Market Madness: Visiting Israel’s Lively “Shuks”
Story and photos by Jeanne Muchnick
Food may not be the first thing you think of when you think of Israel but if you appreciate the riot of colors and aromas that make up an outdoor market – the bright piles of turmeric, cardamom and cumin, open sacks of nuts, pyramids of golden apricots, rows of plump olives, and the most artful displays of syrup-soaked pastries, artisanal cheeses and an encyclopedic assortment of herbs — then you’re in for a treat.
It’s not only the heady fragrances that grab your attention (did I mention the gorgeous braided challahs and spectacular produce?), but the people behind them. This is where you jostle shoulder to shoulder with locals and schmooze with the vendors, many of whom can clearly sense you’re American — especially when your i-Phone is on overdrive taking photos of their stunning displays. For the most part, provided you buy something, they are happy to engage in conversation about their ruby red strawberries or cauliflower heads the size of small basketballs.
Its noisy, it’s dazzling, and it’s laden with Middle Eastern delights, a smorgasbord of halvah, baklava, bread, figs, dates, spices, juice bars, cafes, and mixed-grill stands, making a visit here as much about the spectacle as it is about the shopping.
Each market — and I went to three – two in Tel Aviv (the Levinsky Market and the Carmel Market) and one in Jerusalem (Machine Yehuda) — has its own personality and charm.
If you only have five days, as I had on a recent trip to Israel, incorporating the bustling, multi-cultural, perfumed “shuks,” the Hebrew name for market, into your daily routine is a sightseeing “must.”
The other must: A sense of adventure and a “Diet Be Dammed” mentality. You’re about to enter a tasting odyssey and an open mind is essential. (Hey, if I could try – and like herring – anyone can.) One warning: All of these markets are especially busy just before the Sabbath, on Friday evening, and all shut down by sundown. It’s fun to see the locals in action haggling, bargaining, weaving in and out of stalls (and yes, pushing forcefully in some cases) and while it’s fun to experience, it’s also nice to go when it’s less frenetic, though, frankly, at these markets, the hectic chaos is what makes them so endearing.
Levinsky Market, Tel Aviv (Open Sundays through Fridays): The fragrant scent of spices almost knocks you over as you walk into this densely packed neighborhood where narrow stores — many of them no bigger than an alleyway –are filled with overflowing sacks filled to the rim with coriander, paprika and other ingredients you’ve most likely never seen like Baharat, hyssop, and sumac and chawayej. Despite the desire to reach out and touch – and sample — keep walking the short five block stretch to see what interests you, then circle back and make your decisions.
Tasting is encouraged, though you’ll soon find someone hovering over you asking you if they can help. And yes, advice is necessary as it’s hard to sort through the rows and rows of tempting delicacies, everything from colorful olives, gorgeous chunks of dried fruit, Instagram-worthy herbs, smoked fish, cured meats, specialty cheeses and more. Plus, the signs are in Hebrew so it’s not easy to tell Ras el hanout (a local mix that every vendor makes) from milk thistle or dried nettle or even guess what citrus geranium or dried carob powder is – or what it’s used for.
You’ll wish you could go home to your kitchen and play but it’s just as much fun to stand on a busy corner and stuff your mouth with new sensations or make a quick pit stop at one of the indoor tables lining some of these storefronts and relish the ride.
A tour of this cramped neighborhood where cars and trucks vie for space on ancient roads along with shoppers, is like stepping into a time warp of Old World Tel Aviv. Lucky for me I had a guide, supplied by the Ministry of Tourism who sponsored my trip. Avihai Tsabari of ViaSabra (www.viasabre.com) is a former sommelier and hotel GM who knows food. His top picks, which of course, after ample samples, I had to agree, include the following.
Haim Rafael, Levinsky 26: I never thought I’d like herring, a slip of a fish that’s often served pickled with sour cream. In my grandmother’s day it was salty and slimy. But here, at this Greek deli, which uses recipes dating back generations, the herring is fresh and delicious and served in an olive oil base that gives it just the right amount of flavor and kick. Just as tasty: The green peppers stuffed with goat cheese.
