This is the first installment of Haifa’s street food tour. If you know Hebrew and don’t want to wait, see Erez Ruder’s guest post, The Flavors of Childhood.
Lost and unorganized I ended up shouting to a fellow on a second floor balcony “Where is Wadi Nisnas?” Drinking black coffee and still in his undershirt, he pointed towards an old staircase, preferring not to disturb the stillness of the morning. The summer’s heat was already creating swirling mirages on the pavements and the streets and alley ways of Haifa’s old Christian quarter were empty. Tuesday, I soon learned, many of the vendors take a day off and those who do open retire to the coolness of their shops. Mongoose Wadi, as it is known in Arabic, is a microcosm of history and tradition, most accessible through its street food.
Alone and without preconceived ideas (or even a map, in my case) is one method to explore the city. Another approach is to go with someone who has been walking its streets since childhood. Recently I had an opportunity to do just that, tagging along with Erez Ruder and his wife, Yael, as they walked down memory lane and into the Haifa’s best falafel stand.
“I would never eat falafel anywhere else” he said while we ordered half pitas at Michel’s, “It’s like a religion”. And like religion one must be born into it. His father first took him to eat falafel here forty years ago and his children may very well be eating here years from now.
We perched ourselves around a little table, tackling our sandwiches in blissful abandon. Falafel is meant to be eaten fast, when the chickpea balls are still hot, the cucumbers crunchy and the tomatoes have not made a hole in the bottom of the pita. It’s an insubordinate sandwich with a tendency to fall apart if not held with two hands. In my case, even if I do.
Everyone agrees that no matter how rushed, it is essential to wait the extra minute or two for the vendor to freshly fry the falafel. Never ever go to a stand that keeps their falafel warm using a hot plate. What isn’t so clear is why even the best establishments offer extraordinarily useless waxy napkins. Try wiping a face smeared with tehina sauce with those translucent squares.
As we sat there ruffling the stray crumbs from our clothes it occurred to me that falafel stands are a haven of coexistence. Muslim, Christians, Jews, vegetarians and meat lovers sit together in harmony, their mouths too full to throw epithets at one another. Instead of the gobbledygook of the politicians and activists, more falafel stands should be built in the name of peace.
Indeed, there is nowhere else in the Middle East where such a diversity of people and religions can interact with such ease. Although falafel is popular throughout the Levant and now far beyond, it has come to symbolize Israeli food precisely because it is universally loved.
But even here some topics are best avoided.”I ate falafel at George’s in Wadi Nisnas on my last visit” I told Erez enthusiastically, “and it was pretty good”. He listened to me politely, used to those trying to convert him and not remotely convinced. I changed the subject.
Falafel shops in Haifa worth stopping for:
Michel’s Falafel: 21 Wadi Road, Haifa
Hazeknim – Opposite Michel’s
George’s Falafel: 26 Yohanan HaKadosh, Haifa
For those who live too far from Haifa here is a falafel recipe (and a bit of history) until you come visit.
This is a closeup look at George’s Falafel Stand: