Eating our weight in cheesecake is pretty much what the holiday of Shavuot is all about…But is there a vegan-friendly way to celebrate the giving of the Torah?
Israeli vegan trailblazer Merav Barzilay might have some answers. She’s the owner of some of Israel’s top organic restaurants, like the Meshek Barzilay Restaurant (with charming menus that change along with the Hebrew calendar) and brand new eatery Delicatessen. Standard menu fare includes scrumptiously fluffy eggplant clouds and an Indonesian salad featuring carrots, seaweed, sprouts, tofu and cilantro.
I spoke with Merav Barzilay on why Shavuot is a holiday for plant people, why she reads recipes like thriller novels — and how to vegan-ize just about any dish.
Shira Feder: Can you tell me a bit about your culinary background?
Merav Barzilay: I love the kitchen, and I love and believe in a healthy lifestyle. I started looking for alternative vegetarian diets 20 years ago when I was pregnant with my second son. Since then, I have been looking for recipes and ideas for a healthy, full and tasty vegan diet.
I am so inspired by the great creativity in the cooking world. I read recipes like a thriller novel, wherever I go, always looking for new ideas and methods. I love to convert a traditional, non-vegan recipe into a tasty, filling, healthy vegan one. I have never studied cooking formally.
So Shavuot is coming up. What’s the best way to veganize your Shavuot?
Shavuot is a festival for plant people!
It’s a holiday celebrating nature, abundance, agriculture and great bounty. To me, there is no connection between Shavuot and dairy products. Shavuot is a holiday celebrating the first fruits of the summer: nectarines, wheat, watermelon and barley. In the kitchen of our restaurant and delicatessen, this is a real celebration, a huge abundance of organic vegetables and fruits at their peak.
So how do I celebrate Shavuot? With a huge selection of vegetables and fruits. Move aside the dairy products and try specifically on Shavuot to produce a vegan meal and enjoy all the goodness that nature gives.
Locals call Tel Aviv the vegan capital of the world, and Israel has the most vegans per capita of anywhere on earth. Yet eating a dairy feast is synonymous with Shavuot. How can we reconcile the two?
Tel Aviv is undoubtedly the capital of global veganism. The reasons for this are not clear, but it seems that the tradition of Middle Eastern food in Israel is also quite vegan: It is easy to live on hummus, tehina, vegetables and falafel, and here you have a perfectly vegan meal. Beyond that, there may be a number of factors: our political awareness and involvement, the many moral questions we occupy ourselves with, and certainly the Jewish religion, which has taught us that the separation of foods and tough concessions on food can be a very easy and convenient option for life.
Why do you think Israel embraced veganism so wholeheartedly?
I’m not certain that Israel is embracing veganism. It does not feel that the State itself supports us vegans. It’s just a very strong and powerful movement of vegans, a movement of young people who are revolutionizing.
Do you ever see us meat-loving Americans embracing veganism like Israelis did?
It is certain that the vegan/vegetarian movement will develop in the United States. It seems to me that this is the direction of the entire Western world and Americans will give it room and perhaps a little thought. Especially these days, there are a lot of startups that develop non-animal meat replacements, and most of them are in the US. It is a sign that the Americans are beginning to feel uncomfortable with the attitude of humans towards animals and not far away from today, Americans will also reduce meat consumption and even support and embrace vegans.
What’s an easy, friendly dish for wary non-vegans to eat with their vegan friends?
A wide variety of vegan options are available to those who want to host vegans properly. One of the easiest options is a spread of vegetables in tehina. This is a very easy dish to prepare and very suitable for Shavuot. A wide variety of vegetables can be used in this dish, from mushrooms through pumpkins to broccoli and cabbage.
Or try my vegan banana spelt muffins — here’s my recipe.
Have a happy vegan Shavuot!
Shira Feder is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org