Israel's Restaurants Climb Slowly on to the Gluten-free Wagon

Dafna Arad
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Dafna Arad

For some people, going out to a restaurant is no simple matter. They may be allergic to a given food and look for a restaurant that is considerate, where they can eat a meal without feeling abnormal. Such a place would offer them a variety of healthy and rich dishes, and they will not have to settle for a plain salad without dressing or extras. When these sensitive people, be they celiac sufferers or diabetics, pregnant or lactose intolerant, decide to get away from their hot kitchens, such a move requires careful preparation.

First of all, they have to find a restaurant that will offer suitable dishes for them and then they have to make a reservation, warn the staff of their issues. Then, at the moment of truth, next to all their "normal" friends, also interrogate the waiters about each dish, just to be on the safe side. When the operation is successful, they are delighted and spread the word on the Internet; even more so when something goes wrong.

Ben-Ami Cafe in Tel Aviv. Credit: Limor Edrey

Approximately 25,000 Israelis have been diagnosed with celiac. They must completely avoid gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. These items are found in many products, from beer to soy sauce, and, of course, bread, pizza and bourekas.

Alternative food market

Over recent years, the number of people diagnosed with the illness has been increasing, and along with the trendy diets that promote gluten-free meals, there has developed in Israel an alternative, gluten-free food market. It offers substitutes for just every familiar dough-based food for exorbitant prices. Quite a few restaurants and cafes state that they are suitable for celiac sufferers because they keep gluten-free rolls and breads in stock, but there are some that specialize in this.

For Rachel Talshir - who writes about health food for Haaretz - Tel Aviv's Mezze Cafe is a paradise for celiac sufferers. "It was established by Efrat Rabinowitz, who has celiac, and her partner, chef Gal Barzilay, who is vegetarian. The place provides moments of grace to celiacs, who need not worry about secondary infection due to exposure to flour. According to Rabinowitz, "Sometimes we get people here and I can see that they are really afraid to eat and don't enjoy going out to restaurants because it's such a problematic thing for them."

The cafe's menu is vegetarian and based on fresh vegetables, grains, legumes, different types of whole grain rice, quinoa and spelt. In other words, it is also not bad for a healthy person. "As a person with celiac," says Rabinowitz, "I really hate it when, at places that have gluten-free dishes, they are listed in a separate menu and are on the side so that - god forbid - someone 'normal' won't eat it. We offer the same items to people who are and are not sensitive. Our best known dessert is the pistachio cake, made of ground pistachios and almonds, which is ordered mostly by people with no health problems at all."

A trio of salads.Credit: Shai Ben Ephraim

Najach Khir, the mother of a celiac daughter, opened the gluten-free Yara Bakery six years ago in Peki'in. Next door to it, she hosts visitors in a stone bed-and-breakfast inn called The Angel's Cave, where she serves guests gluten-free versions of traditional Druze dishes.

"Like my daughter, there are many Druze with celiac," she says. "After ten years of trying, I managed to figure out excellent recipes and I opened the business. I bake sambusak, regular or za'atar pitas, 12 kinds of cookies and other baked goods. There is nothing like a home-style bakery; these things are nothing like the products you buy in health food stores."

Even though most gluten-free businesses - either the restaurant owner, chef or baker - has a relative with celiac disease, it seems that the great awareness of it is also connected to the efforts of the celiac patients themselves, who demand that nearby restaurants take them into account and distribute relevant information.

At Ra'anana's La Trattoria restaurant, opened by a couple of doctors who immigrated to Israel from France, special gluten-free dishes for young diners are served. According to one of the owners, Yoel Brahmy, "Many celiacs are children, who can eat pizza, pasta or grilled fish here. We prepare everything on the premises and our sauces do not contain powders or flour. For us, it's a challenge to cater to this population.

A local Israeli cafe.Credit: Ran Peretz

"We make the gluten-free pastas separately," Brahmy continues, "using special water, because my pasta machine is full of flour. The pizza is not placed directly on the floured stone surface of the oven; we use a special utensil to ensure that the special dough is not exposed to flour."

Jacob Sagiv, of Jacob's Pub in Moshav Aviel, near Binyamina, stresses that the only 'kashrut' in his kitchen "is the separation between utensils with and without gluten. We have a separate oven and mixer for that reason."

Online help

The website has a search engine for restaurants with gluten-free dishes divided by region and cuisine; it is the private initiative of a father of a celiac son. The site so far has 52 restaurants in the south of the country, 160 in the center, 63 in the Sharon region, 32 in the Jerusalem area, and 72 in the north. It is updated several times weekly with the help of surfers' reports.

The freeware Android smartphone application Life without Gluten, developed by Oren Dayan, is based on data uploaded to the site. Apart from recipes and food guides, the site also helps users find places with the help of the cellphone's GPS component, which presents relevant restaurants within the user's current radius.

Hagit Kaufman, whose son has celiac, runs the Te'ena Bakery which produces gluten-free cakes and other baked goods sold across the country. She says there are places "that take this [condition] into account and others that do not take responsibility. It really depends on where you go. Celiacs can't eat in places that are exposed to flour because they might develop a secondary infection. That's why we opened a bakery that only has gluten-free goods.

"Fifteen years ago you had to go everywhere carrying food with you," Kaufman notes. "Today, awareness is increasing and there is a willingness to accommodate celiacs. But because of the recent death resulting from exposure to Nutella that triggered an allergy and death at the Belgian waffle restaurant [in Tel Aviv this July], many places that previously were willing to host celiacs got scared and started declaring that there is gluten here, and we do not accept responsibility."

