Andy Turner makes a different kind of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, tracing the city’s influences through its rich and varied cuisine.
My throat is parched as I enter the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Heat radiates from the walls and within minutes I’m haggling over the price of a pomegranate juice from a street vendor. A twelve-year-old youth extracts the blood-red nectar with a medieval-looking device, steps gingerly over his father who is prostrate in prayer behind the counter, and asks me for 30 shekels (£5). We settle on 20; I’m paying double the going rate but it tastes so good I don’t care. Welcome to Jerusalem.
My pilgrimage to the Holy Land has less-than devout intentions: I’m hoping to stuff myself silly with fresh pittas, black figs, kubbeh soup, crunchy falafel and (very arguably) the world’s finest hummus. If there is a sacred text that’s brought me here it’s Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. A cookbook/love letter to the city they grew up in that you’ll find splattered with tahini and olive oil in kitchens from Brooklyn to Brixton.
Now feted chefs in London, the pair grew up on opposite sides of the city: Yotam in the Jewish West, Sami in the Arab East. Meeting by chance in a Chelsea bakery, they soon bonded over a shared love of obscure spices, stuffed vegetables and syrupy cakes. In 2012 they poured their passion into a collection of recipies that inspired a facebook fan page and left a trail of hundreds of pictures of burnt aubergines and lamb meatballs across social media.
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At the heart of the book is a celebration of Jerusalem’s sheer diversity. Despite its obvious divisions and powder-keg politics, a huge range of people call the city home, from Muslim Palestinians and Sephardic Jews from Iraq and Yemen to Ashkenazi Jews from Poland and Romania, Ethiopian Copts and Greek Orthodox monks. “All these and many, many more create an immense tapestry of cuisines,” says Ottolenghi, “the food cultures are mashed and fused together in a way that is impossible to unravel.”
A few things are universal, however: “Everybody, absolutely everybody uses chopped cucumber and tomatoes to create an Arab salad or an Israeli salad depending on your point of view. Stuffed vegetables with rice appear on almost every dinner table and extensive use of olive oil, lemon juice and olives is commonplace”.
While Tel Aviv is synonymous with upmarket Israeli fusion food (epitomised by the likes of North Abraxas or The Salon), Jerusalem is still where it’s at for unpretentious street eats. Noam Bar, founder of Sesame, a Middle Eastern street food restaurant in London agrees: “If it’s your first time in Jerusalem visit the markets or street stalls. Thanks to the climate everything has to be prepared fresh so it all comes packed with flavour.”
Walking down Al-Wad Road we test out the concept at the legendary hummusia Abu Shukri, all plastic tables, spinning fans and neon-blue fly zappers. Inside is the creamiest, sharpest hummus I’ve tried. It’s as far from the British supermarket tubs I’m used to as champagne is from lemonade.
“If you think that’s good, follow me” says my guide and food enthusiast Micha. A few streets away in the Christian Quarter I’m sampling yet more tangy chickpea gold at Lina considered the El Bulli of hummus (reassuringly it’s the only thing on the menu).
Micha goes on to explain how this humble dip is a key plank of Israeli national identity, something on which Israel’s neighbours are not exactly agreed on: a “hummus war” with Lebanon has been rumbling for the last few years over who makes the best.
Later that afternoon, we’re in West Jerusalem watching freshly fried falafel balls coming off a mini production line at Shalom Falafel, our driver’s favourite lunch stop. Stuffed into a pitta with fresh coriander and mango chilli, it’s the definition of street-food perfection.
Within a few steps of here is Mahane Yehuda market, or “the shuk”, a labyrinth of dried fruit and tahini stalls, fishmongers and butchers, now somewhat gentrified with craft beer and flat whites for sale too.
As the shadows lengthen Micha buys some braided challah bread sprinkles it with za’atar (a mix of oregano, marjoram, sage, thyme and local herb sumic) and dips it in fresh olive oil.
He begins to get misty-eyed as he reminisces about making the breakfast treat shakshuka (a Tunisian dish of harissa, tomatoes, onions and a couple of cracked eggs) with his son: “it’s the simplest yet most delicious thing you can cook together”.
A few beers later (don’t miss Israeli brand Alexander) we’re eating dinner at Machneyuda, which jostles with Beit Hakavan for the title of Jerusalem’s hippest restaurant. The brightly tiled open kitchen fizzes with energy and I order perhaps the highlight of my trip: shikshukit – a deconstructed beef and lamb kebab with a tahini and yogurt sauce. It’s far from pretty but oddly comforting, packed with spice and leaves a lingering aftertaste – a one-plate metaphor for the Holy City itself.
EasyJet flies to Tel Aviv from Manchester, Gatwick and Luton Airport (4h 30min). To learn how to cook some of the dishes mentioned in the article try the market tour and cooking workshop run by Tourist Israel. Final three images by Adam Hinton.