Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Jerusalem street food

“This man has a very low sperm count,” said Uzi-Eli Hezi, pointing to a customer at the other end of his Mahane Yehuda market stall. “But I created a special remedy for him and in a few weeks time he’ll have lots of sperms.”

While I was spared this particular remedy, I was still treated to a bewildering variety of unusual treatments Hezi has on sale. A lotion that prevents wrinkles (true, at least in Hezi's case) was rubbed into my face and hands. A chocolate that causes weight loss (not true, at least in my case) was swallowed. And a juice made from pure qat, a stimulant banned in several countries, was hesitantly consumed. By the time both “natural Viagra” and “natural Prozac” had been sprayed into my mouth, I wondered if I’d make it back to my hotel without causing an international incident.

As it happened, I felt fine. It seemed his whispered blessing, offered while I closed my eyes and tried to block out the noise of a bustling food market, engendered an extraordinary sense of calm, just as he said it would. Hezi, known locally as the Etrog Medicine Man (“etrog” being a citrus fruit that’s symbolic in Judaism), descends from a family of Yemeni healers - he makes the same formulas his grandfather taught him. When he was nine his family emigrated to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet, a secret mission that saw almost 50,000 Yemenite Jews airlifted to the newly-formed nation. The family continued their healing work on their Jerusalem farm, and ten years ago Hezi opened this utterly unique stall.

There are approximately 300,000 Yemenite Jews in Israel today and the food they brought with them have become fixtures of the culinary landscape. I headed to Jachnun Bar on Hillel Street in downtown Jerusalem, where owner Yariv Gury bakes malawach, a thick, fried pancake, and stuffs it with hard-boiled eggs, tomato, tahina (crushed sesame seed paste) and a spicy sauce to create the eponymous jachnun. “Not that long ago, this food was only eaten by Yemenite Jews in their houses,” says Gury. “But now it’s everywhere - you can even get microwave jachnun in supermarkets.”

Uzi-Eli Hezi says he loves Mahane Yehuda because he can get all the fresh produce he needs from its 300 or so traders. But it’s so much more than just a market. I could eat there three times a day for a week and not repeat myself. I loved starting my days at hip, laidback Cafe Mizrachi, where I sipped Jerusalem’s best coffee, and for a mid-morning snack you can’t beat Turkish burekas (filo pastry stuffed with spinach) from Ramleh, a stall just outside the main market on Agrippas Street. 
Mahane Yehuda is the perfect place to sample Israeli cuisine, which combines food native to the region with dishes brought by Jewish immigrants from around the world. Change doesn't come naturally to Mordoch on Aggripas Street, where the interior design belongs firmly in the 1950s. But it's worth entering this time-warp for the Jewish-Kurdish dish kubbeh, a beetroot soup containing meat-stuffed semolina dumplings. At the edge of the market, I found Khachapuria, a small bakery established by a Jewish immigrant from Georgia. A first wave of Georgian Jews reached Israel in the early-1970s and a second wave arrived after the fall of Communism in 1991. Here you can eat authentic versions of the country’s national dish, a cheese-stuffed bread with either meat, potato or egg.

Downtown Jerusalem isn’t so great for food, but nestled amongst the frozen yoghurt bars, chain coffee shops and vegetarian pizza parlours - practicing Jews can’t mix meat and cheese - is the hole-in-the-wall Sabichiya on Shammai Street, specialising in Iraqi fast food. After the Second World War, several Jewish targets in Baghdad were bombed and almost the entire Jewish population of Iraq, around 120,000 people, were airlifted to Israel. Sabichiya sells sabich, a flatbread stuffed with hummus, boiled egg, fried aubergine and spicy sauce. Like jachnun, its popularity has surged in recent years.

I also found fantastic food in East Jerusalem and the Muslim parts of the city. After all, a third of Jerusalem’s population is of Palestinian origin. On Rashid Street I found Petra, a restaurant specialising in Palestinian home-cooking such as maqluba, a hearty casserole of lamb, aubergine and rice. And at the Educational Bookshop on Salah Eddin Street I escaped the heat with refreshing lemon and mint juice, and sandwiches made with zaatar, a herb similar to thyme. But the most atmospheric experience can be found at Ikermawi, a no-nonsense hummus shack tucked behind the kebab stalls of Damascus Gate.

“My grandfather opened this place in 1953 and hardly anything has changed here since,” said owner Mohammad Ikermawi. He charges NIS15 (€3) for the world’s best hummus with tahina, ful (mashed fava beans) and falafel, a recipe originally from Damascus. “The Israelis are starting to come here and discover the real hummus,” he laughs. “They say they have hummus too, but to us it’s not edible!”

Speaking of inedible, I finish my tour of Jerusalem street food with a dish many people won't touch. The walls of Chatzot, another famous restaurant on Agrippas Street, are lined with photos of Israeli celebrities who’ve ventured here to sample meorav yerushalmi, the notorious Jerusalem mixed grill (pictured above). The mix in question contains the heart, liver and spleen of chicken with pieces of lamb and a devilishly spicy sauce. It’s wonderful. In fact, it’s so good I craved a second one. But then I saw sense, crossed over the road, and asked the Etrog Medicine Man for more of that chocolate that will help me lose weight.

An edited version of this article was published in Germanwings magazine, Dec-Jan.

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