Food

Breaking bread in Israel

On a roll

At the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, women from the Druze community, a religious and ethnic minority located in Israel, knead, roll out and cook laffa bread, much like the rumali roti here. They spoon hummus, tahini, pickles and vegetables onto the bread, roll it up and it is ready to go. They let you pick the stuffing you want with it. The Druze community is also known for its loyal service to the armed forces of Israel, and their religion is unique, incorporating tenets of Islam, Christianity and some say even Hinduism, besides other faiths and beliefs. I couldn’t help thinking of Macbeth when I saw these ladies. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Women from the Druze community, a religious and ethnic minority located in Israel, knead, roll out and cook Laffa bread much like the rumali roti back home At the Carmel market Tel Aviv, Israel.

Women from the Druze community, a religious and ethnic minority located in Israel, knead, roll out and cook Laffa bread much like the rumali roti back home At the Carmel market Tel Aviv, Israel.  

 

Old gold

Bakery Said Abuelafia & Sons in the old town of Jaffa, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, has been hot and happening since 1879. It seems chaotic at first glance. There is loud conversation, the roar of the fire and the clang of vessels, but stand there long enough and you begin to see a pattern. The venerable baker was not too pleased to have us traipsing around with cameras. I think we disturbed his rhythm. There was a bewildering array of pastries, some sweet and some savoury, but I lusted after the bread and had warm, fresh-out-of-the-glowing-oven bread with fragrant zatar on top. I am told they also serve cardamom coffee, but being a South Indian filter coffee snob, I kept away.

It is hot and happening since 1879. Bakery Said Abuelafia & Sons in the old town of Jaffa, Israel

It is hot and happening since 1879. Bakery Said Abuelafia & Sons in the old town of Jaffa, Israel  

 

Sabbath special

Challah (pronounced khala) is everywhere, in posh restaurants as well as streetside bakeries. It is largely a ceremonial bread eaten by the Jews on the Sabbath. It is beautiful to behold and is shiny golden and prettily plaited. It is considered a blessing to bake the bread in Jewish homes, where a bit of it is always set aside as an offering. It represents many things of significance, and is an everyday reminder of their God. The challah is made with nothing more than flour, oil and eggs. There are different shapes for different holy holidays. Bread is considered a miracle, and on the Sabbath, the bread is always torn with the hand.

If you are hi-tech you can brand your bread too. Seen here, pita bread announcing the Open Restaurants Week in Jerusalem.

If you are hi-tech you can brand your bread too. Seen here, pita bread announcing the Open Restaurants Week in Jerusalem.  

 

The writing’s on the bread

If you are hi-tech, you can brand your bread too. Seen here is pita bread announcing Open Restaurants Jerusalem. There is technology everywhere and the Israelis don’t see why their staple breads should be left out. Young entrepreneurs have found ways to give their holy staple a digital makeover. At a centre — an old building that was left abandoned and is now made over — young entrepreneurs hang out and display their entrepreneurial skills. Chefs and cookbook writers, food scientists and just plain old food lovers gather to exchange ideas and find ways to take Israel to the next level. And the bread offers young chefs many avenues to experiment and innovate. The writing’s on the bread.

Bread rules

Chocolate croissants (chocolate rugelach) are for the asking at Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. The souk, established in the late 1800s, is a typical West Asian market with many bakeries, fruits, vegetables, olives and spices. Vendors holler out, inviting you to sample their wares. And this venerable Hasidic Jew gave me one reproachful look and then completely ignored me as I shamelessly photographed him buying bread. Many Hasidic Jews live in an old conservative quarter of Jerusalem, called Mea Shearim (100 Gates). They are ultra orthodox, prefer keeping to themselves, don’t like the Internet and try to keep alive the traditional way of life as spoken in the Torah. They bake great bread, meticulously following the complicated rules of the Sabbath.

The falafel phenomenon, everywhere you go in Israel

The falafel phenomenon, everywhere you go in Israel  

 

Fulfilling falafel

“Eat falafel,” said my boss, rather unfeelingly I thought, when I asked her if a vegetarian like me was the right choice to visit Open Restaurants Jerusalem. You have to understand the fears of a vegetarian travelling to unknown lands. Starvation is a real possibility. So everywhere I went, the first thing I did was put up my hand and ask if they had falafel. They did. And I always came away fulfilled and happy. Why not, when the meal is a combination of warm and pillowy pita bread, bulging with colourful veggies and lashings of hummus and really flavourful olive oil? It is crunchy, chewy and oozy all at the same time. The cutlet inside adds crispness, and I ate it so inelegantly that stuff dribbled down my chin.

In the old town of Jerusalem, a cart stands pretty as a picture laden with bread.

In the old town of Jerusalem, a cart stands pretty as a picture laden with bread.  

 

Cart on a cobbled street

On an ancient cobbled street in the old town of Jerusalem stood a cart laden with bread, begging to be photographed. This was in the quarter of town where Christ was said to have once walked. It is not uncommon to see several such carts in the old part of Jerusalem. And somehow this seemed extra special, thanks to the Biblical connotations. Not too far away is Via Dolorosa where Christ is supposed to have walked to his crucifixion. It is a moving experience walking past the stations of the cross and placing one’s palm on the same wall where Christ put his hand as he supported himself when he stopped to rest. The smell of bread is everywhere, fragrant and comforting, as is the sight of little bakeries all along the pathway, where ovens glow and bakers bake.

At Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem, man can live on bread alone

At Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem, man can live on bread alone  

 

On bread alone

At Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem, contrary to what we know, man and woman can live on bread alone. They rule the breakfast buffet. And I swear, the table groaned as I flitted from croissant to challah, from baguette to plain old rye bread. Everything I picked from there tasted incredible with the accompanying home-made preserves, labneh, date honey or even just by itself. Of course, you can have it with a selection of meats and eggs to order. I just worked my way from one end of the bread table to the other and, as no one knew me there and couldn’t point out that I was eating too much, I had a party all by myself. I spread the bread with herbed butters, several varieties of honey and fresh fruit jams. With a devil-may-care abandon, I threw my carb-count completely out of whack.

Breaking bread in Israel
 

Spice Route

While the Westerners went oooh and aaah in the souks over the colourful spices, for me it was familiar stuff. But still, seeing them all laid out made me pause and wonder about the number of masalas we use in our cooking. There was coriander, cumin, turmeric, pepper... Visually spectacular and I did enjoy some superior moments pointing out the various masalas and holding forth on how we use it. That is the other thing that is comforting in Israel. Many of their ingredients are similar to ours. There are sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dill, yoghurt and even a beautiful dessert made with sabu dana.

The writer was in Israel for the Open Restaurants Jerusalem 2016 Event on the invitation of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 2:50:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/When-in-Israel-eat-bread/article17347183.ece

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