An American becomes fluent in shakshuka, smoked fish, and neverending cheese
Last month, when a spur-of-the-moment business trip to Israel fell into my lap, I tried to bone up on the country fast. Basic tenets of Judaism? Check. Bars that are open on the Sabbath? Check. I even parsed the Palestinian situation and was prepared to divert any uneasy conversations about a two-state solution into a lighthearted forum on who had the best hummus in Jerusalem. I was as prepared as any guy who’d spent a long plane ride thumbing through Lonely Planet could be. I landed in Tel Aviv in the evening, scored some shekels from the ATM, and was soon tossing through a jet-lagged night in my swanky beachfront hotel. All as expected.
Yet when I stumbled into the hotel dining room the next morning, I realized that one vital component of Israeli life had flown under my radar: breakfast. Before me stretched the buffet of my dreams. One entire wall was lined with baskets of shiny oranges, grapefruits, apples, melons, pears, fennel, kohlrabi, radishes, and cucumbers. There were dried figs and dates. There were walnuts and almonds. I strolled past a counter of aged cheeses of a dozen different colors and pungency, then merged onto Dairy Row—vats of yogurt, labneh, cottage cheese, sheep cheese, goat cheese, feta cheese, and a mound of the yellowest butter I’d ever seen. I felt like Moses sighting the promised land. There was milk and honey. There were loaves and fishes—smoked fishes, pickled fishes, cured fishes, salted fishes, even taramasalata. Capers and lemon on the side.
There was weirdness, too. Platters of pizza. Pasta in cream sauce. Cheesecake, halvah, and piles of pastry. Baked sweet potatoes, roasted green beans, and potatoes au gratin, as if I’d stumbled into a Cracker Barrel.
Other sections (yes, sections) made it clear that I was in a Middle Eastern paradise. Vats of hummus and baba ghanoush. Stuffed grape leaves. A bowl of tahini sauce. Baked eggplant. Couscous. Tabouli. Mysterious green sauces. Roasted peppers in olive oil, tomatoes with thyme, an entire hotel pan of roasted garlic cloves, and ranks of tiny copper skillets of shakshuka—eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce, the closest thing Israel has to a national dish. But mostly there were salads. Bowl after bowl of Technicolor crunch. There was the ubiquitous “Israeli salad”—diced cukes and tomatoes tossed in olive oil and lemon juice—and right next to it, “Greek salad”—the same thing plus feta and olives. There was bright-purple beet salad, forest-green parsley salad, avocado salad, carrot salad, caprese salad, and arugula salad. The colors! It felt like I’d fallen into an Ottolenghi cookbook.
Juices were squeeze-your-own. Coffee was Turkish. A lanky guy at a counter was pulling shots of cappuccino at a rate that would have shamed a Seattle barista and dispensing them with both hands to dual lines of jittery patrons.
Needless to say, I overshot badly. Then I slogged my way through my first round of meetings. “Everybody overstuffs themselves the first couple of days,” my Israeli host commiserated. “You’ll get the hang of it by day three.” Or not, in my case. I felt a compelling need to give every dish its due. We kept staying at different hotels in different cities that offered some thrilling new variation on the theme of “everything.” (Except, of course, bacon, sausage, or any other meat, due to kosher proscriptions against mixing meat and dairy.) I was impressed and perplexed. When had an arid country started delivering the most bountiful breakfasts on the planet?
It all started, I learned, with the kibbutz movement of the early 20th century. Young Israelis founded collective farms throughout the countryside, raising all their own food in a challenging environment, and after a few hours of backbreaking labor, the kibbutzniks would gather midmorning and cover the farm tables with the fat of the land—the milks, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables of the farm. In the 1950s, the tradition caught on nationwide. Israelis eat their colors with a vengeance.
Thank god for that. My previous tangos with breakfast in Mediterranean lands had been dismal. In Rome you’re lucky to score a hard roll for your cappuccino. In Spain, any activity before 10 a.m. is deeply suspect. But Israel was different. And it changed me.
By the fourth day I’d learned to jettison the monotone morass of pastry and potatoes—a nap waiting to happen—but that still meant a plate of salads, followed by a plate of cheeses, then smoked fish, then baba ghanoush and hummus and olives and roasted peppers, and then a piping-hot skillet of shakshuka for a capstone. What to give up? Nothing seemed expendable. The naps came.
But as the days went on, I achieved clarity. The fish was a salt bomb. The mezzes would be coming at dinner anyway. More and more, I honed in on the salads. Eventually everything else fell away, and I became a salad junkie. Not wimpy little side salads, but great heaps of salad that covered my plate and merged together like the hills of Jerusalem. I crushed it all, jaws pounding, and then I crushed the day, too. Salad for breakfast! Who knew? I felt full, wildly functional, and slightly stoned on vitamin overload.
Now that I’m back in the States, I confess to a full conversion. My unexpected pilgrimage to the Holy Land has left me preaching the gospel of greens. Why bury the salad after the dinner entree, like a declining Continental power? Why wait for dinner at all? Pounce on those veggies first thing, when your eyes open and greet the dawn. Breakfast should be a time of hope, of high standards, when the innumerable small catastrophes of the day have not yet occurred. Get that right, and who knows what miracles might follow.
Rowan Jacobsen is the author of Fruitless Fall, American Terroir, Apples of Uncommon Character, and other books. His newest, The Essential Oyster, will be released in October.