Are Tel Avivians actually vegan, or do they just really like vegetables?

The heart of the Vegan Nation has more vegan restaurant patrons than actual vegans, and the jury’s still out whether it’s a trend or a way of life that’s here to stay

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Meshek Barzilay Delicatessan, a new vegan takeout option in Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv. (Courtesy, Alex Mathiot)
Meshek Barzilay Delicatessan, a new vegan takeout option in Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv. (Courtesy, Alex Mathiot)

Everyone knows someone who’s vegan.

The eating trend, which eschews animal products of any kind, including dairy products, eggs, and honey, has witnessed a major increase in awareness in Israel over the last few years, particularly in Tel Aviv.

That urban oasis, the city that helped foment the thrills and fascination with Israeli cuisine, from hummus and tehina to whole roasted cauliflowers and malabi, is now at the heart of the latest food obsession, vegan cuisine.

With hundreds of restaurants serving vegetarian or vegan-only fare, the State of Tel Aviv — a nod to the city’s particular brand of insularity — is now known as the Vegan Nation.

There are dozens of vegan burger bars, an Indian restaurant focused on fermented dough pancake dosas, another with an entirely vegan Georgian menu, and even vegan supermarkets and takeout for all those hard-working Tel Avivians who don’t have time to soak beans before they head to work each morning.

But despite the preponderance of vegan options, can this nation of schnitzel-eaters transform into consumers of produce, legumes, and nuts?

The jury’s still out on that one.

Merav Barzilay is the founder and chef at Meshek Barzilay, a leader in Tel Aviv’s vegan nation (Courtesy, Alex Mathiot)

Talk to any vegan chef, or chef turned vegan, and you’ll generally find a strong-minded, highly idealistic foodie, who turned to this way of eating for the most humanitarian of reasons.

Nanuchka’s Nana Shrier shocked everyone when she turned her highly meat-centered Georgian menu vegan, stuffing Georgian dough with mushrooms and spinach, and serving dumplings with soy yogurt. (She’s soon closing her doors altogether, after 16 years of business, to explore other avenues.)

At Meshek Barzilay, chef owner Merav Barzilay first turned from a career in advertising to a moshav-based cafe with its own kitchen garden. At the same time, she was raising four children on the vegan diet she eventually brought to Tel Aviv.

Gluten-free cake pops at Seeds Patisserie, which bakes only vegan treats. (Courtesy, Seeds Patisserie)

Seeds Patisserie’s Ziv Sandler was about to open a bakery, when he and his partner became vegan, and decided they couldn’t, in good conscience, make and sell animal-based products.

These vegans are all perfectly satisfied with their plant-based decisions, but they’re realistic enough to know that they’re far from the majority, even in the open-minded environs of Tel Aviv.

“You can’t just immediately become vegan. It’s a process,” said Barzilay. “What do you put in your kids’ sandwiches for their morning snack? You have to create a world from scratch. Think of the culture of the kitchen. People have been eating animal based products for years, and there’s all the menus and customs that you have to recreate from scratch.”

Trend or deeply held belief?

It appears that a good portion of Tel Aviv’s vegan trend comes from customers who have become accustomed to vegan eating, and are just as willing to pay for a vegan meal as for one revolving around steaks and fries.

That is, it’s more of a trend than anything else.

“People still love their pizzas and burgers,” said Dan Arvatz, co-owner and chef at Bana, a plant-based cafe on Nachmani Street. “I just want to serve good food, that, yes, is plant-based, and I want everyone to eat it, even if they also eat meat.”

At Bana, the focus is on produce, with a sprinkling of nuts.

Dan Arvatz, the co-owner and chef at Bana, a plant-based restaurant. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Arvatz, who runs the place with co-owner Chanoch Schechter, turned vegan after traveling to India, a trip that followed cooking stints at several restaurants, including working with celebrity chef, Eyal Shani.

He found that what made him feel better was a life without meat, a revelation that he wanted others to experience.

Now he serves “This Is Not A Burger” with garlic potatoes, Broiled Sweet Potato filled with black lentils and pistachio pesto, and cauliflower and broccoli flowers filled with cashew cream.

“People are letting go of their meals that have to have fish or meat,” he said. “They’re enlightened and they’re bringing others to it.”

The ‘It’s Not a Burger’ at Bana, a plant-based cafe in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy, Bana)

It’s not that hard to convince Israelis about the benefits of a vegan diet, said Arvatz. Israelis already serve meals that revolve around vegetables, olive oil, hummus and falafel, all vegan foods. ‘

“These are things deep inside us,” he said. “What’s a meal without a salad and a fresh vegetable?”

Yet while his customers, many of whom work in nearby offices, happily munch on roasted eggplant or volcano bowls at lunchtime, he’s not looking to convert them. He just wants to show them what can be done with the ingredients at hand.

A couple of neighborhoods over, at Meshek Barzilay in Neve Tzedek, owner Barzilay has also done wonders for vegetables (all of which are organic), elevating pumpkin slabs into sauce-laced steaks, creating cashew-based bechamel sauce that’s a wonder for any moussaka lover.

“As a vegan, you need proteins,” said Barzilay. “You can’t just survive on pasta and tomato sauce. That’s where we come in, we know how to make vegan proteins.”