- Penso, Levinsky 43: If you’ve never had a burekas, you’re in for a treat. These crispy, flaky pastries – crusty on the outside and filled with cheese, spinach, spiced mashed potato, or chopped meat—are the specialty of the Penso family which has been serving their age-old Turkish baked goods for 80 years. Try them with Ayran, a traditional Turkish milky (and thick!) yogurt drink or, my personal preference, the tosseta drink made from almond milk or the tamahindi, an Arabic version of lemonade.
Albert Confectionery, Matalon 36: Hopefully this will still be here by the time you go. It’s emblematic of what’s going on at some Levinsky stalls: Family owned businesses that have been run for generations with younger members who aren’t interested in carrying on. At Albert’s, which dates to 1935, the secret family recipe is held tight – and with much reverence. Here, as in Greece where the family hails from, the almonds used in each pastry are peeled by hand. It’s one reason why the almond cookies, Salonika pastries, meringue kisses and marzipan, inspire such a loyal following, with a pillowy fluffiness that melts in your mouth.
Levinsky 41: This tiny sliver of a coffee shop – it only fits two people behind the counter — is where owner Benny Briga concocts his magic. He not only makes killer espressos but specializes in artisanal sodas using a hodgepodge of all-natural fruits, roots and herbs (think pomegranate, guava, lavender, lemongrass, and ginger) to create bubbly flavored water.
- Worth a mention: You have to be “in the know” to find the two and a half-year-old restaurant Hahalutizym 3 (the sign outside is very small and the name is the address). Here, Chef Eitan Vanunu whips up inventive takes on Israeli cuisine using the best of the market. Expect items like homemade olives served with chunks of parmigiana, fennel salad with cherry tomatoes, mint, grapefruit and hibiscus flower and Jerusalem artichoke gnocchi with fresh peas, bacon (!) and Jerusalem artichoke chips. You’ll even – surprise surprise – find maple glazed pork spare ribs with apples in verjus and cardamom and pork-stuffed challah. The restaurant is open for dinner only; lunch on Fridays.
To backtrack for a second: Just because Israel is a Jewish state doesn’t mean everyone here is religious. Most of Tel Aviv, a thriving metropolitan city, is secular Jewish meaning while all commercial shops are closed on Shabbat/Saturday, all restaurants/bars remain open all weekend. You’ll also find areas in the Jaffa Flea Market and Tel Aviv Port that remain open. And while pork isn’t widely served in the city’s eateries, it isn’t as unusual as you might think (though my Jewish mother – may she rest in peace — would be happy to know I didn’t sample any).
Carmel Market, Center City, Tel Aviv (Open Sundays through Fridays): Established in the 1920s as a humble Yemenite market, Carmel is bigger, more commercialized and more centralized than Levinsky and at first glance, has more of a touristy look and feel. Rather than walking on streets you’re literally in one big building that stretches off into multiple layers and directions. Again, you’ll be driven by the sights and smells: The perfect rows of olives, the mounds of dates and apricots, the oversized bagels, towers of gummy candies, and picture-perfect farm-fresh produce including some of the largest cauliflower I’ve ever seen. Some highlights:
- HaCarmel 42: It won’t be hard to find Kobi and his famous bureeks. Just look for the small crowd gathered outside his stand where he creates a bit of theater with his deep fried filo leafs, filled with eggs and stuffed into a pita with cabbage, tomatoes and spicy sauce. It’s a messy delight worth grabbing with two hands.
- Halva: Chunks of stacked halva (sesame confections) come in a startling range of flavors including Toblerone, pistachio, and vanilla caramel. If you’ve never tried this tahini-based sweet, this is the place to start.
HaShomer 1: This unassuming little stool-based vendor offers genuine street food (think kebabs and roast beef) that rivals any top chef.
