World diet’s – Israel: What They Eat, How They Prepare and Eat It
AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY TOTAL POPULATION: 80.73 years
PERCENTAGE OF OVERWEIGHT ADULTS: 57.5 male; 57.2 female
PERCENTAGE OF OBESE ADULTS: 24.3 male; 16.2 female
MEAT CONSUMPTION PER PERSON (2002): unavailable
DIET COMPOSITION (PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL NUTRIENTS):
Israel lies at the center of the Middle East, the region where Europe, Africa, and Asia come together. Successive conquests and control by different empires have shaped the civilizations and cultures of the region, and the diversity of Middle Eastern cuisine reflects this history. The geography of the Middle East also plays a key role in its unique culinary traditions. With coasts, mountains, and deserts all concentrated in a small area, the Middle East produces a huge range of fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains, providing the basis for an extremely varied diet.
I’ve targeted Israel here because its cuisine reflects many of the best cross-cultural qualities of Middle Eastern cooking, with a few more thrown in for good measure. Even better, Israel is number thirteen on the CIA World Factbook’s life expectancy list, with an impressive average life expectancy of 80.73 years.
WHAT THEY EAT
It’s no surprise that Israel should have such a remarkably diverse cuisine, since people from so many corners of the earth have settled in the tiny country over the past sixty years. Israeli food is a delicious hybrid of Middle Eastern styles, with contributions from Europe, Russia, North Africa, and even central Asia thrown in. Increasingly and unfortunately, American imports such as pizza and burgers have also made their mark.
Israelis eat many different small salads and dips made from chiles, chickpeas, and garlic. They pair dips such as hummus and baba ghanoush with paper-thin pita bread, the flatbread eaten all over the Middle East. Falafel, or deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas, is another familiar main dish. Various grilled meats and lentil-based soups also play a big part in the country’s day-to-day diet. There really is no end to the variety of Israeli fare, which ranges from Iraqi pickled vegetables to Hungarian goulash.
WHAT’S IN IT
Among the most popular ingredients in Israeli cooking are tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, lemons, olive oil, dill, and parsley. These are used in all sorts of dishes, including those made with the following items.
Meat: Chicken is the meat of choice in Israel and the Middle East in general. Poorer families have traditionally used bones of other animals to flavor their soups and stews, since they cannot afford the meat itself. This trick makes for an inadvertently healthy way to get the flavor of meat without much of the fat.
Eggplant: This high-fiber, nutrient-rich vegetable has a meaty taste and texture and is high in potassium, manganese, vitamin B1, and chlorogenic acid (which might have anticancer, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties). Eating eggplant frequently can also lower cholesterol and improve cardiovascular health. In Israel, people eat eggplant grilled, stewed, fried, puréed into a dip (as in baba ghanoush), and pickled.
Turmeric: The bright yellow spice commonly used in curry dishes, turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties that can help cure ailments large and small, from healing cuts to improving cardiovascular health. Scientists are also studying the potential benefits of turmeric in treating Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, liver disorders, and depression.1 As if all that wasn’t enough, turmeric has also been shown to fight inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Mint: Mint, the most common herb in Middle Eastern cooking, is a great source of manganese and vitamins A and C. It is also used to soothe the stomach and relieve digestive distress. The phytonutrients in mint leaves might protect against cancer, asthma, and allergies.
Chickpeas, Lentils, and Fava Beans: In the Middle East, protein-rich legumes are eaten almost daily. A source of folate, manganese, and fiber, chickpeas can aid in regulating blood sugar and lowering cholesterol. Fava beans, which have similar nutritional properties, are eaten daily by a majority of the population. Lentils are another versatile staple.
Sesame Seeds: Sesame seeds are a nutritional powerhouse—high in manganese, copper, calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin B1, zinc, folic acid, protein, and linoleic acid (an unsaturated omega-6 fatty acid)—and Israelis eat them almost every day. Tahini, a peanut-butterlike paste of ground sesame seeds, is a key ingredient in hummus, which is arguably the most versatile food in the Middle East. Sesame seeds can also help lower cholesterol and prevent high blood pressure.
Raisins, Apricots, and Pomegranates: Middle Easterners frequently finish their meals with these antioxidant-rich fruits, which are used in all sorts of preparations.
