It’s always a good idea to start a street food tour hungry, in retrospect perhaps even fasting a day or two before the event. When Erez Ruder told us we would be exploring the flavors of his childhood, I never realized just how well he ate.
Our first stop was Suidan, a family food store that has grown with the neighborhood, selling everything from luffa sponges to gourmet chocolate. Bags of dried chili peppers, legumes and grains are still in their industrial sacks near the sidewalk entrance, but within is a cathedral of food from floor to ceiling. Spices and herbs are stored in a worn apothecary cabinet, still identified with hand written labels in three languages. In one corner a coffee grinder is pushed against the wall, dusted with the black grains, the same used to read the future. Shelves are stacked with imported sauces, jams and marinades from Asia to American, in step with the changing times.
Left, Fatayer pastry, Right, draining yogurt to make homemade labneh
In the back, pots of tiny stuffed vegetables, cabbages, squash and grape leaves, were arranged on a table near the olives and pickled artichokes. I eyed a large tray of fatayer, a triangular pastry popular in the Levant. “It’s filled with Swiss chard” explains Pierre, the owner of the shop “and it’s sour from lemon juice” as he handed us a few. My eyebrows rose in surprise as I bit into the soft yeast dough, revealing the tangy greens. “It’s good”, I say even before swallowing. In response he apologized for having so little on offer and tells us to come on Friday “There will be kibbeh” he promises. I bought several containers of vegetables listening to Pierre recount how his four year old granddaughter is learning how to fold grape leaves as well as dance ballet. It’s nice to know that at least here food tradition will continue and new ones will begin.left, Akub, top right green almonds
We stepped out, laddened with more than we expected and headed to the vegetable market of Wadi Nisnas stopping at a falafel stand along the way. In spring a myriad of wild greens are available from the vendors; fresh za’atar, chicory, mustard greens, chamomile, wild beet leaves and mallow were piled high on the tables. Akub, an indigenous thistle, were still stacked in boxes and the first green almonds were making their appearance. In the shade a women was coring zucchini, perhaps for the restaurant nearby?Coring vegetables Nadima’s Restaurant
Nadima, a fixture of Wadi Nisnas, cooks traditional Arab food using these wild edibles during its prodigious but short season. With nothing but a cutting board and knife she fills a row of identical pots that simmer from the early morning. We ordered the mallow and chicory cooked in olive oil and garlic, rice spiced with allspice and cinnamon and a plate of okra in tomato sauce. “I started this restaurant when I was young” she laments “and now I am old”. But the food she prepares is ageless, passing from one generation to the next.
We sat longer than we needed to, having eaten too much. On the way back we entered an olive store I remember from my previous visit. I asked for a small container of picholine olives but the merchant refused, he won’t sell me any until I have sampled them first. There are bowls of souri olives, in different stages of ripeness, from green to black mixed with lemon wedges, garlic and herbs. These are water cured olives, with a bitter edge and a strong olive flavor.
Pictures of Madonnas and icons adorn the store and with Easter approaching and I asked him if they celebrate a carnival. “No, but we have lent”, he tells us “and the observant must sacrifice something that they love”, He doesn’t drink beer but others forgo all animal products, become vegans during this holy period.
On the way out we heard the incessant ringing of church bells.
“A wedding!” announced Erez but as we approached it was obvious that the celebration was not a family affair; School children were holding banners and flags, spectators crammed the sidewalks and a marching band waited impatiently for the conductor’s signal. In the church yard I spotted the official bell ringer, doing all the work while his compatriots were celebrating. Erez disappeared into the crowd and soon returned to inform us that we were witnessing a parade for Saint Therese of France who was visiting Haifa on a world tour. Although she has been dead for more than one hundred years, her remains were carried in a decorative box with full honor and festivity.Emile, Shawarma
As would have it, the best place to enjoy all the commotion was a shawarma spot right in front of the parade. Despite its run down appearance and the tractor in front lifting up a dust storm, Emile has quite a reputation. And for good reason, it is one of the better shawarma places in Israel, with just tender meat without the gristle and strange bits found in inferior sandwiches. We left as helium balloons were released into the sky, floating away like some sort of fertility ritual. Even more surreal was a truck I hadn’t noticed before.Hungry? Noooooooo! Baklava and a tour of the back room of Hamizrach bakery
Of course such a food tour must end with something sweet. As we dutifully wobbled after Erez we passed a store front with an amazing collection of Baklava but didn’t go in. Instead Erez took us to a smaller bakery he frequented when he was a child. I could manage only a tiny bite but bought an assortment of baklava and knafeh to bring home.
Read more about Wadi Nisnas from other Israeli food bloggers:
Hope it will rain (Erez’s post): Flavors of childhood
Cafe Liz: A culinary spin through Wadi Nisnas
Israeli Kitchen: Shuk: Wadi Nisnas, Haifa
37 Saint John Street, Wadi Nisnas
39 Allenby road, Haifa
33 Allenby road
HaMizrach Bakery: 34 Allenby roadA bakery in Wadi Nisnas were maneesh (flat bread with za’atar) and other Arab breads are available.