Before I visited Israel for the first time in 2011, I asked an ex-pat Israeli friend what she missed most about her native country. “The breakfasts. Definitely the breakfasts!” was her answer. Was she kidding me or just plain crazy?
Israelis take the most important meal of the day incredibly seriously. If you’ve ever been to Israel (and not stayed at a hostel or pilgrim house), you will know what I mean. I’ll never forget that first morning in Jerusalem’s Dan Panorama Hotel. The breakfast spread was simply overwhelming. Different from anything I’d expected. Delicious!!!! I fell madly in love at first sight, smell and taste. It was so different than anything I’d ever seen. So, what makes this meal so wonderful?
There are several different staple courses. First of all, because of the Kashrut rules (most Jewish people keep Kosher to some degree), the meal is dairy. No meat to be found anywhere at all. No bacon. No ham. No sausage. No meat. Fuhgeddaboudit!
We’ll start with the salad course. There are salads of every kind… not the typical American tossed salad, but chopped fresh vegetables, sprouts, nuts, grains, olives, and eggplant. The national food of this country, found at just about every meal is the Israeli salad: cucumbers and tomatoes diced finely and topped with olive oil, lemon juice, or tehine. There can be cherry tomatoes (did you know they were developed here first?) with cheeses and balsamic vinegar; sprouts with green onions, mushrooms, radishes, arugula and nuts dressed with olive oil;
quinoa salad with pomegranate arils, juice, green onions and feta cheese;
lentil salads; cold eggplant cubes in picante tomato sauce; smoked eggplant with garlic, pureed; carrots in vinaigrette; all types of cabbage salads; anything fresh, colorful and in season cut up and dressed is fair game. Avocado and hard boiled egg with sprouts and walnuts is popular here as are tabbouleh and fattoush. And the beet salads! Don’t get me started-
An Israeli breakfast is not complete without the dairy, namely wide variety of cheeses: cow, sheep, and especially goat-milk cheeses, both hard and soft. We have whole pieces of gouda, kashkaval, manchego, grana padana at our tables. There are the soft cheeses, like tsahoba (yellow cheese), emmental, and buttery emek cheese. Add to this feta: Tsarfatit and Bulgarit, which is a very salty feta. Cream cheeses; labaneh is a mainstay here – a thick cross between a sour cream and a yogurt, spread on bread, dolloped on salads, on eggs, on veggies and everything in between. A reason I gained so much weight in my first three years here. And yogurt – with fruit, with honey, with nuts, with granola, usually fresh goat yogurt. I eat this every morning. The darned delicious cheeses!
Fish!!!!! Lots of fish!!!!! Thank the Russians and Eastern Europeans for this course. There is always tuna fish – whipped into a mousse, plain, tuna salad (dark tuna is used – white unavailable here, so if you visit me, bring the Albacore!). Also included are assorted smoked fishes and pickled fishes – whitefish, sable, herring, salmon (lox), to name a few. Pickled herring with onions, herring in cream sauce. Fish. Fish. Fish (It’s not considered meat, so breakfast usually is the time to eat it).
I certainly hope you’re not full yet, because we are only getting started! Olives of all types (stuffed with almonds, lemon, chiles, garlic) and all colors. Of course humus. Lots and lots of humus and pita. Mix it into your salads (I have humus, cucumber and hard boiled egg chopped small every morning). Humus with a soft egg on top. Humus with gargarim (whole chickpeas), with olive oil and zata’ar spice, hot humus. It’s ubiquitous in Israel. And of course, there’s bread. Wholegrain. Pita. Dark flour breads. Flatbreads. Crackers. Sorry, but you won’t find Wonderbread here no matter how hard you try. There are lakhmaniot (little hand-held buns and breads) of all varieties. Just recently the American-Jewish bagel started making an appearance. The Yememites introduced Jachnoon, a tight roll of filo dough that is deep-fried and soaked in a sugar syrup, usually orange blossom flavored.
You won’t find pancakes or French toast here. Unhuhh. Nope. We have bourekas, another national breakfast food that is also a snack food. The boureka is found on every breakfast buffet, in every grocery store, and in bakeries. There are stores everywhere that sell only bourekas (I have my favorite place. If you come, we’ll go. It was one of the places my daughter, Liz, requested from her last visit, they are just that good!!!). They’re sold by the kilo. So the boureka came to us from Turkey. They are thin, fluffy paper-like filo dough pockets filled with savories like mushroom and onion, cheese, spinach and feta, potato. They come in bite-size and hand-held size. Some fillings are sweet with jams and fruit butters, some have nutella or chocolate centers. A popular variety is the pizza boureka, and they are all best eaten piping hot.
Would you believe, that the rabbinate (board of Chief Rabbis) ruled in 2013 that each type of boureka has to have a pre-determined shaped based on the filling (the triangular are dairy; the square are potato; semi-circles are mushroom; pizza spirals; fruit filled have open patchwork on top)? That way, people would not get confused? Oy va voy! I’m so confused…..
Are you ready for the eggs? Another national dish is shakshuka. There are several different takes on this, but basically it’s a mildly spiced tomato sauce with eggs cracked on top and cooked by the heat of the sauce. Sop it up with that hearty bread. Put a spoonful of white labaneh cheese on top.
I love chavita (khah vee tah), our version of an omelette. I’ll include the recipe at the end. For those who want breakfast to go, try sabikh. It’s a warm, thick (think eating a cloud) pita stuffed with pieces of boiled potato, grilled eggplant, hard-boiled egg and tehine on top. And pickles. And Israeli salad. Sometimes fries. Serious food for starting the morning. Street food. Great breakfast.
