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Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel Independence Day always follows soon after Passover, and though it may be raining where you are, Israelis will be heading outdoors for the thrill of the grill. I talk with Linda Maurice about mangal – Israeli barbecue culture.

Okay Linda, you lived in Israel for many years, what is mangal and what is its significance?

Jamie, to be truly Israeli, you need to understand the culture of mangal, otherwise known as al ha-esh (on the fire) or "barbecue.” Drive around Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, and the most visible part of the national celebrations will be a cloud of smoke hanging over the country, from all of the mangals (a charcoal grill of Turkish origin similar to a hibachi) being held in every park, forest, garden or balcony.

So mangal is the grill and the event. Is mangal only a Yom Ha’atzmaut thing; does everyone participate?

Yes, everyone does it. Ashkenazi or Sephardi, everyone has a mangal at one point or another, birthdays, camping, by the side of the road, but especially on Yom Ha’atzmaut when the whole country has a day off without the restrictions of a religious holiday.

So how do Israelis mangal and what do they cook and eat for Yom Ha’atzmaut?

Most of the time big, American-type grills are not put to use. The preferred method is a tiny portable, often disposable charcoal grill that cooks low to the ground. Beware your knees, because crouching down or bending over the grill is the way most Israelis cook.

To give it a try, first, so that your meat doesn’t stick to the grill, you rub an oil-coated onion over the surface. Then, away you go.

Meat is generally the norm for the mangal, from kebabs (kind of like ground meat sausages), ketzizot (kind of like hamburger patties often made from ground, dark turkey and flavored with onion, carrot, garlic and parsley. Ground beef or even chicken can also be used), chicken and steaks (which are very pricy in Israel). Shishlik, marinated and skewered lamb, beef or chicken with skewered vegetables, is also popular. For the vegetarians among us, try marinating just vegetables for your skewer (or shipud in Hebrew, shipudim, plural)

Besides the meat and grilled veg, what else are Israelis putting on their Independence Day plates?

For your sides, you need an assortment of salads, or salatim, in Hebrew. But lettuce is usually nary in sight, for Israeli salatim are a varied bunch. From hummus (ground chickpeas),  tehina (ground sesame paste), matbucha (like a cooked Turkish salad with tomatoes and peppers), salat hatzillim(grilled mashed eggplant with garlic and mayonnaise) to salat yerakot Yisraeli (Israeli vegetable salad which consists of very finely diced cucumbers and tomatoes, sometimes with parsley and onions, tossed with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Leave the vinegar at home. A REAL Israeli salad does not have vinegar, contrary to most American beliefs! Oh, and don’t peel your cucumber, buy the small, sweet Israeli ones with the thin, un-waxed skin. Then you can use all the parts!)

Don’t forget to bring the pita. Lots of pita bread is required at any Israeli event so that the meat and/or salads can be scooped or inserted into the pocket.

Sounds amazing! What about dessert; what do Israelis serve at a mangal.

For dessert, if you have any room left, make sure that you have a nice, ripe big watermelon to cut up into chunks and slices. Nothing is better at a mangal than a fresh, juicy, just cut avatee’ach (watermelon). For sweets, you can bring along rugelach, chocolate balls, halva, baklava or any type of cookie or cake that takes your fancy.

Wow, any other tips for a Yom Ha’atzmaut mangal?

Yes, to really master the art of mangal, you must learn to fashion a manual fan for your barbecue to keep the air moving around the meat and the coals ablaze. Usually, a piece of cardboard folded in two will do the job. Israelis even have a word for this important part of their mangal, lenafnef, a verb which literally means to fan (or tachlis, to the point, waving your hands around in front of the grill so that the coals don’t go out!). The cardboard device is thus called a nafnaf. And, leave it to the creative Israelis – you can even now buy a plastic nafnaf to reuse over and over. But most purists stick with the traditional cardboard, it’s rife with nostalgia!

Thanks, Linda, I think you made everyone hungry. I can’t wait (for my husband) to dust off the grill and lay down some shipudim. Yom ha’atzamaut sameach everyone!

More for Yom Ha'atzmaut 

The Flavors of Limonana

Israeli Recipe You Need To Try