A Veg Guide to Jerusalem
As you begin your spring and summer travel plans, many of you might be considering making your way to Israel. The first stop for many visitors is the Holy City, Jerusalem, a city filled with sights, entertainment, history and an undeniable spiritual power. Just soaking up all of the energy in this amazing place could take weeks. But you've got to eat too!
Jerusalem is a city of many restaurants, from the corner falafel stand to the fanciest of wine bars. You can find food from all over the world, and some of the freshest produce available anywhere. For a vegetarian or vegan visiting the city, eating can definitely be an enjoyable experience, while one that also offers its own unique challenges.
Food from the Land
The fruits and vegetables available in Israel are some of the freshest and most varied you will find anywhere in the world. Unlike the sparkling waxed produce you might buy in Western supermarkets, for Israelis, freshness and flavor seem to be more important than looks. The onions might still have some dirt on them, and the carrots might have a few bruises, but they are more than likely to be full of flavor. An additional perk of buying fruits and vegetables in Israel is that almost everything could be considered "locally grown," since most of the produce is from Israeli farms, and nothing needs to travel more than five or six hours to get to the market. Don't be surprised too if you find exotic fruits and vegetables that you didn't know existed.
Shopping for oranges in the Shuk
For those looking for organic produce, you might have to look a little further than the corner market. Some supermarkets do have a small organic section, and there are a few places that cater more to organic food shoppers than others. Nevertheless, at least in Jerusalem, there is not much of variety if you choose to buy only organic. There is however a growing movement in Israel of sustainable farming, and more easily available organic produce should be on its way in the near future.
Supermarkets also have many great vegetarian and vegan products, some of which are even difficult to find in veg and kosher-friendly places such as the US. Because of the need for non-dairy foods to eat with meat (so not to mix with milk), most stores have a few varieties of tofu, soy milk, tofu ice cream, Tofutti cream cheese and many varieties of parve or dairy-free candies. Many snack foods are also vegan including a very tasty parve version of Doritos, and many varieties of cookies. Just look out for the parve symbol and you will be surprised what you find. All supermarkets also have the Tivol brand of frozen products, including fake hot dogs, ground beef, chicken nuggets, and beef and chicken strips. While vegetarian and parve, all Tivol "meats" are made with egg whites and none are vegan.
The local health food stores also have the usual selection of vegetarian and vegan staples, such as fake meats and nutritional yeast. There is also a great brand of seitan and veggie burgers made by the African Hebrew Israelite community in Dimona. Fry up the seitan with the right mix of spices and you can make a pretty mean vegan shwarma! The health food stores are not hard to find around the city, and most neighborhoods have at least a small shop. Two of the best stores are Olam Ha'Teva-Nature World (65 Agrippas St.), a small shop near the Mahane Yehuda shuk and Zmora Organi (Yad Charutzim 5), a larger store with a great selection of vegan products and a small cafe with soups, and other simple hot meals.
Halvah at the Shuk-It's Vegan!
Make sure also to visit the Mahane Yehuda
shuk near the center of the city to get the experience of an authentic Israeli shopping street. For vegetarians and vegans, the shuk is the best place to get the freshest and cheapest produce and breads and also to try out the vegan (although still fattening) sesame halva from the "halva man". For those who eat dairy there is also a great selection of cheeses and deserts.
Right across the street from the entrance to the Shuk is the very nice Natural Choice Bakery, which has challot and other breads all baked without eggs, and a small selection of wheat and gluten-free breads.
Jerusalem For Vegans
For vegans, eating in Jerusalem can be a mixed bag. The biggest challenge is that while the existence of so many kosher dairy restaurants in the city is great for ovo-lacto vegetarians, they sometimes overdo the dairy meals and have only a few vegan dishes on the menu. There is usually cheese or eggs on the salads, cheese on the pasta, and even cheese on things that you would not expect. One popular dairy restaurant I went to had nothing at all cheese or dairy free on the menu, so I was left to order the asian noodle stir fry and ask the waiter to leave the feta off the top! Be warned that "dairy" means that fish can and will be on the menu, since kashrut includes this as a non-meat food.
Israel thankfully is also the land of salads, and at almost any restaurant you can choose from a selection of salads, which if not vegan, can be easily made so if requested. Make sure to try the traditional "Israeli Salad" a simple mix of cubed cucumbers, tomatoes and herbs in a light dressing. There are often also a few other vegan-friendly salads, with popular Middle Eastern flavors and additions such as eggplant, tehina and sesame seeds. Various pasta dishes are usually also an option as long as you ask the waiter to leave out the cheese.
With so many falafel stands and kosher restaurants in Jerusalem it seems like it would not be a difficult place to be a vegetarian or vegan. While it is true that you can most often get a cheese-free vegetarian dish at a meat restaurant, or pasta or salad at a dairy cafe, only a few places in Jerusalem serve anything specifically catering to vegetarians. Yes, spicy fried garbonzo beans in pita, or a traditional cucumber and tomato salad can be a great veggie meal, but eating it everyday can become a bit tiresome. Luckily for us there is...
The Village Green
This large and popular vegetarian restaurant is located on Jaffa Street (#33), a few blocks from the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. Possibly the most interesting part about the Village Green experience is how it has become a meeting place for "Anglos," the Israeli term for English speakers. On most days, the majority of clientele are from the US, Canada and Britain, and if you didn't look out on to the bustling Middle Eastern scene in front of the restaurant, you might assume you were simply in a nice Kosher cafe in Manhattan. While most restaurants in Jerusalem have English speaking employees, on busy days at the Village Green they often assume that you are an English speaker and will break out with a "Can I help you?" before you can even say "Shalom"!
