Haj Kahil

fried cheese

When I left the restaurant Haj Kahil after lunch, I said to someone – “That was the best day of my life.” When Erin, who was dining next to me, took a bite of the fried Halloumi cheese, her whole body softened, her eyes dimmed, and she looked as if she had been lulled into a trance.

Labna with wild mustardpomagranite juicefried haloumi cheesewaiter at Haj Khil

And when someone tried to talk to her, she said – “I’m sorry. I’m just…having…a…moment..with…this….cheese…”

prickly pearspickles
Haj Khilpita

And from the look on her face, it was clearly quite the moment, enjoying that first warm bite of soft, pillowy cheese sealed inside a firm, golden-brown crust. Of course, I made sure that the plate was set down near me, and I plucked one off for myself.

herb salad with pinenuts

bread oven room

Over on hundred cultures live in the small country of Israel, and thirty-three languages are spoken. Because people live so close together, the food traditions cross fluidly from one culture to the next here. Fresh produce is abundant due to the climate and the vegetables are still-crunchy and juicy, as if they are still alive, the herbs are deep-green and aromatic – I was intrigued by hyssop, which I’ve never had fresh before. Meats are complimented by the seared flavor of a grill, or a leisurely roast in the oven, cooked so they fall apart with just the gentle prodding of a fork.

bread-baked meat

And nutty tahini (sesame paste), is a flavor I thought I knew. But here, it is so revered and each spoonful tastes like it was just-ground to order. From hummus to baba ganoush, it’s a flavor that binds it all, the glue that is holding many of the flavors of Israel – and the various cuisines within its controversial borders – together.

Haj Khil in Tel AvivArabic lunch
chef omarchicken baked in pita

Olive oil, chickpeas, sesame seeds, dried fruits, nuts, filo dough, and plenty of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers come heaped in salads, are stuffed into meat dishes, and everything seems to get tossed with an abundance of fresh herbs, all cultivated from this culinary eden.

fattoush

lamb at Haj Khil

Lamb leg

Arabic food is one of my favorite things to eat; I love the lively bowls of pickled vegetables, Labna (thick white, creamy cheese) with pools of olive oil spilling out, and whole roasted leg of lamb stuffed with dried figs and pine nuts and roasted for seven hours.

leg of lamb with dried fruits

And Kanafeh, warm kataifi (shredded filo) pastries sprinkled with chopped pistachios and doused in orange-blossom honey. When pulled apart, hot cheese oozes out. Meals end with tiny shots of coffee with cardamom seeds clustered at the bottom, their aroma permeating the exotic, murky brew.

I’m with a small group traveling in Israel, learning about the foods and the cultures of this country that is roughly the size of New Jersey. Only sixty or so years-old, Israel is young. But it’s vibrant and brash; people will tell you what they think and expect the same out of you. (Kind of like blogging!) The uncertainty one might have about this country is tempered at the rickety linoleum tables in the back of markets where hand-pulled filo is quickly baked and drizzled with honey for you and at the juice stands which dot the streets near the beaches, pouring fresh, cold juices. But if you do want a taste of controversy, just mention the word “hummus” and you will be told by anyone within earshot where the best place is, and why it’s better than any of the other places you were at.

lamb

Here at Haj Kahil, the food is copious and dramatic – tangy cucumbers swimming in vinegar brine, a puffy dome of dough is lifted away, revealing ground lamb with herbs and nuts, cauliflower mashed with tahini (sesame paste), which is meant to be scooped up with breads, all accompanied with house-made pita.

seeded flatbreadmaking flatbreadflatbread ovenflatbreads baking

Each moist handful of dough is pressed and pulled, permeated with za’atar and sesame seeds, then baked for four minutes in a fiery oven until riddled with crisp bubbles. Minutes later, out comes a tambourine-size disk for bread flexible enough to be ripped into, but firm enough to wrap around an unruly salad of spinach and purslane.

flatbreads

I could not get enough of that bread, which they brought out to the table with nearly twenty different dishes for us, everything from miniature pickled eggplants to a salad heaped with fresh herbs and crispy nuts, whose name I can’t remember, but whose taste I will never forget.

