Monday, 1 April 2013

Blogging on the road part 1: Reviews from Israel

Apologies to my legions of readers, I'm afraid yours truly has been entirely selfish and indulged in a 6 week holiday, leaving all you vegos and vego sympathisers out there high and dry as to where to go and what to eat over summer. In my defence, it was not all lying on beaches and parleying with Bornean jungle creatures (although much of it was). No, a large portion of my travels were dedicated to unearthing some hidden -and some not-so hidden - gems for those of you with itchy feet - of the non-fungal variety - who may be planning an adventure in the near future.

The first part of my trip was a sponsored tour around Israel. I traversed much of this country, from North to South, East to West, and performed many a pirouette in between. There are several foods synonymous with Israel, chief amongst them being The Street Falafel, and Hummus (yes, Adam Sandler was telling no lies in Zohan. Except about Fizzy Bubblech, I'm afraid it is pure fiction). I made it my business to visit the more renowned purveyors of these essential Israeli food groups, as well as a few off the beaten path. So, without further ado, here are some of my thoughts on:

The staple street food of Israel. As a vegetarian, it is unavoidable that you will smash through ample pita pockets or lafa (flat-bread wrap) stuffed with "hummus, salad, pickle, chips and diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiips!" Yep, such is the catch-cry you'll hear often around markets. Surprisingly, it took me a whole 5 days to sample my first Israeli falafel, but boy was it a good'un at the:
HaCarmel Market - Tel Aviv
In Tel Aviv's most famous produce market, amongst stalls selling genuine prada handbags for $5 a pop, is situated phone-box sized falafel stand. There is no chance of missing it. As with almost all falafel stalls worth their salt (or, chickpea flower), the falafel balls are made fresh to order, allowing you a couple of spare minutes to grab a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from a nearby stall. Straight out of the fryer, the balls here maintain their moisture, encapsulated in a soft crunchy shell, and maintain their integrity with each bite rather than crumbling. A plethora of self-serve spices and sauces allow you to put the finishing touches on your pita pocket to your liking, all for a mere 10 Shekels (AUD$2.60).
Falafel Hakosem - Tel Aviv
When my Israeli friend Yaara told me she lived opposite the best falafel joint in TLV, I won't lie, I was a little sceptical. Everyone's local is the best, right? Boy was my face red - and tahini stained - when I tried it for myself. Falafels are serious business at Hakosem, with an assembly line of workers constantly whipping up a fresh batch and offering free samples to hungry customers waiting in line for their pita or lafa, or both. The falafels here are some of the most aromatic I have ever tasted, and a lot of care goes into each pita. Despite it being Israeli fast food, it is not merely about shoving all the ingredients into a pocket, rather each pita has carefully constructed layers of ingredients - freshly chopped tomato salad, pickled cabbage salad, schmug, pickles, hummus, tahini, chips - to provide each customer with the full compliment of tastes in each bite. A favourite destination!
Yahaloma's - Florentine, Tel Aviv
Hakosem may be my pick of the pita pocket places (try saying that quickly 10 times), but I'm afraid its falafels are pipped to the post by those at Yahaloma, a very vegetarian friendly cafe opened not so long ago by Egyptian proprietor Yahaloma Levy. The difference? Quite significant actually, as these are traditional Egyptian falafels, the way Mama used to make them...Yahaloma's mother, that is. These are not a regular feature on the menu - they are only served on Tuesdays and Wednesdays - and nor are they street-food. Yep, this is a sit-down falafel meal. The balls are arranged alongside several halved cherry tomatoes, each with a dollop of tahini and spicy sauce on top, served on a bed of lemon-juice enriched rocket, with a plate of fresh pita on the side. The texture of these falafels are perfect! A soft, crunchy exterior gives way to a centre that almost melts in your mouth, with not a hint of crumbling (yep, you can easily eat these falafels with cutlery like a sophisticated person...I still chose not to). The balls are alive with spices - hotter than your average falafel - and the mixture with the lemony greens just works, pure and simple. A nice change if you're seeking a brief fling away from the typical Israeli falafel.
Levy Brothers - Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem
While Tel Aviv has the Carmel Market, Jerusalem has Mahane Yehuda. Lesser market? I think not! There is no lack of places to eat here, but a favourite of many are the Levy Brothers' falafels. On first attempt, the line was too long to wait (remember, this is Israel, and things are done on "Israel time" here), so I made a return visit. A solid performer, however the problem with coming later in the day is that they had stopped topping up salads and condiments, so lost that fresh taste edge, making it a middle-of-the-pack falafel. Worth perhaps fighting passed all the American birthright kids to grab one at the peak of lunch methinks.

