A couple of months ago I had a delicious dinner at an exciting Israeli restaurant in London’s Soho called The Palomar. The amazing vibe transported me right into the Jerusalem party scene. The intriguing Yiddish, Yemini and Meknes style dishes whetted my appetite to learn more about this kind of food. Our friends, Yotam and Sami at Ottolenghi and Itamar and Sarit from Honey and Co in London have also been spreading the word about Israeli and Middle Eastern food for decades.
As ever, I decided to make a trip to the source. I arrived into Jerusalem on a Thursday evening and headed straight for the famous Mahane Yehuda Market, known as the ‘Shuk’.
A huge colourful, partially covered, bustling market with over 250 stall holders, selling an irresistible melange of seasonal vegetables, fruit, fresh herbs…there are butchers, fish mongers, innumerable bakeries piled high with challah, babka and a tantalizing range of filo and kunefe pastries.
Others crammed with a wide range of za'atar, tahini, sumac, fresh spices, nuts and dried fruits, dates, olives, barberries… Some just sell many variations of halva. Of course there are also little shops selling wines, housewares, clothes, sandals and a huge variety of Judaica.
In and around the edges of the market, there are street stalls and cafes offering irresistible street foods – shawarma, falafel, kebabs, kibbah, shasklik, konafe, baklava……
Juice stalls, press and squeeze the freshest juice as you wait, mango, orange, pomegranate, pink grapefruit, carrot, lime…..
The vendors vie with each other calling out their prices to passersby. On Thursdays and Friday morning, there’s an extra frenzy of activity as the Jewish community stock up with produce for the Sabbath meal. The bugle is sounded by a couple of Haredi men on Friday afternoon, the market closes and doesn’t reopen until Saturday afternoon.
But, what I hadn’t realised was that for the past few years, at night when the stalls close and the graffiti covered shutters are secured. The market reinvents itself into the centre of Jerusalem’s hip night life scene where local foodies, hipsters and tourists hang out. Table and chairs are set up, suddenly there’s live music, dance, cocktails and great food… The energy is off the scale.
Thursday and Saturday are the liveliest nights but every night, the area is a swinging scene. How about that for an idea for the English Market in Cork City…
It was very tempting to eat in the midst of all the excitement but we’d managed to get a 10.30pm booking at Machneyuda restaurant on the outskirts of the market. It’s the inspiration for, and the mother of, The Palomar restaurant in London which had inspired my trip. It’s the hottest restaurant in Jerusalem right now and has been for quite some time. Exuberant head chef, Asaf Granet and two friends chop, dice and sauté to the beat of loud zippy music while banging on pots and pans in the open kitchen. Conversation is virtually impossible but the cacophony of sounds and the lively party scene is enough to keep all the guests wildly entertained as they enjoy Asaf’s eclectic take on Jerusalem dishes. I particularly loved the silky polenta with mushrooms, crisp asparagus, slivers of parmesan and truffle oil and of course the shikshukit and hummus with lamb and many toppings.
Dessert can be homemade twix and tonka icecream, pistachio hash cake, cheese cake in a jar – old school style. Alternatively, a table of friends could opt for the raucous splashed dessert to be hurled onto their tin foil covered table top by three exuberant chefs – a delicious spectacle – not for everyone…