“Israel sure does have small cucumbers!” Pille Petersoo noted without batting an eyelash. They looked pretty normal to me. I’ve grown accustomed to our diminutive cukes and had forgotten how large they were in other parts of the world. But as everyone knows, it’s not size that matters…..
Although I am familiar with Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s biggest outdoor market, there is nothing like a fresh set of eyes to experience it in an entirely new light. In this case I had five sets of eyes. Accompanying Pille were four other high profile food writers from Europe and the United States who came to eat their way across Israel including David Lebovitz, Erin Zimmer, Cambria Bold and the lovely Kerstin Rodgers.
Their trip was organized by Kinetis, a nonprofit educational organization that brings like-minded individuals together to share Israel’s creative energy. It’s not only about the food, though there was plenty of that, but all that revolves around it – chefs, writers, publishers, tour guides, TV personalities, food startups, technology, agriculture, local bloggers and finally one DJ-chef-author-fashionista extraordinaire (that would be Israel Aharoni for those out of the loop). I’ve seen the itinerary and can say that it’s a jammed packed whirlwind visit featuring the very best of what Israel has to offer (I have no idea how they are going to eat all that).
The Kinetis team invited me to spend the day with the bloggers on their first dazed zip across Jerusalem, still groggy eyed from travel and jet lag. Tzvi Gassner was our guide through thousands of years of history as we meandered from the Mount of Olives and into alleyways of the old city, the horizon decorated with the omnipresent Dome of the Rock.
On our walk from tomb to church, I pointed out the capers that grew from the stone walls and the straggly bunches of wild fennel that emerged from the rocky soil. Kerstin, a London based writer whose book Supper Club was recently published, told me of her experience curing olives in the south of France. She preserved them in olive oil instead of brine, a method I never tried before.
Following the Via Dolorosa, we made our way to the temple of hummus, cornerstone of the fourth Abrahamic religion. Even without a sign, any passerby could tell you we had arrived at the original Abu Shuki. Or I should say the original original Abu Shukri since they never trademarked the name and countless other long lost Shukris have been popping up all over the country, each more original than the other. Established in 1946, this tiny restaurant is a fixture of the Christian Quarter and has been preparing the same hummus recipe since its inception (this information came from a friendly fellow who was standing nearby). And from the looks of it, on the very same tables as well.Abu Shukri restaurant, preparing a falafel sandwich, below right, a photograph from the 1930’s, eating hummus
Although this was the first authentic hummus the food bloggers would taste in the Holy Land it was clear they were already true hummus afficionados. Their pita wiping and wrist flicking technique was on par with the locals, an indispensable talent in the land of chickpeas.
We cleared our spots for the next customers and shuffled contentedly to Zalatimo’s, a bakery that specializes in stuffed pastries called mutabak.Mutabak, also known as murtabak in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia
It is a stark establishment. There are no displays, only a single oven in one corner.
Then the lone baker began his performance and the place came alive.
With a few deft movements he transformed a glob of dough into a billowing cape. The phyllo was whirled upwards over his head with the fluidity of a dancer, every movement calculated and exact. With an elegant spin, the sheet was placed on the marble, pulled taut and topped with either nuts or cheese. The ends were then folded over and placed in the oven until golden. Before serving the baker doused them with syrup and powdered sugar- soft, steaming centers enveloped in crackly phyllo…..It’s really the simplest of desserts, and the most complicated.
I sat down with the rest of the bloggers in the cavernous room to enjoy the nut and cheese stuffed pastries but Kerstin wanted in on the action. Like me, she learnt that stretching a small lump of dough to the size a tablecloth is an incredibly difficult feat and will most likely end in a congealed mess.Pistachio halva and the King
A tour of Jerusalem would not be complete without a visit to Mahane Yehuda. We made a perfunctory stop at the Halva Kingdom, a small family business that produces and amazing array of halva flavors, ranging from the traditional to the downright funky. The secret? No secret, with a little prompting, Kerstin discovered that the recipe is simple-just 80% homemade sesame paste and 20% sugar and flavorings. As we ogled over the display, the King began to mumble under his breath “don’t just photograph! buy!” but by that time the group was already on their way to the Georgian Bakery.
Krestin, who just came back from Tbilisi had other ideas. Instead we hopped into an Ethiopian spice store where she bought a kilo of teff flour for making ingera bread and a big bag of berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix. In the corner, between the long pepper and paprika, I noticed what appeared to be dried chamomile buds. It was aromatic and sharply bitter. Only when I got home did I realize that these were dried rue fruit, an ingredient I have seen only in Ethiopian cuisine.
Sadly, it was time for me to go home. We bid our farewells and I thought that perhaps we do have tiny cucumbers, but everything else, well, you’ll just have to come and see for yourselves.
More about the bloggers:
Cambria Bold, NY, NY-Editor of The Kitchn. Singer and songwriter. Twitter @CambriaBold
David Lebovitz, Paris, France- Pastry chef, cookbook author of numerous books including The Sweet Life in Paris and Ready for Dessert. He blogs at David Lebovitz. Twitter @davidlebovitz
Pille Peteroo, Talinn, Estonia-Research sociologist who has been blogging since 2005 at Nami-Nami. Twitter @PilleNamiNami
Kerstin Rodgers, London, England- Launched the underground restaurant movement in the UK, author of Supper Club: Recipes and notes from the underground restaurant . She blogs at The English can Cook. Twitter @MsMarmitelover
Erin Zimmer NY, NY-National managing editor of Serious Eats. Twitter @erin_zimmer
Kinetis: For those who would like to follow other events organized by Kinetis they have a facebook page. They can also be found on twitter @vibeIsrael. The team at Kinetis are an incredibly motivated and talented group who work seamlessly together. I was honored to meet them and be part of the event. Kol Hakavod!
Link to news segment about the visit.
Where else can you find hamsa flyswatters and beautiful Ouds?