Of course, a key ingredient of any pita pocket - and Israeli life in general - is hummus. On my very first morning in Israel, I passed, essentially, a residential kitchen in Jaffa open to the street, with dozens of locals seated out on the street scooping liberal amounts of hummus onto pita and lapping it up. So simple, so satisfying. Made me regret having just spent an exorbitant amount on a pickled veg. salad. These open kitchens are far from unique. Indeed, Hummus cafes are favourite haunts for many locals, and some have quite a reputation behind them.

Hummus Ashkara - Tel Aviv
Located in the Northern part of the city, near the thriving new port precinct, is Hummus Ashkara. I got given the hot tip - and by hot tip, I mean via online recommendations from the general public - about this traditional eatery, operating for over 30 years now, 24 hours a day. A little hidden away, this really is a locals' joint, and they were quite happy to have a foreign visitor show up for dinner - I got given a free coke! Nothing particularly fancy is done here, they stick with their time-tested methods. Minimal spice, classic ingredients. I ordered - as I did everywhere - hummus with fuul, a brown fava bean paste as seen in the image above. I found the taste of the hummus fuul itself a tad bland, the key here being how you apply the sides and condiments. Invariably, you will have raw onion, pickles, cilantro peppers, spiced dips, pita and, should you wish it, a boiled egg. With all these options, you should be able to season the hummus to your liking.
Humus Said - Akko
Yep, it is specifically spelt "humus" here, and if you're keen to taste it at lunch time, you better have a spare 20 minutes to wait for a table! Located in the ancient port city of Akko (Acre) - itself a wonder - Humus Said is considered by many to be one of the best humus places in the whole Middle East - and, by extension, the world too! Not only that, there are no meat options here. Just hummus in its simplest form, and it is a slick operation. Our waiter dished out our bowls of hummus fuul like a ninja flicking out death stars. The policy is that if you're not satisfied with one bowl, you get a free refill. Not sure how often this actually happens, you need to be pretty hungry and quite the hummus hound to polish off more than one. The one issue I did have with this place was the amount of olive oil steeped in our bowl. It got to the point where we had to scoop several tablespoons into a side bowl - well, side ashtray - to stomach it. That being said, add it - and Akko - to your 'to do' list.
Abu Dhabi - Be'ersheba
Beersheva, it has to be said, is not the most remarkable place to visit. Israel's 4th largest city, it is basically a University in the desert with a city constructed around it, and if you're pushed for time, may not need to figure on your itinerary. For myself, I had some lovely friends - new and old - studying at Ben Gurion University to visit. And the good news is, they let me in on this little gem of a student hangout! Located across the road from the University, a few doors down from a bar called 'Publo' - there's your landmark to find it. This vegan-friendly joint serves up freshly made hummus with a table full of sides and a free coffee at the end, to the backdrop of some chilled out hip hop and reggae beats. This really is a student favourite, and although it may not have the acclaim of Said or Karavan, I found the hummus absolutely delicious, and the whole vibe of the place made it one of the most enjoyable eating out experiences of the trip, so it gets my top pick for hummus.

