The country of Israel, with a population less than that of New York City, has the largest number of vegans per capita of any nation on earth. The Happy Cow website shows over 150 veg- friendly restaurants in the city of Tel Aviv alone. You can imagine how excited I was when my husband and I booked a trip to visit relatives in the vegan holy land. I was so energized that I atypically volunteered to write about my experience for the MSVA blog. My goal for the trip was simple: devour fabulous vegan food, photograph it, and write about it for this post.
After landing in Israel, we drove to meet my husband’s family for dinner at Halil, a typical Arab/Israeli restaurant in the city of Ramle. All entrees come with a bevy of vegetable salads to stuff into pita. While my family dined on their schwarma, I had my fill of the salads. My plate overflowed with eggplant, eggplant salad, chopped Israeli salad, sliced spicy carrot carrots, soft pillowy pita bread, and of course, large servings of hummus and tehina. (Side note: by the end of the trip I had eaten so much hummus and tehina that my veins began to course with the dips.) This was a great start to my Israeli vegan voyage.
Most of our in time in Israel was spent in the northern central district of Israel in the communal farming village (better known as a Kibbutz) where my husband grew up. About 5 miles from the kibbutz is the small town of Pardes Hanna-Karkur. A quick Happy Cow search yielded at least 6 veg-friendly eateries, and we chose Café Karkur for lunch. After trying to decipher the menu in Hebrew I ordered kabobs made from organic lentils and root vegetables served on top of mashed root vegetables.
I washed them down with a warm beverage made from ground date pits and soymilk. Afterwards we wandered a few feet away to peruse the health food store from which the Café takes its ingredients. Among the many vegan items for sale were vegan cheeses, vegan egg yolk, The Vegg baking mix, frozen vegan omelets and a variety of flavored seitan products. As in most stores and markets in Israel, all kinds of dried fruits, nuts and beans abound.
I was curious as to why such a small town would have so many vegetarian restaurants and health food stores. The owner of Café Kakur explained that the town was the site of the first Democratic School in Israel, a school where students set their own curriculum. This type of alternative schooling attracted people who were open to alternative lifestyles such as veganism. Thus, the tiny town of Pardes Hanna is a must visit for any vegan touring this part of the country.
Domino’s has a location in Netanya, which is also close to the kibbutz. I insisted on stopping there one evening. Although not the cleanest of establishments, my curiosity got the better of me and I ordered a pizza with mushrooms and olives. It was fine, but truthfully, I could eat a shoe topped with Israeli olives and still be happy. With that said, I much preferred the pizza at Pizza Olio in Pardes Hanna. The Pizza Olio crust was thin and crispy, topped with soy cheese, red onions, and those Israeli olives which make me want to sing. I’ve included a picture of it, but as you can see, I was so anxious to eat that I forgot to take the picture of the pizza until I had already dug in.
After eating at quite a few primarily veg-heavy restaurants, I decided to let my husband choose a restaurant. I was not worried about going hungry, as hummus, tehina and an assortment of salads are literally on every restaurant menu in Israel. We stopped in at Sammy B’Kikar, near the city of Hadera, and while my husband ate meat, I happily dined on stuffed eggplant that was so good I am intent on recreating it in my own kitchen. It was stuffed with a spicy mixture of vegetables and topped with delicious tehina.
Our young server at Sammy’s mentioned contemplating a switch to a vegan diet, but said he just loved the taste of meat too much. I realize that everyone is on their own path, but I responded by saying something that I recently read. I told him that my body is not a cemetery for dead animals. Maybe he’ll come around, or maybe I was too brash.
It is incredible that so many people in such a small country are open to adopting a vegan lifestyle. One college-aged relative mentioned that most of her classmates are vegetarian or vegan, and those who are not are often too embarrassed to admit it. My 28-year-old nephew suggested that Facebook and social media have played a large role in promoting the vegan message among young people. I asked a group of vegan protestors who we happened upon one day why so many Israelis were shifting to a vegan diet.
One responded that in her opinion Israelis are particularly sensitive to abuse and torture because of the Holocaust. In fact, some Survivors themselves have equated the beef and dairy industries with the Holocaust. (You can read more about this message invoking similarities between eating animals and the Holocaust by looking up Alex Hershaft and Gary Yourofsky.)
Other very satisfying vegan faire I ate in Israel included:
The Expresso Bar at Mishmar HaSharon. I ordered vegan Shakshuka. Shakshuka is usually made with poached eggs, but this one was made with eggplant, cauliflower and garbanzo beans in a tomato base.
Café Turkiz in Beit Itzhak: Of the three vegan choices on the menu I ordered the lentil burger with sides of quinoa and tehina. It was burnt but yummy. (the smell and taste of burnt food is one of my idiosyncrasies) Our waiter offered to take it back but I decline his offer.
I also want to mention that there are fresh fruit juicers on corners all over the country. Our favorite was the fresh pomegranate juice.
Besides finding amazing vegan food, I also found many options for cruelty-free accessories, and I purchased a cloth handbag.
During my two-week stay in Israel, I fulfilled my objective of stuffing myself with delicious Middle Eastern vegan cuisine, and had many stimulating conversations about a plant-based lifestyle with vegans and non-vegans alike. I realize that Israel is a hotbed of controversy, and that some people have very strong feelings about its politics. One thing is indisputable, however: vegan food in Israel is aplenty and delicious.
Barbara Ravid, VLCE, holds a Masters in Nutrition and is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She is a member of the Vegetarian Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Barbara words full time with patients with kidney disease. She is currently volunteering with the SoCal Vegfest to be held on November 1st in Costa Mesa, California. For more information: SoCalVegfest.org.