Thursday, November 13, 2008
Israeli Foods Not To Be Missed: The Israeli Breakfast
Israel is a bit of a ways from Chicagoland and its local food culture, but in just a few weeks, the second University of Chicago Birthright trip will be leaving for Israel. Among the highlights of last year's trip was the food. It is easy to eat well in Israel but I thought I'd add a little flavor to the obvious by providing a bit of history and background on some of the foods the students are likely to encounter or at least should be on the look out for.
The first meal of the day, the Israeli breakfast is a good introduction to the history and flavors of Israel. In the early 1900s, young Jews from Europe came to renew the ancient connection of Jews to the land of Israel. In a radical departure from the lifestyles most had known growing up, many tried their hand at agricultural work. Among the greatest innovations of these pioneers was the founding of kibbutzim, collectives where members lived together and worked the land. They would set out to the fields early in the morning in order to avoid the heat of the middle eastern sun and would return ready for breakfast with an appetite whetted by the exertion of hard labor. Breakfast was comprised of whatever came to hand, fresh vegetables and fruits, eggs, and olives. They learned from their Arab neighbors about making soft cheese and yogurt. Not concerned with the religious taboos against mixing milk and meat, it was nonetheless unlikely to find meat or poultry products. Meat was rarity in the pioneer diet and was unlikely to be squandered on the first meal of the day.
In the early years of the State of Israel (founded in 1948) food was heavily rationed and fruits and vegetables were not always easily available. Visitors to the kibbutzim could luxuriate in the lavish breakfasts that were served in guest houses open primarily to government workers. In the 1960s and 70s as the tourist industry grew, hotels looked to the kibbutzim for inspiration as they set out breakfast buffets for their visitors.
Today, the pioneer's dream of making the dessert bloom has come to pass. Fruits and vegetables are plentiful in modern Israel. Hotel breakfasts range from simple to lavish but generally remain faithful to the early kibbutz fare. Eggs, salads, cheese, and yogurt remain the centerpiece. The Arab cheeses like labneh are still favored but growing diversity of locally produced cheeses may show itself in a variety of cheeses; hard and soft, cow's milk and goat's milk. There is likely to be an ample bread basket, representative of the diverse culinary traditions that meld into Israel cuisine. It is common to find Russian rye sitting along side along side pita bread. The traditional Israeli salad, a mix of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, will doubtlessly be on show but it may be joined by any number of savory eggplant salads, as well as innovative vegetable mixes. Be sure to try out some of the local yogurt. As I will discuss in a future post, yogurt is a critical element of Israeli cuisine and no breakfast buffet would be complete without it. Of course, many hotels catering to tourists have added breakfast cereal to the menu and coffee and tea are always available as well.
So those who are traveling to Israel should begin their days well sated and filled with Israeli history and culture.
photo credit kosherfood.about.com, zeek.com, kibbut vered hagalil