If there’s one thing I love, it’s a juicy piece of fillet. Served medium, with a side order of peppercorn sauce. So, when a waiter at one of Tel Aviv’s best vegan restaurants sets a sizzling steak down before me, I’m a little confused.
Israel’s second city is the self-styled vegan capital of the world, responding with alacrity to what is arguably one of the biggest food trends of this century. For many vegans, a meat- and dairy-free diet is an ethical choice because intensive agricultural production methods mean that many animals aren’t necessarily treated with the respect they deserve, and there are myriad hormones pumped into them to increase their productivity.
I may be a committed carnivore, but the horror stories have left their mark, which is why I find myself in the city’s 416 restaurant, slicing off a corner of steak-like wheat protein called seitan.
Vegan cuisine aside, Israel has long been a food destination, thanks to its warm climate and mix of cultural influences. Take a stroll round Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market and you’ll see a profusion of grapes, mangoes, pomegranates and spices piled high, alongside Israeli Defense Force T-shirts and plastic menorahs.
I head north up Ibn Gabirol Street, the central artery, to meet food journalist and blogger Ori Shavit. She’s waiting at Falafel Mevorach, a vegan fast-food joint, where we sample a hamburger made from mushrooms and soy, and a schnitzel made from seitan – the same wheat protein used in the 416 steak.
Ori became a vegan after a video she watched online exposed her to the iniquities of the meat industry. ‘Even the army provides vegan meals, leather-free boots and helmets, because a lot of youngsters are going meat-free,’ she says.
Ori also reckons there’s a strong connection between Judaism – the dominant religion in Israel – and veganism. ‘In the Torah, it’s a mitzvah [commandment] not to hurt animals. You don’t have to eat meat either. Rather, you need to take good care of your body and your environment.’
Next up is Sultana, the city’s first-ever vegan shawarma restaurant. It looks just like a standard kebab shop – a rack of meat turning slowly on a vertical rotisserie, and a cabinet filled with different salad options. But, of course, there’s no real meat here – instead, once again, it’s a combination of mushroom and soy. The texture is meaty, but without the heft of actual meat.
I’ve eaten more fast food in a day than I would in a month, so I’m up early the next morning to take a brisk walk along the beach. I’m joined by implausibly sculpted locals jogging, bench-pressing, lobbing balls over volleyball nets and playing five-a-side football.
Inspired by my assiduous company, I head for my next engagement, with naturopath and nutritionist Udi Sahar, who runs a wellness centre called Urban Shaman. ‘If you eat right, you won’t just feel well – you’ll flourish,’ Udi opines, biting delicately into his gluten-free buckwheat toast.
Surprisingly, Udi’s not a fan of veganism. ‘Here, a lot of vegans turn to carbs or junk food, but that’s not healthy,’ he says. ‘Being vegan is like being in kindergarten. Now it’s time to go to university.’
I head back to the beach for sunset and watch a man practising yoga on the sand. At dinner that night, I choose the vegetarian option.
Words by Helene Dancer. Photographs by Jonathan Stokes.