“Who knows the 5 ingredients for hummus?”
It was a chilly November day and the sun gently beat down on us as we sat across a wooden table listening to our guide in Tel Aviv. We had decided to explore Levinsky Market with Delicious Israel on a culinary walking tour.
The 2 most popular food markets in Tel Aviv are Carmel and Levinsky Market, separated by a 15 minute walk. Carmel is more of a souk with vendors selling fruits and vegetables while Levinsky has more establishments and family run enterprises. We decided to start off with the lesser known of the 2 – Levinsky.
Our first stop was at Hummus Eliyahu. We walked past a cheesy signboard that read ‘One Hummus, One Love’ and into a tiny courtyard outfitted with 2 tables and a rusty looking electric fan. Bowls of hummus sprinkled with cumin and paprika and toppings of fuul (fava beans) to be scooped up with raw onion slices and pita bread awaited us.
Did you know that hummus is a breakfast staple in Israel? We did not and we listened on to our guide while scooping up mouthfuls of the chunky spread.
Wars have been fought over hummus. Lebanon and Israel have each claimed hummus as their own and have competed with gigantic bowls of the food to enter the Guinness Book of World Records. They even tried registering hummus with the European Union but were rebuffed as the EU designated it as food of the region.
These food wars and debates about where a dish originated is not new to Israel. It’s tricky to label food as Israeli as the cuisine has multiple influences. It’s an amalgamation of Arabic food from the region and food from across the world as Jews brought along their culinary influences with them when they migrated to the region.
Our tour of Levinsky that day and our subsequent walks around Tel Aviv highlighted this kaleidoscope of different culinary influences. Most shops in Levinsky are family owned enterprises that have been running for generations. However, as the next generation moves on to white collar jobs, these enterprises increasingly find themselves with no one at the helm and many have had to close down.
Here are the places we loved the most in Levinsky:
Cafe Levinsky is a bustling street side cafe that has revived gazoz – sweetened soda water popular in Tel Aviv before the advent of Pepsi/Coca Cola. The Chef, Benny Briga, has moved away from artificial flavouring and has upgraded the drink with fermented gazoz filled with fresh and exotic fruits, herbs and berries.
Benny decides what you should drink and he concocts a drink based on his mood and what is available. No 2 drinks look alike and everything in it is edible. Mine had custard apple, hibiscus, kumquats, dates and a whole host of things I couldn’t recognize.
The cafe is instantly recognizable by the beat up pickup truck parked in front of it. The city had regulations that made it difficult to arrange seating for customers. Hence, they picked up an old Susita, parked it in front of the cafe and outfitted it to make a seating area.
The deli is run by a family that migrated to Israel from Turkey. We fell in love with the pickled hibiscus here – sweet, salty and tangy pickled flowers stuffed with cheese.
We had sampled Halva from different shops across Israel but nothing came close to Kesem Hahalve. Linda, the owner, bustled around insisting that we try out different flavours. My favourite was the chocolate halva. The husband swore by the pistachio one.
Neatly arranged rows of spices, herbs and various mixes for ailments adorn the storefront. The place is buzzing with customers walking in and out buying Hawaiij, Zaatar and other spice mixes.
Burekas, originating from Greece, are hot, flaky pastries stuffed with potato, cheese and spinach served with a size of raw tomato sauce.
Pillowy clouds of fried falafel dipped in amba and tahini sauce is the signature snack here.
Amba is of Indian origin and is a paste of mango preserved in vinegar, fenugreek and turmeric. The story is that years ago, when mangos were discovered in India, barrels of the fruit, preserved in vinegar, were shipped to Iraq. Iraqi immigrants then brought Amba to Israel and it’s now as ubiquitous as tomato ketchup is in the US.
Shuk Ha’Carmel and Nachalat Binyamin Market
The next day, after a late breakfast and a tour of Jaffa, we headed to Carmel Market.
It was 2 PM on Friday and we had 3 hours to explore the market before the start of Shabbat when the whole place would shut down.
Shuk Ha’Carmel is the most popular market in Tel Aviv. Shuk is Hebrew for Souq or Souk. As we scurried down, I noticed a crowd standing in front of a bakery. Flaky pastries straight from the oven were being served. I had no idea what these pastries were. The vendor didn’t speak any English. And the lady I asked standing in line next to me had no clue either – she was a tourist herself! After tasting one, the husband and I quickly ordered another. It was that good! We were later told that these were Bourekas. Little triangular slices of puff pastry filled with potatoes.
We were beginning to realize that our lack of Hebrew could prove to be a problem here.
We struck up a conversation with a lady eating a colourful looking salad. Tammy told us that up ahead was her favourite Ceviche place and that she came here every Friday. Now, we had to taste this.
As we dug into our bowl of Ceviche topped with a beetroot and carrot slaw sprinkled with pomegranates, we learnt that Tammy had visited Delhi….had hated it and had fled after being harassed. She had no intention of ever setting foot in India again. What a sad way to experience India! Here we were enjoying her country while she had had a terrible time in ours.
She pointed us in the direction of M25 and insisted that we eat there. We didn’t need a great amount of coaxing as we saw a crowd of customers mobbing the entrance. People tapped their toes impatiently waiting to be called in. We gave our names at the entrance and were told that it would be a 30 minute wait. Every 5 minutes, I insisted that the husband go and check if we were up next. It was so good that a customer next to us even went into hypoglycemia and had a fainting spell before being revived with some sugar…..and they still kept waiting in line!
The vibe here is infectious – loud music, energetic and unruly with the sizzling sounds and smells of meat wafting outside. Service is no frills and brisk. Since the menu was in Hebrew, we depended on our server and ordered kebabs and arias.
The kebabs were served with grilled onions, potatoes and the best tomato salad I’ve ever tasted. The salad had a dressing made of tahini and preserved lemons.
Arias are deep fried pitas stuffed with minced lamb. The tangy and acidic salads were a lovely complement to the meat. And we downed it with some Shapiro beer.
After stuffing ourselves at M25, we walked towards what remained of Nachalat Binyamin, which is a handicrafts and arts market. Most of the vendors had started packing up and had called it a week for Shabbat.
We strolled down and looked at some intricate, handmade trinkets, some very good photographs and beautiful paintings adorning the sidewalks.
After browsing a few stalls, we stopped for some Malabi – Israeli panacotta with rosewater and pomegranate syrup, and gelato.
For dinner that night, on Tammy’s recommendation, we made our way to Ha’Achim . This is a hip, trendy restaurant focused on local ingredients. The fairy lights, pop-art and cozy seating make it a favourite for couples on dates and friends meeting up over dinner.
We had the challah bread (pronounced: halla ) , tomato salad, grilled kolhrabi and lamb safaich. I tried out some Israeli wine – a Pelter Chardonnay.
My date wanted to get me tipsy and insisted that we try the arak – a clear alcoholic drink made from grapes and aniseed. The moment you add water into it, the drink becomes cloudy and translucent.
After our shots of Arak, we walked back home. Here is the husband trying out the Bird scooter in his inebriated state. We made it home safe.