Salatim: The Israeli Tradition Of Serving Salads Before Meal

Salatim, a Hebrew word, translates to salads. Traditionally served before meals at restaurants that specialise in grills, it includes a selection of salads, dips, spreads and slaws.

This selection is customarily served at most restaurants in Israel. The popular restaurant Hatzot in Jerusalem was no exception. There was everything from carrots and beetroot to olives and tahini.

During my trip to Israel, I spent hours roaming the Old City. Maze-like cobblestoned streets led me to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall and the Hurva Synagogue. I took a respite from the harsh sun with a glass of cold pomegranate juice and daydreamed of the days to come: when I would be in Tel Aviv. In my mind, I marvelled at the abundance Israel is blessed with: the historical-religious heritage, vast expanses of sea and beaches and the fact that restaurants serve a minimum of 12 salads to begin a meal with. A place called The Old Man and the Sea in Tel Aviv served 20.

Amazed at and grateful for the tradition, I enjoyed my 20 salads at The Old Man and the Sea bit by bit. There was velvety houmous, creamy coleslaw, crispy falafel, charred cauliflower, spicy corn, pickled tomatoes and lots more. Although I had to pay for the selection of salads at each restaurant, the generosity with which they were served stayed with me. Waitstaff would bring them over to my table with flair and nonchalance as if it were second nature to them.

This flair, nonchalance and general attitude of abundance sets Israel apart. The people are magnanimous and that’s reflected in their cuisine and culinary rituals. It’s also a sign of great hospitality and desire to serve, to make sure people enjoy their food and enjoy variety. Israeli food writers like Amit Aaronsohn have also commented on the abundant nature of salatim.

Conversation flows and multiple glasses of wine go down easily over small bowls of salatim. It may be eaten before a wholesome meal of grilled meat, or as a meal by itself. Depending on where in the world it is being served, salatim adjusts to the gastronomic preferences of the people involved. For instance, Americans may use coleslaw, while Moroccans may incorporate their popular carrot salad and matbucha (made with roasted peppers and tomatoes). Fresh, seasonal ingredients remain the priority and act as palate preparers before the heavier meat dishes arrive at the table.

Salatim isn’t usually made up of flavours that necessarily complement each other and its diverse nature gives it strength and character. Different vegetables, sauces and pickles come together to form one wholesome experience and eating multiple salads before a meal can be as satisfying as eating one big main dish. Like the multiple religions and ethnicities that live in Israel, and also those who enjoy salads outside of Israel, salatim adorns tables and brings people together even in its diversity.