Fala-Full in the Holy Land
By Rebecca Walden | Jerusalem, Israel
The culinary world of Jerusalem means a lot more than just the falafel we’re all familiar with—a few different ventures into the city’s shuk reveals several hidden treasures including candied nuts, havlah, and even an impromptu tea shared with an old shopkeeper.
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Friday, June 28th
I came to Israel for the falafel. I prayed for daily helpings of the most delicious balls of the crispy, spice-filled chickpea snacks I would ever encounter, but was less than elated when conversations with my new Israeli soldier friends revealed to me the sad truth that they did not, in fact, eat falafel every day, or even every week. “I had not had falafel for five years until you Americans came to visit and made me eat it. I don’t really like it,” said Ori, as he dumped a container of cottage cheese onto his simple Israeli salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and olive oil. Maya and Shiran too laughed at “the Americans'” obsession with finding good falafel.
The most devastating part of it all is that after a week in the Holy Land, I can almost understand where the dislike for falafel comes from. While sometimes delicious, most of the falafel I’ve found hasn’t been life-changing. Turns out that Maoz, the chain found all over America now, actually does quite a good job. Luckily, I did manage to find one good falafel within a few weeks of my arrival: next to a kosher McDonald’s and a shawarma shop, a small restaurant serves mounds of three different types of spicy, medium, and perfectly-spiced, not too crispy, not too dry falafel balls piled into a pita full of Israeli salad, coleslaw, carrots, and eggplant, topped with a heap of hummus and generous pour of tahini. This falafel is filled with spices and fried just to the point that they are crisp when you bite in but still moist on the inside.
Saturday, June 29th
While I’m happy to have found delicious falafel, I’m removing my obsession with it from the forefront of my mind, and this has created more space for enjoying what truly does shock my taste buds into excitement. In the East Jerusalem food fair, for example, there are vendors selling salted and sweetened nuts. The almonds are at least twice the size as those in the States, thick yet almost soft as you bite into them, and lightly salted. Then there are the hazelnuts, also dwarfing their American cousins, savory and sweet at once, as well as cinnamon-y sweet candied nuts. The pistachios are my favorite, however; cracking them open reveals a vibrant green nut smeared with bright pink, highlighted by sparkling salt crystals. Never before have I seen pistachios that are such a natural work of art (but not too beautiful to eat, of course).
Saturday, June 30th
My friends and I went to the shuk (an open air market) in the New City of Jerusalem on Friday afternoon, just hours before Shabbat, so the stalls were filled with people haggling at the last minute before everything would close down and a quiet lull would pervade the city streets. It is impossible to walk down the shuk streets without bumping into five people at once, all vying for the best-priced fruits, vegetables, rugelah, baklava, challah, spices, nuts, dried fruits, and halvah.
Among all of these delicacies, I’m recommended to try the “Halvah King,” which is a sweet, dense confection made from either flour or nut butters. This one’s sesame seed paste is rich and creamy and not dry as it can sometimes be at some other places. There seem to be at least 20 different flavors of the sweet treat (they are all listed in Hebrew, so I’m not sure if there are any repetitions that I might have missed) displayed in round cake-sized hunks. The vendor does not know the translations into English for many of them, so I end up sampling about ten different types of the halvah, from espresso to chocolate to sweeter chocolate to pistachio to vanilla to poppy seed, and other sweet flavors I cannot even identify. I leave with whole lot of halvah, an uncomfortable stomach, and a smile on my face.
Merely two hours later, still carrying around my container of halvah, I walk past the shuk again on the way to Shabbat services. It is empty. Not a shopkeeper remains in his stall, not a window is open. The shuk is a ghost town; its only signs of life are the city cats prowling the streets. Shabbat is on.
Wednesday, July 3rd
I stayed in the Old City of Jerusalem for a few nights, where it is impossible to not get lost in the winding streets of slippery Jerusalem stone. I found myself in the dimly lit alleys of the Arab shuk, where sheets of fabric and metal block the hot afternoon sun. Stalls sell baklava and noga, a chewy, gummy-like candy sometimes filled with nuts or coconut. As I pass a touristy shop selling “Free Palestine” and the popular olive-green “Israeli Defense Force” t-shirts side-by-side, an old man beckons for me to come see his shop of small antiques piled atop one another, filling his small shop from wall to wall, floor to ceiling.
Something about this old man’s smile and the old musty feel of his shop drew me in. He asked if I would join him for tea. I meant to say, “I would love nothing more than to join you for tea, but I must be off…” or something of the sort, but the second half of the phrase never left my lips, and I found myself seated across from the shopkeeper (who spoke little English—but better than my 6 words of Arabic or 25 of Hebrew). Minutes later a man came in with our drinks. I am admittedly a tea snob after working for a year in a San Francisco tea shop selling ridiculously high-quality teas, but Lipton tea served in glass cups with mint and lots of sugar and with a nice old man in his antiques shop in the Arab shuk of Jerusalem made for one of the best cups of tea in the world.
Saturday, July 6th
Shabbat was nearly over, and my friends and I were starving. We had gone hours without food—there were no stores open, no buses even to take us back to the apartment at which we were staying so that we could raid the refrigerator. It was nearly dark, but there were not yet three stars in the sky, the signal that the day of rest had come to an end and the new week had begun. We trudged up the Jerusalem hills, past the Western Wall, past the Tower of David, praying that some restaurant would be ready for our hungry stomachs the moment that the third star glistened in the sky.
As if reaching a desert oasis, there was at last a Lebanese restaurant open for business, presumably crowded with non-Jewish guests. We ordered an assortment of all the restaurant’s dishes to share, and our eyes popped as the server wheeled out a cart filled with little plates of hummus, baba ghannoush, cooked carrots, pickled carrots, Israeli salad, purple coleslaw, white coleslaw, spicy tomatoes, roasted eggplant, tahini, potatoes, falafel (great falafel, truly!), and baskets of pita bread. The owner of the restaurant laughed at our glee-filled faces upon seeing the food, and brought over a pitcher of fresh mint lemonade and a plate of meat skewers, just out of kindness. Together we recited a small blessing of gratitude for having found this oasis, for having spent Shabbat together in Jerusalem, and raised our glasses to say, “L’Chaim.” To life.