The fleshy stalks of the plant that dots the rocky hills are covered with sparkling crystals. Their resemblance to icicles is reflected in the plant’s various popular names – common ice plant, crystalline ice plant or simply ice plant. The glistening “crystals” of Mesembryanthemum crystallinum are really water vesicles to which sea salt has adhered, and are part of a natural mechanism for ridding the plant of excess salt, as the plant’s natural habitat is a narrow, windblown area close to the Mediterranean.
“Some people grow this plant to use its leaves like spinach or as a green in a salad,” wrote Prof. Amotz Dafni in his book “Hadudaim Natnu Reham” (University of Haifa Press), a splendid collection of folklore and medicinal and nutritional uses for native plants. These days, the taste of this plant has been virtually forgotten, as its habitat has been shrinking to make way for new high-rises. But in recent weeks, ice plant has been featured in a number of dishes served by chef Tomer Niv at the Rama’s Kitchen restaurant in Nataf, in the Jerusalem hills. These include raw grouper sashimi surrounded by a shimmering crown of ice plant leaves; a tartare with loquats, green plums and ice plant stalks; blue crabs with cherry and ice plant gazpacho; salt-baked Jerusalem artichoke with whipped labaneh and ice plant.
It is early morning by the Jaffa harbor. Niv, taking his usual daily route from his home in the Ajami neighborhood to the fishermen’s warehouses by the ancient port, is horrified to discover that the day before, the city mowed the whole field of ice plants on a slope next to the luxury neighborhoods that have been sprouting up by the coastline. Just a couple of days ago, this slope was carpeted with the glittering plants. A tiny number of plants remain in a small corner of this area, once wild sand dunes that will apparently soon be transformed into a neat city park. Niv gets down on his knees and uses scissors to cut some fresh leaves and stems.
Enhancing fish and seafood
Niv first encountered this exotic plant, used in the kitchens of upscale restaurants in various countries, working in a French restaurant in London. “They would use it in dishes like beef fillet, but mainly it was used with lobster, scallops and fish,” he says. “One of the plant’s key characteristics is its ability to enhance the flavor of fish and seafood. It has a crunchy texture that adds to the experience when you’re eating a soft and tender fish, and its fresh salty, lemony flavor doesn’t overpower the flavor of the fish or seafood. When you eat it by itself, it’s kind of like tasting water with salt, and the crystallization of the salt is somewhat reminiscent of the taste of an oyster – that dull saltiness of the sea.”
Ice plant is in season from February to June. “Last year was the first time I noticed that it grows here,” says Niv. “So this year I was ready and waiting for it. It was nice to follow it through all the stages of its development and to taste the stalks, the leaves and the flower buds throughout the season. The stage we’re at now, just before the plant is covered with white flowers, is the tastiest, I think.”
Niv picks some wild chrysanthemums to add to his basket. “I think wildflowers have gotten a bad rap lately, because of their overuse by local cooks and chefs, but the taste of flowers that grow in nature is quite different than domesticated plants grown in greenhouses. Each one has a distinctive flavor or texture and they are not just for garnish.” Niv studied cooking and food technology in London and worked for a year in the famous laboratory of British chef Heston Blumenthal. He dreams of starting his own laboratory, like the one established by chef Rene Redzepi of the Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, which methodically examines ingredients in Nordic cuisines. Niv’s lab would study ingredients native to this area and those used in Mediterranean cuisine.