Last month while visiting Israel, our group sought cool refuge from the outside heat and settled into a small cafe for lunch. Without our asking, the table was soon covered with small dishes of hummus, labne, tahini and a salad of diced tomato, onion and cucumber.
“I just had this for breakfast,” I said, referring to the morning buffet four hours ago at our hotel. It was supposed to be a joke, but this lineup is no joke.
Hummus, labne (a very thick, strained yogurt) and this always fresh-chopped salad are part of Israel’s national banquet. At breakfast, lunch and dinner, in restaurants high and low and even at restaurants at Israel’s gas stations, there is no way to fake the freshness of an Israeli chopped salad. And yes, salad is for breakfast.
Seeing this salad brought back memories of my first time in Israel more than 30 years ago. I was a cook on a kibbutz that fed 600 members three times a day. For reasons I just now understand, the kitchen staff had better things to do than to chop tomatoes, onions and cucumber for 600 people at the crack of dawn. That’s why the kibbutzniks were expected to dice their own ingredients and mix their own salad.
Platters of whole tomatoes, onions and Persian cucumbers were on communal dining tables as workers arrived after an early start picking the kibbutz’s avocados, apricots, oranges, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons and gladioli. As they stomped into the cafeteria wearing kibbutz-issued work boots, each grabbed a small plate and whatever dull table knife was nearest and began dicing.
And diced this salad must be. Not chopped, which insinuates many uneven pieces. It’s never grated, shaved or minced. There are no shortcuts. A food processor makes uneven dice, easily recognized as the work of a machine. Pieces are sliced perfectly square and about as big as gaming dice.
The kibbutz breakfast ritual of hand-chopping one’s own salad continued by rote through conversations, gossip and gripes. Some held their onion in the air to carefully carve crosscuts, then in one last swipe, perfect dice formed on the other side of the knife and fell to the plate.
Tomatoes were especially meaty. I don’t remember that they were Romas or San Marzano types, but they weren’t so wet inside as to ruin the salad with slime and seeds. When I make this at home, I seek a good meaty plum tomato, squeeze the seeds out and start dicing.
But it’s the cucumber that makes or breaks an Israeli salad.
Compared to the Persian cucumber, the fat, common slicing cucumber grown commercially in North America is a poor candidate for Israeli diced salad. Israelis won’t go near them. Slicers usually have tough skin that’s often waxed to lengthen shelf life. They’ve got a loose cell structure and thousands of wet seeds down the center. But the shorter, skinny Persian cucumber has a tight cell structure and a seedless core. It holds its shape and won’t ruin the salad with sloppy seeds.
Considering the Persian Empire stretched to present-day Afghanistan, it’s no surprise that you can find Persian cucumbers at Indian, Middle Eastern and eastern European stores. On a hunch, I found them nicely bagged at a 99 Cent Only store, and no surprise, for 99 cents. Next summer, try growing Persian cucumbers in your own garden. You will not tire of them.
The following Israeli diced salad is typically eaten with tahini or yogurt. Leftover salad is delicious on a burger, next to chicken or ribs, and mixed into tuna fish or egg salad – or even with your breakfast omelet.
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.