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December 11, 2017

A taste of Israeli cuisine

By now, I’ve been in Israel for a month and I’ve developed some reasonably strong opinions about the work I’m doing.

This isn’t an international politics perspective, though, so you’re not going to hear about that. You’re going to hear about things I think will interest you. First, however, I’d like to say that I desperately miss the University of Massachusetts Computer Science Department and Humans vs. Zombies. I’m writing some code for open-source release in my copious free time, but it just doesn’t seem the same. Next semester should come quickly.

For now, though, I could tell everyone just about anything about this crazy little (it’s both crazy and little) country. I could write about my temporary home city, about the politics, about the transportation system, about the language, anything. However, I have a hard time figuring out what to write week-by-week because things seem very normal here.

Many glaring differences exist between Israel and America, but I don’t feel as though I’ve walked into a different world. To wit, the public transportation system here works on buses rather than giant sandworms, and the only life-changing difference from home to here is that everyone has universal health insurance.

So this week, I’d like to tell everyone about one of the biggest, most noticeable differences between living here in Israel and living in America: the food. I honestly think that America should try to adjust its food production system to create a consumer market closer to that of Israel for reasons of both health and taste.

Meat is expensive here; about a kilogram of chicken breast costs close to 35 sheqalim (one sheqalim is worth about 1.5 dollars). On the other hand, a kilogram of peppers costs seven sheqalim, and peppers are the most expensive of vegetables.

As a result, vegetables, fruits, legumes and other plants compose most of the local diet. Even that famously Israeli, famously delicious street food, the shwarma (shavings of slow-roasted, marinated lamb or dark-meat turkey) in a pita pocket or lafah wrap, actually contains more vegetable bits to accompany the meat than meat itself.

Things also come in smaller portions here, with a small glidah (ice cream or gelato) cup coming so tiny that no self-respecting American soft-serve stand would call it even one scoop. Lastly, in a true miracle of the Holy Land, cottage cheese here tastes awesome.

As a result, my body has readjusted to a healthier diet and I’m losing weight by the week. When Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, came around and everyone started trotting out sugary treats for a “sweet new year” I felt nastily overloaded with sugar in a way that I hadn’t remembered at any point since being a small child – when my parents had fed me a diet not unlike the one available here.

We don’t buy all these nice things in the supermarket, either. We buy meat, dairy and other processed foods at a supermarket or corner store, but we buy our vegetables, spices and for some reason small candies at the weekly shuk – an open-air bazaar-type market frequented by farmers, shopkeepers and sellers of pirated video games.

Everything there comes dead cheap, to the point that you really shouldn’t trust anything but the foods and that the Chinese-branded polo shirts actually come from where they say it do.

We do actually have reasons for these differences. Despite America possessing a whole continent of some of the best farmland on Earth, it uses agricultural subsidies to encourage the growth of only one major crop on much of that land: corn. Thus, in America we buy corn-fed meat, get dairy from corn-fed cows (sheep and goat dairy is quite common here), eat sweets made from corn syrup and pay more for vegetables that don’t receive government money.

My point? That we ought to end corn subsidies and let the markets decide fairly between farmers and consumers what grows out of American soil. We actually have the warm-climate and desert areas for growing most of what grows in the Mediterranean Holy Land, but we just have to employ the right technology and to decide to grow more of things like parsley, cardamom and chickpeas rather than corn, wheat and potatoes that can grow just fine in the colder areas.

Also, if anyone wants to start a shuk to replace the Amherst farmers’ market so that I could buy video games with my Massachusetts scones and onions, I’ll explain how the whole thing works.

Eli Gottlieb is a Collegian Columnist.  He can be reached at egottlie@student.umass.edu.

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