Even the crackers are vegan and gluten-free at Meshek Barzilay Delicatessan. (Courtesy, Alex Mathiot)

She recently opened Meshek Barzilay Delicatessan, a spacious takeout counter, grocery and lunch counter next door to the restaurant, where locals can pack up their lunch or dinner, and pick up a smoothie, coffee, organic vegetables or a box of gluten-free, vegan cookies as well, to go with their meal.

“You can’t eat at a restaurant all the time,” said Barzilay. “This is an alternative to buying something other than chicken from the supermarket, or frozen pizzas. As a vegan entrepreneur, I know that everything that is available in animal-based world, has to be available in the vegan world.”

Pastry chef Ziv Sandler also sold many frozen meal options when he had a bakery in Tel Aviv and found that half of what he sold were those ready-made meals.

“If you live in Tel Aviv, you’re used to buying your food out of the house,” he said. “No one’s cooking their own vegan food.”

They’ll eat vegan meals if someone else prepares them

It appears that Tel Avivians will happily eat tasty vegan treats if they can buy them. That was part of the motivation behind Dosa Bar, the northern Tel Aviv eatery opened by Chen Weinstein and her business partner, two years ago.

Weinstein’s light, flaky dosas are vegan and gluten-free, made from ground rice and lentils, and stuffed with masalas, savory vegetable stews topped by various chutneys.

They’ll soon be accompanied by lassis, the Indian fruit smoothies that will be prepared at the bar next door.

Weinstein knows that being vegan requires time and patience, learning how to get iron and other vitamins that aren’t readily available when not eating meat or dairy.

As a vegetarian since the age of 12 who loves animals and got turned on to Indian food in her 20s, Weinstein was studying Chinese medicine and learning about nutrition, when she turned herself into the eco-chef, cooking privately for people, and generally cooking vegan food for them, regardless of whether they were vegan.

Likewise, Dosa Bar is simply an Indian restaurant, and many customers pay little attention to the fact that no meat or dairy is served. It’s also kosher, with Tzohar rabbinical supervision. But for this chef, its success is a hopeful sign that veganism isn’t just a trend, but is here to stay.

Chen Weinstein, the chef at Dosa Bar who spent several years learning about the cuisine of southern India before bringing it home to Tel Aviv (Courtesy Chen Weinstein)

“It’s all going in this direction, it’s very hard-core,” said Weinstein. “There’s no restaurant where you can’t get something vegan, and chefs really honor that.”

Meshek Barzilay’s Barzilay agreed.

“I have to be better, now with all the vegan restaurants,” she said. “I see myself as someone who creates new ideas. I can’t rely on what I already did; I have to renew all the time.”

But she’s not worried about the challenge, because she thinks the entire population will be vegan in the next 20 years.

“Think what kind of amazing food there will be,” said Barzilay.

Vegans: The final count

It’s hard to know just how many vegans are out there, and whether this food trend is  here to stay.

Omri Paz, the 35-year-old founder of Vegan Friendly, a non-profit organization dedicated to all things vegan — and the creator of that pink and green Vegan Friendly heart printed on many Israeli menus next to vegan offerings — first worked on making the vegan lifestyle more accessible, making sure that everyone knew what vegan eating was.

Omri Paz, the founder of Vegan Friendly, which plans on turning Israel into a vegan nation. (Courtesy, Omri Paz)

Now he’s set on getting everyone to stop eating animals.

“Everyone knows what vegan is now, they know vegans, and every restaurant has vegan items,” said Paz. “But in terms of numbers, we have a lot more work to do. There’s more knowledge of us, than there are actual vegans.”

For Paz, this publicity process began when he became vegan six years ago. He felt that if more people knew about the vagaries of the food industry, then they would also choose to eat something that wasn’t related to animals.

“90 percent of people are against killing animals, but they still eat them,” said Paz.

According to Paz, the first stage in becoming vegan is the “why” one becomes vegan, making a connection between the animal and what happens to it to become your meal. Then comes the “‘how’ — how you do it, how you become a vegan, the substitutes you can eat, what to cook.”

“Tel Aviv is one factor, but a lot of people who come to Tel Aviv aren’t necessarily from Tel Aviv,” he said. “Tel Aviv is just a place with a lot of restaurants that people come to from all over the place.”

Sandler, the pastry chef behind Seeds, the all-vegan bakery, agrees about the Tel Aviv bubble.

When Sandler still had a bakery in Tel Aviv, he found that most of their customers were not from Tel Aviv.

Zvi Sandler, the pastry chef behind Seeds Patisserie, the vegan bakery. (Courtesy, Ziv Sandler)

“In Tel Aviv, if you can’t walk somewhere, people don’t come. One customer once said to me, ‘I came from far, I came from Habima,’” said Sandler, laughing. “That’s the attitude. So it’s hard. It’s hard to get someone from north Tel Aviv to come to you. We ended up doing a lot of deliveries and then we figured that the store wasn’t the most important thing.”

They also found that customers who figured out that the bakery was vegan — it does not announce itself as such — often stopped buying because of adverse reaction to veganism.

Now they are working from their home base in Moshav Bnei Atarot, with plans to sell wholesale and offer workshops. They’re also hoping to export to Europe.

“Tel Aviv is vegan only because restaurateurs put all their chips in Tel Aviv, not because there are so many vegans,” he said. “Most of the vegan restaurants are burger places or simple mom-and-pop shows that probably won’t survive the test of time.”

If veganism does survive and thrive, it will be the youth who keep it moving, said Sandler.

“If they don’t go for it, it will just wither and die with my generation,” he said.

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