Tasting Israel With a Celebrity Foodie

Ten years ago, I made what I thought would be my last trip to Israel. I’d visited the amazing historical sights on two different occasions with Christian friends, and didn’t really feel a need to go back. However, this year I had an opportunity to return, and since I’d get to visit Masada and Petra (in Jordan) I was quick to sign up! However, I decided that while in Jerusalem I’d prefer to learn about the food culture of Israel instead of seeing Biblical sites.

My friend, Miranda Kaiser, helped me find a guide who was eager to spend two days showing me around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, tasting many of the local dishes and visiting markets. His name is Gil Hovav, and he is truly a celebrity in Israel, which I found out when we were stopped on numerous occasions for photos and admirable praise. He has hosted numerous travel shows around the world, written several books, and reviewed many restaurants in Israel. I met him at the Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv, a bustling street of spice shops, bakeries, olive stalls, and other food shops that represent the city’s love for fresh ingredients.

Gil took me to his favorite places, including “the smallest cafe in Tel Aviv”, Levinsky 41 owned by Beny, a charming gentleman who makes custom soda drinks using fresh ingredients and preserved fruits and spices blended in homemade soda water. Beny looked me in the eyes and created a special blend to match whatever he saw. Gil said he’d never seen him use so many ingredients! It was absolutely delicious, as well as beautiful!

Another favorite stop was Albert’s bakery, owned by Mr. and Mrs.Yehuda. A gentleman was sitting in the doorway hand peeling almonds while Mr. Yehuda was bringing marouchinoes cookies out of the oven, which are scrumptious almond cookies. Mrs. Yehuda was gently packaging their homemade marzipan for the upcoming Passover holiday when they sell out of everything they make.

Of course, I was mesmerized by the rows of spice shops selling many types of dates, dried fruits, nuts, olives, legumes, and mounds of fresh spices. Among some of the ones I bought were dried limes, dried cherry tomatoes, sumac, saffron, and pomegranate syrup (much thicker than molasses).

We walked to the Shuk HaCarmel market where we strolled up and down aisles of specialty shops, including pastry stalls and a cheese shop where I got to sample some delicious salty Israeli cheese. We were soon hungry for lunch so we had lahmacun (a Turkish flatbread with minced lamb and tomatoes). By this time, I had really developed a crush on Tel Aviv!

By mid-afternoon Gil and I separated so I could shop at the Nahalat Binyamin Craft Market, an array of artisan crafts, jewelry, and woodwork that is only set up on Tuesdays and Fridays. I had a wonderful time talking to the artists and purchasing some very unique olive tree bowls and hand-crafted jewelry.

After resting at my beachfront hotel, Gil gave me a fantastic driving tour of Tel Aviv at night, where he pointed out original architecture and modern skyscrapers, many of which were designed by German architects. We ate at a very modern Asian restaurant called Topolopompo, which is owned by a friend of Gil’s. The food was delicious, each course was a work of art garnished with ingredients neither Gil nor I couldn’t identify. After dinner Gil surprised me with a nightcap at a very special “secret” bar called Imperial Bar, where we ended our day with a crafted cocktail and lots of people-watching.

My second day in Tel Aviv started with a walk on the beautiful beach where people were strolling, jogging, and exercising at the open-air gyms. Gil drove to a winery between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem called Domaine Du Castel, where we were given a special tour and tasting of the wines produced from their vineyards just outside Jerusalem. I knew they were serious when we were served local cheeses to pair with our wines!

Gil took me to a nearby restaurant owned by his brother, Itamar, called Muma (named after their grandmother). We got there early, so I was honored when Itamar sat down with us and told stories of their family. His daughter served us the bread they are famous for called kubaneh. It is made with lots of butter (although Gil argued that it should be made with olive oil), and is served with tomato sauce, chopped parsley, and hummus. We were also served classic falafel, fried perfectly and served with hummus and pureed beetroot. Gil went behind the bar and made us all negroni cocktails, while Itamar explained the difficulties of operating a restaurant.

Gil and I moved on to the iconic Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. There are over 250 vendors lining the several streets, mostly open-air, but some covered. It is a very clean and happy environment where vendors sell fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, nuts, spices, and much more! Of course, Gil was recognized by many of the sellers and customers, and we were given a lot of special attention. We visited Basher Fromagerie, a deli and cheese shop in the market, which was packed with customers sampling the dozens of cheeses. Of course, I tasted several bites while Gil was busy being photographed by his fans, including the guys working in the deli. We walked up and down the aisles tasting everything including fresh pastries, spice mixtures, dates, olives, and nuts candied with date syrup. I made many purchases, and when we couldn’t carry more packages or taste any more samples, we ended our tour in a special restaurant in the market where they make meat pies called shambourak, using a pastry that takes days to make. It is risen 5 times before being rolled out and filled with meat that has cooked so long in its delicious fat that it has become confit. I was told that the meat was left over from the Sabbat dinner, and when the pie is cooked in the huge clay oven it is absolutely delicious. They are cooked to order, so we anxiously waited and watched while the row of pies rotated slowly in the oven, then served to us piping hot. Gil had planned one more tasting for us, but I insisted I couldn’t eat another bite. We said our goodbyes and promised we would meet again, somewhere in the world. Meanwhile, I have every intention of preparing many of the dishes I learned about, and use all the spices and special ingredients I hauled back to the United States in my two new suitcases. I certainly saw a different Israel than I had seen in the past, and I encourage anyone who visits Israel for the historical biblical sights to spend a couple days exploring the food markets, beaches, and fabulous restaurants Israel has to offer.

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