Meals ready Food

Chefs sans borders

Startline A cheerful Shamuel serves a heart-warming lentil soup at the Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem  

I want to cheer loudly when Chef Michael Katz says, “I am apolitical. My concern is good food. It does not matter what I eat, where I eat it and who has cooked it.” He says he has seen Palestinian chefs work in perfect harmony with Jewish ones, despite the great political chasm, and create beautiful food. I wonder if there are chefs from our neighbouring countries who work in our kitchens. Surely, this could mend fences.

It is Jerusalem Open Restaurant Week, the brainchild of entrepreneur Merav Oren, whose curiosity about what went on behind the closed doors of kitchens in restaurants led to this idea. As part of a team of 20-odd journalists from across the world, I am about to find out too. Chef Katz is a part of the discovery process (his restaurants Adom, Colony and Lavan are among the best in Jerusalem. He is Cordon Bleu and has cooked in Michelin-starred restaurants). He is telling us about Israeli contemporary cuisine and how it has seen astounding change in the last 25 years. Sitting in Jerusalem, some 4,853 km away from my home in Coimbatore, I can’t help thinking how similar it sounds to what is happening back home.

Israelis are travelling more and that accounts for the buzz about food, says Katz. So are the Indians. We are getting adventurous and our restaurants (at least in the big cities) are exploding with ideas and innovation. There is French cuisine, Ethiopian, Japanese, Burmese, Bhutanese... It is the same in Israel. There is fusion not only in food, but also in the cooks too. It is chefs sans borders.

Abandoned warehouses, heritage railway stations, marketplaces and even tramcars are hubs of good food in Jerusalem. Young chef Ron Fintsi from Argentina serves a Jewish take on Thai food to his guests at his restaurant Station 9. Located at the Ottoman Railway Station inaugurated in 1892, it is now a cool hangout. He gives the homely sabu dana a new-age makeover as a dessert with coconut milk and mango.

Then there is Dwiny who, after 17 years in a newspaper, has decided she wants to ‘play with food all day’ and so opened Dwiny Pita Bar that is tiny but packs huge taste. She makes a living stuffing meat, fish and fresh vegetables into pita that she bakes and serves with delicious sauces.

But I fall seriously in love with the19th Century Machane Yehuda Market. I am caught in the spell of its gigantic pomegranates (I learn each one has 613 seeds, corresponding to the number of commandments in the Torah), royal purple brinjal, multi-coloured olives, cheese, spices... And of course, the people. “I came on the Magic Carpet,” says an old man and I believe him instantly! He sells magic potions for everything from headaches to hernia. I am crestfallen somewhat to learn Magic Carpet was the operation in 1949 and 1950, where more than 49,000 Jews were brought to the new state of Israel and not really a flying carpet.

Machane Yehuda is like that, bursting with fairy tales and history. I take it all in, along with young Shamuel’s nourishing lentil soup and the decadent halva from the ‘halva king’ himself. My only grouse is I am stuffed and unable to eat every single bit of bread coming out of the hot oven of an old man, who doesn’t look of this world either. When I come back here to look for him after sunset, he is gone. The old shops have pulled down their shutters and there are dessert bars, music, dancing and food courts that have appeared. Magic.

The author was in Jerusalem on the invitation of the Israeli Government for the Jerusalem Open Restaurant Week.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 9:25:24 PM |

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