The Foods of Jerusalem

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Before we left on our trip to Israel in October, I got my hands on a gorgeous cookbook, called, appropriately enough, Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (published by Ten Speed Press).

The authors have an intriguing story. They were born in Jerusalem in the same year. Yotam, the son of Italian Jewish immigrants, lived on the west side of the city and Sami on the Muslim east side. More than 30 years later, both chefs in London, they met, became friends and then business partners in the Ottolenghi chain of restaurants.

“The flavors and smells of this city are our mother tongue,” says Yotam in the introduction. He goes on to describe the rich tapestry of Jerusalem food, which incorporates the cuisines of many countries of Europe and the Middle East.

As Yotam and Sami discovered in their discussions about food, it’s futile to talk about which culture invented a particular delicacy and which one brought a dish to Jerusalem with them. In many ways, the Jerusalem food scene gives credence to those medieval maps that showed the world with Jerusalem at its center.

Complex recipes

The photos in Jerusalem: A Cookbook  are absolutely gorgeous and will make you want to break out your pots and chopping knives. The problem comes when you start to read the recipes. Not only are they complex, but many include obscure ingredients that could be difficult to procure.

In order to make shakshuka, this week’s recipe, I needed to order harissa (hot pepper paste) online because I couldn’t find it in my local market, even though it has a large section for Middle Eastern goods. Several other recipes look interesting, but so far I’ve been unable to find pomegranate molasses anywhere, even in Israel (I’ll probably make some myself, eventually, by boiling down pomegranate juice). And preserved lemons? Dried barberries? To their credit, the authors give instructions on how to make some of the spice mixtures and condiments.

Shakshuka originated in Tunisia but is very popular in Jerusalem. Sometimes you’ll see several varieties on a menu. I confess the photo with this week’s recipe is from the cookbook. My version wasn’t as pretty, but it was very tasty – and spicy! If you don’t like heat, use less harissa or leave it out altogether. I also used just the whole eggs, without the additional egg yolks.

Street food can’t be beat

My favorite Jerusalem food is actually street food, especially falafel and shawarma. Falafel, for the uninitiated, are deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas and spices. When I was first introduced to falafel more than 40 years ago, the balls were stuffed into a pita with chopped tomatoes and cucumbers and tahini (sesame) sauce. These days the balls are topped with a variety of salads, pickles and spreads and then with a handful of French fries, making it a complete meal.

A shawarma is similar, but instead of the falafel balls, the pita’s main filling is shreds of lamb or turkey sliced from a huge hunk of meat turning on a vertical rotisserie. With a falafal or shawarma, you can enjoy a satisfying lunch for less than $6.

Instead of a pita, and for a few shekels more, you can get the sandwich in a “laffa”  – a larger, flatter, more rubbery bread that’s folded around the filling. If you’re really brave, you can go for a “mixed grill,” a combo of shredded chicken and meat with grilled onions and mushrooms. It’s extremely yummy but it can be really messy.

There’s a real skill to eating a pita or laffa that’s fairly bursting with its fillings. I think the main trick is to lean out, so wayward bits and drops will land on the table or ground and not on you. By our second week in Jerusalem, we were able to finish one without having to change our shirts because of the sauce or grease we dripped all over ourselves.

Jerusalem: A Cookbook has a recipe for lamb shawarma, but with 16 different herbs and spices, it’s not for the faint of heart. There’s also a recipe for falafal, but by far the easiest way to make it at home is to buy a box of falafel mix!

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    • Evelyn G. says

      Did you use the Pilpelchuma, or did you just leave it out? My family doesn’t usually like “heat” or “spicy,” so I might try it without the Pilpelchuma or harissa. What was your experience?

      • Bobbie Lewis says

        Hi Evelyn — I used harissa (in a tube, which I bought online) instead of pilpelchuma — I think they’re very similar. I love spicy food! I think if you don’t like heat, you could try just a tiny bit of it to give it some flavor and a little kick. But the dish will probably be quite tasty even without it — it’s basically eggs poached in stewed vegetables. Bon appetit (or as they say in Jerusalem, b’tayavon!)

  1. Helmut Kayser says

    Hi, in witch restaurants we can good and not to expensive ( 10 – 20 EUR ) eat in Jerusalem.
    Can you tell me a place to eat Shakshuka in Jerusalem?

    • Bobbie Lewis says

      Hi Helmut! It’s been a couple of years since our last Jerusalem trip, so I can’t really comment on specific restaurants. But there are many that would offer shakshuka, especially dairy (vs. meat) restaurants. If you’re in central Jerusalem, you’ll find many good places to eat on or just off the King David Street pedestrian mall. Cafe Rimon has been there for generations — it has both dairy and meat sections and the food is very good and reasonable. You might take a look at Trip Advisor, which we use a lot to find good places to eat and to visit when we travel. Enjoy your trip!

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