Fleishig, milchig or soychig?

Soy food products have silently elbowed a place into Israeli hearts and stomachs.

Tzahi Bukshester 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tzahi Bukshester 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Soy Vey," a Viennese grandmother might say, of the evolution of the schnitzel in Israel. Recipes for the beloved Viennese veal cutlet introduced by European cooks to pre- and early-state Israel quickly evolved into a plain, breaded and fried turkey or chicken breast, that soon became a national archetype for what should be in the center of an Israeli plate or sandwich. Though felafel, shwarma and kebabs were among the typical, national street foods, they are authentically Eastern. Schnitzel quickly joined the pack as typical, but went one step further, and invaded Israeli kitchens and not just the local humous bars. It also became a crossover food, frequenting traditional Ashkenazi as well as Mizrahi homes. "Schnitzel owes its success in Israel to the Israeli way of adjusting things to existing options - it's easy to eat, easy to prepare, better than fast-food chicken nuggets, and not too sophisticated like European schnitzel made with a certain cut of veal and a certain amount of garlic," says Tzahi Bukshester, Te'amim television chef and owner of the Black Bar and Burger restaurants. After catering dozens of elegant functions, Bukshester discovered that no matter which fine foods are being served, Israeli guests devour the schnitzel he prepares for the children's tables: "They want, order and pay for the fancy stuff, but when faced with the choice of lamb with morels [mushrooms] or schnitzel, they will choose schnitzel eight out of 10 times," he says. The schnitzel defies class. Though Bukshester is trained in fine culinary fare, he, like Israelis of all walks of life, frequently turns to a schnitzel in a pita with humous as the ultimate Israeli comfort food. "I see the way people react to schnitzel - it makes them happy; solves their problems," explains the vegetarian schnitzel guru of Israel, Eynat Usant-Ravid, laughing. Via Tivall, where she is marketing vice president, Israelis discovered their first taste of a soy-based alternative to chicken schnitzel, when the company was founded in 1985. Based on a patent for the soy patties developed by scientist Micha Shemer, Tivall launched at a Kibbutz Lohamei Hegetaot factory 22 years ago, and has over the years far exceeded its own expectations. By 2006, the company was Israel's largest soy and vegetarian cutlet producer and reported NIS 300 million in sales, 40 percent from Israel and 60% from Europe. "The penetration of soy and vegetarian products in Israel's market is very high compared to other countries," says Usant-Ravid. Soybeans are not even grown in Israel, where there is not enough space or water for crops; they are imported from countries including Brazil, the US and Canada. Still, in early 2006, the Global Agricultural Information Network published a report on the Israeli food processing sector, estimating that 50 percent of the Israeli population consumes soy food products, probably because they are parve, with less than 10% of the population being vegetarians. Eli Soglowek, of the Soglowek family that operates the namesake meat and soy-product line in Israel, estimates that 60% of Israeli households keep soy meat analogues in their freezers. In late 2005, the last year the company published a report, The Credit Information Association of the Gaon Group released figures that sales of meat-substitute schnitzel had even started to surpass sales of supermarket chicken schnitzel. In its modest beginnings, the idea for Tivall was a hard sell to the kibbutz members, who could not have predicted how Israeli food culture would embrace soy schnitzel. Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot member Gezi Kaplan, an economist who stumbled upon Shemer's idea, as well as a plant up for sale, finally convinced his fellow members to invest their pension funds and take out bank loans for the launch of what they thought would be a small business to help improve the kibbutz's modest earnings. The first product line was soy schnitzel, soy hamburgers and soy kebabs. Two years after Tivall was founded, another kibbutz, Hatzor, also looking for more financial independence, launched Solbar, Israel's first producer of soy proteins used for processing industrial food products. Established in 1987 with technology patented by Israeli scientist Daniel Chayuss, Solbar is today one of the three largest Western producers and Israel's only producer of soy proteins. The non-genetically