ירושלים, ישראל [Jerusalem, Israel]

I continue onward with my Eastern Mediterranean holiday, finding myself in that place where so many histories, religions, cultures and people converge: Israel.  First stop, the contested capital herself, Jerusalem.

Colorful umbrellas line the street of Yoel Moshe Solomon

Of course, we ate hummus and falafel. Our first day was spent wandering around the Old City, which has four quarters: the Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter, and Armenian Quarter. While we were retracing the supposed route that Jesus took along Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows) to be crucified, we stopped near the fifth station (where Simon helps Jesus with the cross) within the Muslim Quarter and had some of the best hummus in Jerusalem, so we’d heard. The restaurant was packed, so we continued onward to see all of the “sights” along the route, ending up in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was built on the spots where Jesus was crucified, taken down, and buried. It was a great way to at least see parts of the Old City and learn a bit more about Christianity. By the time we finished, we doubled back and secured a spot at the hummus restaurant. And oh, it was worth it.

People say that eating hummus in Jerusalem will spoil hummus elsewhere for you for the rest of your life. (Quite like eating sushi in Japan.) I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but it was incredibly good. Our simple lunch of felafel (this time made with chickpeas, unlike in Cairo), pita, hummus, and pickles/tomatoes. It was so filling, the perfect fuel for wandering around historic Jerusalem.

Some of the best hummus and falafel we had… and I do not say that lightly

I also ate more shawarma. There are shawarma places everywhere, in every part of Jerusalem: Muslim, Jewish, Christian… everybody loves shawarma. It’s one of those perfect foods: pillowy ash-tanur bread (אַשתנוּר) filled with spiced rotisserie shaved from a vertical spit (ours here was chicken), gherkins, hummus, cabbage, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onions. Atop, a generous dousing of tahini and skhug/harif (חריף – an Israeli hot sauce) is added. Shawarma is similar to the gyros of Greece and the doner kebabs brought to Germany by Turkish immigrants. I feel like I’ve had the trifecta of slow-roasted meats cooked on vertical spits (shawarma is actually the meat, not the sandwich, though they often mean the same thing. Shawarma comes from the Turkish word çevirme, meaning “to turn”). I can’t say which is best; they all have their distinct tastes and flavors. Especially since the bread is slightly different in all three places. Here, the ash-tanur bread is baked in a tabun oven, which is an ancient clay oven used throughout the Middle East. The flavor is incredible.

Chicken shawarma in a pita with ALL the toppings: tahini, skhug (Israeli hot sauce), hummus, onion, tomato, cucumber, lettuce, gherkins, and cabbage
Quite possibly the best shawarma in a pita I’ve ever had

A lot of people will tell you that there isn’t any real authentic Israeli cuisine. So much of what we’ve been eating hasn’t been particular to Israel or Jerusalem. We’ve eaten plenty of the same foods in Cairo, and when we continue on past Israel I’m sure we’ll keep roughly the same diet. And when you look at the history of the people of Israel, that makes sense. It’s been in constant flux, and despite how old and storied a city like Jerusalem feels, the modern state of Israel is a recent creation. People have come, gone, come back, and traveled through this country for years. And as such, you’ll see the influences of the region in foods like shawarma, hummus, pita, falafel because everything is all so interconnected here (whether people like it or not). That’s what is incredible about both food and traveling for me, that you can trace the movement of people and ideas through cities, cultures and food. No where is this more apparent than Israel. In addition to a lot of the traditional Levantine* food, you’ll find lots of food that resettled Jews brought back from their time in Eastern Europe, Germany, Austria, and Spain. (Sadly, we haven’t had Israeli schnitzel, yet.)

Jerusalem does seem to have at least one “indigenous” food: the beigeleh. No, it’s not a bagel. It’s so much more. It’s so light, and airy, and HUGE. It’s a long oval, coated with sesame seeds and sold throughout Jerusalem. If the bagels of New York and the rest of the United States got their inspiration from this amazing work of carbohydrates, they failed to replicate what makes the beigeleh so good. Despite it’s size, it probably weighs the same as a bagel and is so chewy but never gummy. The seeds also lend to a particularly nutty flavor but not overpowering that makes the whole taste quite like you have the slightest spread of tahini on it. I didn’t try it with za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice mix, very popular here), but I can only imagine how it elevates the taste even more. Who knew I could wax so poetic about bread? (Okay, fine, we all know I love bread, no surprise.)

Baygaleh, putting all bagels to shame, here in the Old City of Jerusalem

And why shouldn’t I love bread: isn’t it the one thing, if nothing else, that unifies everybody? We all have our own versions of it, baking it and using it in different ways, but we all have and love bread. We “break bread” when we come together. And we celebrate with bread. One of the most well-known celebration breads is of course חלה, challah. We planned our time just right so that we could be in Jerusalem over Shabbat (the Sabbath). Starting Friday, just before sundown, we spent our time at the Western Wall watching the revelers turn a usually stoic site into an intense celebration full of singing and dancing and prayer. For Jews, most would return home to light candles, drink wine and eat challah (two loaves) in addition to a festive meal. Shabbat continues through Saturday evening (technically when three stars appear in the sky, but mostly just an hour after sundown). Which means that on Saturday through the day, Jewish Jerusalem was a ghost town. Once the sun went down though, the night came alive again, streets were filled, and shops reopened. (I was surprised to see that Jerusalem could be sort of a 24-hour city.)

Loaves of challah before shabbat
Shabbat about to commence, revelers gather at the Western Wall to welcome the day of rest and transform the plaza into a lively celebration

Challah’s design is significant: loaves are typically woven with six strands, and when the two loaves on shabbat are together, they signify the twelve tribes of Israel. (Of course, some loaves are made with more/less strands, but the six+six is symbolic.) Two loaves are used on shabbat to represent the double loaf that fell from the sky during the time Israelites wandered the desert just before shabbot, since no bread was delivered on the Sabbath.

We spent a good deal of time in the Machane Yehuda, this glorious market selling everything you need for the modern Israeli kitchen. There, I found חלבה (halva) and lots of it. Halva also is reinterpreted all over the world and can differ significantly. You may remember the flour-based halva I had in Greece not long ago, which had thrown me for a loop since I have always associated halva with the rounds of sweet tahini confections we saw, sampled, bought, and are still eating in Jerusalem. In Israel, the halva base is heavily sesame flavored, and other nuts/spices/fruits/etc are thrown in to give it a distinct flavor. We sampled so many such as coffee, chocolate, cranberry… and ended up with a fantastic pistachio halva. It is so delicious, but rich so you can only eat a small bite of it at a time.

All the halvah in Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem
Israeli halvah from the Halva King, a delicious and decadent pistachio-flavored slice (slightly squished!)

Through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and also elsewhere, you will not have to walk far to see fresh squeezed juice stands, juicers standing among pallets of oranges, pomegranates and other fruits. I chose pomegranate, because who doesn’t want freshly squeezed pomegranate juice while walking around in 100-degree weather. Pomegranates were originally cultivated in Iran–it’s one of those rare plants that thrives in arid lands–and have been both a practical and symbolic part of the Mediterranean life for millennia. I enjoyed it while strolling through the market to admire shop after shop. Not a bad way to spend your time in Jerusalem.

Fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice in the Old City (Muslim Quarter)

* What is Levantine food? Food from the Levant, aka Eastern Mediterranean area, aka mostly Syria and Lebanon, but more broadly, also: Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and sometimes Turkey and Iraq. And sometimes Greece.  

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