Pregnancy is, of course, not an illness, just a temporary situation, nine months during which careful and cautious nutrition habits are required. Suddenly, the hungry woman must deal with quite a few restrictions. As part of the process of creating a new life, she wants to eat everything in sight, but doesn't know where to start.

On the Yoledet forum for pregnant women, Tikva, 22, wrote: "Girls, I feel like going out to eat, at a restaurant ... is it safe (with regard to the washing of the vegetables, cooked meat, and other matters ) and if so, is it okay to go to a Chinese restaurant?"

Her virtual friend, Pregnant25, answered: "Sweetie, why shouldn't you go out and enjoy? There's no problem, restaurants and pregnancy go very well together! There are just a few things to be aware of. No raw meat, carpaccio and so on. No raw fish and no sushi, and no vegetarian sushi either, because they cut it up in the same place where they cut the regular sushi ... no mayonnaise and aioli - it contains raw eggs - and the same applies to mousses and assorted other desserts. They also have raw eggs And that's all. Enjoy, have fun and eat."

There is hardly any attention paid to this target audience with special needs. Against this backdrop then, chef Charlie Fadida stands out, as he declares pregnant women to be his preferred clientele. Fadida, of the Sheraton Tel Aviv's Olive Leaf restaurant, offers special dishes adapted to the needs of pregnant women. He prepares them, he says, from the freshest and most nutritious raw materials: "In my experience, pregnant women need to sense all the intense and strong flavors on their tongue. The more the flavors mix them up, the more they will go crazy over the dish.

"For example, a carpaccio of beets and sweet and sour Granny Smith apples; I sprinkle apple vinegar over the apples and date honey, and squeeze a bit of lemon on top. The walnuts are warm and the rest of the dish is cold. I spice the salad with walnut oil. It's important to achieve a perfect balance between the three flavors."

There is no great news for diabetics: no restaurant offers a perfect alternative for them. (Diabetics have a problem regulating their blood sugar levels and must eat a diet that carefully balances consumption of carbohydrates and sugars. ) The Israeli Diabetes Association's Moti Perlmutter explains that it's "very hard to monitor the dishes served at a restaurant, what they contain and how much they weigh. And that is what the diabetics' diet is built on."

But Perlmutter, who notes that there are currently 435,000 diabetics in Israel, is optimistic: "If a person knows he is going to a certain cafe that has a selection of dishes specifically catering to him, that will have great appeal to diabetics. The moment restaurants realize the need to build a niche that will attract diabetics, the phenomenon will spread. Today we are in negotiation with several restaurants and chains, such as Aroma and Fresh Kitchen, where they are now trying for the first time to develop dishes specifically for diabetics."

Fresh Kitchen, which has branches in Herzliya and Tel Aviv, is indeed trying to accommodate several groups with sensitivities. Its menu has a slew of symbols to mark the dishes: low-fat, protein rich, for pregnant women and nursing mothers, for cardiac health, suitable for diabetics, gluten-free for celiac and vegetarian dishes. The dishes are prepared on the premises using fresh and healthful raw ingredients.

And the next focus group: In the morning hours, Fresh Kitchen's Tel Aviv branch is frequented by people who went to the nearby health clinic and are waiting for their blood test results. In the afternoons, the clientele changes to businesspeople looking for light and healthy dishes, and there are tables loaded with food options.

Nir Kodish, one of the store's owners, says clinical dietitians consult on the menu. However, he adds: "We did not intend to create the impression that this is a chain intended solely for sick people. The goal is to create a chain of cafes with tasty food.

"Dishes that are only healthy and not tasty will not make it onto the menu. All the ingredients are fresh; everything is cut on the premises, without the use of powdered additions. Our coffee is organic and the desserts are made with whole wheat flour and brown sugar."

During our visit to the restaurant, each of us chose as if he was a member of one of the restaurant's target audiences. My friend volunteered to be a pregnant woman and deliberated at length over which dish was most appropriate for him from among the dishes marked in pink; my partner chose to be a vegetarian (as early as age four ) and as usual ordered the least successful dish; and I was the diabetic and the celiac and managed to find something from a pretty decent selection. The visit was enjoyable and passed quietly until my friend started having contractions and we had to take him to Ichilov Hospital.

It's complicated

Restaurant menus can indicate how complicated it can be for people with sensitivities to certain foods to dine out. The online celiac menu of the Tandoori chain of Indian restaurants, for example, lists several requirements: "1. In order to prepare additional special dishes for you, please make reservations 24 hours in advance. 2. Ask for the baked papadum instead of the fried ones. 3. Ask for the croutons to be left out of dishes that include them."

At Tel Aviv's Hudson Brasserie, there are special gluten-free afternoon and evening menus with the following clarification printed on them: "In this menu, we use special gluten-free products, but [just to be on the safe side] the kitchen is not gluten-free." Nevertheless, it is one of the preferred restaurants of celiacs in the central region.

At the vegan Buddha Burgers, the menu is long (15 pages ); the list of the nutritional values of the ingredients fills entire pages. There are many gluten-free products and they are clearly marked. All of the items on the menu contain no ingredients from living things, so they are also suitable for lactose intolerant people.

The only gluten-free burger on the menu is the Burger with Lettuce, a vegetarian burger on a bed of lettuce leaves and alfalfa sprouts - instead of a roll - tomato, red onion, chives, non-dairy cheese, low-fat thousand island dressing and mustard. Other gluten-free options include cashew hummus, raw vegetable puree, raw zucchini spaghetti, soups and salads.