engineered product is not only found in much of Israeli soy foods, but also in processed Israeli meat, poultry, fish and other processed foods, bars, and drinks, says Gary Brenner, Solbar marketing and sales VP, and longtime Kibbutz Hatzor member. The new soy business also infused capital into Kibbutz Hatzor, as it did in Lohamei Hagetaot. "We were already in the process of looking at the fundamentals of kibbutz life and to a certain extent, the experience at Solbar was a catalyst - Solbar, over the years, became an important source of income," says Brenner. Previously the main income came from agriculture and a metal die-casting plant. Today Hatzor is approximately a 25% shareholder in Solbar. The company went public in 2004, had a couple of difficult years and sold the majority of shares to an equity fund this year. "While Israel is a really small market compared to Asia Pacific, the US and Europe, per capita Israelis are big users of soy proteins for food applications," says Brenner. INDEED SOY offerings continue to expand. Tivall has continued to add new soy and other vegetarian products and the company has grown to take nearly 75% of the Israeli market for such vegetarian offerings. With 52% of the company owned in the past decade by Osem-Nestle, the company reports that sales keep going up 6-7% a year. Usant-Ravid and her researchers get ideas for their patties, cutlets and grilled products from the usual market research but also go home to home across Israel just to hang out and prepare and eat lunch and dinner with families. "This is how we discovered [for example] that children prefer foods that are smooth, by seeing them spit out [food with chunks] and then asking them why," she says. Though it now has many competitors, most of them small, Tivall still offers the largest range of soy products: in the schnitzel category there are its most popular classic, low-fat 5%, sweet chili, chicken flavor, and honey and soy sauce. The soy line also includes hamburgers, hotdogs, grilled filet, and kebabs. The company's products are now so ubiquitous, that the Tivall name - pronounced "tivol" - has become part of the Israeli lexicon - a generic prefix, in Hebrew and English, meaning soy-based or vegetarian. And it isn't just the name that has become big. At Supersol, the largest retail supermarket chain in Israel with more than 225 stores, refrigeration sections used to be divided primarily by meat and dairy. But around five years ago, soy meat-replacement foods starting pushing over the bakery items. "The space for vegetarian schnitzel keeps growing at the expense of pizza and other products," says Eli Gidor, Supersol's vice president of marketing and sales. "It's quite a business. It started as soy meat-replacements and now it's also vegetable-based products." Soy and vegetarian schnitzel, patties and grill items - now with their own section in most large markets - have taken off in all parts of the country and among all populations, including among the haredim, he says. Though Israelis love their meat replacement cutlets, they don't necessarily know or think about that they are eating soy, unlike with soy milk, he says: "It's a matter of perception. They go for soy schnitzel but don't buy many soy milk products." Elisa Peleg of Ma'aleh Adumim, an information expert in statistics, is an avid soy eater but won't touch the soy milk products. "I live on 'tivol'; it's a lifesaver, it's always in my freezer," she says. "I am not a vegetarian, though I don't like meat a lot or fish. But I like 'tivol' and I serve it so much that my kids laugh about it. But I don't like [or need] soy milk." This is the norm in her community of peers, she says. "I know a lot of homes where they eat 'tivol' but don't buy soy milk and cheese. We want meal replacements, there is a large selection, and since I started eating 'tivol,' I can't eat a regular frankfurter, the 'tivol' just feels cleaner and healthier." The sale of soy milk products - milk, yogurt, pudding and cheese - have fallen in Israel's general market in recent years, possibly in part because of conflicting reports and opinions about the health benefits of soy, which has confused the public. Strauss last year dropped its only soy product, a vanilla soy pudding that was touted the previous year as the company's entry into the soy foods market. Several companies still market various soy milk products, but not in great volumes; they are certainly not getting their own case in the supermarkets. But at Harduf, Israel's only organic producer of soy milk, sales are up 40% in 2007 from the previous year, when the product was launched, reports Harduf