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On a food trail in Israel

Of all the things this Middle Eastern country is known for, its cuisine is the least explored and most underrated

brunch Updated: Mar 17, 2018 21:15 IST
Samreen Tungekar
Samreen Tungekar
Hindustan Times
israel,middle east,open restaurants
The Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, Israel(shutterstock)
The Old City of Jerusalem is a walled part that comprises historic walking areas, neighbourhoods, museums, sights and landmarks (Getty Images)

The first thing that probably comes to your mind when you hear ‘Israel’ is what you read in newspapers everyday. Next, you might think of stories from the Old Testament, and all the mythology of creation. What you are unlikely to dwell on, however, is its food. Which is unfortunate, because this country has mixed old traditions with new, and has developed a food culture that is simply fabulous.

Imagine walking down a street assuming the best they have to offer to you is a halva of a kind, and a falafel maybe. But then, you find yourself in front of a cinnamon bun stall. That’s Jerusalem, and that’s just the first thing that caught my fancy, before I saw the many food joints that jam the shuks (markets).

Kubbeh soup for the soul

The Mahane Yehuda shuk in Jerusalem has lively nightlife options, with restaurants, bars and intimate music clubs (Shutterstock)

Jerusalem is a cultural hotspot, and there is literally nothing you won’t find in the alleys of the Mahane Yehuda shuk, from restaurants, cafés and pubs to the sweet smell of cinnamon buns, spices and delicious halva.

My eyes went to Azura, a restaurant in the Iraqi market of the shuk that you could easily miss for the bigger names. It offers traditional Kurdish dishes with influences of Turkish and Iraqi cuisine. From an extensive menu, the most comforting dish is the Iraqi-Jewish kubbeh soup, which is beet soup with meat dumplings. Then, as hunger strikes, I move on to an aubergine stuffed with meat, cinnamon and pine nuts.

And as I walk out of Azura, I spot a Kurdish woman right outside, making delicious kubba (a Kurdish dish made of semolina stuffed with meat).

Fresh off the roast

The one thing I miss in India is really tiny coffee shops, and so I stop at Roasters, a tiny spot on the corner of the street. “Don’t drink a cappuccino, drink an espresso. The roast is fresh!” the barista instructs me, pointing to a bag of beans. I go along with his choice and he is right.

The Africa in Israel

A Moroccan delicacy in Israel sounds a bit off my plans, but Avi Levy, winner of Masterchef Israel 2011, urges me to pick up a piece of his pastilla. I oblige. This is good, I think to myself, savouring a piece of pastry stuffed with chicken and almonds, with hints of cinnamon and saffron, fried to perfection. Then, looking for something sweet, I turn to Levy’s mother Miriam who is making heavenly yo-yos, cookies made with a special dough of almonds.

Pita no bar

Pita pockets can be stuffed with a variety of ingredient combos, from fruits and cheese to meat and corn, for lip-smacking aftertastes (Dinodia Images)

Despite trying my luck with roadside shawarma, I want some authentic Arabian food, and the first thing that comes to mind is pita. I’m aiming for truly authentic, so I find Dwiny, Jerusalem’s first pita bar. Open pita pockets are a first for me, but they look so pretty! I try an open pita pocket filled with osso buco that has been stewed for 10 hours. And then there is mullet craire, which is soft and spicy fish made in tangy sauces. Seafood in pita never seemed like such an easy option before this.

Only the best hummus

No matter how well refrigerated, hummus tastes best when had fresh (Dinodia Images)
The mystery of where hummus originated is the same as where the rasgulla is from, only, it is a debate beyond borders

The stories of where hummus originated are the same as where the rasgulla is from, only, this is a debate beyond borders. But good hummus is hard to find. It’s got to be fresh, I warn myself. So a small, unsuspecting shop near the Damascus Gate beckons me and I find Mohammed, the owner of Ikermawi. Soon, there’s a plate of hummus made with fresh chickpeas and yummy falafel. For someone who has never liked any falafel I’ve tasted, I’m taken in by surprise. Fresh and non-refrigerated hummus was a dream before this.

The fragrance of a vintage bake

It’s difficult to point one good place for desserts in a city where halva vendors lure you with freshly made goodies in the market, but a dessert person like me will always be on the lookout for confectionery, even though I spotted some really fancy raisin bread on some roadside stalls. I’m looking for something vintage, so I dive into the pastries, chocolates on sticks and macarons at Cafe Kadosh, the oldest bakery in Jerusalem that opened in 1967.

A common sight in Jerusalem is stacks of fancy breads at roadside stalls (Shutterstock)

Best bebabs, literally

I take kebabs quite seriously. So, when I spot Bar Ochel that claims to have the best kebabs in Tel Aviv, I like the challenge. Their kebabs aren’t so spicy or oily. It takes me a minute to get used to the taste of kebabs that aren’t masaledar but actually have the flavour of the meat and condiments. Turns out, they are right. These are probably the best kebabs. Wanting more, I order Moroccan beef ragout with hummus. Well-cooked beef with a tangy gravy, mixed with hummus and topped with fresh herbs. I’m so glad I didn’t stop at the kebabs!

Armenian potters call out to me in the hustle and bustle of Carmel Market as passers-by shop for Shabbat, the day of rest, which is the next day. Everything is closed on Shabbat, so it’s a miracle I managed to procure that good a meal on a day when the market is brimming!

The other side of fine dining

Fine dining is always associated with poshness, but Jerusalem shows me a different side at Machneyuda. A dimly-lit place with an open bar and open kitchen, it’s the place to try seafood and desserts. As I’m savouring a chocolate truffle, the waiters start to sing along with the blaring music and get on to the bar table, adding their own music to the songs!

A popular dessert in the Middle East, the knafeh consists of filo pastry, cheese and syrup (Shutterstock)

I return to India with the taste of Israeli culture, but a part of my heart is still there, gawking at the knafeh shops.

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From HT Brunch, March 18, 2018

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First Published: Mar 17, 2018 21:15 IST