On Facebook, a closed group called Challenge 22+ has many youngsters in Israel sending requests for membership for a 22-day guided tutorial on how to turn vegan.
“But not everyone qualifies,” says Tel Aviv-based food blogger Adi Cohen Simantov. In her early 40s, Simantov turned vegan a couple of years ago after joining the group, and now organises vegan cooking workshops in the bustling metropolis. “There are dieticians and experts who address any question you may have, but the network is very selective about who they let in. The shift towards eating vegan in the country has found strong adherents in the new generation, mostly for ethical and humane reasons,” says Simantov.
During a visit to Tel Aviv a few weeks ago, Simantov took us to Nanuchka, a vegan fine-diner serving Georgian food. The conversation soon veered towards the growing trend of veganism in the country. “Tel Aviv is at the centre of the vegan world. Every restaurant here has at least a couple of vegan options for each course,” she said.
But at Nanuchka, the options were endless. We were served pchalli (a combination of seven Georgian salads), kartufillani (pastry filled with potatoes and served with eggplant salsa), mushroom pirashki (dough stuffed with mushrooms) and vegan shawarma. For dessert there was chorche’lla, a traditional sweet dish from Tblisi. An enduring story here is about how the owner of Nanuchka, Nana Shrier, turned vegan to protest animal cruelty, and stopped serving meat at her restaurant from 2014. It was a brave step for an establishment that has been around for close to 14 years. The guests apparently responded with enthusiasm. “In fact, that has become our USP now,” says one of the servers.
Tel Aviv now boasts of over 400 vegan-friendly restaurants, of which a dozen are completely vegan — more than any in any of the big world cities. Cooking workshops teaching youngsters how to rustle up elaborate meals without using dairy or meat are also on the rise. Tel Aviv-based Phyllis Glazer, an American-born food journalist and author of several cookbooks, now holds vegan cooking workshops at home. As she prepares a five-course lunch in her kitchen, Glazer says, “Veganism has become big in Israel over the last three to five years, mostly in reaction to the killing of animals, but also because it is considered healthy,” she says, “We have come a long way from four decades ago, when veganism was rare and vegetarian food was considered odd.”
Driving up north from Tel Aviv, towards Haifa, we made a stopover at Mitzpe Hayamim in Rosh Pinna, an upscale mostly-vegan resort atop a rocky mountain, surrounded by 1,500 hectares of man-made orchards, blossoming gardens and a large organic farm that provides fresh ingredients for the hotel’s kitchen and restaurants.
Chef Guy Lasnitzky, who puts together the vegan buffet at the hotel’s in-house restaurant for all three meals of the day, says that the place may be heavy on the pocket but is packed to the brim. “The guests here include those who want a detox vegan diet, pregnant women looking for a healthy holiday, and the ever-growing vegan population from Israel and parts of Europe and America,” he says.
Besides celebrity chefs like Glazer running cooking workshops in urban centres like Tel Aviv, some traditional households in the countryside have also opened up to teaching traditional vegan cooking to tourists. Amira, a 50-something housewife, who lives in Dalyat el Carmel, a quaint hill-town near Haifa, offered us cooking lessons and hosted us for lunch. It took her only about an hour to roll out five vegan Middle Eastern dishes using garden-fresh ingredients. A lunch comprising vine leaves, freekeh (smoked green wheat), tabouli, mnazaleh (eggplant and chickpeas in tomato sauce) and cauliflower sinye, besides stuffed eggplant and zucchinis — using simple seasonings like baharat spice mix (garam masala), tahini (raw sesame paste) and lemon.
Abigail Leichman, a journalist based out of Jerusalem, who has extensively written on the vegan movement in Israel, puts it in perspective.“Israel has a lot of groups that are active in educating people about eating vegan and about animal welfare. So if you want to turn vegan, you get a lot of peer support. Also, people here have realised that one can eat a totally plant-based diet that supports excellent health, while helping animals and protecting the planet”.
The local markets or shuks brim with fresh produce sourced from the farms; even Dominos launched vegan pizzas in Israel in 2013. Around 40 per cent of the population here in Israel has drastically reduced the usage of animal products. Another 8-10 per cent are vegetarians, while five per cent claim to be vegan, implying that the country has the highest per capita population of vegans in the world. Compare this to America, where only six per cent claim to follow a strictly vegetarian diet and less than three percent are vegan.
Incidentally, a week or two after returning to India, as we were trying to soak in the phenomenon of veganism in Israel, we came across a headline in the Jerusalem Post: “Veganism Set to Top Culinary Trends of 2018 With Israel at The Helm!” Yes, you bet!
The writer was in Israel at the invitation of the Israel Ministry of Tourism.