Feasting on Food Tours in Jerusalem

Elisa Moed and Gil Zohar | Travelujah | Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Feasting on Food Tours in Jerusalem

To think that Israel would play host to MTV food anchor Maria Brown and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

But something is happening on our Holy Land food and tour scene. What is it?

Try great food.

As detailed in Tali Friedman's The Culinary Story of Jerusalem, what gastronomes find so appealing about the food scene here is its sheer variety of exotica. Thanks to Israel's ingathering of the exiles, visitors can sample authentic and delicious cuisine from places you may not have even heard of -- such as Tashkent, Tikrit, Sanaa, Fez or Gondar. Many but not all are kosher; similarly many are downright bargains of the hole-in-the wall type. We know that deciding on where to eat can be overwhelming, so Travelujah decided to put together a list of our favorite "fast" ethnic foods in Jerusalem -- and the best places to enjoy them. Bon appetit!

Top 10 Jerusalem Fast Foods and the Eateries Where You Should Try Them 

Be warned. You may need to buy a new wardrobe in a larger size.

Start with a sabich -- a pita stuffed to bursting with Iraqi-style fried eggplant slices, long-cooked hard-boiled eggs, hummus, diced cucumber and tomatoes, and pickles, then topped off with a drizzle of umba, a lip-smacking pickled mango sauce. Try it at ha-Sabichiyya where the unflappable owner Yigal serves up a smile along with the only item on the menu. The line snaking along Shammai Street from the ordering window attests to his success.

Meurav yerusahalmi, (grilled chicken innards) chopped up and griddled with onions and Middle Eastern spices, is available either as a sandwich stuffed in a pita or as an entrée served with salad and rice or chips. Travelujah's recommendation is Steakiat Chatzot on Agrippas Street or Sima just across the road.

Hummus, falafel, shawarma and jachnun, respectfully from Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Yemen, are today Israeli standards. While aficionados argue about where to get the best puree of chickpeas, tehina, garlic and lemon, I insist you not leave Jerusalem without wiping your plate clean at Hummus Pinati on King George Street. In the Old City, two of the best known hummusiyya joints are Lina and Abu Shuqri, respectively on al-Khanqa and Tariq al-Wad. Anyone will be able to direct you there with a knowing wink.

While in Paris a gourmand wouldn't dream of walking down a street munching on a baguette, street food here is enjoyed, well, in the street. Try lepeshka, the traditional Bukharan round, crispy and fluffy loaf, at one of the old-school bakeries in the Shuk ha-Bukharim (Bukharan Market) near the ultra-Orthodox Me'ah Shearim quarter. The black caraway seeds on top lend an earthy flavor.

Another popular bread for munching is called beigeleh in Hebrew and ka'ak in Arabic (not to be confused with the smaller, more cookie-like ka'ak in the rest of the Arab world, or bagels from Golders Green). This only-in-Jerusalem specialty -- shaped like a bagel on steroids and coated in sesame seeds -- is sold by cart vendors all over the Old City's Christian and Muslim quarters. Make sure to get a packet of za'atar (an oregano and hyssop spice blend) for dipping.

Your Ashkenazi grandmother might look askance at Kurdish cuisine but red kubbeh soup is another Jerusalem classic. The meat-stuffed bulgur and semolina dumplings come floating in a tangy broth of beets and root vegetables. Try it at Mordoch on Agrippas Street or Ta'ami on Shammai. These are high-turnover eat-and-run establishments. Don't even think of enjoying a coffee or cigarette after your repast.

Part of the pleasure of fressing in Jerusalem is its connection to the cycles of the seasons and religions. Just as you make your Sabbaths sweeter with twin challahs (challah metukah) purchased every Friday from the Pe'er Bakery behind Emek Refaim Street or divine rugelach from the Marzipan Bakery in the Machane Yehuda market, so too during Islam's holy month of Ramadan you can enjoy kataif pancakes especially prepared to end the dawn-to-dusk fast.

Malabi dessert (blancmange, almond-and-rosewater pudding) is available at Middle Eastern restaurants in both halves of Jerusalem, especially during the long summer months. Conversely, sahlab -- a hot, gelatinous pudding-drink made from the root of a certain kind of orchid, usually topped with coconut shavings, nuts and cinnamon powder -- is only available in Jerusalem's brief but rainy winter. Vendors in Machane Yehuda, and elsewhere in town, sell it, but the best is probably at the 24-hour café Mifgash ha-Sheikh off of ha-Oman Street in Talpiot -- a neighborhood of discos, furniture warehouses and car dealerships -- where the revelers come to sober up after dancing the night away.

Sufganiyot jelly doughnuts are another seasonal treat, boiled in oil during Chanukkah in December to symbolize the miracle of a small cruse of olive oil that burned for eight days in the Temple of yore. Personally I'd save the calories for something better, like knafeh nablusiya -- a Palestinian treat made of layers of bright orange shredded phyllo dough and melted goat cheese drenched in syrupy rosewater. If you go to the Eiffel Bakery on Sultan Suleiman Street opposite the Damascus Gate, you're likely to be the only tourist the friendly proprietors have seen all day. Or even all week.

Space prevents me from listing further fast food entries. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention three outstanding fine dining establishments worth every sheqel -- Machaneyuda on Beit Yaakov Street, Moshe Basson's Eucalyptus in Chutzot ha-Yotzer, and Bulghourji on Armenian Patriarchate Road.

It seems when Jerusalem's 800,000 people aren't engaged in prayer or fasting, then they're fressing. Start a preemptory diet now. And don't say I didn't warn you about how dangerous the Middle East can be -- to your waistline.

Liquid Gold: Remembering When Olive Oil was Hard to Come By

"Until 20 and 25 years ago, you couldn't even get olive oil in Israel," recalls Tel Aviv chef Yisrael Aharoni. "If you wanted olive oil, "you had to have a friend who knew someone who lived in an Arab village."

It was only thanks to the growing popularity of Italian cuisine here, Aharoni explains, that olive oil became a mainstay of the local diet.

Jerusalem chef Ezra Kedem remembers his parents used to go to Beit Jala in the West Bank south of Jerusalem to buy the precious commodity, returning with two or three jerry cans.

Confirming the lack of olive oil from the Israeli diet until the 1980s, writer Joan Nathan's 1975 cookbook The Flavor of Jerusalem, based on dozens of local recipes and the stories behind them  which the author garnered in the early 1970s, doesn't include a single dish with the Mediterranean staple.

Food Tours Offered in Jerusalem

Machene Yehuda Market Tour -- offered by Abraham's Tours -- this 80-shekel afternoon is the best budget expert travel food tour in the city and it includes dinner!

Tali Friedman's Culinary Tour -- for those who have no budget -- the Atelier company offers high-end food tours, preparatory classes and parties overlooking the shuk

Shuk Bites -- for 99 shekel (about $25), go on a self-guided food tour filled with lots of tastings at some of the best hidden gems inside the Machene Yehuda market

Rama Tours of Israel is now offering wonderful new culinary tours on their iPhone application. Nazareth-based author and culinary expert Abbie Rosner hosts a unique Old City Food tour while Jerusalem-based food blogger Katherine Martinelli has a Machene Yehuda tour. RAMA tours of Israel are available as in-app purchases once the app is downloaded, for $0.99 each. The app is free to download.

Elisa Moed and Gil Zohar write for Travelujah.

Travelujah is the leading Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land. People can learn, plan and share their Holy land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.

Publication date: July 17, 2012

Feasting on Food Tours in Jerusalem