a mixed salad of fresh vegetables, a selection of soft white cheeses, three meze salads, bread and eggs — or “herb omelettes”, as specified by Aviad Levi, a lawyer from Tel Aviv. His friends — lawyer Lior Aharon, real-estate agent Shay Lugasi and restaurateur Menni Moshe — choose the same thing. The four boyhood friends are here to celebrate Moshe’s wedding morning. Breakfast is a social event, they explain: “a privilege kept for a day off”.

Were that the case, then judging by the new wave of successful Tel Avivian restaurants solely based on breakfast menus, one might surmise that everybody here is on a permanent holiday. Or it might be that the breakfast is simply enjoying a huge comeback.

“The breakfast has never gone anywhere,” insists Yair Kindler, one of the owners of Benedict, which offers a 24-hour breakfast menu. But today, he suggests, “breakfast is about lifestyle, leisure and a high quality of living”.

Kindler confirms that the most popular dish in his restaurant is the Israeli breakfast, “because it’s the most familiar item on the menu. But we notice that with time, people try out the more special meals.”

In order to ease the path to novelty, Benedict has adjusted worldwide traditional breakfasts to the Israeli peculiar taste. The eggs benedict are served on a brioche, instead of on the smaller, customary muffin, and Benedict’s English breakfast is spiked with onions and mushrooms.

Mattina’s owner, Zion Fargon, believes that reason for the lasting popularity of the Israeli breakfast lies in its image as healthy and balanced — an assumption he feels compelled to contradict. Sure, he reasons, no Israeli will give up the piles of freshly cut vegetables, “but the dressings often contain mayonnaise, most cheeses are of more than 30 per cent fat, and no one I know ever skips the pastries basket”.

The volume of food characterising this beloved meal, he implies, should also be taken into consideration: “Israelis love to eat with their eyes.” However, he adds that the generous portions are seldom fully eaten.

Later, in Mattina’s cosy courtyard, Aviad Levi offers a more blatant explanation of the Israeli desire for the blended dish. Not only is the Israeli breakfast “among the best breakfasts in the world, but it is also the most gargantuan”.

Levy refers not merely to the trendy restaurants’ breakfast recipes, where additions such as jam, honey, chocolate or halva spreads are already a must. Nor does he just point to the alcohol cocktails served when the meal is called “brunch” — usually on weekend menus. He puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Israeli hotel breakfast.

Gadi Priwer, general manager of Fatal Hotels, Israel’s biggest hotel chain , would rather describe the Israeli standard for a hotel breakfast as “famous for its variety”. Foreign tourists, he reports, “faint” at the sight of the overwhelming buffets.

Fatal’s Israeli breakfast consists of  “dozens of cheeses, more than a dozen salads, eight to 10 hot dishes of pies and omelettes, over 15 types of bread and pastry, olives and pickles, different types of smoked fish, fruits, cereals, pancakes, jams and juices, hot beverages and 10 different dairy deserts”. 

Professor Aviad Kleinberg from the department of history at Tel Aviv University, and the editor a book titled A Full Belly: Rethinking Food and Society in Israel, says that this is a far cry from the pioneers’ original version of a suitable Zionist breakfast — locally grown vegetables, simple cheese, boiled egg and a slice or two of state-subsidised bread.

“It’s unclear when the pioneers came up with this dish,” he says. “But clearly, in the 1930s, it was already there. It was simple food, designed for working people and based on local products.”

This was an ideological statement of a society which inspired hard work, a simple life and a deep connection to the land: “It used to be a promptly made meal, stating: ‘We don’t make a fuss out of food,’ as well as ‘We stick to this land’s ingredients.’”

But, Kleinberg points out, “With time, the more prosperous that Israeli society became, the more its breakfast swelled into a kind of an exaggeration.”

Make a perfect Israeli breakfest

The key to a perfect Israeli breakfast is not the preparation, which is simple, but the ingredients. Make a finely chopped tomato-and-cucumber salad only with vine-ripened tomatoes, preferably from the Mediterranean and preferably small Israeli-style cucumbers. Season with salt and pepper, olive oil and lemon juice. Add a hard-boiled free-range egg, a dollop of cream cheese, cottage cheese or both, and a hunk of crusty bread. A glass of freshly squeezed orange juice is recommended.

Last updated: 3:57pm, June 23 2008