Culinary tours are my new obsession. And luckily the culinary tour has made it’s way to Israel. What better way to explore a place – whether you live there or are just visiting – than by getting an insiders view of the food? In Israel there is an abundance of incredible markets and hidden gems that can be difficult to navigate on your own.
Yes, even a seasoned shuk shopper can always learn something new. Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market is my favorite shuk in Israel (sorry Carmel Market, and Be’er Sheva, you know I love you). It’s deceptively large, with winding alleyways laced throughout and every turn bringing new treasures. Every time I’m in Jerusalem I stop by, usually just to wander, see if they’ve got any produce Be’er Sheva doesn’t, and to take it all in. For the uninitiated, the market is full of mysteries. I didn’t know where to begin, or what secrets lay within.
Enter Tali Friedman of Lâ€™Atelie Tali Friedman, who was the first to offer dedicated culinary tours in Israel five years ago. She combines an in-depth tour of Mahane Yehuda followed by a cooking class and meal in her beautifully appointed studio just above the market. A culinary school-trained chef and cookbook author, Friedman gave up working in restaurants after having children and didn’t find teaching traditional classes fulfilling. As a native Jerusalemite who grew up near the shuk, she is more than familiar with the market and its vendors so decided to combine her passions by offering tours of the market combined with cooking classes.
Friedman is an animated, passionate guide who seems to be on a first name basis with every vendor in the shuk and isn’t afraid to hop behind their counters to grab a fish or pour a cup of pomegranate tea. She moves through the market like a pro, navigating the crowds with a natural grace and confidence.
I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along on one of Friedman’s recent tours to experience it firsthand. The tour began with burekas from a shop right on the main drag that I’ve passed a million times before but never stopped in. The name of the shop is “Chokmat Haburekas Mehaifa,” which translates roughly as “Burekas from the Wisdom of Haifa.” As you would expect, there is a story behind this. Efi, the owner, grew up in Haifa and was a bit of a petty thief in his youth. He was caught stealing burekas from a renowned bakery; rather than punish him, the owner told him that if he wanted to eat burekas he should learn how to make them. And so Efi trained, learned, baked and eventually married and moved to Jerusalem. But he named his bakery in honor of his mentor.
What makes his burekas so special – they are light and flaky – is that he does not use margarine. Friedman explained that most of the bakers in Israel use margarine to keep their goods parve, which is why they get that strange texture and stick to the roof of your mouth. Makes total sense. Efi is purported to be the only baker in town who refuses to use use margarine. Yet his non-cheese burekas are still parve. His secret? Vegetable oil.
Next we went into the belly of the market and visited Yosi Mizrachi’s shop. Outside he has sacks of grains and nuts, but I never thought to go behind the counter and enter his small store. The inside is a baker’s wonderland with all manner of baking chocolates, types of flour (almond flour!), and other goodies. His specialty is the homemade granola that he makes in huge batches each week, baking it in his ovens then laying it out to dry throughout the closed post-Shabbat market. It was just before Passover (yes, I’m a little late in this post) and Yosi was also selling homemade charoset (shown with Friedman, above), based on his mothers recipe.
There are a number of fish stands in the market and Friedman took us to her favorite, David Dagim (Davidâ€™s Fish). She got right behind the counter and started holding up fish, explaining what the different types were and where they came from. She picked out some beautiful sushi grade red tuna that we would later turn into a passion fruit ceviche. We visited Pereg olive oil and sampled a few of their fine oils and dips, careful not too fill up too much.
We continued through the market as Friedman stopped at various vendors to explain this or that. I saw fresh almonds in abundance for the first time, Friedman opened up a fresh sweet pea for us to sample, and she pointed out grape leaves. This was right during prime fresh garlic season and the entire market was infused with the aroma. We paused to sample a cup of Friedman’s favorite antioxidant-rich pomegranate tea.
Anyone in Israel who loves cheese knows Basher’s Fromagerie. Run by brothers, Eli and Dudi Basher, their shop is the Mecca of Israeli cheese stores. Eli makes monthly trips to France to purchase cheese and imports it by the ton, offering well over 850 varieties of cheese at any one time. Under Dudi’s tutalage, we tried what felt like every cheese in the store, from pesto-infused gouda to delectable gruyere, and from the rarest gouda in the world (Basher bought up the entire stock) to incredibly refined goat cheese. It was hard to tear us away, but Friedman rightfully insisted we must push on.
Our final stop before retiring to Friedman’s studio was the Halva Kingdom. If you’ve been to Mahane Yehuda, then you’ve seen the Halva King. They are right in the center of the shuk, usually yelling and handing out samples. I don’t tend to be a huge fan of halva so I apprehensively tried a few varieties from their extensive flavor collection, but was impressed. This is far and away the best halva I’ve ever had, not too heavy or sweet or sticky or any of the things subpar halva tends to be. They use only Ethiopian sesame seeds and make everything from scratch. I particularly recommend the coffee-flavored halva, but I’m a coffee fiend. They also make and sell their own tahina, which looks unremarkable in unmarked plastic take-out containers, but is an incredible product, rich in flavor and smooth in texture.
Finally, it was time to take our market booty and make a meal. Friedman’s studio, or atelier as she likes to call it, is up the stairs next to a butcher and overlooks the market. The space is large, bright and airy with a state of the art kitchen and huge marble bar-height table for prepping and eating. Before beginning, Friedman brought out a bottle of Israeli-made Arak el Namroud, which she says is the best in the country. Made by a Lebanese ex-pat, the brand has become so popular that it was recently purchased by Coca Cola.
Friedman told us the menu, showed us our ingredients, and assigned each person to a dish. And gave us all a glass of wine, which is just how I like to cook. Although her tours and classes are typically at least 15 people my group was an intimate four, counting me. I began thinly slicing green almonds for a salad while someone else chopped tomatoes and another fileted a fish. Midway through our prep Talie shooed us away to her stunning rooftop to enjoy more wine while she and her sous chef finished preparing the meal. When we came back down they were putting the finishing touches on an incredible modern Israeli menu.
The meal started off with red tuna ceviche with passion fruit and chili pepper, a bright, refreshing, creative dish. Fire grilled baladi eggplant was topped in the traditional manner with tahina as well as tomatoes and balsamic vinegar, a nice touch. The thinly sliced fresh almonds were tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, herbs, and shallots while a light cucumber salad had cranberries and nuts mixed in. As if that wasn’t enough food, there was also a large fish filet with Mediterranean flavors and tender steak with red wine sauce. For dessert? Flaky, tender, just sweet enough apple-filled phyllo finger pastries. Hungry yet?
Tali Friedman offers culinary tours of Mahane Yehuda, cooking classes, and private events. For more information visit her website at www.talifriedman.co.il.