Until I was warned that they were just the first course.

filo pastry with cheese

So many of the dishes were unfamiliar, yet I knew the ingredients but had never dreamed they could taste so good piled up all around me. It was like we were all on drugs or something, eating the salads and dips until we could eat no more. Then the main courses arrived, and we covered our laps with napkins, and began all over again.

dessert filo pastry



Haj Kahil
18 Raziel Street
Tel: 03-5188866
Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Israel



Note: I’m a guest on a trip with Vibe Israel, a non-profit organization dedicated to introducing Israeli culture and cuisine to others. This meal was part of that visit.

135 comments

  • every thing looks great it it seems like you are having lots of fun here,
    I just wanted to comment that: hyssop = zaatar its the fresh herb form of it, but in Arabic it still is called zaatar, and that Kadaif is not a kind of filo pastry cut into slices it’s made as tiny strings of Dough – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NV19r48LtwA&feature=related

    • I always thought zaatar was made with thyme but I was corrected and told it was made with oregano by a local chef. Interesting that it’s made with hyssop – I’ll have to check that out since it’s a new flavor to me, and I like it a lot.

      I use the term ‘shredded filo dough’ since that’s how it’s often presented in the states by companies like Krinos and others. There was a couple in San Francisco that had a wonderful filo bakery and they made the dough there, which was amazing to watch. Am not sure how they made their Kadaif, though, or what the process was. But thanks for the link to the video.

  • David, this post made me so homesick. I don’t know if all you meals are accounted for, but when I come visit from the US, I try to make a stop directly from the airport and on the way back to the airport at Abu Hassan in Yaffo for hummus (try to go to the original one on Dolphin St., and not the restaurant they own). DO NOT order the hummus, but get a plate that is half fuul (fava bean paste) and half masabha (warm chickpeas in tahini). Then dip every piece of pita in the spicy lemon sauce before you load it up with fuul and masabha. And were it not that I was heading to Israel next week, writing that last sentence would have made me weep with longing.
    Another amazing place for traditional, mind-blowing Palestinian food is a place called Azba way up north, ask your hosts. They specialize in cooked vegetable dishes that are rare to find in restaurants.

  • Shalom David!
    Your post on Haj Kahil indicates 110 comments – there is only one along with your response to it. This was such a wonderful post and makes me want to visit Israel again, but I’m betting some of the comments contain actual information and I’d like to see them. Can you make them magically appear?
    All the best from Toronto

    Dennis

  • Knafeh is made with a shredded pastry called Kadaif. The cheese that they use here in Israel is called Nabulis, which refers to the town of Nablus where the cheese originates. You will also find in other Middle Eastern countries use the same type of cheese called Akkawi. I have found it in London at Middle Eastern shops, but I have friends abroad who have used buffalo mozzarella as a substitute.

    The spice shop in Nazareth is called Elbabour and it is a wonderful place!

  • David:
    A Country I long to visit!

    Beautiful pictures.

    I wish though when you post a picture of a dish you would label each one. That way

    we would have a chance to google a recipe and make it :~)

    Have a Joyful Day :~D

    Charlie

  • Haj Kahil is the one restaurant that Is most memorable visiting (outside of the pre packaged/ buffet-heavy tour ) in Israel, a year ago. Thanks for reminding me of the fantastic meal!

  • Oh my god…. i would love to be able to travel and eat my way around the world… hahah Living in N. America but coming from south-eastern Europe, come summer I miss the ripe fruits & veggies bursting with flavour! There may be organic food here, but there is part nostalgia part what you grew up with that I can’t find anywhere else! Where I come from, we just do the kadaif with syrup & walnuts, but cheese? THANK YOU for that tip! :-D So, keep travelling & blogging, all of this is fascinating!