president Ishai Shapira. At health food stores, too, where vegetarians and committed health food eaters shop, soy milk products - organic and commercial - are becoming more popular. "For 10 years we have seen a meaningful [sales] rise in all things soy, soy milk, ice cream, cheese, spreads, deserts. Once it was only soy milk and once the market was very small," says Roie Bibi, owner of the Teva Net health food store at Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market. His soy shoppers, he says, come from all segments, religious and secular, young and elderly, natives and immigrants, vegetarians, and those with problems such as calcium deficiency or asthma. For those who have trouble physically or psychologically with animal milk, soy milk is cheaper than rice or almond milk, he adds. In national cafe chains, like Aroma and Hillel, soy milk is also a staple, so post-meat-eating, vegan or lactose-intolerant customers can have their cappuccinos, frappucinos and ice coffees without worry. ADAM FRANK, rabbi of Jerusalem's Moreshet Yisrael Synagogue, has no problem physically or psychologically with animal milk or meat - in theory - but is a strict vegan, dependent on soy milk and soy foods, because of Halacha. "Jewish law permits eating animals and animal-produced products as long as the animal is raised in concert with [Jewish] laws of tza'ar ba'alei haim [animal welfare] and the laws of ritual slaughter," he explains. "However, in practice the laws of tza'ar ba'alei haim are ignored in the animal food industry." For example, he says, most chickens raised for meat or eggs live their whole lives inside cages so small they don't have room to move freely or spread their wings; cows have horns removed and are branded without anesthesia; and calves are taken from their mothers without ever being able to nurse, a direct contradiction of Leviticus 22:26, that says "And God spoke to Moses, saying, When a bull, or a sheep, or a goat, is born, then it shall be seven days with its mother." Giving up Israel's delicious dairy products is hard, he admits, but the range of soy and vegetarian products are vast enough to eat well. For Shavuot, celebrating when Moses received the Torah and its commandments, Frank will be in a minority of those celebrating with soy instead of dairy. "I was recently asked if it is enough not to eat meat on the holiday," he said. Frank said the answer was a firm yes, explaining the custom to abstain from meat is derived from a teaching that Jews couldn't eat meat immediately after the Torah was revealed to Moses, since there was not yet the right selection of animals raised or killed according to Jewish law. But, he adds, abstaining from meat is a tradition and it does not have to include eating dairy. Frank will celebrate with bagels, soy cream cheese, tomatoes and onions, pasta salads, and chocolate mousse and cheesecake made from silken tofu. On Yom Ha'atzmaut, when everyone else is barbecuing meat, he throws some soy burgers on the grill. "The way the food industry operates there are heinous living conditions for animals, both in Israel and the entire Western world," he said. "If I could ensure the well-being of an animal during its lifetime, then consuming its meat and byproducts would not be an issue for me." SOY CONTINUES silently to be a big deal in Israel but is viewed more suspiciously abroad. In the US and Europe soy was marketed initially to vegetarians or as a specialty Asian food, and later expanded to health conscious consumers. The marketing certainly had nothing to do with the concept of a schnitzel, comfort and convenience, as it largely does in Israel. Because soy and tofu in the West was seen as food for the organic, hippie or vegetarian types, rather than mainstream carnivores, tofu jokes abound. Searching "tofu jokes" on the Internet yields dozens of American soy-eaters complaining about snide comments from their carnivore friends and family. In the UK comic book style novel, The Bart Dickon Omnibus by writer/illustrator Borin van Loon, a politically correct secret agent is asked, "what evil swarm of purulence is this, the pustulent, bubbly, warty surface cracked and oozing an unspeakable putrescence and giving off foul and bilious odours, you spawn of satan, you?" He replies: "That's my meatless tofu burger. Want one?" Tofu and soy jokes in the West far predate the vegetarian and health craze, though. Auto manufacturer Henry Ford's ingenuity with soybean byproducts became the butt of jokes in the 1930s in the US, when he started heavily investing in the agricultural applications of the bean for industry. Soon, newspapers were boasting that