Whilst the 3 listed above were the pick of the hummus cafes I visited, I can not carry on without mentioning a few institutions I neglected to visit. Abu Hasan (also known as Ali Karavan) in Jaffa is considered by many   as one of the rivals for best hummus in the Middle East. Whilst I did not make it there, I was fortunate enough on my last night in TLV to have a fella in my hostel bring some back from his day's adventuring. My advice to you: don't make the same mistake I did! This was the most delicious hummus I have ever tasted, I can only imagine how it would have been fresh. Another place worth visiting is the Arab town of Abu Ghosh in the hills outside Jerusalem. Famous for its hummus restaurants, it is also one of the few places in Israel where Arab and Jewish Israelis mingle with one another at hummus and shisha bars.

Tzfat is one of the four holy cities, the birthplace of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, and, it is believed, where the Messiah will return one day. It is also home to a large artist colony and has many breathtaking views. Basically, what I'm getting at is this: visit it already! Ok, perhaps a touch aggressive. However, shouldyou decide to make the trip here, you'll want to visit the one Yemeni place in town and get a lahuhe. This place is quite well-known. The lahuhe is basically a spongy pita pizza, filled with onion, tomato, oil, herbs, cheese, and schmug. So simple, so tasty, and the guy who makes them is a joy to watch.

For Jerusalem, my biggest tip would be to hit the shouks as much as possible and try whatever looks good, particularly the pastries. The rugelach - a rolled filled pastry - was a favourite, the chocolate one in particular, and there are numerous good spots in Mahane Yehuda for these. The Muslim Quarter of the Old City is also a gold-mine for pastries. Under-ground, old family bakeries operate around the clock creating baked treats to ancient family recipes. No two bakeries sell pastries that taste the same, so there are plenty to sample. The other hot tip would be to hit up Marakiya; a self-proclaimed "hipster soup" restaurant in the city centre. With its motley table settings of unmatched cutlery and crockery, this place simply produces several vegetarian soups en masse, dishing out hefty servings. My spicy cous cous and veg soup completely hit the spot on a cold evening, and being located in the city centre, it is within spitting distance of some trendy night spots.

For TLV, one place not to miss is Dr Shakshouka in Jaffa. The "Doctor" brought his father's recipe for this dish of eggs, tomato, onions, your choice of meat/veg, and spices from Tripoli. All smashed together and served still bubbling in a frying pan, it invariably comes with a near half-loaf of bread as an accompaniment. This place is an absolute institution, and even for someone like myself who is not particularly fond of eggs, it was a treat and makes for a perfect brunch - particularly if you've imbibed a little the night before. Other gems I came across were through aimless wanderings through the Yemenite Quarter and Neve Tzedek, below the Carmel market - itself a must-see. In particular, Anita's ice creamery - an International Award winner - is definitely worth a stop. The Mille-feuille I got was heaven in a cone. Not overdosed with sugar, it really did achieve the flavour of the french pastry.

And the number 1 gong for top eatery on my trip goes to...(at this point, please imagine you're hearing a drum roll), YAHAMLOMA'S! I only discovered this cafe a couple of days before leaving, but boy what a find! The best falafel balls I tasted in Israel, hands down, but it was not just that. What initially got me hooked was an entirely vegetarian menu of innovative Middle Eastern dishes. Their take on dolmadas was simply sublime. Bulgar and spices replaces rice as the filling, wrapped in mango leaves instead of the traditional vine leaves, in a tomato and onion sauce with tahini and (rennet-free) parmesan bread on the side. The mango leaves are significantly more bitter than vine, and give off a hint of an eggplant taste, with the parmesan bread providing a good, sharp counterpoint to the bitterness for mopping up the flavours. Not overly substantial, but very lively.

And the lowlight from the trip? Well, for that I'm actually departing Israel and travelling into Wadi Musa - the town surrounding the ancient Nabatean city of Petra - and heading to Al Wadi Restaurant. Recommended by Lonely Planet, I must confess that the simple falafel was not all that bad - although not all that good either. However, what turned me off was the "vegetable soup", which consisted of hot water, a bit of parsley, and some decrepit chopped up french fries floating there within. Really? That's your vegetable soup?! There was, ahem, no return business from this guy.

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