Diced cucumber, tomatoes and peppers — the ingredients that conjure up the classic Israeli salad. And if anywhere is known for its love of munching on raw vegetables, it is Israel. Tel Aviv’s cafes serve up huge bowls of lettuce accompanied by cheese, fish or pulses, and the kibbutzim across the country have always provided a fully stocked salad bar in their dining rooms.
And while the rest of the world may enjoy cereals and toast in the morning, Israelis opt for a melange of raw vegetables for breakfast — with the obligatory cottage cheese.
Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi has virtually made a career out of salads, running a successful restaurant chain in fancy London locations serving large platters of colourful vegetables.
So why have Israelis developed such a fondness for the crunchy, vitamin-filled foodstuff?
One man may have the answer. Doron Atzmon, who runs the popular eaterie Minkie in north London’s Kensal Rise, hails from Jerusalem and used to own the famous Underground bar there, as well as a several other Mediterranean-style restaurants, before he came to the UK six years ago and opened up his deli-style cafe.
“First of all, Israel has the right climate for growing beautiful fruit and vegetables,” he says. “And nobody’s into greasy food. It’s not because we’re healthy, it’s just that salads are a bit more fresh which is good in a hot climate. For me, there’s nothing better than a bowl of salad with chopped up tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Everything is so crispy and fresh.”
The 40-year-old Atzmon admits his own breakfast of choice is indeed salad with cottage cheese (although he prefers the kind he used to get in Israel).
His favourite dish is the small chopped salad made with Israeli mini cucumbers that have fewer seeds, along with peppers and tomatoes. “All the juices of the vegetables mix together with the olive oil and lemon which I add,” he says.
Atzmon says the big thing in Israel right now is the street food sabich, which is pitta bread filled with aubergine, hard-boiled eggs, pickled cucumbers, hummus and tahini — originally a traditional Iraqi-Jewish dish eaten on Shabbat morning. The other fashionable street food in Israel is the fruit smoothie. “Like sabich, it’s quick to make, so vendors have a quick turnover,” he explains. “It’s also fashionable to eat healthy stuff, which is why they’re popular. With fresh juice, you can’t go wrong.”
Atzmon talked about how to make Israeli salads and dips at a recent event called A Taste of Tel Aviv, organised by the Jewish Community Centre for London.
He showed guests how to make the classic Israeli dip, green tahini — with lots of parsley — which he says is best eaten with fluffy falafel. He also demonstrated how to make hummus and his special brand of aubergine dip or babaganoush, made with pomegranate.
The Classic Israeli Salad Dips
3 cups sesame paste (tahini)
3 cloves of garlic
Big bunch of parsley
1 cup lemon
1 cup water
½ tsp salt
● Remove leaves of parsley from stems. Put everything, apart from the tahini, into a processor and mix at high speed for 4m. Reduce speed and pour in sesame paste until creamy.
2 cloves of garlic — finely chopped
¾ cup lemon
½ tsp salt
2 cups sesame paste (tahini)
1 bunch of chopped parsley
● Pierce aubergine in several places and then cover in foil paper (shiny side facing in).
● Place in oven at 220°C for 2 hours. Remove from oven and let them cool down.
● Meanwhile, finely chop the parsley and remove the pomegranate seeds from their shell. To do this, cut the pomegranate in half.
● Hold the half shell in your hand over a bowl with the exposed side of the pomegranate facing into the bowl. Tap the shell vigorously with a large spoon and let the seeds all fall out, leaving the pith inside the shell!
● Then peel off the aubergine skin and place the now very soft aubergine in a bowl along with the lemon juice, garlic and salt.
● Mash this together and then add the sesame paste slowly till you get a smoothish texture.
● Finally, add the chopped parsley and pomegranate seeds to the mixture and stir gently.