Pita Bread: Pita, a type of leavened flatbread, is often eaten with every meal of the day. If you compare a pita pocket to a slice of white bread or a bagel, it’s hard to see any similarities between the two foods. The density is so different: pita is thin and hollow, with a fraction of the calories of even one slice of white bread and less than half the calories of a bagel (and twice the fiber).
Beverage of Choice: Coffee with Cardamom
The Israelis drink lots of coffee, with cardamom added for an extra twist. Cardamom, an herb in the ginger family, is also a popular flavoring in Indian food. Indians use cardamom in traditional ayurvedic medicine as a digestive stimulant.
Bulgur: Bulgur, a type of cracked wheat, is the basis of the popular Middle Eastern salad tabouli. Bulgur is a whole grain and high in fiber, which can lower the risk of certain cancers. Bulgur is also low in fat and very filling.
Yogurt: Lactobacillus and other “good” bacteria in yogurt are extremely beneficial to the digestive system. The high calcium content of yogurt helps build strong, healthy bones. In the Middle East, yogurt is often eaten unsweetened, in its pure form.
Greek, or strained, yogurt, called labneh in Israel, requires twice as much milk to make as traditional yogurt, but it has significantly more protein and less sugar, and it is much thicker (and more delicious).
HOW THEY PREPARE IT
With the obvious exception of falafel, very few dishes are fried in Israel. Most are grilled (think kebabs) or baked. Meat dishes are prepared with great simplicity, often grilled with a mixture of spices, with no fatty sauces added.
HOW THEY EAT IT
They cook at home.
Although vendors of street food such as vegetarian falafel and meat kebabs have always been a mainstay of life in Israel and the entire Middle East, until the twentieth century, sit-down restaurants were virtually unheard of. Even today, many families eat at home the vast majority of the time.
Cooking Oil of Choice: Vegetable
Coastal areas of the Middle East cook with olive oil, while wealthier segments of the population use ghee, or clarified butter. In recent years, however, cheap vegetable oils (more than olive oil) have become the most common cooking base—to the detriment of the population’s health.
They mix it up.
As I’ve already said, a wide range of nationalities and cultures are represented on just about every street and in every kitchen in Israel. Walk through any neighborhood, and you will encounter foods from Europe, the Balkans, North Africa, and the Arab Middle East. Israeli cuisine is a combination of these and other diverse influences.
HOW THEY BURN IT
Because Israelis are required to join the army at the age of eighteen, they establish a strong foundation of fitness early in their adolescence. They also return to basic training for one month every year through middle age.
Breakfast: Unlike in the West, where different types of food are eaten at different times of the day (eggs or cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, steak for dinner), people in Israel eat the same foods in different forms around the clock. Breakfast usually consists of leftovers from other meals. One example is whole wheat pita bread dipped in labneh (a thick, strained Greek-style yogurt), olive oil, or za’atar (a traditional Middle Eastern blend of spices). An Israeli might also start the day with hard-boiled eggs, slow-cooked fava beans, olives, or falafel. My all-time favorite Israeli breakfast isshakshuka, a dish of scrambled eggs stewed with tomatoes, garlic, onions, and spices. Delicious!
Lunch: In Israel, the largest meal of the day traditionally is lunch. A typical lunch might consist of a lamb stew made with onions, tomato paste, and eggplant, or shish kebabs (grilled meat served on skewers). Kebabs are typically a street or restaurant food, eaten on the go rather than in the home. Israelis also might have a falafel sandwich for lunch, or a pita stuffed with eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, and tahini.
Dinner: Historically, Middle Easterners ate only a light snack in the evening, but as the region has become more prosperous (and Westernized), more and more people have adopted our three-meal-a-day routine. A dinner might include stuffed eggplant and a chicken salad, with sides of rice, bulgur, or pita bread. In Israel, a soup followed by some form of grilled meat is common at the evening meal.
• Synthesize the best of what the world has to offer every time you sit down to eat. The diversity of the Israeli diet is a big part of what keeps Israelis so healthy.
• Try eating your sandwiches on thinner bread, such as pita. That way, you will get all the flavor and convenience of bread without all the calories.
• Go skinny-dipping! By learning to make your own vegetable dips, you can squeeze good nutrients into the busiest schedule.
• Eat at home more often. You will have more control over the content and size of your meals.
1. “Common Indian Spice Stirs Hope,” The Wall Street Journal, TK.