I have just returned from a lavish breakfast affair. In Turkey such occurrences are common, especially on the weekends. The Turkish breakfast, or kahvalti, which literally translates as “before coffee”, is an event typified by many small plates of cheese, olives, breads and egg specialties punctuated by endless rounds of tea served in tulip-shaped glasses. My favourite part of the meal is the salad course. You heard me correctly: salad for breakfast.
Having lived in the Middle East for eight years, breakfast-time salad is now commonplace for me. When I first moved to the region, however, eating a bit of salad at nine in the morning with a plate of eggs was nothing short of a culinary epiphany. In the US, where I was raised, much of our cultural understanding of the Middle East comes through an Israeli lens. Therefore I always assumed that Israel was creator of this salad idea. It took some time for me to realise my error regarding the delicate politics of brunch in the region.
Many countries in the eastern Mediterranean enjoy a hearty dose of vegetables as part of the morning meal. And it makes sense, given the high quality of cucumbers and tomatoes, as well as the rich olive oil on offer throughout the region. In Turkey, the sprawling breakfast spread has been a facet of the country’s culinary heritage for as long as anyone can remember. At the peak of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish breakfast specialties such as the excellent scrambled-egg-and-tomato dish menemen spread to the corners of the empire. Instead of generating friction, the arrival of these well-travelled recipes in foreign lands resulted in spectacular fusions. Shakshouka, a dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chilli peppers and onions, is thought to have its origins in Tunisia – likely influenced by Turkish menemen.
Early in the Israeli-state project, European immigrants to Palestine began adopting the culinary patterns of the region. From falafel to hummus, the first generations of Israelis bolstered by immigrants from the Arab world began a swift cultural appropriation of local traditions. Walk around the streets of Lower Manhattan these days and you will see the fruits of this combination. You can find Israeli falafel establishments and even something called the Israeli breakfast.
Food is undoubtedly the quickest and most direct entry point into understanding a culture. Many culinary staples that Israel claims as its own are merely copies of dishes that locals have been making for hundreds of years. In fact, salad for breakfast is an indigenous delight throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Maybe it is time for everyone to stop claiming ownership of the rich culinary traditions of the region and start simply enjoying them.
Joseph Dana is acting Istanbul bureau chief for Monocle.