  • omar fine sehr gut, you are now a very good chef, made by shady your brother. a big smile for your food.

    i love it

    see you soon

    shady

  • Beautiful! Israel is definitely on my list…
    My mother had been several years ago and said they have some of the best food she’s ever eaten- especially the produce.
    Do you have any idea why that might be?
    Breakfasts were very different from the typical American breakfasts, with a variety of unexpected offerings, but it was apparently phenomenal. Good enough for her to still gush about after 15 or so years!

  • That kanafeh looks devine. I’ve been trying to reproduce it ever since I had it first in a Turkish restaurant in Menlo Park but had no luck.

    • They made some at a bakery and I watched, and it was simply kadaifi dough moistened with butter, then pressed into a mold. (They used silicone.) A round of fresh goat cheese was pressed on top, then it was topped with more of the moistened shredded pastry and baked until crisp.

  • Hey David, glad you enjoyed your time here, I’m loving reading about Israel through your eyes. Regarding the zaatar spice mix, I think the source of confusion is that in some countries it does contain thyme or oregano. Plus, I’ve seen the word zaatar translated inconsistently into English as various different herbs. As far as I know, in Israel the mix contains hyssop (a.k.a. zaatar or ezov in proper Hebrew; zaatar is Arabic), sumac, sesame seeds and salt. Good luck with your experimenting!

  • BTW the scientific name of Israeli zaatar is either Majorana syriaca or Origanum syriacum. OK, now I’ve written you a dissertation on zaatar :-)

    • Thanks. Yes, some things don’t always translate from other languages in to English as well, as precisely as folks think they do.

      Many people in the Middle East are very passionate and, um, ‘dynamic’ about things – including food – and there’s so many regional variations, especially in spice mixtures. But I really love all these kinds of foods and they’re all so interesting to learn about. And, of course, eat.

  • Beautiful, extraordinary! Arabic food is one of my favorites. Those explosions of flavors and colors are unbelievable. Thanks for sharing and…are some of these recipes will be published in your new book? ;-)
    Liebe Grüße

  • I wondered if you’d publish my comment because I wasn’t as enthusiastic about Israel as your other commenters.
    Apparently, you decided not to and I also read your hummus post statement – I am not sure, however, if I fit into the group of people questioning your trip.
    I have been to Israel, I lived in Jerusalem for a couple of month, I loved the country and met a ton of amazing people. It is certainly a country worth visiting, partly to get a glimpse of the Arab-Israeli conflict if one cares about these things.

    There is just this one thing I take issue with: the Israeli label. I am repeating myself when I say that the foods you have shown us are Arabic not Israeli. And I insist on this distinction. Israel calls itself a Jewish state therefore abiding by Jewish food rules. The meal you were served didn’t take that under consideration. And why should it? Palestinians do not care if a meal (like mansaf in Jordan) mixes milchiges and fleischiges. If the NGO you traveled with aims to promote tourism to Israel, why do they serve you Palestinian food (the very country the Israeli government is trying their hardest not to have established)?
    I know Israel is a mélange of nations – why not focus on that instead of the Arabic/palestinian heritage? You see I don’t mean to disrespect you or anger you.

    I am happy to hear you enjoyed your trip – sadly you didn’t get to spend much time outside of restaurants it seems. Come to Jordan next to dip into the Dead Sea!

    • To be honest, I was surprised by the barrage of messages this seemingly innocent post, about a wonderful lunch with great people, terrific food, and an engaging chef and staff, brought up. All sorts of criticisms were leveled and I wrote this during an extremely hectic week, but was so overwhelmed by how great the food was, I literally used my two hours of free time to write it up, process and edit the photos, upload them, and publish the post. So when the flood of people coming forth with all sorts of messages, about everything from politics to geography, started showing up, I was so busy trying to see the country that I decided to stop publishing messages of a negative nature. I decided to try to appreciate the time I was traveling and not spend my time in the hotel room sorting through messages.

