Text size

The latest culinary trend will delight the part of population that until now made do with side salads and side dishes - vegetarians. Israel is joining the "meatless Monday" initiative, a not-so-new innovation wherein diners both at home and in restaurants refrain from carnivorous activity for one day a week.

The body responsible for the Israeli initiative and organization is the food magazine Al Hashulchan, which has enlisted more than 30 restaurants around the country where the chefs have committed to cooking a number of vegetarian options alongside the regular menu every Monday.

Among the restaurants participating in the project are Sushi Samba, Katit, Dallal, Bayit Bagalil in the Biria Forest, Muscat at the Mitzpeh Hayamim Hotel, Assif, Tsafra, Hadar Okhel, the Black and Burger chain, Adora, Giraffe, Sakura and many others.

The reasons for the push are varied: Mostly, meatless Monday is aimed at saving the planet and raising consciousness of a healthier and more balanced menu.

Over a month ago the Belgian city of Ghent began a meatless Monday drive, while in Paris, according to the ABC news network, a number of Michelin-starred restaurants are modifying their menus. Chef Alain Ducasse's La Cour Jardin expanded its menu of vegetarian dishes several months ago, for example, and has been serving desserts based mainly on fruit.

In so doing it joined Alain Passard's restaurant L'Arpege, which has three Michelin stars and has become what is known as "mostly vegetarian" - a restaurant where meat consumption is not de rigueur but still available.

According to Al Hashulchan editor Janna Gur, the concept of "meatless Monday" was born in the United States during World War I.

"Then the aim was to save for the sake of the soldiers at the front, simply to avoid waste. The idea came up again during World War II and in the past year it has cropped up again as an initiative on the Internet, for reasons mostly having to do with ecology and health," she said.

And indeed, according to figures on the official site of the Israel Vegetarian Society, it takes, for example, 15 liters of grain to produce one kilogram of beef.

The places where animals are raised, such as cattle barns and chicken coops, pollute the environment and the aquifers and raising cattle on grazing land creates a huge waste of resources.

"The idea is to say to diners: Eat less meat, save money and resources and also maintain your health," Gur said. "After all, it's better to eat high-quality meat that has been carefully raised in good conditions and is maybe more expensive once a week than it is to eat meat everyday that we don't know exactly where it comes from and might contain hormones and antibiotics. Most importantly, in Israel it's great fun to be a vegetarian. There is an abundance of fruits and vegetables and it's weird not to take advantage of this."

Gur explains that at the Al Hashulchan publishing house they will soon be publishing a cookbook "entirely devoted to vegetarian main courses. No more side dishes and salads, but rather gourmet cooking entirely based on seasonal vegetables," she said. "The prevailing conception until just a few months ago was that if there isn't any meat or fish on the plate 'there's a hole in it' that can't be filled, and this is no longer the case." The book is edited by Orly Pely-Bronstein and Chen Dudek and will be in stores soon.

There is a fairly good chance that the variety of vegetarian dishes will improve the lives of many diners who keep away from meat. M., who lives in Tel Aviv and is the mother of three children, has been a vegetarian since the age of 14.

"At most restaurants until now I've eaten a side dish or two that the chefs deigned to allot me," she said. "I can understand that according to the reviews a restaurant is excellent, but if it doesn't have vegetarian dishes this makes no difference to me. There could be a restaurant that isn't good but if it has a more reasonable selection of vegetarian dishes I'll choose that one. The feeling until now has been that meatless dishes are a bad compromise."

No longer: According to chefs who have chosen to expand their vegetarian menus considerably, there is demand for vegetarianism, even in cuisines where meat and fish are common ingredients.

Every Monday, chef Hussam Abbas of the Al Babour restaurant adds an abundance of vegetable dishes from Arab cuisine.

"This is mainly because diners ask me for meatless dishes," he said. On Mondays at his restaurant Abbas serves baladi eggplant with yogurt, rijli - a local plant from the north cooked with tomatoes and garlic, grape leaves "because it's the season now" and meatless stuffed zucchini with rice and friki (smoked green cracked wheat). "Lots of people ask for this and in the summer it's very suitable," Abbas said.

Boaz Tzairi, the chef at the Japanese Sakura restaurant, is not only preparing more vegetarian dishes that do not include raw fish, he is also growing and developing a seaweed called ulva, or sea lettuce, for export, mainly to Japan and Scandinavia, and adding it to tofu.

In ulva there is a large quantity of vitamin B12 that people who don't eat meat usually lack. Tzairi makes an ulva salad containing five different kinds of seaweed and more.

"Japanese cuisine in fact provides a suitable solution for vegetarians and during the past few months this has been a commodity that is simply much in demand," he said.

Chef Omer Miller of the Hada Haokhel restaurant is trying to bring vegetarian cuisine onto the Israeli menu.

"I have two vegetarian brothers," he said, "so I have a lot of experience with those types. In the past vegetarian cooking was pushed to the margins; today it has become very challenging. This week, for example, I served savory knafia with Sainte Maure cheese and figs and caramelized onions. I also made eggplant falafel and wood mushroom hamburger. You have to play with the ingredients. Recently there has been a demand for healthier food, without fat. Not a day goes by when people don't ask me for food made with whole-wheat flour or something organic. Nowadays, with the abundance there is in this country of amazing things - fig carpaccio, beets stuffed with bulgur - there is what to choose from and no one leaves hungry."

You don't have to dine out to observe meatless Monday. Dorit Ohana is a cook who specializes in food from the Israeli-Arab kitchen, based mainly on organic vegetables. Word of her catering service, Vega Dora (050-862-3802), has been passed along by word of mouth for about a year now among vegetarians who want to eat gourmet food delivered to their workplace.

Every day she prepares a number of main dishes based only on seasonal vegetables. At 10 A.M. she e-mails a menu to her mailing list, an hour later she gets a list of orders and at noon people in offices can enjoy dishes prepared from sweet potatoes, friki, bulgur, meatless stuffed vegetables, wild rice, zucchini with tahini and more.

For a number of years Ohana lived in Japan where she was captivated by the education toward health. She says it is hard "to resist the abundance of the local Arab cuisine," which is very suited to the international trend.