For me, salads have always been the culinary equivalent of a sad trombone. I’m active. I want something warm and hearty after a hard effort, not the stuff you give the class gerbil in elementary school. This, I know, is a wildly outdated characterization of salads, if not a surprising one coming from a vegetarian.
But I live in Germany, where there are a lot of rules, and a lot of exceptions to those rules. My exception for salads is the Israeli salad, usually defined as a chopped salad with diced tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers topped with a light, lemon-based vinaigrette. Simple, right? A recent trip to Israel coupled with a chat with none other than Olympian runner Maor Tiyouri helped me change my perspective.
Israeli Salads, Twice a Day
Tiyouri is a wildly accomplished Israeli Olympic long-distance runner. Over the course of her career, she’s held the national record in the 5,000-meter run and is a three-time national champion. So it’s fair to wonder: what’s fueling these impressive performances?
Although she doesn’t credit one dish to her success, she’s quick to mention the Israeli salad. Tiyouri describes it as a staple of her diet; something she eats twice a day. But that wasn’t always the case.
Tiyouri admits that she slacked off on the salads. Then her nutritionist, Tamar Ashlagi, told her in plain medical terms: “You’re Israeli! You have to eat salad every day. Where are your Israeli roots?” Ashlagi is the nutritionist for the Israeli Olympic windsurfing, sailing, and long-distance running teams. She encourages everyone to eat salads, which she says are an important component of the Israeli and Mediterranean diet.
“In Israel, there is a large, readily available variety of vegetables, and they are relatively cheap. There are a lot of possibilities for preparing a salad using seasonal vegetables,” she explained. “The salads can be simple and don’t require too much time to prepare, making them readily available even for tired or busy individuals.”
Of course, it’s not just about their simplicity. Salads are fundamentally good fuel for long-distance runners. “The high fiber content is beneficial for the gut microbiome and digestion,” she said.
Introducing more salads into Tiyorui’s diet wasn’t just about honoring her Israeli roots. A veggie-rich, nutrient-dense salad full of fiber like the Israeli salad is a welcome addition to any runner’s diet.
“Israeli salads contain multiple types of vegetables and are usually seasoned lightly with olive oil, which is beneficial for the cardiovascular system,” Ashlagi explained. “It is common knowledge that every vegetable has different nutritional values. Therefore, the more colorful the salad is, the more nutritious it is.”
A colorful salad usually means more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which are known to be anti-inflammatory. In other words, Israeli salads can play a nutritional role in an endurance athlete’s recovery and combating free radicals, not to mention the high fiber content helps regulate blood sugar.
That said, this doesn’t mean you should start stuffing your face with salads every chance you get. “Athletes should be aware that eating a salad close to training or competition is not a good idea because of the high fiber content that can cause gut discomfort due to slow digestion,” Ashlagi explains.
For Tiyouri, Israeli salads come with a bonus benefit. It’s a taste of home for the 32-year-old, now based in Boulder, Colorado.
“When I miss home, I want to make it,” she says. Now it’s part of her morning routine. She’ll cut up some tomatoes, cucumbers, and top it with olive oil, lemon, salt, and pepper. “I usually do that in the morning, after a workout and with dinner,” she says.
Tiyouri isn’t rigid with her Israeli salads. As long as it has tomatoes and cucumber, she welcomes some greens (spinach, arugula) and additional veggies (radishes, red bell pepper), even Israeli feta cheese if she can get her hands on some. It all depends on what she has available in her fridge, what’s in season, and frankly, what she needs to eat before it spoils. “Sometimes I just want to throw everything in there,” she says.
Recipe: Israeli Endurance Greens
This just might be the easiest dish to make in the series so far. At minimum, all you need is a cucumber, some grape tomatoes, olive oil, lemon, salt, and a knife to make it all happen.
But we’re not about doing the bare minimum. For this recipe, we’re adding some color—chopped red bell pepper and a carrot along with some of Tiyouri’s favorite bonus regional ingredients, feta cheese and cilantro.
This recipe also adds chopped dates. Why dates? Because they come up time and time again when you ask Israeli athletes about some of their favorite endurance snacks. They grow well in Israel where the temperatures can crawl above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and can be eaten directly from the tree.
Nutritionally speaking, Ashlagi notes that dates are a good source of carbohydrates, glucose, and fructose—making them a quick and optimal source of quick energy for exercise.
“Dates can serve as a replacement for around two energy gels,” she explained. “It’s also a great snack if you desire something sweet, if consumed moderately.”
Within the Israeli salad, dates offer a sweetness to balance out the saltiness of the feta.
You can adjust the quantities in this recipe as you like. And like Tiyouri, feel free to add an extra veggie or swap some out for your favorite vegetables. Not only will she throw in a radish from time to time, she might cut up some avocado or toss in some corn. Put in whatever ingredients are going to make you excited about having this salad. Below is a recipe to get you started.
Serves: 2 people
- 1 small cucumber, diced
- 150 grams grape tomatoes, halved
- 1 small red onion, minced
- 1 small carrot, chopped
- ½ red bell pepper, chopped
- 50g dried dates (about six dates), chopped
- 15 grams fresh cilantro, chopped
- 30ml or 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- Lemon juice from 1 lemon
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, more to taste
- 85g (about 1/2 cup) Israeli feta cheese, crumbled
1) Halve your cucumber and slice each half lengthwise into four slices. Hold the slices together like a bouquet and chop them into small pieces. Add them to a medium-sized mixing bowl.
2) Halve the tomatoes and add them to the bowl along with the red bell pepper, carrot, dried dates, and finely chopped cilantro.
3) Soak minced red onion in lemon juice and set aside.
4) Cube the feta cheese or crumble it directly into the bowl with your hands. Add the kosher salt, black pepper, olive oil, and lemon juice with onions. Mix thoroughly until the salad is well coated and serve.