In a way going to Israel was bringing me back almost full circle, back to the Middle East. Seems like a good place to start. Being born in Saudi and living there for 7 years affected me, certain things percolate. Halva cravings, drinking tahini from the jar. A sense of travel was instilled early, and with that an exotic tongue, at least by American standards. I have been searching for some sort of culinary identity, knowing that "New American" just wasn't going to cut it. There were roots out there, spread thin but there, and it wasn't until reaching the dessert again that it started to make sense.
Mahane Yehuda Market-the first stop on the tour of Israel was Jerusalem. We stayed near the Shuk marketplace. There is a shop where sesame is ground into tahini, several with halva of any flavor imaginable (Muslim Quarter halva was better), olives, cheeses, kabobs, you name it. If you wander around at night early or mid week the whole place fills with shisha smoke, music and dancing. For great Jerusalem/Iraqi/Turkish food we hit restaurant Azura located behind the market on 5 Ha-Eshkal. Try the "Azura" a Turkish style roasted half eggplant with ground beef, pine nuts and cinnamon. Their Iraqui sofrito, slow braised beef with fried potatoes is comforting and reminiscent of a classic beef stew. Kubbeh soup, a lemony soup with fennel, beef and semolina dumplings is bright and lingers with an anise tone. The hummus is creamy and tahini rich, and in traditional fashion you must eat the hummus with raw onion petals, it's a great pairing, and proper. For something sweet Marzipan Bakery on Agripas has some of the best rugelach I have tasted. Make sure to get them hot from the oven, completely soaked in syrup, soft and luxurious, like a soft doughy croissant oozing with chocolate and syrup.
Old Quarter Jerusalem-of the 4 quarters, Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim, the Muslim Quarter is by far the most vibrant. A great place to relax with a Turkish style coffee brewed with cardamom, and to find kabobs, hummus, foul and sweets. Ask the locals where to find Shaheen Kabob, a hole in the wall with a grill that is actually a hole in the wall. The meat consisting of lamb and beef is green from herbs, pungent with garlic, and moist with fat. The kabob comes simply adorned with grilled tomato wedges and grilled onion in a pita. You can purchase a small yoghurt to add in if you choose. Zalatimos is a relic, situated in what looks like an antiquated jail, pieces of the ceiling may fall as you eat, water dripping from cracks. The house special is mutabak. Similar to the murtabak found throughout much of asia, this one is made to order; fresh cheese pastry dusted with sugar. The vibe feels like a once great place that is now somewhat touristic and the separate prices for tourists certainly reflect that. Abu Shukri specializes in hummus and foul, the later I tend to like more than hummus. Essentially it is dried small fava beans soaked overnight then cooked till falling apart and mashed with good olive oil, garlic, lemon, cumin and tahini. This is a staple breakfast dish in North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East. Earthy, creamy and hearty, the dried and reconstituted favas pick up an earthy quality that the fresh lack. For something sweet there is Jafar Sweets, the kannafeh with cheese, made from kataifi and sweet cheese curds, pistachio and rose water syrup. It is served warm, slightly crisp and dripping with syrup. The kind of dessert you eat slow so as to savor every bit, as its end is marked by a tear.
It had been a long time before finally returning to the Middle East, so why not study up on the classics first, street food. In Tel Aviv one can find basically anything inside a pita. My favorite of all these has to be the sabich. Sabich, morning in Arabic, comes from Iraqi Jews. It consists of a pita stuffed with fried eggplant, brown hamin eggs, hummus, cucumber salad, tahini sauce, cabbage, amba (pickled mango sauce) and zhoug (Yemenite cilantro/chili hot condiment). Of all the ones I tried Sabich Frishman was my favorite, on the corner of Frishman and Dizengoff. The day I was there the chef had a sabich with tahina or with salty goat cheese.
Falafel Hakosem-this place is the truth. We had been drinking prior to our visit, but I'm pretty sure it was as good as I remember. Crispy, light, herbaceous falafel, creamy hummus, ubiquitous middle eastern salad, great olive oil. What was possibly even better than the falafel though was their fried eggplant. Damn. Caramelized, chewy and crispy. Must have been dusted with cornstarch and crack because it was impossibly crisp and delicious.
To find the best food in any city or town head straight to the market, and go early. Throw your guidebook away if you haven't already and start asking the locals where they eat. Sometimes this backfires and they will tell you where they think the typical tourist wants to go, but keep prodding and you might get some insider information. When that fails simply use your senses and seek out the busiest stall you can find.
Burika Guy Carmel Market Tel Aviv-This is a Moroccan stand that makes Sfenj, which are traditional donuts dusted with sugar, pretty much like beignets, yeasted dough thats fried and blasted with sugar. The star of the show was his burika pita. This is basically a classic Tunisian fuille de brik, kind of like a dried filo dough, with a raw egg inside that is deep fried crisp. Inside the pita is harissa, potato, tomato, cabbage and a spicy tomato aioli. When you bite into the pita the egg explodes and coats all the other ingredients. Honestly this was one of the best things we ate and you are slamming it down in the middle of the market standing up, perfect.
More things in pita
Etzel Zion-Chicken schnitzel is all over Israel, Etzel Zion is a solid stop off close to the beach with self service outside seating, pretty much all locals and I don't remember seeing a sign.
Miznon-the high end pita shop. Great spot for the refined pita experience. Popular, young crowd, hip, tasty. Known for their experimental sandwiches and their whole roasted cauliflower, blanched first then roasted with olive oil and sea salt. Unfortunatley they were out by the time we got there.
We had the lamb with tahina, Anaheim chili mashed with olive oil, whipped sour cream, pickles, onion and tomato. Chicken livers with onion, tomato and scallion.
If you make it to Nazareth you must stop at Almokhtar sweets. Hands down the best sweet shop we encountered on the trip. Typical in appearance but with unexpected twists. Highly reccomended.