In every household in Israel whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Bahá’í, atheist….or just human, a family is sharing a tomato and cucumber salad, doused liberally with lemon juice and olive oil. Tourists call it Israeli salad but Hebrew speaking locals use the term salat aravi (Arab salad) or the more diplomatic salat katzutz (chopped salad). There’s even a Yemenite diner that offers a popular green chili version known as fiery salad, an allusion to the character trait not the heat. Despite the conflicting synonyms, its origin has never been contested, at least not at the level of the hummus or falafel wars. Most don’t have the stamina to start another revolution. So quietly, with or without flat leafed parsley, this simple salad has become the true commonality among citizens of this small country.
While a universal name has never been found, there is a clear consensus of how this salad should be made. The recipe is a matter of first grade addition, 1+1, just tomatoes and cucumbers. Accompaniments add personality- a dusting of sumac, lemon juice, olive oil, vinegar, fresh za’atar, parsley, coriander but it cannot overpower the basic equation. Other vegetables may be mixed in as long as they meld chromatically- red bell peppers but never carrots or purple cabbage. It would be like trying to make strawberry shortcake with raspberries- it can’t be done.
Every salat katzuz begins the same, the key difference lies in the quality of the ingredients. It should linger in the memory – tomatoes that encapsulate summer, crisp cucumbers, fruity olive oil, lemons freshly picked from the garden, a sprinkling of salt. Or it may deserve to be pushed aside, ignored- refrigerated produce, vegetables limp from long distance travel, flat oil. Yet this red and green medley is such a basic staple- the bread and butter of every meal- that just about anything is better than going without.
Even with access to pampered vegetables, the secret is all in the knife. The mantra here is dak, dak, dak as they say in Hebrew, or finely chopped. Slice them into large chunks and you’ve made a Romanian salata asortata. Add feta and olives and you’ve got Greek horiatiki. Grated sirene cheese and red peppers transform it to Bulgarian shopska.
On the contrary, the vegetables in salat katzuz should be as small as possible without losing shape- miniscule cubes immersed in lemony vinaigrette to be scooped up with a tablespoon not a fork. That’s the way it should be done.
Despite the long introduction, I already have a recipe for salat katzuz on my blog, one of my first posts. Instead I offer you another chopped salad, one using winter’s offerings – carrots, cabbage and multicolored peppers. I call it almost rainbow salad – all that’s missing is blue.
Almost Rainbow Salad
1 red bell pepper, chopped into small cubes
3 carrots, grated
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped into small cubes
1 bunch coriander or parsley, chopped
½ purple cabbage, finely shredded (I used only ¼ of the cabbage because it was gigantic)
¼ cup white vinegar
Juice of one lemon
4-5 tablespoons of olive oil or a good glug
Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix until uniform. Add the vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Mix until the salad glistens. Set aside for about an hour to marinate (it’s a hardy salad and holds well even the following day).