The food in the Village Green is served "cafeteria" style, and there is both a hot and cold salad bar in addition to main dishes and soups. While the menu does not change very often, the food is always fresh and well prepared. There is a selection of vegetable and tofu pies, quiches, lasagna and pizzas (with cheese and without) and a few soups, including a very good split pea and a filling lentil soup. In the salad bar, in addition to the requisite fresh vegetables, there is a nicely spiced baked tofu, crispy roasted garlic, a few Israeli style mixed vegetable salads, and a simple hot mock chicken and tomato dish. When you near the end of the salad bar line you can also choose from a selection of pies, cakes and cookies for dessert, including a very tasty vegan chocolate pie. Bread and rolls are free with your meal. (Many years ago the restaurant had a "take your own" bread section farther away from the cashier, where you could choose from a few different loaves of bread and slice your own. They had to move the bread and begin handing it out since too many people were taking the bread home with them!)
Overall, the food at the Village Green is somewhat basic, and there are no extraordinary dishes on the menu. Nevertheless, the home-style food is always fresh and tasty, and the restaurant is a welcome addition to a city with with only a few authentic vegetarian eateries. The price can be a little high, especially if you choose the main dishes--so to save some cash, it is best to stick to the salad bar.
For both omnivores who want an English friendly place to meet over lunch and for vegetarians in need of some good familiar dishes, the Village Green is a welcome addition to the Jerusalem eating scene.
Slightly more fancy than the Village Green with a nice selection of very unique vegetarian dishes, Teenim is the only other "sit-down" vegetarian restaurant in Jerusalem. The restaurant is located in the Confederation House cultural center (12 Emile Botte) with quite possibly the best view of any vegetarian restaurant in the world: overlooking the walls of the Old City and the Jerusalem hills in the background.
On the menu is a small selection of soups, simple appetizers and dishes inspired by many different world cuisines. Highly recommended are the tofu dishes, and the uniquely flavored vegetable stews and pastas. Wine is also available to sip as you look out the window at the amazing view.
See above for a description of this small cafe/health food store.
Of course everyone who visits Israel knows about this ubiquitous vegetarian sandwich, sometimes called the "official" Israeli food. Take a two minute walk down any street in Jerusalem and you will most likely find a falafel stand--some of the smaller shops sell only this vegan sandwich, and others sell the also famous, but not-so-vegetarian shwarma (a slow roasted, fat dripping meat, sliced from a giant twirling hunk of flesh and put in pita...yum!) Like any food, there are good falafel stands and there are better, but only a few falafel places in Jerusalem are really bad. If you find one please let me know--I'd like to try it.
What makes a good falafel? Depending on who you ask, it could be about many things. Some say that a good falafel sandwich must be made up of crispy and light balls, with just the right amount of salad and hummus. Others say the balls must be not too salty or bitter, with just a hint of spiciness to round out the flavor. And there are those who don't really care at all--as long as the falafel is served quickly and is filling.
Most of the falafel shops in Jerusalem are certified kosher, however this does not mean that all have the same level of cleanliness. In some of the areas popular among tourists, the stands can be spotless with nicely organized salad bars, where you can choose your own fillings for your sandwich. Other shops have counters that need wiping and well-used fryers caked in oil. Additionally, while one could assume that the falafel "guys" wash their hands on a regular basis, it is rare to see one actually do so, and between taking cash, chopping the cucumbers and opening up the pita before putting the balls inside, sometime it is best just not too look where their hands have been. Beware especially of the pita "masseuse" who puts his hands inside the pita and gives it a little massage before putting in the falafel balls. At least the bread feels relaxed...
For picky vegetarians and vegans (of which I count myself as one of them), there is also the issue of shared shwarma and falafel shops. Many of these places use the same tongs to take meat from the shwarma hunk and to pick up the falafel balls. Sometimes you can also see them mix the spoons for the salads, and use them for both shwarma and falafel. If meat "cooties" is an issue for you, try to go to the falafel-only stands, or those places that have separate areas for meat and veggies.
One of the best parts about eating falafel is that you can make a simple sandwich unique by adding your own fillings. At most falafel shops you can choose to add cabbage, pickles, harif (spicy sauce) and chips, the Hebrew term for french fries. (Why french fries became a popular add-on to falafel is a mystery. I guess someone decided falafel was not fattening enough on its own.) The falafel filler will usually ask you what you would like in your sandwich, or you sometimes can fill your own. For helpful falafel vocabulary see below.
With so many falafel stands in the city and so many ways to make this vegan Israeli sandwich your own, it is easy to be overwhelmed. It is also easy to eat too much. While it is in theory, possible to eat a felafel for breakfast, lunch and dinner, this is not usually recommended. Or at least order the Diet Coke to wash it all down.
Useful Hebrew Phrases for Vegetarians and Vegans
I am a vegetarian - Ani tzimchoni (m)/tzimchonit (f)
I am a vegan. - Ani tivoni/tivonit.
Do you have something without meat? - Yesh l'cha/lach mashehu bli basar?
Without cheese please. - Bli g'vinah bevkasha.
Falafel with chips - Falafel im chips.
Stay tuned for vegetarian Tel Aviv!