Smart Mouth: The delectable nature of Israeli breakfast
By Daniela Deane,
A little crunchy salad with your fried eggs? A bit of mozzarella and tomato maybe, some smoked salmon, a dab of tabbouleh, some white cheese, a tiny pot of yogurt with granola sprinkled on top? All served on cute tapas-sized plates or in kitschy little jars with lids?
Welcome to Israeli breakfast — what may be, for my money, the best breakfast in the world.
And it’s not as if I don’t know my breakfasts.
I was born in Italy, so a sugary “cornetto” pastry washed down with a foamy cappuccino does me fine, too. I grew up in the States, so I’m as partial to a short stack of pancakes with a side of sausage as anybody I know back home. And I married a Brit, so I’ve shared many artery-blocking breakfasts of fried eggs and bacon with him.
Not to be snobby or anything, but I thought I knew everything there was to know about breakfast. Until I moved to Jerusalem a few months ago.
Enter Israeli breakfast — the most delicious and the most varied breakfast I’ve ever downed. Israeli breakfast is also the closest thing to brunch, a true combination of breakfast and lunch, that I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming.
Behold my favorite breakfast spread at the Kalo cafe in the city’s Baka’a neighborhood, near where I live in West Jerusalem: two eggs of your choice (or an omelet), herb and nut salad, green salad with seeds, salty ricotta-cheese bruschetta with roasted mushrooms, mozzarella cheese with tomato and herbs, cured salmon, bread, butter, homemade jam, juice and a small coffee.
The salads are all delectable little dollops served on small tapas-size plates. The bruschettas are bite-size. The smoked salmon dish is a couple of pieces of salmon artfully wrapped around a stem of arugula. The coffee is as good as it is in Italy. And the juice is freshly squeezed.
You can go crazy, of course, and eat the entire basket of fresh-baked bread that they give you, with all the homemade jam and the creamy white cheese, but if you limit yourself a bit, it’s a filling, tasty and at the same time quite healthful breakfast. You don’t feel as though you need a wheelbarrow to get you home, the way you can after a heaping American breakfast.
Next door to Kalo’s on Beit Lehem Road is Itzik’s Place, a little hole in the wall that gets more popular by the week. Itzik’s is where I go when I fancy shakshuka for breakfast. Which makes sense, because shakshuka, one of the most popular egg dishes in Israel, was imported here by North African Jews. And Itzik, owner and chef, is a Moroccan Jew.
Shakshuka, Hebrew for “all mixed up,” is usually eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, onions and a dash of cumin. As with other Israeli breakfasts, presentation is all-important: Shakshuka comes in a cast-iron pan, often with bread on the side for mopping up the sauce and the yolk.
My favorite, though, is the non-tomato-sauce spinach shakshuka: two poached eggs served in a cast-iron pan on a bed of wilted spinach with two small mozzarella balls melted on top.
Fridays are the best day of the week for Israeli breakfast in West Jerusalem. The city’s cafes and restaurants come alive on Friday mornings, people jostling for tables outdoors in the sun, everyone looking for that final retail fix before the hush of the Sabbath descends. Stores, cafes and restaurants in West Jerusalem are mostly all shut by 3 p.m. on Friday, not opening again until after sundown on Saturday.
The day with the fewest breakfast choices is Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. That’s why downtown’s Cafe Chakra, one of the few places open, fills up fast, with many young secular couples sharing the Chakra Duplex breakfast, a spread for two that comes complete with your choice of five salads, four cheeses and several tapenades and spreads, as well as eggs or an omelet.
On Sunday — Israel’s Monday — life goes back to normal in West Jerusalem, where an Israeli-style breakfast is on almost every restaurant menu.
Sundays, I like the city’s new outdoor Mamilla Mall, in the shadow of the Old City, for breakfast. Cafe Greg, a second-floor place with outdoor tables on terraces overlooking the pedestrian walkway, is a good choice, particularly if you’re hungry and sharing. Their Very Breakfast for two is a heaping two-tiered tower of spreads, salads and cheeses.
Mamilla Mall, built only a few years ago, is one of the few places in Israeli-occupied Jerusalem where Jews and Arabs stroll side by side among the trendy shops.
Israeli breakfast and a stroll down the mall’s outdoor walkway on a Sunday morning? It’s easy to lull yourself into thinking that there’s no problem here at all.
Deane, a former Washington Post reporter, is a freelance writer in Jerusalem.