Story and photos by Bill Strubbe
When pondering the Holy Land, images of the ancient walls of Jerusalem, catching rays on a Tel Aviv beach, the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walked, hiking up Masada at sunrise, and floating in the briny Dead Sea quickly come to mind, but culinary delights though – perhaps with the exception of falafel – are largely absent. But once you’ve wandered the shouks - street markets - of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and encountered pyramids of golden apricots and dates, sacks of nuts, burekas and knafeh piping hot from the oven, brilliant mounds of turmeric, paprika and sumac, stacks of braided challah, massive platters of honey-drenched pastries and artisanal cheeses, you’ll be hard-pressed to banish them from mind.
Levinsky Street, Tel Aviv
Spanning a half dozen congested blocks of Levinsky Street in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Florentine, the mom and pop shops established by immigrant Jews from Greece, Romania, Persia and Turkey are a far cry from your sterile grocery. Part and parcel of shopping here is the smell, touch and taste; why would you buy something without mouth testing it? Expect it to be loud and bustling. The locals haggle, jostle and elbow – this is not the place to be meek and shy, especially on Friday mornings as Shabbat approaches. The conundrum of what exactly is Israeli food is answered here on this hectic street; it’s a hodgepodge of disparate influences from around the world, just like Israelis themselves.
Penso Bakery (Levinsky 43) sells only two items: specialty drinks and bourekas, a flaky filo dough filled with cheese, spinach or spiced potatoes, best enjoyed within minutes from the oven. Bourekas are the specialty of the Penso family, who have been serving their age-old Turkish treat for 80 years. The secret is in the dough, which can be bought to take home to stuff with meats, grilled vegetables, or even sweets. The other items are specialty beverages: ayran, a Turkish milky yogurt drink (like a rose lasse); tosseta, made from almond milk; or tamahindi, an Arabic version of lemonade. If you arrive at Penso at the right time, you might be sitting elbow to elbow with the Israeli Prime Minister, who, it is said, frequents the joint.
The dusty window with its meager display looks like it hasn’t been updated in decades, but don’t let that deter you. Aficionados of marzipan know that Konditoria Albert (Matalon 36) is the singular place to buy the treat in Israel; the fresh fluffiness simply melts in your mouth. The secret recipe for this almond dough has been handed down through several generations of the family of Yehuda Albert, a Greek immigrant from Salonika. The handmade almond cookies, marichinos, made without flour, and equally delicious meringue kisses, and Salonika pastries inspire a loyal following. Often 80-something-year-old Itzhak holds court at the table, hand-shelling the almonds; clients and friends join him, chatting all the while. Brother and sister are yearning to retire, yet their offspring are not interested in taking on the business. If you happen to feel a marzipan calling, they’d no doubt be thrilled to hear from you!
If you’re crazed for olives – or pickled anything for that matter – then Haim Rafael’s (Levinsky 26) is the mythical stall to stop and nosh at. While a number of shops sell similar deli delights, our guide insists that this is the very best place - not just here, but in all of Israel. Haim’s olives are packed in Greece just for this store. Additionally, there are pickled peppers stuffed with goat cheese, and pickled herring and fish using recipes dating back generations.
Newcomer, Café Levinsky 41, offers artisanal sodas in a myriad of fantastic flavors. The shelves brim with jars containing sliced kiwis, blood oranges, plums, pomegranate, goji-berries and persimmons steeping in sugar water. Another array of bottles holds edibles not normally associated with sodas: kale, almonds, red peppers, pistachios, lemon geranium, rose petals, etc. The shop owner, Benny Briga, appears like a mad scientist amidst a laboratory experiment, plucking cinnamon sticks from one jar, cherry preserves from another, and a squeeze of lime into a glass, then filling it with soda. He hands it to me and it’s utterly refreshing, the unusual flavor combination tantalizing the palate. Don’t miss their homemade cider with ginger and lemon. Oh yes, and there’s coffee, but that seems almost beside the point.
Though not actually on Levinsky, but one block away at Halutzim 3, there is a joint you love at first sight - or mouthful - a nameless bodega that only a local could tell you about. It smacks of cutting-edge hipness, the latest big thing, but not without good cause. Three years ago, in a former textile warehouse, Eitan and Naama opened an eatery that would be a “gastronomical restaurant, disengaged from the industrial food markets”. The daily tapas a la Tel Aviv menu evolves out of whatever tempts Naama at the produce and fish markets, whether it be calamari or shrimp, Jerusalem artichoke gnocchi, fennel salad with mint, grapefruit and hibiscus, or snapper ceviche. They’ve apparently established a reputation for homemade corned beef, sourdough bread with chili and radish salsa, but waiting for us to taste is ikra, an old-fashioned, unadorned dish of fish eggs cured in salt, red onions, milk, egg and lemon. It is simple and delicious. Reservations are not taken, and it’s only open for dinner, except for Fridays when they serve lunch.
Closer to the city center, Shuk HaCarmel, established in the 1920s as a Yemenite market, attracts far more tourists. Rather than being confined to narrow sidewalks and dealing with vehicle traffic, as at Levinsky, the Carmel is a pedestrian paradise spanning several streets and alleys. It’s best to just wander and follow your eyes and nose among the stalls of walnuts and figs, baked goods, towers of candies, baskets of ruby-red strawberries, and even newcomers such as dim sum.