      Thank you for writing back. I did say in the paragraph right under the picture of the long-baked lamb that this was, indeed, “Arabic food” – am not sure where I said this was Israeli

      (At the end of the post, I wrote in a general statement about the purpose of my visit, and as a disclosure, that I came to Israel to check out the culture and eat Israeli food. During my visit, we also had food that was influenced from other places, including France — as in, chocolates!)

      As regular readers know, I am happy to engage in discussions here on the site that are civil and educational and like most people, I do not know everything. (Although I wish I did!) I am always happy to learn about other cuisines and cultures so thanks.

      I don’t want to dwell on this because I really enjoyed my meal at the restaurant and the staff was exceptional, and I don’t want to cloud that. But appreciate your message – and would love to go to Jordan, too!

      : ) -David

  • Hi David,
    So funny that you used the drug analogy. Your descriptions are so vivid that this blog really came to life. Like that 80’s INXS video, “The One Thing!”
    I miss the authenticity of the Arabic food at our markets and neighborhoods of the 16ème. But, I have found the best fresh hummus in Fairfax county! About to read your blog on that subject. Miss you and enjoy! Suzanne and Reggie

  • Sorry to step in, David :)

    Annika – I trust we were all very much aware that Israeli is a pluralist country in terms of its ethnic make-up. Haj Kahil restaurant wasn’t labelled as Israeli, but “Arab lunch” in Israel. The English-language material we were given at the restaurant by stated correctly that Haj Kahil specialises in “Palestinian food and charm”, their chef Omar Iluwan (the guy with a big smile on the 15th photo in David’s post, if I counted correctly) was introduced as being Palestinian Israeli etc etc. So nobody was trying to downplay the fact that there was Arab/Palestine focus on the restaurant – even if it’s situated in Israel.

  • خلي الاكل الفلسطيني يعم الدنيا.
    احلى اكل واحلى شف

  • I always thought zaatar was made with thyme but I was corrected and told it was made with oregano by a local chef. Interesting that it’s made with hyssop – I’ll have to check that out since it’s a new flavor to me, and I like it a lot.

  • This makes me miss the Marais in Paris! YUMMMMMMMM

  • I have never before encountered a blog that I actually visit frequently to read. You are a wonderful writer and photographer. I moved to Paris from San Francisco, and have been missing fresh veggies. Don’t get me wrong, I love French food, but there are days when I just want a good fresh salad, with cold lettuce and ripe tomatoes, and seeing all these wonderful salads makes me wonder if you’ve found any good places Israeli or not that offer fresh salads composed mostly of vegetables (as opposed to fried potatoes, cheese and charcuterie with 2 leaves of lettuce)

    • It’s hard to find leafy salad with lots of greens and good, fresh (ripe) tomatoes in Paris. There are a few newer places that are picking up on the trend of “fresh” foods – places like Rose Bakery, Tartes Kluger, Bread & Roses, are doing fresh salads with lots of grains and other things.

      Many of the places in the Marais no longer live up to their reputation. I like going to Maoz, an Israeli-owned falafel chain that has a lot of “help yourself” salads and pickles, and four different kinds of hot sauce.

  • David, I’ve so enjoyed your posts from Israel, a country in which I gained more weight than I feel comfortable revealing. I take great issue with the commenters who are trying to defend the “Arab”ness of the foods you tasted, suggesting one cannot be both Arab and Israeli– Israel a country comprised of citizens from many backgrounds, including a good many thousands of Arab-Israelis who serve in the IDF, some members of Parliament, etc. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is but one facet, one that too often obscures the vibrant multiculturalism of the country. Additionally, much of the cuisine you sampled is due in large part to the intra-Jewish dynamism of the country. Israeli Jews hail from Eastern Europe, sure, but also Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the Caucasus. Each community brought with it its own cuisine– certainly influenced by the surrounding culture, but modified in significant ways (ie, Jewish cooking’s heavy use of olive oil rather than lard or butter). For a great primer on worldwide Jewish cuisine and how it relates to the surrounding culture, see Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food.

  • Great review of a great restaurant = just ate there myself and reviewed it as well.