Aharon’s home-style dishes.
Aharon's traditional home-cooked salads. Photo by Dan Peretz
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Gil Eliyahu
The view from the restaurants of Tiberias. Photo by Gil Eliyahu
Dan Peretz
Avigail Aharon. Prepares delicacies on the verge of extinction. Photo by Dan Peretz

Four men enter a restaurant. Anywhere else, this sentence would be a simple statement of fact − or the beginning of a joke. In Tiberias, four men sitting around a table turns into a parliament. A young waitress brings pitchers of cold water and lemonade with spearmint leaves, and even the four – scions of Tiberian dynasties whose family roots reach back hundreds of years – admit that it’s hot.

“When we were children, the temperature was 40 degrees, but it was dry,” sighs Asher Yaish, an eighth-generation Tiberian and former player on the Hapoel Tiberias soccer team. “Today the temperature is still 40 degrees, but with an additional 70 percent humidity.”

In England they talk about rain. In Tiberias, they talk about the steamy inferno of the valley; there’s nothing like a conversation about the vagaries of the weather to whet the appetite.

The waitress brings a loaf of thickly sliced white bread, pickled olives, eggplant salad, tahini salad, and a platter of hot peppers. In this new home-style restaurant, located at the edge of a commercial center opposite the Caesar Premier Hotel’s parking lot, there is no printed menu. The list of traditional Tiberias dishes changes daily, depending on the season and the ingredients available in the market, or on the cook’s desires and the customers’ preferences. It is written on a whiteboard standing on the sidewalk.

Suddenly, the board’s wooden legs surrender to the hot wind, and Avigail Aharon, cook and owner, leaves the kitchen to tell customers what the pots and oven trays contain. There is cabbage stuffed with rice and seasoned with dry spearmint and slices of sour lemon; meatballs and okra in tomato sauce; a sofrito of veal and potatoes, and madruta, a Spanish-Jewish delicacy made with grilled eggplant, which in Tiberias is chopped and baked in the oven with beef or chicken.

The diners order moussaka, made with only eggplant and ground meat, and talk about soccer. Later they argue about a new plan to renovate the municipal marketplace, while eating kebab baked in tahini and a so-called Maimonides salad − fresh green leaves, olive oil and sumac − which Avigail prepares according to a recipe from one of the sage’s works. Each time the door opens, they greet neighbors and acquaintances who have come for lunch.

This is a small city with few restaurants, and almost no eateries that offer a genuine Tiberian menu. The taste of the simple, precise dishes created by the talented cook − seasoned with intelligence and delicacy, using a mixture of flavors unique to the local cuisine − is, for many of the guests, the longed-for taste of their childhood.

“Tomorrow there will be St. Peter’s fish ‏[tilapia] in tahini,” announces Avigail, who is covered by a starched chef’s coat. The Tiberias natives respond with alacrity. Every single person who hears the news declares that he will come the next day to enjoy the pride of local cuisine: a whole musht, St. Peter’s fish, fried with garlic, lemon and tahini, baked in an oven until the coating of sesame seeds turns into a browned and fragrant crust, and adorned with roasted pine nuts and parsley.

“In a traditional Tiberias home, if there’s no fish on Friday night it’s grounds for divorce,” says one of the diners, trying to explain the excitement.

In the past, most families served fish once a week, or on the rare festive days that glowed with a special light compared to the monotonous everyday diet. Even today, such awareness affects the real taste of the fish ‏(as tasty as it may be – and it’s wonderful‏).

There are almost no fish left in Lake Kinneret, and at home hardly anyone has the time to prepare recipes handed down by members of earlier generations. If a stranger wants to sample Tiberian cuisine − one of the outstanding local cuisines in a young country that is searching for a culinary tradition − he will have difficulty doing so.

The fisherman’s daughter

We first met Avigail Aharon, 44, two years ago in her home kitchen in a modest apartment complex in the heart of the city. “I acquired my love of Tiberian food in the cradle,” she told us at the time, “and my love of the Kinneret from my late father, who was a fisherman and spent his days and nights on the deck of his boat.”

