The last guy I dated before moving to Israel was a goy from Long Beach. Though properly laid back for a Southern Californian, he never understood my Israeli obsession with breakfast. More than that, he was downright weirded out by my insistence on salad with my eggs. The first time I chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onion for my Israeli salad, he laughed at me. In the two years we dated, he couldn’t keep himself from throwing a thoroughly confused side-eye to the bowl of vegetables at our breakfast table.
It turns out the joke is on him. A global study published last year by The Lancet Global Health group, ranked Israel as the healthiest diet in the West, and the ninth healthiest diet worldwide. Israel even ranked higher than other nations with traditional Mediterranean diets, namely Turkey, Greece and Italy. The accolade was granted, in large part, due to the Israeli diet’s reliance on fresh vegetables, olive oil, fruit, and grains, and on only a moderate consumption of proteins. It’s as easy to be vegetarian in Israel, where hummus is a meal, as it is to keep kosher (though I ascribe to neither). Cucumbers are considered expensive at 5 shekel per kilo (less than $1.25/2.2 lbs). During this past High Holiday season, shortages in September sent tomato prices skyrocketing to a record 13 shekel/kg (about $1.50/lb), shocking and angering consumers. It’s hard to get upset after a trip to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda shuk, though, after growing up with significantly higher prices in Southern California.
Growing up in a secular Israeli household, I was raised with food rituals. Saturday mornings meant waking to a spread of cheeses, deli meats, Israeli salad, hummus, baba ganouj, various smoked and pickled fish (my mom’s Polish-born and Israeli-raised), and eggs. If my dad was feeling especially ambitious, eggs might have meant shakshuka, the baked egg dish which Tunisian Jews brought with them, and Turkish coffee, which my parents called café botz, or “mud coffee,” which isn’t precisely accurate. Decades later, while on base in the West Bank, I learned that if you ask for botz, you’ll get hot water poured over instant Turkish coffee. It’s not as good as the stuff made in a Turkish finjan on a stove, but both are thick enough to eat with a fork. With new studies claiming coffee can do everything from make you smarter to prevent premature death, it appears the Israeli breakfast is a bastion of healthy eating.
Merav Ceren grew up in Southern California, where she attended UCI and led the re-establishment of Anteaters for Israel.