Letter from Israel: Chowing down on plants

Letter from Israel: Chowing down on plants

I was a vegetarian wannabe for most of my life, and when we made aliyah in August 2007, I grabbed the opportunity to take the plunge. Introducing myself as a vegetarian from the get-go would ease the dietary transition, I reasoned.

And I was right. Our new friends didn’t bat an eye; a fair number of them also eschewed meat. Dining out was never a problem, thanks to bountiful kosher dairy and fish restaurants in Israel. My husband supported my decision with the caveat that we continue serving poultry at our Shabbat table for those like himself who prefer it. So far, so good.

A couple of years ago, after doing extensive reading and video viewing about the cruelty and environmental damage involved in the dairy, egg, and fish industries – not to mention mounting scientific evidence of the dubious nutritional value of animal foods as they are produced today – I began a gradual shift toward veganism.

Cow’s milk and eggs were the first items to go, since I always found them repulsive anyway. Banishing cheese, yogurt, and butter from our refrigerator took some effort for me but it didn’t bother Steve, who hasn’t touched dairy in 30 years.

Like most people, I did not understand that animal-free cuisine encompasses a whole lot more than tofu. With the help of a nutritionist in my HMO and friends who share my sensibilities, I’ve learned to love tasty, nourishing, and satisfying legumes, grains, seeds, nuts, beans, and veggies that I’d barely heard of before. Millet was once what we fed the parakeet; now it’s on my plate along with amaranth, quinoa, bulgur, lentils, kale, goji berries, and other nutritional superfoods.

Choosing a restaurant can be tricky now. Most dairy establishments in Israel pile cheese on everything. Ironically, more plentiful vegan options are available in meat restaurants.

However, it seems that my dietary direction is shared by an increasing number of Israelis. Fed up with factory-farming horrors, unwilling to swallow the dairy lobby’s slick ad campaigns, some 200,000 Israeli residents (out of a population of 8 million) now identify as “tivoni,” or vegan.

Per capita, Israel stands at the forefront of a worldwide revolution toward a plant-based diet. Grassroots organizations such as Vegan Friendly are having an enormous impact on raising Israelis’ consciousness about what they put in their mouths.

As a result, amazing changes are afoot. (Amouth?). Due to popular demand, several café chains now offer vegan dishes or even a separate vegan menu. The Israeli Domino’s Pizza chain was the first in the world to offer vegan pizza. I’ve enjoyed a delectable portobello mushroom burger at Café Greg in Beit She’an, roasted-vegetable shakshuka (no eggs!) at Café Landwer in Jerusalem’s Cinema City, and a wonderful chickpea “omelet” at Aroma here in Ma’aleh Adumim.

I haven’t been there yet, but the Vegan Shawarma in downtown Jerusalem is a hit with my likeminded friends. The venerable vegetarian Village Green in Jerusalem has not only beefed up (sorry, couldn’t resist) its dairy– and egg–free options but also recently opened an all–vegan branch in Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv, always on trend, is brimming with vegan eateries. Unfortunately, most of them are not under the supervision of the Tel Aviv rabbinate, in part because few kosher diners are among their patrons. I hope that situation will improve as more keepers of kashrut voice their preferences for plant-based cuisine.

When we’re planning a trip, I phone ahead to make sure our hotel dining room will have tivoni options. They’re always happy to oblige, sometimes excessively so. During a November stay at a kibbutz hotel, for example, the chef insisted on making a few dishes especially for me, and I was plied with enough quinoa pilaf, tehina, and crudité for a week of meals. Soy milk, soy yogurts, legume and vegetable stews, and of course hummus usually are on hotel buffet tables.

A couple of weeks ago, a newfound cousin invited me to dinner in Jerusalem. I accepted her suggestion to meet at a sushi place because I knew its menu would have a variety of vegan options. When I walked in, the first thing I noticed about my relative was the Vegan Friendly tote bag slung across her chair. While munching miso soup and veggie rolls, we formed a kinship that goes beyond genetics.

The majority of Israelis will not be giving up their turkey shawarma, chicken schnitzel, and barbecued beef any time soon, so meat-eaters visiting Israel have no cause for alarm. But if you prefer plant foods, even for a meal or two, you have something yummy to look forward to next time you’re here.