We were in the midst of a fruitless journey in search of eateries open to the general public where one can taste traditional Tiberian dishes. In the Old City on the shore of Lake Kinneret, as in Jerusalem and other holy cities where Jews, Christians and Muslims were neighbors for hundreds of years, there was a culinary culture influenced by local Arab cuisine and by subcultures brought by immigrants from the various diasporas.

In the tired, sad modern city, we had difficulty finding any trace of that culture, with the exception of isolated dishes served in the veteran Gai restaurant. After giving up, we went for a private meal in Avigail’s home kitchen.

Fifteen years ago, Avigail, a 10th-generation Tiberian and the scion of a family with roots in Afghanistan and Russia, started a catering company for special events; it operated out of her home kitchen. Over the years she took professional cooking courses, worked with Hussam Abbas in the El Babour restaurant and served as spokeswoman for the Israeli Chefs Association, in which she is still active.

So we spoke about rare dishes that are becoming extinct, about the central place of traditional Tiberian cuisine in the lives of the residents, and the reasons why it is hard to find restaurants: the disdain people used to feel for food originating outside the home kitchen ‏(“restaurants are for tourists”‏), years of neglect and financial difficulties, and the constant war between the veteran residents and the ultra-Orthodox community – and which does not allow restaurants to opened on Shabbat, this in a city fueled by tourism.

A month ago, with the strong encouragement of her husband, Yair, she opened a restaurant that is a branch of her home kitchen: a plain-looking room in the old commercial center, with blue-panelled walls, tables set with white tablecloths, and on the wall pictures of her fisherman father, the late Baruch Mizrahi. A modest Tiberian taverna that could have served as a backdrop for a film with a plot set in the 1970s. She waved an official certificate of kashrut ‏(“The members of the rabbinate aren’t willing to give me a certificate, although the food is strictly kosher, because I insist on continuing to do some of the work at home because of the taste”‏).

She publicizes the daily menu every morning in a group she opened on Facebook, which already includes almost 1,000 city residents. One group member asks whether, in addition to the macaroni and sofrito hamin ‏(stew‏), she has also prepared kokaliat − fried bread patties with a lot of coriander and a little meat; another wants to know when she will prepare mashakala, a vegetable dish similar to gvetch ‏(something like ratatouille‏).

On Friday at noon, there is Greek music in the background, arak is poured into the diners’ glasses and at least one of the Tiberian fish dishes − carp patties in a hot sauce, musht in celery and lemon or fried Kinneret sardines − graces the menu. Fresh asali musht from the Kinneret, on the rare days when the god of the disappearing lake is placated and the fish is brought up in the few remaining fish nets, is the most expensive dish ‏(NIS 60‏). The price of most of the courses and dishes is NIS 35-NIS 40.

So that her family life won’t suffer, and to avoid becoming a slave to the kitchen, Aharon decided to open the restaurant for lunch only. In the afternoon she offers culinary tours of the city, by advance reservation. The physical route passes the tomb of Maimonides, the vestiges of the Ottoman wall, synagogues and mosques. The metaphysical route takes the tourists to spice-bearing ships in the port of Lisbon and to the palaces of Istanbul, and both together tell the story of the cuisine created inside the walls of the Old City. In one of the market stalls we taste Safed cheese, which the city residents brought with them when they returned from the festivities in honor of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, and which was used on the Shavuot festival as a filling for the calzones − a folded and stuffed pizza dough. In the veteran spice shop of the Magril family, we taste tea infusions and local spice mixtures such as Tiberian baharat, which excels in its delicate taste of cloves, and za’atar ‏(wild hyssop‏), which contains crushed grains of hummus in addition to sumac. The historical tour ends with a traditional Tiberian meal served in the restaurant.

Avigail Potahat Shulhan, across from Caesar Premier Hotel, Tiberias.