Yes, there are fruits. All seasonal. Melons, fresh dates, figs, stone fruits, pomegranate, mango in the summer. In the winter dried fruits, stewed fruit compotes, citrus and apples. Sweets. Pastries and quick breads and cakes and rugelach. DO NOT LEAVE WITHOUT EATING THE HALVAH!!!!!! One of my favorites since I was a kid. Halvah is made of sesame seed paste and honey compressed to form a brick shaped bar of awesomeness. Flavors that are traditional are plain, chocolate, marble, pistachio, and espresso. Now you can get many different flavors (Halvah King, Mechane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem) like chile, passionfruit, whiskey, cherry….there are over 100 varieties!
I’m sure by now you’re thirsty. Very, very thirsty with all that salty cheese and fish, the humus and the halvah. Every Israeli breakfast comes with freshly squeezed juices. Max likes apple carrot. I prefer the lemon with fresh ground mint over ice or the orange pomegranate. John, well he sticks to plain old orange, which if you’ve ever tasted the Jaffa Orange isn’t so plain, nor is it old. Add tea or coffee. No Starbucks here. The coffee is usually a strong Turkish blend with cardamom. Or have it aufrukh, upside down, a cross between a cappuccino and a latte with lots of foam on top.
From the grand hotels to the small cafes, to the kibbutz or bed and breakfast, this meal is usually a big deal. The kibbutzniks used to work very long, hard days in factories or in the fields, and needed hearty fare to keep them going until the afternoon. Most all of the food was locally sourced, seasonal, and abundant. The Israeli breakfast has become this country’s gift to the culinary world. When people come visit, I serve a big breakfast. It’s how we roll now. Lunch here is a medium sized meal, or is grabbed on-the-go like falafel or shawarma. Many people have their breakfast early and lunch around 1:00-3:00. Shops, clinics, government offices close during the hottest part of the day so people can pick up kids from school, run errands and eat lunch. Dinner is usually a smaller, large snack affair… unless of course, it’s a special occasion.
But if you visit Israel, and I hope you do, make sure you sample Israeli breakfast at several different places. You’ll fall in love and never want to leave. That’s a promise!
GALILEE CHAVITA (serves 1)
- 1 large egg, cracked into a bowl and scrambled
- 2 TBSP raw red/purple onion minced very finely
- 2 Tbsp assorted fresh herbs, chopped very finely – Parsley, chives, and either thyme, oregano or basil are good.
- 1 tsp butter or PAM
- salt and pepper, to taste
Heat a small skillet sprayed with PAM or coated in melted butter. Pour the scrambled egg in and let sizzle. Do not mix!!!! you can tilt the pan a little bit, or move the edge a wee bit with a fork so extra runny egg will cover the pan, but just leave it to bubble and sizzle. Add the chopped onion and herbs all over the top. Turn off the heat and let the herbs and onion sit a bit. Season with salt and pepper. Can be folded in half and served as a sandwich between pita or bread. I like mine plain with a chopped Israeli salad and a ramekin of goat yogurt on the side. (The onions should keep their crunch)
SHAKSHUKA (my favorite recipe is Yotam Ottolenghi’s, serves 4)
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 190 ml olive oil
- 2 large onions, peeled and sliced
- 2 red & 2 yellow peppers, cored and cut into thin strips
- 4 tsp sugar
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 sprigs thyme, leaves plucked
- 2 Tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 1 bunch fresh coriander/cilantro, chopped
- 6 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
- pinch of cayenne pepper
- salt & pepper
- 8 eggs
In a large saucepan, dry-roast the cumin seeds on high heat for two minutes. Add the oil and sauté the onions for two minutes. Add the peppers, sugar, bay leaves, thyme, parsley, and two tablespoons of the coriander/cilantro, and cook on high heat to get a nice color. Add the tomatoes, cayenne, salt and pepper to taste. Cook on low heat 15 minutes, adding enough water to keep it the consistency of pasta sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning. It should be potent and flavorsome. Break the eggs into the pan (can split into four individual little skillets and crack 2 eggs onto each). Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover and cook gently on low for `10-12 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped coriander and serve with chunky bread.
When I have guests, I usually make this Broccoli Egg Cake, my version of Ottolenghi’s Cauliflower cake (not a cake at all). It keeps well in the fridge and can be enjoyed hot or cold.
Broccoli Egg Bake (serves 6-8)
- 1/2 cup basil leaves
- 1 bunch broccoli
- 1 red/purple onion
- 1/2 tsp rosemary
- 7 eggs
- 120 g/1 cup flour
- 1/3 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 150 g/ 1 1/2 cups grated gouda cheese
- 100 g 3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 75ml / 5 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 Tbsp sesame seeds
- 1 Tbsp nigella seeds
- 1 Tbsp butter
Preheat the oven to 180*/400*F.
Cook the broccoli in florets in a large pot of salted boiling water. Simmer for 506 minutes until the broccoli has softened a bit. Strain and run the florets under cold water. Drain well.
Cut 4 round slices off one end of the red onion. Set aside. Chop the rest. Place in a small pan with the rosemary and cook for 10 minutes over medium heat, until soft. Remove from heat and set aside.
Beat the eggs until light and fluffy. Add the chopped basil ribbons, flour, turmeric, salt and pepper. Mix until you have a smooth batter. Fold in the onion and cheeses carefully. Do not overmix! Add the cooled broccoli and fold in thoroughly. Do not break up the florets.
Line the base and sides of a springform pan (9 1/2 inch/ 24 cm) with parchment paper/ baking paper. brush the sides with melted butter. Sprinkle the nigella and sesame seeds on the bottom and sides so they stick to butter. Pour in the broccoli egg batter, spreading evenly. Arrange the onion rings in concentric circles over the top. Place in the center oven rack and bake for 45-50 minutes until golden brown, puffy, and set. Remove from oven and let cool before releasing from pan.