Jerusalem

hummus in Jerusalem

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was talking to someone at the airport, just after my arrival in Israel, who had asked me what I was doing in her country.

fried dough in syrup

When I told her I was there to learn about the cuisine – by eating it, her eyes lit up, and she said – “Whenever I leave Israel, after my family, the thing I miss the most is the food.” And after one week, I could see why. I was missing it, too, the moment I stepped off the plane and returned home. In fact, my home kitchen has become a mini hummus factory, churning out batch-after-batch of hummus. And it lasts just about as fast as I can scoop it onto pita bread.

falafelspice mixes
old jerusalemhummus

The incredible freshness of the foods was part of what made everything so tasty in Israel. And I’m from California, so I’m no stranger to pristine fruits and vegetables. The fish, because it’s so good, is often served raw – because it’s too good to cook. And it usually gets no treatment than some lemon juice, a few pickled onions, and a dab of white cheese (fromage blanc).

wailing wall in Jerusalem

People in Israel can be brash and opinionated, especially when it comes to food. I’m used to a bit of lively banter living in Paris, but mention a restaurant or a particular dish, and you’ll get a multitude of opinions, each one more “right” than the others.

Holy Land Antiques

I’m not a spiritual person, but you just need to walk the streets of Jerusalem, or step into a place of worship, and see how powerful the city is. People come from all over the wold for a variety of reasons (and surprisingly, not just for the hummus), and the history, the conflicts, and the force of it all hits you from every angle and alleyway in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem churchcross
grape leaveskneeling

Over a hundred cultures live in Israel, a country roughly the size of New Jersey, and some thirty-three languages are spoken.

Jerusalem

Because it’s a nation of immigrants, like America, the immigrants brought their various cuisines, and in Israel, you find the foods of (and the influenced of) many different cultures; Iraqi, Lebanese, Turkish, Palestinian, Hungarian, North African, Georgian, Yemen..and yes, I even saw a few American and French places, which make up the eclectic cuisine of this country.

juicers

The ingredients available encompass all my favorite flavors – handfuls of fresh herbs are strewn liberally over salads, soft white cheeses are dolloped next to mounds of smoky, charred eggplant, onion seeds perk up a loaf of rich egg bread, and a drizzle of sweet/tart pomegranate molasses adds an elusive touch to a platter of chicken roasted on pita, with the bread soaking up the flavorful juices, ready to be torn apart with your hands – and devoured.

oranges

chocolate rugelach

When I travel, I like meeting bakers and chefs, because we’re all bound by the same resolve: to cook, and to feed. No matter what kitchen you step in to, or what bakers you meet, or what country you’re in, there is a certain kinship that’s earned from working long hours on your feet with the only reward being that you’ve made something beautiful and delicious.

pita vendor

Hebrew sign

We started in Jerusalem touring the old city, with a stop at the Mahane-Yehuda market. Markets are the best places to mingle with people, and watch them shop. And I could have spent a couple of days poking through all the kiosks.

Jerusalem market

This market is sensational, with bread vendors hurling pitas at shoppers, piles of shiny bagels and chocolate rugelach ready to take home, sticky dates everywhere (tastes are encouraged), freshly extruded pasta, piles of fresh cherries, pomegranates, and avocados heaped on tables, colorful sweets and confections, and women patiently sitting in the corner offering just-picked grape leaves for stuffing.

herbs and spicesfastest line
apples & cokebread

And lots of people wandering, surveying the stands before making their final choices.

figs

You can buy beautiful cheeses at Basher, such as feta, labeneh, European cheeses, and cottage cheese, which is not just something that comes in a white plastic tub, but is a vital part of the diet in Israel. There was even a cottage cheese “war” several years ago, with the country erupting in protest over the rising price of this staple.