It’s as much a performance as a food stall at HaCarmel 42 where Kobi makes his famous bureeks for the gathered crowd. Filo dough leaves are dropped into boiling oil, an egg cracked with flair and dropped in and fried, then stuffed into a pita with cabbage, tomatoes and spicy sauce. It’s unique, and worth the messy effort to keep it off your hands and clothes.
Established in 1926, at Café Cohen (Yishkon 32), Shlomo Cohen continues the family business in this unpretentious storefront, a rare restaurant preserving the Old World, just like Bubbe and Zeide ate in Minsk or Lita: divine chopped liver, marinated herring, kishke (stuffed intestines), and even grivalach (dried fat) kreplach. Okay, so it might be a cardiologist’s nightmare, but many of these dishes you will not find elsewhere. Shlomo also continues in the family line of talented chazanut, with a masterful concert performance held at the shop every Friday afternoon.
Hidden away in the alleys of the Carmel, it’s not easy to find, but don’t give up. Started way back when Palestine was still a British Colony, Humus Shlomo and Doron (Yishkon 29 ) has been serving up humus with a Yemenite flair; a platter of the famous chickpea spread topped with shakshuka, a Sephardic Jewish national dish of poached eggs in a tomato, onion and chili pepper stew. Also worth trying: lachuch, a spongy Yemenite bread made with fenugreek powder; and saluf, a traditional flatbread made with fenugreek and tomato.
Since 1936, the Balkan Bakery (Daniel Street) has been baking up everything sweet and savory. The photograph in the store’s logo and on the wall is of grandfather Yosef who started the family’s first bakery in Bulgaria. The family’s secret recipes are what keep customers coming back for more - for more than 80 years now.
For baked goods of a more Parisian and Italian style, Lehamim Bakery (HaCarmel 11) has been serving fresh, artisan breads for more than a decade. Uri Sheft, owner and founder, was trained in Denmark. Using traditional bread baking methods and top quality ingredients, Lehamim’s reputation is staked on its fine sourdoughs and simple white loaves. If you can wait until 5:30pm, all breads left in the store are sold at a discount.
In the heart of Jerusalem, Mahaneh Yehuda is a blend of Levinsky and Carmel, extending from main thoroughfares through covered pedestrian walkways. From 80,000 to 90,000 people shop here weekly at the 350 stores, and some vendors have been selling to three generations of the same families. To chill out for a bit, find the hidden square at the Iraqi Market where elderly men gather to play fast and furious games of cards and backgammon.
Halva can be bought in shops throughout Israel, but the go-to place for this sesame paste confection is Halva Kingdom (Etz Ha’Haim 75). The first Halva Kingdom store opened in 1947 in the Old City, then moved to Machaneh in 1986. I adore halva, but usually find the nutty seed flavor is overwhelmed by the cloying sweetness of sugar. But Halva Kingdom uses only honey. Eli Mamman stirs the Moroccan family secrets into a large steel vat, and nearby a double row of not-too-sweet blocks of halva await to fulfil your cravings in every flavor you could dream of, 100 to be precise: pistachio, walnut, date, cinnamon, Toblerone, vanilla caramel, etc.
Uzi Eli hales from a Yemenite healer family that claims to be descended from the Rambam (a medieval Jewish doctor also named Maimomides) and aims to heal whatever ails you; migraine, sinus, diabetes, chronic fatigue, etc. Their shop, known as Uzi-Eli The Etrog Man (HaEtrog 10; how Providential is that! www.etrogman.com) attracts religious Jews in kippas and tsitsits, as well as the hipster dreadlock crowd. The shelves are crowded with fresh fruits and vegetables, most notable among them the yellow etrog looking like a mutant lemon, integral to the celebrations of Sukkot, and the leaves of qat, a plant from the Arabian Peninsula long used as a stimulant and aphrodisiac. On the upper shelves are jars filled with gelatinous globs of home-grown kombucha. In addition to fresh squeezed drinks, there are homemade cosmetics and health products made in small batches from fresh ingredients. The operation might seem a bit of a shill, but it’s lively and fun, and the drinks are tasty and surely can’t be bad for you.
The spot for Kugel Yerushalmi, an authentic delicacy brought to Jerusalem by Hasidic Jews in the 18th-century and traditionally eaten with cholent and pickles after Sabbath morning prayer services, is the Cohen Brothers (Etz Haim 11). Years ago, when walking through the religious neighborhood of Me'a She'arim, I spotted platters with golden brown wedges. Curious, I bought a still-warm slice and was hooked. This noodle pudding is made from caramelized noodles spiced with black pepper, a sophisticated interplay of sweetness and a bite with a subtle toasty flavor; like a taste of age-old history in every mouthful.
If you’ve never tasted Kurdish fare, then Morduch (Agripas 70) is the place to do so. The inauspicious looking eatery is packed at lunch and on Friday with locals lined up for the famous homemade kubeh and soups. There’s a choice of red soup (beetroot), hamusta soup (with a tart lemon twist), and bamieh, an okra stew. The delicious kubeh are semolina dumplings stuffed with ground meat, seasoned with Baharat spice. With a couple of salads or dolmas on the side you’ll be satiated, stuffed and content.
Yallabasta.com is a fantastic website that covers Israel’s street markets with maps, listings and photos of the various shops, and you can purchase for about $25 the Bites Card, a passport to taste an ever-changing list of six of a specific market’s culinary treats, stalls you might not have found yourself.
For the best of Israel’s tour guides, whether general tours or a focus on Israeli foods, see ViaSabre www.viasabre.com.