By Avigayil Kadesh
It’s an open secret that if you eat an “Israeli breakfast” you won’t need to eat lunch. And maybe not even dinner. Especially if you take along a doggie bag to pack up leftovers from the bountiful buffet-style morning meal that Israeli hotels – and many restaurants – are famous for.
Israeli breakfast is a culture unto itself. The usual items on the smorgasbord are eggs in several styles (more on that later), a variety of vegetable salads (chopped cucumber and tomato, for sure), smoked fish, hard and soft cheeses, fresh breads, yogurts, fruit, granola, blintzes, vegetable soufflés, pancakes or waffles. Coffee, tea and fresh juices complement the meal, while pastries are put out for dessert – if anyone still has enough room in the belly by then.
Why is the Israeli breakfast menu such a far cry from the standard American coffee, danish and/or cold cereal, or the meat-heavy Continental morning fare?
It’s all because of another Israeli cultural symbol, the kibbutz collective farm.
“You had two very divergent breakfast cultures in Israel, one of which came out of austerity -- the lachmaniya [hard roll] and leben [a type of buttermilk],” says food writer-historian Gil Marks, who relocated to Israel from New York in August 2012.
“The other came out of the kibbutz culture, because if you have a long day of manual labor ahead, you need a good breakfast and can’t get by on leben. They would have a rather extensive spread of whatever was available, and the Israeli hotels picked up on that.”
Most Israeli hotels maintain a kosher kitchen. Breakfast meat could not be on the menu, therefore, because the dietary laws prohibit mixing meat with milk. The kibbutz-style breakfast buffet offered a filling option for tourists who might otherwise miss their morning bacon and eggs.
Today, some of Israel’s non-kosher restaurants have put the meat back in the breakfast menu while sacrificing none of the traditional items. A prime example is Benedict in Tel Aviv, where you can have ham with your eggs Benedict.
The basics of an Israeli breakfast
According to Marks, the must-haves of an Israeli breakfast buffet include various flavors of yogurt, which replaced leben by the end of the 20th century; scrambled or hard-boiled eggs; rolls; cold cereals; and two kinds of hot cereal (daisa) -- oatmeal (though oats are not native to Israel) and semolina porridge.
“You’ll also have different salads, and North African-Mediterranean-Middle Eastern foods like shakshuka, which is usually the way the eggs are served,” says Marks, who provides his own shakshuka recipe in his award-winning Olive Trees & Honey cookbook.
This hot mélange of tomatoes, bell peppers, poached eggs and spices – sometimes called a cousin of huevos rancheros – comes in different styles. “If you see tomato sauce with eggs in it, it’s the classic one,” says Marks.
A more extensive smorgasbord may also include traditional Yemenite Sabbath foods such as malawach (fried bread dough) and jachnoun (malawach that gets rolled up and baked).
As for the vegetable soufflés, Marks explains that this dish is actually the Iberian-inspired pashtida, which is a cross between the Eastern European kugel and the French quiche.
“Pashtida should have some form of a crust, while kugel does not, although in Israel pashtida has made a comeback as a synonym for a quiche,” he explains. “So you will find at breakfasts different pashtida-quiches, and some European foods also show up, such as croissants and pastries as opposed to Middle Eastern burekas, which are also quite common.”
Not just for breakfast anymore
By the 1950s says Marks, Israeli restaurants began getting on the breakfast bandwagon.
This was a significant advance, because it meant that now the classic Israeli tourist breakfast wasn’t just for tourists anymore. Israeli residents call it just plain “breakfast” (aruchat haboker in Hebrew, meaning “morning meal”) and it’s often available all day long.
Google “Israeli breakfast” and you will find no shortage of recommendations for where to eat this all-important meal.
In Lonely Planet’s recently released “Food Lover’s Guide to the World,” Jerusalem’s Tmol Shilshom café was cited as a Top 10 spot for the world’s best breakfast, specifically for its shakshuka. “Don’t forget to ask for extra crusty bread to mop up the hearty sauce,” the guide advised.
Some other frequently recommended breakfasts in Jerusalem are served at Café B'Gina, Café Modus, Alice, Mamilla Café and Nocturno. In Tel Aviv-Jaffa, breakfast hot spots include Mazzarine, Loveat, Orna & Ella, Dr. Shakshuka, Café Arlozorov, Café Birnbaum and Cordelia.