Israeli dairy productspita bread
cherry vendorpasta

(A while back I purchased a baguette in Paris and was stunned when the vendeuse told me it was €1,40. While if you don’t live in France, it’s hard to comprehend what the means, but things like cottage cheese in Israel, and baguettes in France, are part of the ‘cost of living’ – like gas is, in America. And price increases of everyday items affect people very much, financially and even emotionally.)

halvah boys

halvah in Jerusalem

My favorite place at the market was Halva Kingdom, with the unofficial “king” of halva, wearing a paper crown and handing out samples of the famed sesame paste.

nutty halvah coffee halvah

I never saw so many different kinds of halva, from one stubby mound flavored with Swiss chocolate, to another blended with coffee, and topped with a few beans.

halvah in Jerusalem market

Others were encrusted with nuts and dried fruit, and others were riddled with black sesame seeds.

Georgian bread

Aside from not buying as much as I could carry, I wish I was better at taking notes and writing everything down. But I was so wrapped up in eating everything that I could, the names (often in Hebrew or Arabic) escaped me, and I used my oily fingers to pry pieces of breads and just-baked rounds of dough apart, filled with eggs and oozing cheese, rather than getting the precise spelling right.

Gerogian breadGeorgian cheese bread
Georgian bread in Jerusalemin Old Jerusalem

But who can blame me (okay, I’m sure someone will..) when faced with beautiful, just-baked Georgian pastries at Khachapuri?

jumbo dates in Jerusalem

We packed into this tiny stand-up place and crunched on pickles (which are omnipresent in Israel) while we waited for the tiny kitchen to make our pastries, one filled with soft, oozing, cheese, and the other, Acharoly, a boat-shaped dough with cheese, butter, and a softly cooked egg floating in the middle, waiting to be broken and dipped into.

pitta with falafel

Two other great stops were Zalatimo’s and Abu Shukri, which Sarah, a local blogger who came along with us, says is the original since they never trademarked the name.

Hummus in Jerusalem

Although people in Israel can be are adamant that wherever you’ve gone to eat something, there’s somewhere better that you have or should’ve gone to, most seem to be in agreement that the hummus at Abu Shukri is pretty darned great. But I was happy when bowls of creamy-smooth hummus came forth, topped with a deep pool of olive oil and roasted pine nuts, and another with broad beans.

hummus with pine nutshummus in Jerusalem
 falafeljerusalem, Israel
picklesfalafel

Seriously, I could have eaten every single meal in Israel here and would have been happy, as long as they kept bringing out fluffy pita bread for dipping in, and lots of crisp-fried falafel balls.

falafels

But I didn’t see any desserts on the menu.

filo pastry with cheese

Heck, I don’t think they even have a menu.

Jerusalem pastry

Thankfully a short walk away is Zalatimo, in the old city of Jerusalem, where pastries called mutabak are made from hand-thrown wads of filo dough.

filo pastrycoffee with cardamom
teainfusion

I tried to capture the process with my camera, but it was so fast – and I was so fascinated by watching the fellow rolling and stretching the dough – that I couldn’t get it. However Yotam Ottolenghi visited the bakery for a documentary he did on the foods of Jerusalem (while doing research for an upcoming book), and it’s pretty amazing to watch the baker at work.

The generous square of mutabak is best washed down with small cups of especially strong coffee, flavored with cardamom seeds. Others, not in need of a jolt of caffeine, can opt for herbal infusions.

Jerusalem

Janna Gur, in The Book of New Israeli Food, says “Strange as it may sound, Tel Aviv is a better place for coffee than most European capitals…” And drinking plenty of coffee all across Israel, I’d say that I have to agree. Especially in Tel Aviv, where we went next…

Jerusalem bagel



Related Links

Israeli Breakfast

Haj Kahil

Mahane-Yehuda Market in Jerusalem (Nami-Nami)

Sabbath Food in Israel (The English Can Cook)

The Making of Mutabak at Zalatino (The Kitchn)

Dairy Products at Yehuda Mahane Market (Herbivoracious)

Zipping Through Jerusalem with Food Bloggers (Food Bridge)

Machne Yehuda Market in Jerusalem (The Kitchn)

Jerusalem’s Shuk Mahane Yehuda (Penny De Los Santos)



Note: The trip was part of a hosted and guided visit to meet the food producers, chefs, and bakers of Israel, organized by Kinetis.

129 comments

  • Gorgeous photos, outstanding writing. I am so happy you intend to go back.
    Perhaps a trip to Isreal with your blog people could be arranged? what do you think?

