Sunday, July 24, 2016

Midwest Meets Mideast #6: Food, Glorious Food

One of you challenged me to come up with a limerick using the phrase, "Ani Tzimchoni." You know who you are. Challenge accepted.
In Israel, Ani Tzimchoni
Falafel I eat hungrily
Tomato, Cucumber,
And pita. A number
Of carnivores wish they were me.

There. Consider the mic officially dropped.

Please allow an excursion from narration for a touch of gustatory exposition. I would like to talk about food.

Israel is fantastic for vegetarians. If you eat eggs and dairy, the chances of finding a decent meal is pretty high. The fresh fruit in Israel is much better than the fruit in the US. The bread in Israel is better than in the US. The cheese in Israel is...OK, well, they are getting there. Even the crap food rivals our crap food. For example, Bamba, a very popular snack food made by the Osem company, are corn puffs coated in peanut butter. Sure, it tastes like Styrofoam, but I will put their Styrofoam coated with real Argentinian peanut butter up against our Styrofoam coated with processed cheese powder any day. 

Fresh juice is almost ubiquitous in Israel. Walk around any big city, and you can get freshly squeezed orange, grapefruit, and often pomegranate juice.  Yes, pomegranate juice. This smooth pulp-free  nectar is sweet and flavorful, a beverage to be sipped rather than gulped. Or heck, gulp it down. It’s hot out there, and they can just make you some more for another 20 New Israeli Shekels (NIS). 

How about the lemonade? Our hotel breakfast in Jerusalem included an amazing lemonade that was a perfect balance of sweet, tart, and cold. It was far superior to any lemony concoction in the US, definitely better than the powdered (please excuse my course language) crap i’ve become accustomed to, and even better than anything homemade coming out of a neighborhood lemonade stand.  My entire family is now convinced that lemonade MUST be served with mint leaves. After our stay on the beach in Haifa, I am convinced that a little arak added to the mint lemonade can’t hurt either.  

Bread? Street vendors in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv sell the most amazing bread, fresh and warm. My youngest son and I fell in love with the baygaleh vendors who sell elongated Jerusalem bagels coated with sesame seeds, and often available with za’atar spice. You can hear them chanting “baygaleh, baygaleh, baygaleh!” in voices slightly louder and more impassioned than the minarets calling the faithful Muslims to prayer. 

Along with baygaleh, bread vendors sell challah, pastries, olive loaves, and of course pita.  Lots and lots of pita. In the Machaneh Yehudah market in Jerusalem, one vendor sold us 30 large fluffy pita bread for 10 NIS which was about $2.60 US. It was very good pita at an amazingly low price, but even I was sick of eating peanut butter on pita for breakfast and snacks after a week. 

On the second to last day of our trip, we were walking through the Shuk HaCarmel (Carmel Market) in Tel Aviv on a Friday, and I wanted to get some challah for Shabbat. Micah convinced me to buy a couple of baygaleh as know, because we really, really like them. “Shalom,” I said to the frumpy middle-aged woman at a bread stand, “Ani rotzeh echad challah v’shtey baygelah.” (Which translated more or less to, ‘Howdy! I want one challah and two of them there baygelah thingies.’) 

“Here,” she said grabbing another baygelah, “take as my gift. and this too.” She added on two small olive loaves.

“Todah rabah. Kamah zeh oleh?” (Thank you. How much does this cost?) She said something that I didn’t quite catch. I started sorting through my coins. Immediately, the woman jumped forward to help me.

“Here. This and this and this,” she said taking a bunch of my coins and swatting away my hand as I tried to take some back. “Now I need twenty shekels. And this. And this.” I pulled out a twenty shekel bill.

“Also you take this,” she entreated, adding another small bagel to our bag. “And also this.” She finally handed us a large bag of half-size pita. I could see my family’s eyes rolling back into their heads, partly because this was way more bread than we could possibly eat in 48 hours, but mostly because the site of pita was making them all just a little bit nauseated. 

I honestly lost count of how much we paid for all of that bread. I knew I was being taken for a rube, but sometimes you have to bow to the absurd. Sometimes it is worth the extra shekels for dinner and a show. So if you see Dahlia, our grandmotherly vendor at the Shuk HaCarmel, say hello and Shabbat Shalom from me. And watch your coins carefully.

I had been warned that there were not nearly as many falafel stands in Israel as there once was, but still you can find falafel in any Israeli city. You can find falafel platters at the fancy restaurants. You can find falafel in the grocery stores. You can find falafel in small street shops of questionable hygiene. And I hunted down every bit of falafel I could find, because falafel is one of my absolute favorite foods. More than once, I walked down the street in pure ecstasy munching on falafel balls stuffed into a warm fluffy pita, along with hummus, tahini, cucumber, tomato, pickles, and hot sauce. And still I looked for more falafel. 

My family did not share my passion, or as I am sure they would call it, my obsession. In fact, after three to four meals of falafel, they called it quits and demanded that I find them something else. Hence, the second to last night in Tel Aviv, they ate street vendor pizza while I ate falafel. And the night we left Israel, they pounced on the Pizza Hut in the Ben Gurion Airport. Not me. I found a cafe serving potato knishes. 

Israel also has quite a few upscale and creative vegetarian restaurants. Our friends the Zalbens met us for dinner at Nagila, a kosher vegetarian restaurant which blessedly has menus in both Hebrew and English. I opted for the Caribbean pastry, a curry dough pastry filled with root vegetables, zucchini, and pine nuts. Other dishes we all tried trended to the more exotic (Mejadra la Ja’dahna stew of rice and black lentils, and the coconut curry stew) to the mundane (herb latkes, and spaghetti with marinara sauce). However, all the dishes were delicious, and I highly recommend you try out the establishment the next time any of you are in Jerusalem.

What amazed me the most about food in Israel is how much you can find that is not processed and stripped of all flavor. There is a deep connection to the food that mirrors the deep connection to the land. Israelis may live in a geographic desert, but they certainly do not live in a food desert. Every time you buy a baygelah from a street vendor or watch someone squeeze orange juice right in front of you or scoop you some exotic spice mixture, you can’t help but feel, “this is real. This is authentic. This is what food should be.”

And when you get sick of that, there is always Bamba and Pizza Hut.

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