Tasting your way through Machane Yehuda

Tasting Machane Yehuda

  •   Tasting your way through Machane Yehuda
    ​Seems everybody wants to sign up for a tour of Jerusalem’s venerable open-air market lately. The sights, sounds and tastes are irresistible
  • A tourist picking produce at Machane Yehuda (Photo: Abraham Hostel)
    By Avigayil Kadesh
    Where is the hottest new place for tourists to get a taste of Jerusalem? Hint: It’s not a museum, a shrine or an archeological dig. It’s Machane Yehuda (“Camp of Judah”), the largest and busiest outdoor market in Israel.
    Opened in 1928, Machane Yehuda encompasses a maze of downtown lanes bearing names such as Apple, Peach, Plum, Berry and Almond -- just a few of the many foodstuffs you can buy there.
    The shuk (rhymes with “cook”), as it’s better known, has always been a favorite of visitors for its colorful, pungent, open-air atmosphere where Jews and Arabs bargain-hunt side by side amid the cries of merchants hawking everything from haloumi cheese and herring to chicken hearts and halva.
    Lately, however, culinary tours of Machane Yehuda are all the rage as Jerusalem has invested in upgrading the infrastructure of the shuk, and high-end arts shops and trendy eateries find a place among generations-old produce stalls.

    Stocking up on sweets at Machane Yehuda.
    Photo courtesy of Abraham Hostel
    The stories behind those venerable family businesses provide the backdrop for a new series offered by More Gastronomy and Tourism, says co-founder Reuven Pilo. He and his wife, Mor, joined with fellow Jerusalem native Michael Weiss of the Go Jerusalem Internet tourism portal to establish a whole menu of tour choices in the market.
    “We found ourselves looking for something with added value to do in Jerusalem,” says Pilo, a former chef and now purveyor of culinary tours of Israel.
    “Many tourist companies bring visitors to museums, archeological parks, the Kotel [Western Wall] -- but they don’t bring them to the people of Jerusalem. And if you’re taking about Jerusalem you’re talking about a melting pot of ethnic communities. All those other sites are important, but we think that the business we developed brings you to the real Jerusalem -- the people, the food, the customs.”
    For the first time ever, the partners got the shuk’s vendors (some of whom were entirely unfamiliar with the Internet) listed on a modern website that also provides entrée to tours focusing on niches – patisserie or wine and cheese, for example. During one excursion, participants buy fresh, exotic ingredients for a gourmet cooking workshop afterward.
    ‘It’s like coming to a show’
    With More, you can opt to tour the marketplace with a licensed guide or with a professional chef. If you prefer to browse on your own and at your own pace, a NIS 99 (about USD 26) Shuk Bites ticket () provides you with a map and a punch-card of vouchers to try a variety of products. Whichever way you go, the site promises you’ll have “character-drenched vendor interaction.”

    Ticket to the self-guided Shuk Bites tour
    “Just come with the ticket and enjoy the best bites the shuk can offer, from boutique cheeses to genuine burekas and organic tehina, to health drinks by [the Yemenite ‘medicine man’] Uzi Eli – it’s like coming to a show,” says Weiss.
    Little wonder that the partners perceived high demand from individuals and groups regarding the Machane Yehuda market, Weiss continues. “It represents the most colorful, rich, spicy, interesting market in Israel, and since it’s been redeveloped in the last five to six years, it’s become a big magnet for those coming to Jerusalem from abroad and from other areas in Israel just to see the market.
    “We noticed it was not being presented in the right manner, and filled this gap with a one-stop portal launched in November, providing detailed information about the market, its streets, shops and bus stops. It’s not just another commercial shopping site. You can learn about the personal stories of the stall owners and what Machane Yehuda represents to them. The shop owners love it -- it’s rebranding the market in a more sophisticated way.”
    The colors of the market
    The Machane Yehuda market anchors a downtown neighborhood of the same name established in 1887 by a bank manager, a metal worker and a railway worker. The latter named it after his recently deceased brother Yehuda.
