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Foraging in Tel Aviv

On Heela Harel’s urban tours, participants learn to spot edible flowers, leaves, and weeds—and how to turn them into lunch

Dana Kessler
April 16, 2018
Photo: Dana Kessler
Photo: Dana Kessler
Photo: Dana Kessler
Photo: Dana Kessler

“It’s good to eat unwashed foraged plants, if the area is clean enough,” Heela Harel told participants—including me—during an urban-foraging tour she led on the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv one sunny Friday in March. “They’re a great source of Vitamin B12 due to all the micro-organisms on them.”

This made me feel a bit better about ingesting various little bugs that lived on the flowers I’d been snacking on during the tour. Those bright pink flowers of the Lablab bean were undoubtedly the most surprising snack—it was strange to eat such pretty flowers, and they tasted unexpectedly sweet—that we discovered on the walk, which started in a deserted field at the edge of the Shapira neighborhood and continued to Park HaHorshot (meaning “woods park”) in the Abu Kabir neighborhood, between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute.

Heela Harel. (Photo: Dana Kessler)
Heela Harel. (Photo: Dana Kessler)

Harel has been taking friends on foraging tours for years, but for the past three years, she has been doing it professionally. She takes up to 15 people—kids are welcome—on each outing, where she teaches her audience to pick wild edible weeds and flowers, as well as some not-so-wild ones. Harel is what you might call an urban hippie. Apart from foraging tours, she guides other urban tours, as part of CTLV. She is part of a group of activists in Florentin (a neighborhood in south Tel Aviv) that fight the municipality in order to create more public green spaces in the city, and coordinator of a community garden there. She is also a visual artist and she has been working as a graphic designer for Israel’s leading satirical TV show, Eretz Nehederet, for more than a decade.

During our foraging tour, we learned to identify which plants are edible, which parts can be eaten, and whether they need to be cooked. For instance, we learned how to identify flowers from the Cruciferae family, which are edible: They have four petals arranged in the shape of a cross. We picked what is commonly known as devil’s thorn, which tasted like spinach, and henbit dead-nettle, which tasted sort of like celery. We picked Mediterranean asparagus and mallow leaves. We couldn’t find any good prickly pears because they weren’t in season, so Harel prompted us to taste the stems of the Opuntia ficus-indica—the most popular cactus in Israel, which in Hebrew is simply called tsabar, like Israeli-born Israelis themselves. Truth be told, the inside of the stem was slimy and disgusting and seemed like something out of Ghostbusters. I’m not sure what that says about Israelis.

After we tasted whatever Harel instructed us to pick (she kept stressing not to pick the whole bush), everything went into our own bags or into the large stainless-steel salad bowl she brought. After the bowl was full of leaves, weeds, and flowers, we sat down for a picnic in the middle of a little community vegetable garden, which is part of the food forest in Park HaHorshot. Harel rolled out a mat and pulled out of her bag a loaf of carrot-tahini bread, a nut-loaf, and a few other ingredients. One of us got the task of grinding olives (which she cured herself) together with fresh biblical-hyssop leaves we picked (or za’atar leaves, as they are called in Israel) and adding olive oil. Another got the task of separating red cabbage leaves to make little edible bowls for the salad, which was simply a mixture of everything we had picked, on which Harel poured a bit of olive oil, citrus salt she made at home, and bitter-orange juice. She picked the bitter orange on the way, explaining that it’s a great substitute for lemon due to its aromatic nature. She also told us how once people used to plant bitter oranges around their orange groves to keep away thieves, letting them think the whole grove is filled with the standard orange’s bitter and generally inedible cousin (unless you make marmalade, compote, or liqueur out of it).

The freshly foraged salad—served with bread and olive-za’atar spread and homemade geranium soda—was a perfect way to end the tour and start the weekend. The following week started with an email from Harel to everyone who attended the tour with a list of all the things we foraged, including photos and explanations, and a few useful vegan recipes for urban gatherers.

The crowd that Harel gets on her tours is a mix of locals and tourists, environmentalists, activists, foodies, vegetarians, and families. “Some are looking to enrich their culinary knowledge but most are just curious and are looking for something fun and different to do in the city,” she explained. “In the last year or two, there has been a heightened interest in foraging. Many say this tour made them feel like kids again, and even if they won’t remember a thing from what they’ve learned, it’s really fun to feel nature in the city.”

On the tour, I met Naama Keren, who works in a sound studio. “I go to anything that Heela does because it’s always fun,” she told me. “I hope I learned something from this tour, although I don’t think I’d pass a pop quiz.”

Ilay Englard, CEO of an A.I. company that improves food-supply economics, invited Harel to give his staff a private foraging tour in February and returned delighted: “We wanted to spend a day outside the office, get back to basics, and look for things to eat,” he said. “It was lots of fun and very freeing to wander around in green areas inside the city.”

“I started foraging as part of my work at the Florentin community garden, where I began to realize that all around us are weeds and flowers you can eat,” Harel told me. “The first things I learned about were the things that grew in our garden: mallow leaves, chrysanthemums, different kinds of nettles, legumes, etc. I started to research the plants in the garden and then continued to other places. I got really excited to discover the abundance of edible weeds that grow right under our noses—they are fresh, healthy, available, and tasty. At first, I went crazy and just wanted to eat everything.”

But that didn’t always go well; sometimes she ended up eating the wrong things. “When I was just starting out, and eager to taste everything, I took chances I shouldn’t have, and even landed in the E.R. once,” she said. “The important thing is never to taste anything if you’re not 100 percent sure what it is.”

After those early missteps, she didn’t stop foraging, but she did change her approach: “I calmed down and decided to really learn about this field. I did a course in medicinal-herb foraging with a herbalist, and continued to research and learn from people.”

Harel lives in Tel Aviv and does most of her foraging in the city, as part of her day-to-day life. She admits that she is jealous of the abundance of wild weeds on Mount Carmel or the Jerusalem mountains, but that only makes foraging in Tel Aviv that much more exciting and challenging. “Finding a good place to pick wild weeds in Tel Aviv is like finding a treasure,” she told me. “Urban foraging is much more available for whoever lives in the city than organizing trips to the country. In order to make something a habit, it has to be available.”

Harel’s main goal in organizing these tours is letting people in on the secret. “I think this is a very simple and fun thing that most people aren’t aware of. I hope that my enthusiasm for foraging is contagious. I am very happy to hear afterward that people use what they’ve learned, even if they just make geranium syrup from the bush in their building’s front yard. Walking in nature, even if it’s urban nature, is good for the soul and makes you feel good every time.”


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Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.

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