And I of course am no exception. This particular article is brought to you by me hyped up on Halva - a Turkish sweet made from tehina (sesame seeds) and honey. Sounds healthy, but tastes like candy. You can’t beat that. Perhaps I’ll stuff a few in my race jersey.
As a matter of fact, in the past 24 hours since I have arrived in Israel to race Israman (israman.shvoongtix.co.il), I’ve wasted no time punishing my fair share of Mediterranean cuisine. Hey, it’s supposed to make you live longer, right? Below, you’ll find eight highlights of my anti-aging Mediterranean face-stuffing adventures (and if you’re one of those newfangled Paleo, Primal, gluten-free, lactose-free style athletes, you may notice that it’s actually quite easy to pull of this type of diet here in Israel):
1. Falafel and Hummus
Falafel is simply fried balls or patties of spiced, mashed chickpeas - most often served in a pita, with pickles, tahina, hummus, cut vegetable salad and often, harif, a hot sauce. Variations include green falafel, which include parsley and coriander, red falafel made with filfel chuma, yellow falafel made with turmeric, and falafel coated with sesame seeds. I’ll personally eat falafel in any color. Of course, a similar mash of chickpeas is basically the Israel equivalent of peanut butter in America, Nutella in Europe or Vegemite in Australia: the almighty, spreadable hummus. Great in a pita or on a vegetable. Of you’re like me, just eat it by the forkful.
2. Salads Galore
Israeli salad is made with finely chopped tomatoes and cucumbers dressed in olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Variations include the addition of diced red or green bell peppers, grated carrot, finely shredded cabbage or lettuce, sliced radish, fennel, spring onions and chives, chopped parsley, or other herbs and spices such as mint, za'atar and sumac. Salads also include tabbouleh, spicy Moroccan carrot salad, marinated roasted red peppers, deep fried cauliflower florets, and matbucha. If you have never deep fried cauliflower, you must at some point try it - and yes, it still qualifies as a vegetable. At least, I keep telling myself that.
Here in Israel, a large variety of eggplant salads and dips are made with roasted eggplants. Baba ghanoush, called salat ḥatzilim in Israel, is made with tahina and other seasonings like garlic, lemon juice, onions, herbs and spices. The eggplant is sometimes grilled over an open flame so that the pulp has a smoky taste. Eggplant salads are also made with yogurt, or with feta cheese, chopped onion and tomato, or in the style of Romanian Jews, with roasted red pepper. I happened to have some fried eggplant last night, with a heaping serving of fresh yogurt on top. Dreamy.
Avocados are one of my favorite staples back home, and I consider avocados to be one of the healthiest fats on the face of the planet, right up there with wild fish, coconut milk and olive oil. So I was pleased to see them featured here in Israel as well. Israeli-style avocado salad, with lemon juice and chopped scallions, was introduced by farmers who planted avocado trees on the coastal plain in the 1920s. Avocados have since become a winter delicacy and are cut into salads as well as being spread on bread.
Israel is one of the world's leading fresh citrus producers and exporters, and more than forty types of fruit are grown in Israel, including citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and something called a pomelit, which is a hybrid of a grapefruit and a pomelo. You’ll also find bananas, apples, cherries, plums, nectarines, grapes, dates, strawberries, prickly pear (tzabbar), figs, persimmon, loquat (shesek) and pomegranates. Fruit is everywhere - and Israelis consume an average of nearly 160 kilograms (350 lb) of fruit per person a year. Based on outcries in the USA of fructose being the equivalent of poison, you’d think this would lead to a raging epidemic of obesity, but everyone I’ve seen walking the streets here in Israel is lean and fit - especially compared to America. So eat your heart out and grab a nice dried fig, Robert Lustig.
Fresh fish is readily available, caught off Israel's coast - and last night I had both pickled herring, and also a fabulous European sea bass at a restaurant on the boardwalk along the Mediterranean sea in Tel Aviv. My fish was served whole, in the Mediterranean style, baked in the oven, and dressed only with freshly squeezed lemon juice. Simple, yet super tasty. In Israel, fish are also eaten grilled, with or without vegetables, or fried whole or in slices, and served with different sauces. You’ll also find other versions of fish-based cuisine. For example, fish are braised, as in a dish called chraime, in which fish such as grouper or halibut is prepared in a sauce with hot pepper and other spices for Rosh Hashanah, Passover and the Sabbath. Other fish, like carp, are minced and shaped into loaves or balls and cooked in fish broth, such as the gefilte fish of the Ashkenazi Jews, who also brought pickled herring from Eastern Europe.
It hadn’t struck me how friendly Israel terroir is to wine until I had my first sip of an Israeli merlot and just about swooned. Most of the wine produced and consumed from the 1880s was sweet, kosher wine until the first winery in Israel was established in the 1980s - at which point wine complexity and the number of wineries went through the roof. Israeli wine is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, white Riesling and Gewürztraminer, and is now produced by hundreds of wineries in Israel, ranging in size from small boutique wineries to large companies producing over ten million bottles per year! Perhaps I’ll sneak a few bottles into my luggage.
The coffeehouses here are jam-packed. There is a huge coffee-drinking culture in Israel. Coffee is prepared as instant (nes), iced, latte (hafuḥ), Italian-style espresso, or Turkish coffee, which is sometimes flavored with cardamom (hel). Jewish writers, artists, and musicians who immigrated to Israel before the Second World War introduced the model of the Viennese coffee house with its traditional décor, relaxed atmosphere, coffee and pastries, and now cafés are found everywhere in urban areas as meeting places for socializing and conducting business. Most have outdoor seating to take advantage of Israel's warm Mediterranean climate.
Healthy. Flavorful. Colorful. Anti-aging. What’s not to love?
Want to replicate the experience back home? Try sprinkling some cardamom into your morning cup of coffee. Bake a fresh fish in the oven and sprinkle with lemon juice and sea salt. Venture into your local winery and see if they have an Israeli merlot. Toss back a few dried figs, plums or nectarines. Fry an eggplant, or better yet, deep fry some cauliflower. And by all means, see if you can hunt down some Halva. Or just come to Israel next year for Israman and get the full, flavorful experience.
So what’s your favorite part about Mediterranean cuisine? Leave your questions, comments, and feedback below.
Author Ben Greenfield runs the highly popular fitness website BenGreenfieldFitness.com, and is author of the brand new atlas of human performance and nutrition, “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life”. He was also recently named as one of the top 100 most influential people worldwide in health and fitness.