Ford had succeeded in using the oil or fiber from his hundreds of soybean crops in car paint, door handles, gearshifts, window trim, pedals and gears. When Ford predicted that cars would eventually be made entirely from soybeans, soy jokes went into full gear. "Man can have his car and eat it too," made its rounds, as well as "The new car wouldn't need gas, just a little salt, pepper and vinegar." Back in Israel, though, it's not a laughing matter or an either or proposition: carnivores have their meat and their soy schnitzel, too. Sometimes vegetarians also get their schnitzel. In the US in recent years, the word "flexitarian" came into the lexicon, describing people who observe their eating philosophy only part-time, such as vegetarians who eat steak occasionally, or kosher people, who eat non-kosher meat when abroad. "I'm a vegetarian - except for schnitzel," was a common expression on Kibbutz Magal, remembers Nir Avieli from his Nahal military service there. Now a doctor of anthropology specializing in food at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Avieli recognizes that the schnitzel is a legendary food in Israel. But he also says it's not unique to Israel that Israelis need meat on their plates to be physically and psychologically satisfied, and that schnitzel does look far enough removed from the animal to be less intimidating. "But why do vegetarians eat 'hamburgers'?" he asks, quoting Dr. Liora Gvion, a fellow food sociologist. "That is one of the interesting questions about soy." In Eastern Asia, where Avieli lived and worked for several years, Buddhist restaurants use a lot of soy as meat substitutes "because it can look like, taste like and have the texture of animal flesh such as chicken, pork, beef, fish and seafood," he said. "But more philosophical adherents often wonder: are you not creating a sin by wanting to eat a chicken, if you are totally against it morally?" Similar questions comes up in the Jewish world, looking at the range of imitation but kosher shrimp and sausage products, or eating a vegetarian product that looks like meat and tastes like meat but with cheese or other dairy. According to Dr. Benjamin Lau, halachic expert and rabbi of Jerusalem's Ramban Synagogue, the only relevant context in Jewish law about eating food that appears to be meat- or dairy-based, but isn't, is that it must be served in a way as to prevent others from thinking milk and dairy are being served together. "The only subject we found in Halacha about [parve] milk from foods and our ability to drink this milk with meat [suggests that] you must put fruit on the table near the [non-dairy] milk to prevent michshol [temptation], to prevent others from making a mistake. If you put almonds on the table next to almond milk, for example, then it is known this is not [dairy] milk… or if you make a specific table with fruit and fruit milk as a sign that this is kosher." As for eating food designed to look like shrimp, bacon or other treif, but made from kosher materials, it is "100 percent kosher," Lau says. "If everyone knows that you have [parve, kosher] sausages or shrimp, then they know it's not meat and its not mar'it ayin [suggesting to others that shrimp or non-kosher sausages are actually kosher]. But if someone is shocked to see shrimp, one should be sensitive, and this is a question of the mitzvot between men and not the question of mitzvot between man and God, as is with kashrut." ACCORDING TO the Presko company, formerly Chef Hayam, which makes Israel's vegetarian shrimps, calamari and bacon, it is a misperception that the products are soy-based. "It is all made from tsurini, a kosher fish protein," says company president Chaim Greenberg. But despite the vast array of soy and other analogue foods in Israel - from shrimps to sausage to beef - Israeli food interests, as far as processed foods go, stays strictly in one sector. "We are more of a schnitzel than sausage country," says Usant-Ravid of Tivall. "Classic schnitzel has a lot to do with the perception of being a good mother, home-cooked food, and it's easy to prepare." It also serves as the idea of "the center of the plate" she says, quoting anthropologist Mary Douglas. "We put a centerpiece on our plate and than add additions, to make a meal." For as long as Israelis can remember, the most common centerpiece for their plates has been schnitzel. But in home's today, the centerpiece is schnitzel made any which way: fleishig, milchig - or "soychig." "I don't know a house in Israel that doesn't have 'tivol' in the freezer," says chef Bukshester. "It's unbelievable how much it's rooted in Israeli food culture."