    Thank you again for all that you do to bring the flavors of the world to us in ever loving living color.

    Shalom

  • I never imagined Israel was like this – thank you for showing its vibrancy.

  • The crispy fried falafel looks amazing. Great photography!

  • All I want right now are those falafel. I am addicted to falafel!

  • Thank you for sharing your trip with us…. The pastry is incredible!

  • David, all I can say is, Israel, here I come!

  • Great photos and great post, thank you!

  • I have lived in Jerusalem for 17 years now – loving your posts. I’m currently pregnant and nauseous and thus unable to eat all the good food we have here – can’t wait to start eating it all again! Just fyi – the cottage cheese ‘war’ wasn’t a few years ago, it was just last year, 2011.

  • Your photos are outstanding and you describe everything so beautifully! I am so pleased you enjoyed your visit. Mahane Yehuda “shuk” is the best, isn’t it?

  • That was an absolute treat to read and see.

    Thank you so much for sharing, and I’m glad you had such a marvellous time!

  • it’s interesting that we have murtabak in Malaysia too, with the exact same spelling. and exact same method of preparation. ours how some how evolved to include such stuffings as canned sardines, plain butter and sugar, eggs and onions as well as spicy minced meat! i believe it has it’s origins in india and somehow found its’ way to the middle east and parts of south east asia.

  • I’ve been enjoying all of your posts about Israel. I go to Jerusalem each winter to visit with my son and his family. He lives in Nach La’ot which is right next to Mahane Yehuda. I am there every day and never tire of looking around the shuk. It’s very interesting how it’s been changing each year.
    Thank you for these posts-December doesn’t seem such a long time while I read them.

  • I NEED to get myself to Jerusalem. I eat hummus almost everyday for lunch. I mean, everyDAY! And I never get sick of it. However, I don’t like fried foods, so falafels never appeared to me like others. Question – would it be controversial if I asked the kitchen to ‘omit’ the pool of olive oil over the hummus? I find that too heavy and of course, caloric to eat up spoonful of oil (albeit the heart healthy kind).

  • What a wonderful post. I had no idea that Israel had such a varied ( and delicious-looking) cuisine. I predict that this will not be your last visit, as your passion for the food and the people who made the food shines through in your writing. I will have to pre-order the new Ottolenghi book, Jerusalem to explore Israeli cuisine further, but until then, I’m going to be on the hunt for a recipe for that pastry with the egg and cheese in it. Do you think it might be a borek? Or would one of your readers be able to name it for me? Cheers, karen

  • Thanks. I’m not sure I’ll ever get there. If I could be there and take photos, these would be the things I would pursue. Blessings, Alyce

  • Are you done with the food pictures from Israel? Because I’m really not sure I can take much more. This year’s travel monies are already allocated.

  • David,
    thank you for this beautiful and poignant post!
    I had to come here repeatedly, to take it all in. Immensely enriching!

  • Your post is inspiring. I’m now adding Isreal to my long list of countries to visit.

  • Hi. Been an avid reader for ages. I remember some point in the past you had put up blogs on san francisco. Could you please send me links. Am going to drop off my daughter to university and thought we could catch up with some good food whilst there. Thanks a million.

  • David,

    You have an amazing talent for blending words and photos; everything seems so palpable!

  • I am speechless at how beautiful everything looks and how delicious! Perhaps it’s the war torn nature of this ancient Biblical land that gives the people the desire to eat amazing food…the old saying “life is too short for bad wine” comes to mind. Thank you SO much for sharing this amazing degustory adventure with us, especially those of us languishing in the middle of winter and waiting fallow for the first signs of spring and I am heading off to search for some of these amazing recipes…I know what my cuisine of choice is going to be for summer 2012…

  • David,

    Great post!! The pictures are beautiful. I went to Jerusalem a few weeks ago as well and loved it! Totally different from anywhere else I’d ever been. Oh man that Israeli hummus and falafel!!! It’s the best, right?! Did you happen to get any secret, ancient recipes?! ;-)

  • Just beautiful we also of late have been on a homemade hummus kick! We actually just made a roasted eggplant chickpea version.

  • Israel has never been on my list of to do foodie places – until now. Excellent blog David, thanks.