    Over the years, it started getting pretty shabby until Eli Mizrahi, then president of the shuk’s merchant association, got the Jerusalem municipality to cooperate in upgrading the pavements and lighting, and installing security cameras and awnings.
    Since then, several cultural events have taken root in Machane Yehuda. It started with jazz concerts in the summers, and now every Monday night in July the shuk comes alive with the Balabasta Festival -- an eclectic mix of unusual temporary sculptures, jugglers, clowns, Capoeira and waltzing as bands play music on the cobblestones and rooftops.
    Recently, a city-sponsored urban art initiative dubbed Tabula Rasa spiced up the Iraqi section of the bazaar with works by painters, sculptors, photographers, graphic artists and even some of the stall owners.
    Mayor Nir Barkat, who participated in the projects as well, said at the opening that Tabula Rasa “adds color; it adds spirit to the changes that are happening here.”
    An infusion of young tourists
    Though the majority of the stalls in Machane Yehuda are still owned by the same families who’ve manned them for generations, newer businesses have moved in. Another modern touch is the opening of the long-awaited light rail, which began operating on the Jaffa Road side of the shuk in October 2011.
    The market also got an infusion of young foreign tourists when the Abraham Hostel opened in 2010 on Jaffa Road just a few blocks away. The hostel offers off-the-beaten-track tours of Jerusalem, including a Market Cooking Tour on Sunday and Thursday afternoons for hostel guests and others.
    “We begin with an interactive and historical tour of the Machane Yehuda market with a local guide, who will navigate you through the hustle and the bustle of the marketplace, showing you the interesting sites and hidden treasures between the market stalls. At the end of the tour, you pick up fresh food from the market, and bring it back to the Abraham Hostel kitchen for ... a hands-on lesson in cooking a traditional, vegetarian Middle Eastern meal. You will help clean, fry, boil, bake, cook, chop, slice and stir the ingredients, with the guidance of our in-house chef,” the site explains.

    “It was always a dream of mine to have such an experience in the shuk,” says Gal Mor, 34, Abraham Hostel’s co-founder and an experienced tour director.
    “We meet at the hostel, head to the market and explore its background history and the culture of the different types of foods available there. We shop and interact with vendors, then come back to the hostel and cook a big feast of local cuisine – including dishes such as kubbeh [Moroccan meat dumplings], kebab, majadara [rice and lentils], tabbouleh [bulgur and mint salad], babaganoush [eggplant salad], accompanied by some local arak [an anise liqueur] and great Israeli music.”
    Mor says the shopkeepers are happy about these tours, launched in the second half of 2011. “Our customers go back again and buy groceries and hang out in the eateries of the market. It’s part of our social agenda to promote local businesses.”
    Middle Eastern menu with a modern slant
    Ruth Yudekovitz runs her Shuk and Cook tours of Machane Yehuda like a treasure hunt. She begins with a brief introduction on the history of the shuk and the many Jewish ethnic groups whose spices and delicacies they will encounter as they hear Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish and Arabic spoken in the shuk. Then she divides her clients into groups of two or three.
    “I give them each a cart, a shopping list, a map and money. They go buy the things on the list, which is in Hebrew with transliterated English,” says Yudekovitz, a native New Yorker and 30-year resident of Jerusalem. “I give them little challenges on the way, like identifying what game is being played in the corner of the Iraqi [sector of the] shuk.” (Answer: backgammon, commonly known as sheshbesh.)
    “Afterwards I meet them and they come back to cook a meal in my house in Abu Tor,” a gentrified downtown neighborhood not far from Machane Yehuda. She had the kitchen redone a few years ago specifically to accommodate her culinary tour groups. Yudekovitz long dreamed of opening a restaurant in the North, but decided to remain in Jerusalem and combine her passions for the shuk and cooking.
    “I like to emphasize the idea of the plenty of the land and how wonderful it is that produce is still available here by season. I introduce them to things less familiar, like kohlrabi and mangold. Instead of stuffed grape leaves, we might make stuffed mangold leaves with cranberries or red rice. It’s a somewhat traditional Middle Eastern menu with a modern slant.”

