Roots trip: A forager plumbs the coast for edible greens and authenticity

Beachcomber Yatir Sade brings his handfuls of produce to a Caesarea restaurant, where the wild plants are transformed into a gourmet dining experience

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Stalks of ice plant, found and picked by forager Yatir Sade, which yield a salty, crunchy flavor and texture (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Stalks of ice plant, found and picked by forager Yatir Sade, which yield a salty, crunchy flavor and texture (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

It was a hot Tuesday morning when Yatir Sade parked his dusty pickup truck next to a field of dry, yellow stalks, up the road from the sandy expanse of Dor Habonim beach, near Zichron Yaakov, on the Mediterranean coast.

He strolled up to the edge of the field, pinched off a pod and shook some seeds into the palm of his hand.

“See?” he said, holding out the yellow seeds. “Wild mustard. I made some the other day, we’ll have it with lunch.”

Homemade, wild wholegrain mustard? Sounded divine.

Yatir Sade, extracting nettle seeds from a pod (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Sade, whose last name means field in Hebrew, spends much of his time roaming the fields, dunes and riverbeds of this area, a 60-kilometer stretch of the northern Coastal Plains along the coastline from Netanya to Haifa.

His company, Shirat HaSade, Foraging and Eco-Culinary Tours, takes groups of Israelis and tourists to forage for wild nettles, salty greens and other pods and seeds that grow unattended in this wet and sandy habitat.

This summer, Sade added another element to his daily and weekly walks, bringing handfuls of local sea rocket, ice plant, Mediterranean saltbush, and sea fennel to Helena, the Caesarea seaside restaurant headed by chef Amos Sion.

“Amos gets very little from me, but he works with what he gets,” said Sade.

(For that particular late afternoon lunch, Sion served crunchy stalks of common ice plant in an alternative Caesar salad, with wedges of hardboiled eggs and slivered croutons drizzled with an aioli sauce, cubes of fresh tuna sashimi, topped with crunchy, sauteed Mediterranean saltbush and several other seafood delicacies, including a sea rocket pesto and sea fish tartar.)

Amos Sion’s plated specialties at Caesarea’s Helena restaurant, made with sea-foraged plants from Yatir Sade (Courtesy Helena)

“I love working with Yatir,” said Sion. “It’s just a creative charge, thinking about what to do with these fresh greens that are coming our way.”

The meal at Helena was the second meal of the day.

Stalks of ice plant, which yield a salty, crunchy flavor and texture (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The first meal began with a two-hour stroll and the discovery of the mustard plants, and continued with finding nettles, nestled inside a fluffy pod, which Sade has discovered have a gelatinous quality similar to chia or flax seeds when soaked.

There were stalks of ice plant, a crispy green succulent that has the look of a miniature cactus; sea fennel, which combines the scent of anise and fennel; fresh capers; and the round leaves of Mediterranean saltbush, which Amos draws out by deep frying until they’re crispy.

Sade suddenly stopped on the sandy path, calling out, “You’re not going to believe what I see right now!”

The huge surprise was a glimpse of nigella flowers, small, white petals with black seeds nestled deep inside a yellowed pod. They’re known in Hebrew as ketzah and are often sprinkled on flaky bourekas or challah.

An early nigella flower, whose pod contains black nigella seeds, known as ‘ketzah’ in Israel (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Sade is deeply protective of this environment, careful to trim just the tips of any plants in order to ensure the root remains intact and they continue growing each year.

Some 3,000 different plants grow along the coast, 300 of which are edible. Sade, 39, likes to pick close to his home in Pardes Hanna-Karkur. He has been offering his foraging-and-cooking tours for the last ten years, with a morning or afternoon spent foraging, followed by a sumptuous outdoor meal in the shade of a tree.

Guests are expected to help prepare the meal, using the collection of greens and plants spread on the red-checked tablecloth, along with fresh olive oil and some purchased fruits and vegetables that round out the meal.

For this lunch, foraged purslane greens and nectarines were chopped together for a salad, while shrimp was lightly sauteed with tomatoes and a filet of fish was chopped into a fresh ceviche. Sauces were made from the olive oil, freshly squeezed lemons, salt, and the homemade wild mustard.

Yatir Sade’s pickup truck, which carries an entire kitchen setup for cooking foraged food in nature (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Sade has made a profession out of what he has loved to do since he was a boy in Kibbutz Masryk who followed the Bedouin women from the village next door to the nearby riverbed where they would forage.

“I started to learn Arabic at school and I would practice with them,” said Sade. “It was very bad Arabic, but it was the ethno botanicals that I was learning from them.”

Sade’s interest in plants and in the indigenous people who search for food in their natural surroundings continued during the time he spent in Africa, where he sought out out those who supplemented their diets with foraged foods.

When he returned to Israel, he studied Israeli history and learned with Shomrei HaGan, Keepers of the Garden, part of Israel’s Green Movement, more about how the Bedouin and Druze forage for culinary purposes as well as their medicine cabinets.

Chef Amos Sion with a tray full of Yatir Sade’s foraged plants, ready to be cooked at Helena in Caesarea (Courtesy Helena)

As Sade began teaching about foraging, he was asked by a Tel Aviv chef to help create a foraging menu. That spurred him to bring chefs to the field for foraging and cooking, a kind of reverse farm-to-table experience.

“This food had to come out of the closet,” said Sade, who credits a cadre of Arab chefs with being the first to use their traditional foraged greens in restaurant menus.

“It’s part of the search for authenticity in food,” he said. “There’s also an element of saving money. In the winter, I pick all of my greens, I don’t go to the supermarket to buy vegetables. It’s the closest I can get to nature as an urban person who’s not a farmer.”

Sade wants people to learn how to forage for their own greens and cook them in their own kitchens, and he sees his work with chefs like Amos Sion as part of that effort.

“It’s all about the local kitchen,” said Sade. “Israel’s pioneers thought about how to create farms, how to develop the land, what to do about speaking Hebrew. But they didn’t think about food, and they didn’t think the locals had anything to teach them. So the local kitchen didn’t develop until recently. Now we’re making up for lost time.”

For a morning or afternoon spent with Yatir Sade, contact him through his Facebook page. He speaks English, and charges NIS 120 per person for a four-hour foraging tour that includes a meal. Winter foraging tours are six hours long, and cost NIS 160 per person.

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