The culinary obsession that has taken over the United States’ west coast over the past year has curly, deep green leaves and a bitter taste. The new superhero of American nutrition is kale, a member of the brassica family – a group of vegetables that includes cabbage, collards, and Brussels sprouts.
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Once used mainly for ornamental purposes, today kale stars in salads, is served as chips or crackers and is hailed as a nutritional powerhouse, not to mention as a cancer preventive.
For months foodies have been talking about it, stroking its leaves in farmers’ markets, squeezing it into their cleansing morning shakes and buying crates of it for their parents, hoping to put off their old age.
The first Wednesday in October is celebrated by kale enthusiasts as National Kale Day, an event founded by Drew Ramsey, author of “Fifty Shades of Kale.” Food essayists and cookbook writers have started referring to kale not as “it” but as “she,” like other objects of passion such as cars and boats.
Dr. Leah Hochman, Director of the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies at the University of Southern California, told me that her son in kindergarted received a holiday gift of kale last Purim.
American restaurants have long replaced the Caesar salad with kale salad. In some restaurants kale is the only vegetable on the menu, apart from chips. It often comes with a greasy mayonnaise sauce whose contribution to the diner’s health is dubious.
If you come across kale for the first time in a salad, you’ll soon find out it’s no lettuce. This is a tough, acrid customer, who needs to be pampered and coaxed before succumbing to the palate. Those who see it as a partner for life give it an intensive daily massage with olive oil, lemon and sea salt for 5-20 minutes.
An instruction clip for massaging kale says you may feel a bit dumb doing it, but it’s worth investing a little more love into this beneficial product.
Dr. Sarah Kaplan, head of the nutritional program in the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot and chief dietician of the Meuheded Health Maintenance Organization, lists the nutrient-rich vegetable’s benefits.
“Kale has zinc, a mineral component of enzymes associated with building and taking apart hereditary material, helps healing and contributes to bone growth and the development of the reproductive system. It has iron, which takes part in producing haemoglobin in the blood, which in turn transfers oxygen from the lungs to the cells. It has fiber, which is calorie-free, fills you up and prevents constipation, and soluble fiber that helps prevent heart diseases and improves insulin levels. Kale also has vitamin A which blocks oxidization and helps prevent cancer, heart diseases and ageing processes. It’s also vital for night vision and function. In addition, Kale has vitamin C, which is another oxidization stopper and improves the iron’s absorption in the intestines, and vitamin K, which is associated with the blood clotting mechanism. So kale should not be taken with blood thinners like Coumadin,” she says.
But Kaplan is not as excited about kale as many others are.
“I can’t say it’s the ultimate vegetable; every food item has unique qualities. It’s not enough to have all the vitamins in one item. Fruit and vegetables should be consumed in a variety of colors,” she says.
So how did kale rise to superstardom in America? It was brought there from France in 1811 by Thomas Jefferson, an American founding father. For 13 years Jefferson grew it in his garden, noting in his diary that it was a durable, tasty plant. But the Americans weren’t always keen about kale. Migrants to the New World didn’t bother bringing with them the super cabbage, which grew in many parts of the old world for thousands of years. It was only a few years ago, when kale was offered in a variety of colors and heavily promoted as a superfood, that Americans were finally captivated.
The enthusiasm has recently infected quite a few Israelis as well. Kale has been grown locally in the last three years and is sold for some 12 shekels a piece in most supermarkets year-round. It can also be found in farmers markets and organic food stores. Health nuts have embraced it, but most farmers are not keen on growing it.
“Kale won’t turn into a trend in Israel because people aren’t going to eat a bitter leaf,” says Noam Yaakoba, a farmer of moshav Nir Banim. “Acridity is a turn off, especially to children.”
Yaakoba said Israelis are conservative and aren’t eager to try new flavors. “I’ve been spitting blood to introduce the artichoke into the Israeli cuisine, only to find again and again how difficult it is to change people’s eating habits. The number of people who like to experiment is negligible,” he says.
Dr. Uri Meir-Chizik, a chef, nutrition historian and wild plant expert, refuses to hail the kale.
“I don’t believe there is such a thing as a superfood. I have nothing against kale; it’s high quality, nutritious food, especially if eaten fresh and organically grown,” he says. “But some people think they can eat harmful food as long as they eat kale as well, and it doesn’t work that way. It’s better to eat high quality organic lettuce than chocolate-coated kale, or kale chips, which are really fried leaves, or leaves burnt in an oven.”
“In America there’s a tendency to see too much in certain products, which are regarded at a certain moment as superfoods. Or they take a lot of vitamins and minerals, or eat only meat according to the Atkins diet, or drink only green shakes all day. Healthy nutrition is based on balanced, high quality nourishment, not on the trend of the hour. Once something becomes a trend I begin to get worried,” he says.
Tel Avivians apparently disagree. Ziv Green, who specializes in organic vegetables in the farmers’ market in the Tel Aviv Port, says, “if I don’t provide 60 pieces of kale a day, my customers will kill me. They shout and cry. ‘I came here and there’s no kale – how is that possible?’” he says.
“In August and September, out of season, people go around the market depressed. Some buy 15 pieces at once. They grind one up in a shake everyday. They’re crazed. They arrive with a carton and take only kale, that’s all they’re interested in,” he says.
“I can’t explain why it’s taken on so spectacularly. People get caught up in things. Until two or three years ago, green leaves were seen as a replacement. Lettuce was used to pad the salad’s volume and rocket leaves to add acridity. They didn’t understand that green leaves have more nutritious value than any vegetable or fruit. Today people must have these green leaves,” says Green.