- Cohen Coffee, Yishkon 32: If you don’t know Shlomo who has run the place for 35 years (it’s been open since 1926), you soon will. Aside from the excellent coffee, Shlomo is an amateur classical singer, so if you get lucky you’ll get a great cuppa joe along with a show. (Get a peek here: https://youtu.be/Yaw0esgmSNc)
- Hummus Doron, Yishkon 29: This teeny tiny spot is known for its hummus with Yemenite flair; that means you’ll get hummus with shakshuka on top, sort of the Israeli national dish that features poached eggs in a tomato, chili pepper and onion sauce. Also worth trying: Lachuch, a spongey Yemenite bread, and saluf, a traditional flatbread.
- HaBusta, Hashomer 4: Located just outside Carmel Market this “must stop” restaurant features an ever-hanging daily changing menu depending on what’s fresh at the market.
- Interested in more than just food? Come on a Tuesday or Friday for the crafts fair held just outside the market on Nahalat Benyamin Street where you’ll find a variety of area vendors selling everything from mezuzahs to jewelry to pottery.
- For something with a more modern, sophisticated tone, check out Sarona Market, opening mid-April in the Sarona Section of Tel Aviv. (http://saronamarket.co.il/tomorrow_en.asp)
Mahane Yehuda Market, City Center, Jerusalem (Open Sundays through Fridays): Hello hummus, tahini, falafel, shawarma, kibbeh, kebab, baklava, halva and more. At this market – a cross between Carmel and Levinsky in that some of it is covered, some of it extends to the streets – you’ll find everything you need – and then some. To make it more manageable, sign up for the Market Bites card at http://www.machne.co.il/en/. It costs 99 shekels (or $25) and allows you six tastes of the some of the market’s stars. It’s an ever-changing list that takes you on a culinary journey you might not otherwise discover.
You can also set up group or individual tours as well as cooking workshops or go with a tour guide who can always supply more insider secrets. My favorites, again with a nod towards Avi of ViaSabre who helped me uncover these distinct tastes.
- Uzi Eli, 10 HaEgoz St.: Known as “The Etrog Medicine Man” (http://www.etrogman.com/) Uzi Eli’s juice stand aims to heal what ails you thanks to its freshly squeezed juices made from unusual ingredients like citron, sugarcane and quince. The family-owned business, about to open a location in Tel Aviv, is all about natural remedies and is pure deliciousness.
Morduch, 70 Agripas: When’s the last time you had Kurdish fare? Here, what looks like borscht is actually red Kube soup, made from a base of tomato, beet and carrot. It’s among the family-run eatery’s most popular dishes. Also fun to try: The eatery’s fried cigar pastries stuffed with ground beef.
- Hachapuria, 5 HaShikma: Georgian baked goods are the specialty here: Light doughy pastries stuffed with cheese taste like a very light slice of pizza.
- Arbas, 1 Shiloh St.: You may think you’ve had good hummus but not until you taste this creamy version, swimming in olive oil, and topped with tahini or pine nuts.
- Cohen Brothers, 11 Etz Haim: I never would have found this place without Avi. It’s “the” spot for authentic Eastern European Jerusalem kugel, a caramelized noodle pudding where you can almost taste the age-old history in every bite.
Of course just wandering the market and its side streets is entertainment itself. For a quiet spot check out the Iraqi Market where the throbbing pulse of the market dies down against a backdrop of a small, hidden square. Here, old-timers sit on worn wooden chairs playing backgammon and cards. (photo: men in market)
Slow yourself down and enjoy the view by taking a seat at Azura (Ha-Eshkol Street 4), a family-run restaurant famous for its Turkish-inspired delicacies, slow-cooked to perfection atop kerosene burners. Sitting here with your hummus and warm pita bread, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get another taste of the city’s soul.
Worth noting: The popular restaurant (open for lunch only), is opening a second location in May in Tel Aviv’s up-and-coming Gan Hahashmal neighborhood, giving you yet another reason to return.
Tour prices with ViaSabra start at $120 and can go up to $600 including a big car and driver for a far destination. For more information on Israel, go to www.goisrael.com