    “Middle Eastern with a modern slant” is a good way to describe the marketplace in general, Reuven Pilo would agree.
    “The merchants here are very old-fashioned, but when I look at what Machane Yehuda has become in the last five years, I see it changing in front of my eyes,” says Pilo. “Together with the fruits and vegetables, butchers, bakeries and spice shops, you have Aroma [a chain café], jewelry shops, clothing boutiques, Ahava [Dead Sea cosmetics], frozen yogurt and famous restaurants. People have started to understand the potential in the market.”
    Recently, Pilo and Weiss crafted a special shuk tour for a Birthright Israel group comprised of 100 Americans in the culinary field, including chefs and food bloggers. They took them to the various ethnic neighborhoods of Machane Yehuda and neighboring Nahlaot, then to the market where they sampled a buffet with foods such as kubbeh, stuffed grape leaves, homemade s’chug (seasoned hot chili paste), freshly ground tehina and Jerusalem pickles.
    The people make the market
    “It’s not only about the food,” Pilo stresses. “This is where all the people in the 1950s made aliyah [moved to Israel] and all crowded together. The Polish and Moroccan families lived side by side, and what happened is that the kitchens mixed: The Moroccan women learned the Polish women’s secrets and techniques, and vice versa.”
    Though many of the younger generations of these families gradually began doing their shopping in supermarkets, new families and older people alike still take their rolling carts through the shuk.
    “My father, he’s 72 and two times a week he goes on the bus to the train with his cart to the market,” says Pilo. “He buys the fruits and vegetables on Mondays, the fish and meat on Thursdays. But it’s not just the traditionalists. It is beginning to be chic to shop in Machane Yehuda.”
    Groups sign up for More Tours of the shuk from many different countries, and not all of them are Jewish, Pilo stresses. “This is especially good for people coming on repeat trips, who’ve already seen the sights. We have about 25 tours a month and it’s growing.”
    Some companies offer tasting tours of the market especially for Israelis from the Tel Aviv area. Rubin Tours, for example, takes busloads of interested men, women and children to Jerusalem at 8am from Tel Aviv and returns at 3pm.
    Given that Tel Aviv has the Carmel Market and Haifa has the Talpiot Market, why would Israelis travel all the way to Machane Yehuda?
    “Because it’s colorful, interesting and tasty,” says Rubin Tours’ Igor Drapkin. “There’s a lot of different stuff in one place, including wine and cheese, all handmade. In Tel Aviv and in Haifa you have markets, but you buy your fruits and vegetables there and that’s it. In Jerusalem you taste this and that, you buy this and that – it’s like going to the market in Marrakesh, only it’s an hour’s drive away in Jerusalem.”
    Pilo’s More Tourism also has tours catering to Israelis from outside Jerusalem. And the merchants are loving it.
    “We have great feedback from the stores,” says Pilo. “Even if only two or three people come into the halva store from these tours, they will buy something because they don’t have anything like it in Haifa. They’ll buy something at Basher Fromagerie, which has 1,400 kinds of cheese from all over the world and was chosen as one of the 10 best cheese shops in the world by the French Culinary Mission. Eli Basher is third-generation in this market. It’s been here for 64 years.”
    Every shop has a story
    Every stall in Machane Yehuda has a story, says Pilo. And that’s what he is selling more than anything else.
    “Mor, Michael and I are in business; we don’t work for free. But if someone pays $20 million for a Van Gogh painting, it’s not because it’s beautiful but because of its story. We are dealing with stories, too. We have so many different cultures here.” He sweeps his hand toward the lively market. “This is Israel.”
    More’s Bakery Tour, for example, takes participants through five different shops. When they stop at the sparkling new Dekel boutique bakery and survey its artisan sourdough loaves, they hear how it all began with the South American owner having a dream one night and moving to Israel.
