Israel went to the polls on Tuesday the 17th September. It was the second election in 2019 and when Israelis woke the next morning, they were uncertain what they woke up to and if they were sure, it was distasteful.
Far more palatable than the news was the breakfast, frequently voted one of the healthiest in the world.
By David E. Kaplan
“Oh, your Israeli breakfasts are the best!”
How often do we hear this praise from visitors abroad? It’s often the first notion that comes to mind when they think of Israeli cuisine. In a world today conscious of “what we eat”, the Israeli breakfast has earned the reputation of meeting the concerns of health and diet far more than its counterparts abroad, with its emphasis on seasonal fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, and dairy products renowned for its tasty variety as well as low fat content.
Most top hotel chefs in Israel will tell you: “A traditional Israeli breakfast is fresh, healthy and wholesome; this is why it’s so popular with our overseas visitors who are not only looking for a substantial meal to begin the day but a healthy one.”
So before feasting your eyes on the sights, set your sights on a wholesome Israeli breakfast
Fresh from the Fields
The origin of the traditional Israeli breakfast is imbedded in this young nation’s recent past and tied to its rural landscape. To avoid much of the hot day’s sun, Israel’s pioneer farmers on the kibbutzim (collective agricultural settlements) would go out into the fields way before the crack of dawn, and then after a good few hours of toiling, return to the chadar ochel (communal dining hall) for a hearty breakfast. What awaited these hard-working laborers with raving appetites were usually fluffy omelets or boiled eggs, fresh salads made with cucumbers and sweet tomatoes, hummus, eggplant, salad, pita and other breads and homemade jams. Little did they realise at the time that with each mouthful, they were forging a nation’s cuisine!
A recent publication went so far as to refer “the Jewish state’s contribution to world cuisine” was none other than the “Israeli breakfast”.
Rich in history, the Israeli breakfast was born in poorer times. In the pre-and early days of the State, the kibbutz breakfast meant a hard roll and a scoop of leben — a liquidy and sour Mideast yogurt. But kibbutz agricultural laborers needed a heartier start to their day, so the communal village’s kitchens began putting out a spread with whatever they had on hand, such as fresh vegetables, fresh juice, eggs, bread, milk and other dairy products.
It was a simple meal but compared to what most folks living in the cities and towns ate at that time, it was a meal ‘fit for a king’.
Feeding a young nation was an arduous task.
The years between 1948 – the year of independence – and 1951, witnessed the largest immigration ever to reach the shores of modern Israel. Some 688,000 immigrants came to Israel during the country’s first three and a half years at an average of close to 200,000 a year. As approximately 650,000 Jews lived in Israel at the time of the establishment of the state, this meant in effect a doubling of the Jewish population. It also meant a lot of mouths to feed in a state saddled with security concerns and a struggling economy. The availability of produce was limited, and food was rationed. These were the days of the Tzena (Hebrew for “austerity”) and citizens received coupons for food.
Life under austerity was not easy. The Ministry of Rationing and Supply created a “basket” of basic products, such as sugar, oil, bread and margarine, which could be purchased only in authorized stores.
Coupon books allocated the type and amount of food to be consumed and people stood in line for hours to obtain with no guarantee that the produce was available.
A child of an immigrant recalls that when his parents immigrated to Israel from Poland after World War II, the family was allotted one egg a week. Half-jokingly he records that “I was a little upset when my baby brother was born, because I was no longer given that precious egg!” There was literally, a ‘new kid on the block’ and “my brother needed the egg more than me.”
And he was not egg’aggerating!
The situation was so dire that when someone from the city was invited to the kibbutz for a visit, it was considered a vacation – not only because it was a chance to escape ‘the madding crowd’ of the city, but because the offering was better and bountiful.
From ‘King’ to Kibbutznik
However, by the mid-1950s, “what was once a typical kibbutz breakfast had emerged into a traditional Israel breakfast served in hotels the length and breadth of the country,” explained former South African Arnie Freedman, a veteran member of Kibbutz Yizreel in central Israel near Afula. As Israel’s hotel industry developed, it turned to the kibbutz for inspiration for breakfast. There was good reason – If the reference to kibbutz food had once been “fit for a king”, the phrase had morphed into “fit for a kibbutznik” and the image of the kibbutz had impacted upon Israeli culture beyond its socialist ideology into the realm of cuisine.
While many kibbutzim today no longer have a communal dining room, this is not the case with Kibbutz Yizreel which remains traditional in every respect, “including our sumptuous daily breakfast,” says Arnie.
Before returning to work, the members were streaming in, taking trays and helping themselves from the buffet. There was a variety of cereals, yogurts, scrambled and boiled eggs, breads rolls, fish, a variety of cheeses, hummus, tehina and all different kinds of salads and fresh fruit, all picked from the kibbutz. An hour later, well satiated, they were well ready to return to getting back on their tractor, climbing a ladder to pick oranges or sitting at their computers at Maytronics, the kibbutz’s highly-successful manufacturer of robotic swimming-pool cleaning equipment.
Where’s the beef?
Any seasoned traveler to Israel is familiar with the major difference between an Israeli breakfast and those elsewhere in the world – No meat.
In accordance with the Jewish laws of Kashrut (keeping kosher), meat and dairy ingredients are never served together in a meal. The Israeli breakfast is thus a dairy meal, and a variety of cheeses are offered. Fish is considered pareve and so is permitted, and herring is frequently served.
Other smoked or pickled fish dishes are also common, including tuna and salmon.
Egg dishes are almost universal, which may be pre-cooked or cooked to order. The Middle Eastern egg dish shakshouka, a spicy North African concoction of eggs poached in a tomato-pepper-onion sauce is a common choice. However, Jewish food writer and historian Gil Marks told ISRAEL21c that this iconic dish “is actually a latecomer to the already laden Israeli breakfast table.” The classic must-haves, he says, “are scrambled or hardboiled eggs, a variety of chopped vegetable salads, porridge, cheeses, fresh breads, plain and flavored yogurts, fruit and granola, washed down with fresh juice and/or coffee or tea.”
Other Middle Eastern dishes may include Israeli salad, hummus, tehina, baba ghanoush and the strained yogurt called labaneh.
While Hummus – the much loved, humble chickpea dip – is a vital part of the cuisine throughout the Middle East, in Israel, it may be served at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack times – it’s iconic.
No less iconic are the fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, radishes, onions, shredded carrots and a variety of olives – both black and green.
Enjoying an Israeli breakfast is one of the pleasures of a visit to Israel. Apart from the hotels, restaurants and small cafés will all offer one version or another of this famous feast.
Some places serve it throughout the day, so you can even have one for lunch or even diner.
Like Israeli salad, this breakfast is not locally called an “Israeli breakfast”. In restaurants and cafés it’s sometimes named after the establishment, or it is just called “breakfast”. But if you see a breakfast on the menu offering eggs, coffee/tea, salad, cheeses and juice – rest assured, it’s an Israeli breakfast!
Mouthful of Myths
The most popular day to eat an Israeli breakfast at a restaurant is on a Friday morning but as one American tourist once quipped: “Finding a table is like trying to catch the last flight out of Saigon!”
It is common counsel that if you eat an “Israeli breakfast” you might not need to eat lunch. However, this is one bit of counsel this writer is unlikely to chew on! Breakfast is breakfast and lunch is lunch and too many active hours separate the two.
If it is one o’clock then it is time for an Israeli lunch – it is different to an Israeli breakfast but that is another story!
Bon Appétit! or as we say in Hebrew: