Thursday, June 14, 2012

Places you must go: Tel Aviv's Carmel Market, Yemenite and Neve Tzedek neighborhoods

Spice shops in Tel Aviv's Carmel market show a Moroccan influence

When I told my office about my trip to Israel, one coworker predicted lots of gefilte fish and bagels, while another said he had heard the sights were great, but not so much the food. Well, sorry, but wrong and wrong. Whether you've heard the food in Israel is great or middling, it's actually even better (though a taste for hummus and falafel is helpful).
There's very little bland Jewish-grandma food -- instead it's a spicy stew of cultures that's predominantly Middle Eastern (hummus, pita, tahini, tabbouli), with significant North African flavors (harissa, couscous) and a dash of Eastern European and Russian influence (schnitzel, dumplings, lots of beets). Add a zillion salads of imaginatively-prepared fresh vegetables, a huge variety of breads including the best pita ever, and some typical Mediterranean seafood (excellent branzino, lots of squid) and you've got Israeli food.
I was invited by Friends of Tel Aviv University and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism to meet up with folks from the bustling Israeli film and TV businesses as well as tour the sights, and I'm already missing the country's fresh, healthy food culture. In fact, I'd love to go back for a more in-depth explanation of the country's Druze, Arab, Yemenite and Egyptian foods, as well as the kibbutz-to-table farm restaurants I heard about. And the famous eggplant-egg pita sandwiches.
Nissim's Turkish burekas are stuffed with cheese, spinach or potato, with a tender crust made with yogurt.
Anyway, here's some of the best tastes from our walking tours of Tel Aviv's Carmel market, a somewhat touristy Grand Central market-like area, the Yemenite neighborhood of Kerem HaTeimanim and Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish neighborhood in the city, dating from 1887, now restored and trendy. Our guide for all these areas was Doron Ozer, a marvelously knowledgeable guy who knew the neighborhood's residents well enough to walk into the attic atelier of a pioneering feminist artist in her nineties or the living room of a folk artist who covers his walls with decorative pebbles.
Tasting a mellow Israeli goat's milk cheese resembling gouda
The covered part of Carmel Market, on Carmel Street, is only a block or two long, and at first glance seems jammed with the same Chinese plastic trinkets as every other market in the world. But look closer and you'll find stalls with traditional food vendors specializing in cheese, borekas, coffee, fresh-squeezed juice, halva and more. If you're not familiar with Jewish halva, it's a similar concept to the  Indian sweet halwah but based on ground sesame seeds, sugar and other flavorings.
heavenly halva at Carmel market
American delis usually stock plain, marble, and maybe chocolate-coated, but this amazing halva stand also has Oreo, cherry, pistachio, coffee and more, and it's about a hundred times better than Cantor's.
Egpytian cook Julie at her Tel Aviv restaurant
The market continues on nearby streets with spice shops, butcher shops (even pork butchers catering to Russians) and small restaurants including Julie's, offering Jewish Egyptian food. We didn't get a chance to eat there, but the smiling proprietor Julie showed us a luscious-looking pot of stuffed artichokes and fed us spoonfuls of savory lentils -- yet another reason to return.
North African style spices
The spice shops have numerous varieties of ground pepper, since the Moroccan condiment harissa is found everywhere in Israel. But I was also interested to see several mixtures used for flavoring rice pilaf, with ingredients like flaked coconut, nuts, dried berries and spices.
Here's a good article on the markets of Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv's Dallal restaurant has a shady patio and several airy rooms inside
Not far from Carmel market is Neve Tzedek, which became rundown for several decades. Now charming cafes and restaurants with relaxed patios have opened around the neighborhood, which has a colorful and weathered patina with more sense of history than Tel Aviv's more modern areas. Dallal restaurant, above, has only been open a year or so but looks like a popular neighborhood fixture already.
Shlomoh Vdoron's hummus: smooth, creamy, spicy and smoky
The adjacent Yemenite quarter houses several unusual food stops. There's bakeries selling traditional Yemenite varieties of breads like lacooch and saluf and Shlomoh Vdoron, a hole-in-the-wall spot that serves nothing but a few kinds of killer hummus with big, fluffy pitas (29 Yishkon Street).
Here's more on Yemenite bakeries and restaurants and here's more on top hummus spots of Tel Aviv.
Shlomo Cohen is Tel Aviv's operatic coffee seller
After stuffing yourself silly with hummus, stop by Cafe Cohen. Shlomo Cohen grinds and custom-blends coffee to suit the drinker's taste. But the real attraction is Cohen's set of lungs -- a certified cantor, he belts out Hebrew songs, opera, Frank Sinatra, just about anything, with a rich, full voice that could fill an entire theater, not just a tiny coffee store.
Vicky tapas restaurant at the old Jaffa train station complex
On the edge of Neve Tzedek is Ha'Tachana, the historic Jaffa train station built in 1891 that's now a tastefully-revitalized pedestrian area packed with restaurants, designer shops, performances and kids' activities. Vicky, a tapas spot, and adjacent Christina, a wine bar, look like a fine place to while away an afternoon with a bottle of Golan Heights red.
The Carmel market area, Yemenite quarter, Neve Tzedek and the train station are all very walkable if the heat and humidity are at tolerable levels. Just remember that although Tel Aviv is a very secular city, not much is likely to be open from Friday evening until Saturday evening.

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Jess said...

Wow, Pat, what an incredible adventure. Sounds like my dream trip to Israel (still haven't been)...And a budding kibbutz-to-table movement? Sign me up!

Tel Aviv 4 Fun TO GO said...

Great ... the Hummus photo looks very yummy I wouldn't recommend vicky cristina though I heard the food is not very good there