I’ve Found My Food Happy Place

Back when we learned we’d be moving to Jerusalem, the thing I was most excited about was the food. And, after 10 months here, I’m happy to report: It has met my high expectations. This part of the world is a vegetarian’s paradise. The creamy cheeses, the crisp salads (eaten with every meal), the hummus, the falafel, the abundant fresh produce, the zingy flavors of lemon, tahini, zata’ar, pomengranites, yogurt, and parsley.

Here’s another thing that makes it awesome for vegetarians and vegans alike: If a restaurant is kosher (and many of Jerusalem’s restaurants are) the joint will serve either meat or dairy but never both. So, I can go to a dairy restaurant and know I’ll have a menu full of creamy pastas and lebneh-covered delights (Mr. Em in Jerusalem usually eats fish at the dairy restaurant), or we go to a meat restaurant and the veggie options (there are always veggie options) are dairy-free (but they may contain eggs).

My only qualm, and I wouldn’t even call it a real qualm, is that I expected there to be more “Jewish” food here, and by that I mean Ashkenazi (Eastern European), since Israel is home to the second biggest population of Ashkenazi Jews in the world. But I haven’t seen any of those Eastern European comfort foods that I’m so fond of, including blintzes, pierogies, and borscht. And, I suppose this is more of New York Jewish thing, but: No bagels! Only the “Jerusalem bagel,” which is fine, but lacks the lovely moist chew of a bagel.

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The “Jerusalem bagel”

Here are a few of the best things I’ve eaten here so far:

Hummus at Ben Sira

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Hummus is everywhere, all through the Middle East, and I’ve eaten lots of it, but my favorite is served at the bustling little diner, Ben Sira, located in West Jerusalem. Order a plate and you get a bowl of hummus, falafel, pickles, raw onions and tomatoes (for scooping) and three huge airy loafs of pita bread. Hummus is controversial here in part because Palestinians feel that Israelis co-opted a traditionally Arab dish and took it as their own. And there is so much good hummus to be had in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, East Jerusalem and other Arab areas (like Jaffa, next to Tel Aviv, and points further north). I’ve found the Arab hummus to be little sharper and oiler, and generally served plain (or with a spattering of whole chickpeas on top) while the Ben Sira’s hummus is milder, warm and fluffy and comes with toppings like mushrooms, beef, and fried cauliflower. (3 Ben Sira Street).

Khachipuri at Hachipuria

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Hachipuria, located inside the outdoor Machne Yehude market, aka, the “Shuk”, serves up Georgian delicacies like khachipuri, a take on cheesy bread that makes me weak in the knees. Tear off a piece of piping hot, crispy bread and use it to break the egg yolk (on which a pat of butter has already melted) and swirl it around, burning the crap out of fingers in the process. By the last bite, you’re eating cheesy scrambled eggs on delicious crust. I was introduced to khachipuri on a recent  Machne Yehuda Culinary Market Tour led by the super knowledgable ball of energy Toby Abrams. I will go back to eat this so many times. (5 Hashikma St).

Ice Cream at Moussline in the Shuk

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Tour guide Toby Abrams doling out spice trade history at Mousseline.

Mousseline, also located in the Shuk, serves of scoops of uniquely flavored ice cream that draws on local herbs, spices, and fruits. There’s saffron, wasabi, masala, coffee with cardamom, and my favorite, the light but addictive, basil ice cream. For its fruit ice creams, the shop uses only fresh fruit from the Shuk, and there’s certainly no shortage of that. (6 HaEshkol Street).

Knefeh at Jaffar Sweets

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I’d never had knefeh before moving here, but I’ve since come to really like the gooey cheesy dessert topped with bright orange shredded phyllo crunch, pistachios, and doused in a sweet syrup. It’s a sort of strange dessert (because it’s filled with melted cheese like mozzerella) but it’s decadently delicious and beloved by locals, who swear the best in the land is found in the West Bank city of Nablus. (Watch this video in which my husband and his colleague gorge themselves on all the knefeh Nablus has to offer). The best I’ve had in Jerusalem is at Jaffar’s which has locations all over these days, but the flagship store is in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City where they make huge round pans of knefeh daily in a bustling, brightly lit space with plenty of tables. (Beit HaBad Street in the Muslim Quarter).

Cheese at Goats with the Wind

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Goats with the Wind is a lovely goat farm in the Galilee region of Northern Israel. During a recent trip, we pet their many goats, and settled onto colorful cushions, took in the view, and were served more cheese (and delicious salads!) than any normal human could possibly devour. The cheeses were a welcome change from the soft white variety that is characteristic of most of the cheeses in the region. From a sizzling platter of halloumi, to manchego style semi-hard cheese, it was all excellent. And come on, the name of this place is Goats With The Wind. That’s a draw right there, even if none of the goats were dressed in green velvet dresses made from curtains.

Mutabek at Zalatimo

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It took me nine months to find Zalatimo inside a hole-in-the-wall outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City. We watched as Hani Zalatimo (the great-great-grandsonof Mohammed Zalatimo who started the bakery in 1860)  tossed dough over his head to get it paper thin, filled with a little crumbly cheese, and baked in an ancient oven. After, it’s treated with a little sugar syrup and dusted with powder sugar and the results is a flaky, savory, and slightly sweet creation that is so good it’s perhaps worth the outrageous tourist prices Hani charged us. We devoured our mutabek on a plastic table in a windowless, basement-like space that is lacking in charm to the point where it becomes charming.  (There’s probably no address for Zalatimo, just try to find it!)

Beetroot Tortellini with Parmesan Butter at Chakra

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Photo of beet tortellini from ItalianNotes

There are a ton of fine-dining restaurants in Jerusalem and most have lovely pastas as the vegetarian options. I’ve eaten lots of them (often sweet potato and chestnuts play a big role). My favorite is the beetroot tortellini (earthy, cheesy) with parmesan butter at Chakra, which also serves excellent cocktails. (King George Street, 41)

To discovering your local delicacies,

Em in Jersualem

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