This Spring I took my first trip to Israel to visit my cousin who had moved there. She had been telling me all about how much I was going to love it for years, so I finally decided to get over my politics and go. We spent weeks planning where we’d go and what we’d see. The necessary tourist stops, the famous religious sites, and of course where we’d eat. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I kept picking up the the Jerusalem cookbook in anticipation. I was ecstatic when I saw Gabriella Gershenson’s beautiful piece in Saveur the month before on the Northern region of the country, and attempted to re-work my plans to include her recommendations. I found a NY Times article on Yotam Ottolenghi’s favorite spots near the food market in Jerusalem. I had my trusty guidebook (basically because I like having an actual book of info that doesn’t involve an internet connection) and all of those recommendations, along with the list my cousin had compiled. Top of the culinary itinerary was all matter of baked goods. I was excited to taste all the Arab sweets I’d never tried, and see if the Israeli versions of my favorite Jewish ones – rugelach, babka, and cheesecake were different. I was visiting during Shavuot, a holiday where it’s customary to eat cheese products in celebration. I never knew about that tradition, but it’s a good one. Unless you’re lactose-intolerant, like my cousin. Poor thing. As I diligently plowed through cheesecake, burekas, frozen yogurts, and fluffy pitas stuffed with labneh and za’atar she tried to keep up, and suffered for it. She clearly went beyond the call of a gracious host.
Battling her intestinal woes, and my New Yorker impatience with the apparent shut-down of the entire country for four days, the holiday into Shabbat, we changed our plans daily and at times hourly, to work around these roadblocks. She did prove remarkably resourceful when needed, and was as content as me to spend a good portion of the day visiting markets, bakeries and such. In fact, the first thing we went to do was visit the Shuk Ha’Carmel and the spice district in Tel Aviv.
We traveled to Jerusalem, where for the most part, the Old City felt a little too perfect of a union between clashing cultures brought together by potential tourism profits. On a more positive note, I did see an elderly Holocaust survivor being carried into a synagogue in the Old City to celebrate his bar mitzvah and his whole party were so excited that we literally got swept up the stairs with them out of curiosity and awe. Then we looked at each other and realized we were two seconds away from being party crashers. We left in search of lunch and the Machane Yehuda market. It was one of the most vibrant food markets I’ve ever been to, even though a grumpy man with a beautiful halva stand (a sweet nougat made from sesame-paste) yelled at me for taking photos.
Throughout the week I had lots of new culinary experiences, including an old seafood restaurant in the Jaffa Port in Tel Aviv, where the meze spread they lay out on the table reminded me so much of the banchan dishes at a Korean restaurant (minus the tofu). I ate at a really fun Georgian restaurant for my birthday, where I had one of the most decadent savory stuffed breads I’ve ever eaten split open and topped with an egg. I foolishly missed out on my chance to have a a sabich sandwich (a pita stuffed with fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg, pickles and chutney) because I didn’t take the little cousin’s advice one afternoon. But the thing that surprised me the most, was the plethora of dairy products. The dairy case at every grocery store was huge, stocked with different types of milk, chocolate milks and milk-shake type drinks, coffee milks, yogurt in every form imaginable, soft cheeses and of course, labneh. Labneh is a fresh cheese made from yogurt and eaten all over the Middle East (more on how easy it is to make at home in a later post).
On my last day in Tel Aviv, we made it back to the Jaffa port and went to Abulafia (24-hour bakery open since 1879), known for their fresh bread, and a form of Israeli bagels (less doughy and dense than NY ones) covered in sesame seeds. The options for your bagel sandwich are different types of labneh, feta, cream cheese and your choice of pickled things, veggies, spice blends, and chili pastes. The standard NYC options of scallion, vegetable or tofutti “cream cheese” looked pretty sad next to this. When my cousin said she had to get a bagel, I knew she’d regret eating it, the same way she knew if she ordered it, I wouldn’t be able to resist sharing it. We stood on the street corner and devoured this pressed bagel sandwich, catching warm melty bits of cheese and pickles as we tore off chunks, each complaining that the other wasn’t eating enough. That sandwich was the perfect sum of my experiences on my first trip to Israel. A little chaotic, a little unexpected, and a change in consciousness I knew I’d be taking home with me.