    At the Georgian bakery, they learn about nut-and-cranberry pastries particular to the Russian ethnic tradition. They watch pocket bread coming out of a brick oven at an authentic pita bakery, one of the oldest such establishments in Jerusalem; sample the signature gooey rugelah at Marzipan; taste the whole-wheat confections at Natural Choice.
    One of More’s tours ends in the kitchen of an Iraqi grandmother, who shows small groups how to make stuffed grape leaves. Another finishes with a feast at a Russian Georgian eatery where participants fashion edible necklaces of brazil nuts, wine and jam, left to dry for two weeks like sausage.
    A walk through the shuk
    Piles of peppers awaiting culinary tourists at the shuk
    Photo courtesy of Abraham Hostel
    As Pilo makes his way through the market, vendors take a break from hawking, chopping, stacking and weighing to greet him. He points out some highlights.
    “On this corner, you can see the change that came to the market,” he says, gesturing toward the ceramics shop that opened about two years ago next to Uzi Eli’s long-established natural juice, remedies and cosmetics stand. On the other side is a new restaurant, Fishenchips, and a historic synagogue. The old blends with the new.
    He stops in front of Tzidkiyahu Delicacies, which originally sold only Bulgarian, Kashkaval, and traditional Tzfatit cheeses. Today, two branches straddle Etz HaChaim (Tree of Life) Street. On one side, the dairy shop stocks imported cheeses, boutique Israeli cheeses, dips, olive oils and fish. On the other side you can buy ready-made meat dishes, homemade salads and pickles – not just from cucumbers but also from beets and cherry tomatoes among other fruits and vegetables.
    The Pereg spice shop always has a hot pot brimming with rice and couscous so that customers can sample the various savory toppings for sale. In the refrigerated case are bottles of Tunisian rozata concentrate to mix with water for a refreshing drink, says Pilo. This white syrup is made with almonds, sugar and rosewater. The owner proffers a plastic spoonful of a new Sumsumiya spread, a healthful paste made of almonds, brazil nuts, walnuts, natural honey and ground sesame.
    Farther along the same lane is a shop devoted to plain and flavored olive oils, run by the owners of Pereg. The manager explains the difference between the oils and offers tastes, of course. A big screen mounted above the store shows a continuous video of how olive oil is pressed in Israel.
    Pausing at the Sheik Bakery to admire its tiny hand-rolled rugelah, Pilo then steps into a two-year-old ice cream shop. “In the middle of the market you can make your own Jerusalem ice cream,” he says.
    “You choose vanilla or chocolate -- they have also light with less sugar – and they have a special machine, the only one in Israel, which combines the ice cream with toppings of your choice. This place is one of the new stops on Shuk Bites. It’s refreshing to see this kind of store in the middle of fruits, vegetables and bake shops.”
    Pilo’s favorite fish vendor gives tourists a little lecture about fish endemic to the Middle East and prepares a Carpaccio or ceviche to try. At Basher Fromagerie, owners Eli and Dudu stock kosher and non-kosher cheeses from run-of-the-mill varieties to imported aged delicacies costing NIS 600 per kilo. Pilo arranged for this shop to provide a separate cutting board and knife so that kosher-keeping tourists can buy with confidence.
    Halva Kingdom, one of the staples in the shuk, actually opened in 1947 in the Old City and moved to the shuk in 1986. Halva is a sesame-based candy beloved throughout the Middle East, and this shop uses sesame seeds imported from Ethiopia.
    “They use a big stone that crushes the seeds,” Pilo explains as a Halva Kingdom worker shaves little slices from wheels of the confection -- halva infused with cinnamon, with coffee, with chocolate. There are 100 varieties sold here. “Then they wash the crushed seeds in a special pool and they dry them in a special machine that’s not too hot. After they dry them, they put them in a special oven. They took first medal in a competition in Turkey, where halva is a traditional food.”
    Pilo explains that his company tries to match the tours and tastings to the interests of each group. Some like to see how sausage is made, while others prefer checking out the many varieties of chickpea paste at a hummus restaurant. Organic coffee, tamarind juice, gummy bears ... it’s all here at Machane Yehuda.
  • The vibrant Machane Yehuda market