Taste of Sudan
A large, sticky ball of dough sits in the middle of a large pot. Simmering alongside it, over a low flame, is a tomato and pepper sauce. Would you come to eat here?
Mohammad Hassan, the proprietor of Tel Aviv's First Sudanese Restaurant is not all that concerned with your answer. He already has a loyal clientele who come to his restaurant from morning til after midnight.
Since opening six months ago, the First Sudanese Restaurant (that's its official name) - a long, white room with flowered tablecloths and a beverage refrigerator - has become a center for the Sudanese community in Israel. At noon one day earlier this week, the place is filled with diners. Huge plasma screens show movies on three different channels - "According to where the guests come from," laughs Hassan. There is an Ethiopian channel, a channel that shows films translated into Arabic and a television station from Eritrea.
Much has been written about the neighborhood the restaurant is located in, but it's still always surprising. Tel Aviv's old bus station is only five minutes away by slow motorcycle, but the immediate area is completely different from any other in the city. Among other things, there are restaurants that at night become bars for workers from Thailand and the Philippines, Romania or Ghana. Now the Sudanese, most of whom arrived in Israel in 2007 - on foot, from Egypt - also have a place to go.
Hassan opened the First Sudanese Restaurant with Ismail Ahmad and Issa Afakar, who also serves as the cook. In Arabic and English they explain that their partnership began back in Sudan, where they had a bakery. The bakery had been successful until they were accused of collaborating with the rebels, perhaps because their place had also became a hangout for locals. Following threats and violent attacks, they left Sudan for Libya, and then moved on to Cairo, where they worked at various hotels for several months until finally continuing on to Israel.
"We worked in hotels in Tel Aviv - you could say at all the hotels," says Hassan. With the lodgings near the central bus station and seeing the numbers of people hanging out on street corners at night, Hassan and his companions were inspired to open a restaurant. They rented the premises at 4 Solomon Street, right where the buses used to depart from, an area which has now been cleared for the construction of the Minshar art school.
"We wanted a central place, a meeting point," says Afakar. "People have been through things, they have come a long way and want to speak with acquaintances, people who've been through the same sorts of things, and to catch up."
According to Afakar, "People come here to eat dishes from home. And because most of the clients get their pay on the tenth of the month, they can eat here on credit. There are also those who need help, who aren't able to work, and here is where they can meet the people who can help them."
The Sudanese refugees who enter Israel have a different status from illegal migrants as they are refugees who need protection because they cannot return to their homeland. Therefore, the customers and owners hope that the First Sudanese Restaurant, as imprinted on the shirt Hassan shows us, will not be subject to harassment from the immigration police.
In the kitchen, one busy woman works over two rows of broad burners, with something cooking in every pot: There is waka - a strongly flavored soup made from ground okra that looks like lentil soup; kebab made from chopped beef flavored with all kinds of spices, which is surprisingly not especially spicy; and there is also a pot of kamoniya, a spicy stew made from offal.
The kawara is a cow's foot stew quite similar to a Yemenite soup, and there are also broad beans and kuntaka - large flatbreads wrapped around chicken pieces. Of course there is also the kisara - a very thin pita that can be dipped in all the sauces.
And finally there's the asida, a porridge-like lump of dough eaten with a very hot tomato sauce that will look odd to the Israeli diner, but constitutes an integral part of the menu. At the end of the meal, diners can sip strong Ethiopian coffee.
"On weekends the place is full and it is open from 6:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the morning the following day," explains Hassan. "Because we don't have families [here], this what we do, mainly."
Prices at The First Sudanese Restaurant range from NIS 15 to NIS 25 for a meat dish. The restaurant is open seven days a week. The phone number for those who would like to make a reservation (even though this is unnecessary) is 052-778-8802.