Thursday, December 19, 2013

Israeli Food Taboo and the new Vegan Trend

It seems like everybody here in Israel is going Vegan.
Much like the creators of Troll 2, I feel Veganism closing in on me:

Dominos Pizza chose to introduce their first ever Vegan friendly pizza to the Israeli market first (tried it, tastes like flavored melted plastic), Gary Yourofsky is hailed as a celebrity, with prime-time interviews in all of the major networks, sold out talks and an ever growing following - so much so that he's repeatedly said he believes Israel will be the first ever Vegan nation - and, perhaps worse of all, even my favorite cephalopod has been declared vegetarian.

So why is it so easy for Veganism to take root specifically in Israel?

Here's my theory, if we decide that personal morals and ideology can be neglected from the equation, being relatively similar in Israel and elsewhere.

Despite Israel's rich and diverse produce, livestock and cuisine, many of the Israelis I know are very particular about what they eat.
Some have a strong aversion to fruit and vegetables, some only eat a specific dish made in a specific way, some are revolted by meat, or fish, or certain ways in which they are prepared, I know several people who will refuse to eat any dish that has fried onion in it, or garlic, or tomatoes, and the list goes on.

I'm not talking about children - all of the above examples are taken from countless adults I know.

This food-particularity is so ingrained in Israeli food culture that the preparation of many of the staple foods of Israel - Falafel, Schawarma and Hummus are the first three examples that come to mind - entails a ritual in which the diner chooses what ingredients go in the dish. Falafel stand vendors' stereotypical line is "Hummus, chips, salad?" - inquiring whether all these should go into the pita, or if the person making the order has some other preference. Dish customization can get quite elaborate when ordering these dishes, and most of the servings in Falafel, Schawarma and Hummus places change radically from one customer to the next.

In places serving more "exotic" dishes, many of the menu items come with a warning (Danger! Contains Coriander! Contains Pork! Contains Shrimp! Contains Cucumbers!). During my short time waiting tables at Zozobra, one of the first Asian fusion noodle bars to break into Israeli mainstream dining, I was taught that my job was to direct the diner to a dish which would contain no offensive ingredients.

Now, I am not very familiar with the eating habits of foreigners. I do know, however, that during my travels around the world, many of the places I've visited simply served their dishes in the way they thought best, and customization and food trigger warnings were very rare.
I also got the feeling that adults were expected to eat what was on their plate, and that "hating" a certain ingredient was considered childish and somewhat socially unacceptable.

So let's look at the way food is regarded in Israel.
I think one of the reasons so many adults can retain "childish" attitudes towards food here is that it is more socially acceptable to consider certain types of food as disgusting, and to express that sentiment, than it is in other places.

Take a look at Wikipedia's list of Taboo Foods. Out of that list, try to see which animals are considered acceptable foods in Jewish culture. I'll give you a hint - almost every entry has some sort of reference to Judaism.

It is therefore not surprising that many people have an aversion to these foods in Israel. And with aversion comes disgust.
Many Israelis will not only tell you that they don't eat pork or shellfish, but that they also find them disgusting, and can't understand why anyone would want to eat them at all.

When it becomes socially acceptable to refuse food on the grounds that it's revolting, the social act of sitting down to eat a meal is also modified, with a variety of dishes served at the table. It is therefore easier for an individual to declare that in addition to not eating, say, tomatoes, that meat, dairy and eggs are now off limits too. Society already accommodates strange diets, what's a few ingredients more?

So that's my theory regarding the way Israeli Food Taboo actually lay down the foundations for non-standard dietary choices.

Personally, I'd eat almost anything, and I think that it's a shame that people willfully miss out on interesting culinary and sensory experiences because they haven't learned to flex their palates, but to each his own.

Coming up next - Culinary Adventures!
My next posts will probably not be about cultural attitudes towards food, but more about seeking out weird, special and new ingredients, techniques and appliances.
See you around!


I'd like to stress that the overlooking of the moral aspects of choosing a Vegan lifestyle was intentional.
I am not trying to belittle Veganism, nor do I think that the choice to abstain from eating animal products is simply one of convenience. 

I don't, however, think that Israelis are "more moral" than other nations, nor that they are more sensitive to the suffering of animals or the world's ecological plight.

Since these are the core reasons most people turn to Veganism (in my experience), I thought I'd look at the non-related circumstances which set Israel apart, such as a higher tolerance for aversion to certain foods, and try to understand where that comes from.

Of course I realize people turn to Veganism mostly for reasons of conscience, but I believe the force of conscience is equal, if not greater, in other countries, and that therefore explaining Veganism's popularity in Israel by basing the argument on Israelis' morality is wrong.


  1. I might be a bit too conservative on this one, but as far as I see it, this Veganism trend is a bit dangerous. I mean, Gary Yurofsky is a liar, and I find it disturbing that the masses are rallied behind such a person. I mean, it's one thing to say that you're becoming vegan due to your conscience (a thing each and every person has to decided for himself), and it's a totally different thing to be a part of the choir, chanting slogans with little to no grip on reality. I find it sad that instead of focusing on animal abuse in the meat industry (which can and SHOULD be prevented by proper regulations and surprise checkups) the vegan movement focuses on the banning of meat eating as a whole. I don't like demagogues such as Yurofsky who use pseudoscience to further their claims. I think that the fact that TLV is turning Vegan is less due to the importance of food in Israeli culture and more due to a national inferiority complex. I mean, we Israelis just LOVE telling ourselves how western and civilized our country is (when in fact, in most parameters we're a second world country and in some even less...), and Veganism, like many western trends, appeals to that part of us wishing to be more righteous than the pope (or something like that). I mean, when you look at it, Israel (or should I say - the TLV state) is way more susceptible to foreign trends of any kind (not to mention the hipsters which now plague the city. It wasn't so up until 3 years ago...), because it makes many Israelis feel a part of the western world.

    1. I'm not a big Yourofsky fan myself - especially as a student of biology (Meat rots in our digestive tracts because they're too long? WTF.) but I don't find it surprising or new that masses, in general, follow liars and demagoguery.

      Also, while I obviously don't agree with Vegans on this point, I don't expect them to focus on setting new standards for the meat industry. Using their own terminology, that would be like expecting partisans to petition for more humane conditions in concentration camps, even though at the end of the process people will still be put to death there. In other words, I understand why it's something they'd try to abolish outright, and not just "make better".

      Veganism as a way to feel more "Western" is a take I haven't heard before, but it might have some merit, even though, if I think of the reasons people close to me turned to veganism I can say with a high degree of certainty that this probably didn't factor into their considerations at all.
      Regardless, I don't think it would work on the scale it is working on if it wasn't relatively easy to adopt a vegan lifestyle, and I think that Israeli food culture has a lot to do with that.