The fleshy stalks of the plant that dots the rocky hills of the coastline of Jaffa are covered with sparkling crystals. Their resemblance to icicles is reflected in the plant’s various popular names – common ice plant, crystalline ice plant or simply ice plant. The glistening “crystals” of Mesembryanthemum crystallinum are really water vesicles to which sea salt has adhered, and are part of a natural mechanism for ridding the plant of excess salt, as the plant’s natural habitat is a narrow, windblown area close to the Mediterranean.
Ice plant is in season from February to June.
“Some people grow this plant to use its leaves like spinach or as a green in a salad,” wrote Prof. Amotz Dafni in his book “Hadudaim Natnu Reham” (University of Haifa Press), a splendid collection of folklore and medicinal and nutritional uses for native plants. These days, the taste of this plant has been virtually forgotten, as its habitat has been shrinking to make way for new high-rises.
People use to serve it in salads and with sea food and fish dishes, but today no one knows it.
Ice plant has been rediscovered and featured in a number of dishes served by chef Tomer Niv at the Rama’s Kitchen restaurant in Nataf, in the Jerusalem hills. These include raw grouper sashimi surrounded by a shimmering crown of ice plant leaves; a tartare with loquats, green plums and ice plant stalks; blue crabs with cherry and ice plant gazpacho; salt-baked Jerusalem artichoke with whipped labaneh and ice plant.
One of the plant’s key characteristics is its ability to enhance the flavor of fish and seafood. It has a crunchy texture and its fresh salty, lemony flavor doesn’t overpower the flavor of the fish or seafood. When you eat it by itself, it’s kind of like tasting water with salt, and the crystallization of the salt is somewhat reminiscent of the taste of an oyster.