Food scene: Planting a vegan notion

“There are over 50 restaurants in Tel Aviv that are completely vegan, and over 500 around the country that serve vegan food,” says Paz.

VEGAN FEST organizer Omri Paz: Proud of how vegan-friendly Israel has become. (photo credit: Courtesy)
VEGAN FEST organizer Omri Paz: Proud of how vegan-friendly Israel has become.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In case you haven’t noticed, this little country of ours can proudly lay claim to being one of the most vegan-friendly places on Mother Earth. Even you animal product eaters out there must surely have taken in an eyeful – if not a mouthful – or two of the plethora of plant-based vittles out there, particularly in Tel Aviv.
But just in case that hasn’t entirely registered with you, you get can the lowdown on how to get by, happily, without killing animals and milking them for all they are worth by popping along to Vegan Fest next week (June 5-6). The event, which has been dubbed “the world’s largest vegan festival,” and which is expected to attract 50,000 people, will take place at Tel Aviv’s trendy Sarona spot. There will be dozens upon dozens of stands dotted around the site laden with delectable bites that should leave even the most diehard carnivores licking their lips. At least that is what Omri Paz expects to happen. And there will be a slew of health- and vegan-related workshops over the two days, as well as kiddies’ activities and music shows, and – besides the food – all gratis.
Paz is not only the organizer of the mega-event, he also is the brains and heart driving the Vegan Friendly nonprofit that has been a major shaker and mover behind the meteoric rise in veganism in these parts over the past seven or so years.
Not that Paz has been keen to circumvent animal products since his cradle days. “I was a law student in Jerusalem and ate meat, everything,” he says.
His carnivorous world came crumbling down around him after catching a no-nonsense video by American vegan activist Gary Yourofsky. Paz suddenly realized the sort of – for want of a harsher word – shenanigans that went on in slaughterhouses, farms and other facilities along the way between the living animal stage to meat dinner, or ice cream, cheese or just a glass of good old cow’s milk.
“I decided that very day that I would no longer eat any animal-based food,” Paz recalls.
Cheese workshop at Meshek Barzilay. (Credit: SHAI BEN EFRAIM)Cheese workshop at Meshek Barzilay. (Credit: SHAI BEN EFRAIM)
It wasn’t just a matter of abstaining from anything that comes from animals for himself. Paz wanted the whole world, or as many people as possible, to follow in his tracks, even if it had implications for his academic progress.
“I started Vegan Friendly a few months later,” he explains. “I dragged my law degree studies on for seven years because I became very involved with Vegan Friendly.”
The then-Hebrew University student had to start from scratch.
“I checked out vegans on Facebook, and I saw there were a few thousand out there in the various groups.”
Suitably fired by the discovery that he was not entirely alone in his plant-based universe, Paz got stuck into things, and naively believed that all he had to do was the get the word out, educate the less well-informed, and all would be well. He was quickly disabused of that fanciful notion.
“It was all new, and I thought that anyone who didn’t know about this, about what was going in the food industry, would immediately switch to veganism. I drafted a flyer and I gave a lecture about it in the law department at my university.”
Paz notes that, today, a full 5% of Israelis are vegans, with the same number of vegetarians. But back then, when he “saw the light,” his newfound plant-based dietary habits drew some astonished responses.
BANA WILL be laying out its wares at the festival, including avocado and roasted wild mushrooms. (Credit: AFIK GABBAY)BANA WILL be laying out its wares at the festival, including avocado and roasted wild mushrooms. (Credit: AFIK GABBAY)
“Yes, some people used to say things like ‘What do you eat?’ But that doesn’t happen now. I think almost everyone either has a vegan in their family or knows someone vegan.”
TODAY, THE Vegan Friendly label is a common sight on product packaging and on the doors and windows of eateries that cater to vegan clients. “There are over 50 restaurants in Tel Aviv that are completely vegan, and over 500 around the country that serve vegan food,” says Paz
Over the years, Paz says, plant-based foods and the catering for such foods have become part of Israeli mainstream culture.
“If you got to a restaurant and ask if they have vegan dishes, even if they don’t, they will know what you are talking about. In that sense, veganism is a fixture here. And not just in Tel Aviv. The leading restaurant and café chains in Israel all have vegan items on their menus.”
There is some national pride to be had, too.
“Tel Aviv, twice, was recognized as the most vegan-friendly city in the world,” Paz notes, adding that we can all be proud of how things have developed here over the last few years. “I am very happy to be living in such a vegan-friendly country, and I am happy that I helped to move things in the right direction.”
If you are still wondering what vegans have to eat, get yourself over Sarona on June 6 and 7. As a former vegetarian myself who adored the really pungent moldy French cheeses, I saw over time that more and more vegan cheeses began appearing on the shelves of health food stores, and gradually even supermarkets. And people who – despite their enlightenment about animal suffering and other negative effects of eating animal-sourced food – still pine for something meaty, there are today plenty of meat substitutes out there too.
A HAPPY face at a previous vegan fest. (Credit: ROI SHPERNIK)A HAPPY face at a previous vegan fest. (Credit: ROI SHPERNIK)
Paz says that veganism offers across-the-board benefits.
“This is not just a trend. Veganism is growing and will continue to grow because of the ecological aspects.”
Indeed, it is said that meat cultivation uses enormous quantities of water – some believe that takes in half of the world’s water resources. And bovine effluence, from both ends of the cow, is one of the biggest contributors to global warming.
“More and more people are aware of that today,” Paz suggests. “That is something that is not open to debate. 99% of people support protecting the environment. Almost everyone wants to prevent cruelty to animals. It is a matter of exposing people to the facts on the ground. All these patterns have been on the up since 2000. There is absolutely no downside to veganism. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”