In Search of the Holy Kugel

What is the origin of the phrase 'Yemenite falafel'? What happens to someone who doesn't eat cholent on Shabbat? A tour of Jerusalem's Nahlaot quarter tells the story of Israeli culture via the kitchen.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

A kugel (noodle pudding ) in a brandy and lemon sauce, recommended by a distinguished British lady who published a kosher cookbook in the 19th century; stuffed vine leaves and leek patties; pots of hamin (cholent ) that distract Shabbat worshipers; coffeehouses, old pubs and a charitable group that distributes alcoholic drinks to the needy; a baked dish that has become a symbol of Jewish cannibalism; a surrealistic picnic of Jewish and Arab friends held in 1906 - all these and more are part of a culinary tour through the homes and alleyways of Nahlaot, a collection of small Jewish neighborhoods that were the first to be built outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.

Edna Assis and Merav Horowitz - food researchers and tour guides who work with the Ben Zvi Institute - lead visitors along the byways of the past that tell the story of contemporary Israeli cuisine. The actual route winds around through small residential neighborhoods centered around courtyards, low stone houses, synagogues and public parks in which residents once cultivated gardens of vegetables and herbs. The "metaphysical" route wanders among poems and excerpts of prose, historical documents, medieval responsa and recent academic studies in the field of food culture.

Oodles of noodles: Kugel in Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem. Credit: Dan Peretz

These two young and talented women guide other food tours, in and out of Jerusalem, but the Nahlaot route was their first. After seeing the communal ovens of the residents of the old neighborhoods, one can easily understand the metaphor of the "melting pot" of Israeli cuisine. These are only a few of the places and foods that come under discussion during the course of the walking tour.

The Even Israel neighborhood, 1875

Moshe Elhav, the eggplant-seller, in Mahane Yehuda, 1935.Credit: Meir Elhav collection, via Lev Ha’ir community administration; Ben Zvi archives

A mixed community of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews

Endless dishes with eggplant can be made

Picnic with the Valero brothers and friends, 1906.Credit: Valero collection: Ben Zvi archives

And Morena is chief among the cooks.

She cut many slices to make the evening enjoyable

Her mother-in-law Bula Lena taught her the way.

The second one, if you listen, will truly sweep you up,

It's the dish of the wife of Eliezer the sexton.

She emptied the fruit of its contents and refilled it

And gave it a descriptive name - it is the dish called dolmas.

- rough translation of a poem glorifying the eggplant, written in 1702 and translated into Hebrew by Prof. Shmuel Refael

The poem in praise of the eggplant, written in Ladino by an anonymous food-loving paytan (poet ) and excerpted here, comprises 37 stanzas that describe 36 different types of eggplant dishes. The first stanza is an introduction; the second is about dolmas (stuffed eggplant); the third is about almodrote, an eggplant-and-cheese casserole; the fourth about an eggplant souffle, and so on. The cooks still have many more dishes to offer, and the reader's soul yearns to taste each one.

Turkish Jews, like Palestinian Arabs, used to say that a woman who doesn't know 100 different ways to prepare eggplant is not worthy. Indeed, the eggplant - king of vegetables in this geographical region, and a principal ingredient in the new Israeli cuisine - provokes stormy discussion about questions of food and identity.

In the Balat quarter of Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman empire and where the poem was written, Jews, Greeks, Armenians and members of other minority groups lived side by side. Jews learned how to cook from their neighbors, adapted the recipes to make them kosher, and handed them down to the following generations.

In the courtyard of the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of Jerusalem, around the common oven, something similar took place among the cooks who had immigrated to Palestine from various places.

The Sukkat Shalom, 1888

Neighborhood of Yemenite immigrants

And any Yemenite can distinguish

Between falafel of an amateur or that of an artist.

The funniest of all

Is falafel made by Ashkenazim!

- "The Falafel Song," Dan Almagor

In the early 1880s, the first immigrants from the Jewish community in Yemen arrived in Palestine.

The long and difficult journey from Sana'a to the port of Jaffa took them through Port Said and Alexandria in Egypt, and when the exhausted and weary travelers entered the gates of the Old City in Jerusalem, they were met with disdain and suspicion by their Jewish brethren.

These new immigrants brought with them from the Arabian peninsula a Yemenite-Jewish sub-cuisine, with dishes that used dough and animal fat, but Middle Eastern falafel became the food particularly identified with this community.

The term "Yemenite falafel," which to this day is printed on signs and paper bags at kiosks, serves as a seal of approval of high-quality original falafel - although in Yemen the Jews were not in the habit of eating patties made of ground chick peas or ful (fava beans ).

Some claim that falafel became identified with the Yemenites because of the Oriental-romantic tendency to see them as genuine and authentic Jews. Assis and Horowitz cautiously offer another theory, referring to the period when the migrating Yemenites passed through Egypt, where they became familiar with local street food.

Batei Rand in the Knesset Israel neighborhood, 1909

An Ashkenazi community

On Fridays in the courtyard of the Batei Rand quarter, where the long and crowded buildings resemble railroad cars, there is a characteristic Shabbat aroma in the air. Next to the mikveh (ritual bath ) used to purify and make kosher new eating utensils made by non-Jews, and near the stone bridge, residents are reviving the memory of Reb Mendel Rand, a wealthy potato merchant who dedicated the new neighborhood with a meal of venison and sacred kugel.

Kugel, a browned, baked dish of noodles or potatoes, enjoys an extraordinarily lofty ritual status at the Hasidic tisch (a rabbi's Shabbat meal for all his followers ), which is reminiscent of the status attributed to holy bread by Christians. The rabbi's followers eat the kugel from his hands; this apparently endows the earthly food with some of his spiritual powers. One possible explanation for this custom is that it stemmed from the shared Shabbat meal that developed throughout history in Hasidism.

The Wiener Heritage Center

Mazkeret Moshe neighborhood

This building, constructed in 1938 as a youth club, today serves as the archive of the Lev Ha'ir quarter in the center of Jerusalem. In the office on the ground floor, Dvora Avi-Dan is collecting rare photographs from days gone by. Indeed, this is where the "photos in stone" project originated - the historical pictures that have been etched on street signs and posted at key Nahlaot landmarks. Among the pictures are some that record the history of Jerusalem cuisine: the eggplant-seller from the 1930s, dressed in a three-piece suit alongside his stand in the Mahane Yehuda market; the founders of the Motza neighborhood just outside the city, going out to harvest grapes and pick plums; or an elegant alfresco picnic, an unforgettable Oriental variation on Edouard Manet's famous painting, in which members of the Valero banking family participated some 100 years ago.

The Ohel Moshe neighborhood, 1882

A community of Sephardi Jews

Anyone who doesn't eat hamin on Shabbat is subject to excommunication, and it is the path of apostasy.

- "Sefer Haitim," Rabbi Yehuda of Barcelona, 12th century

Anyone who does not eat hamin on Shabbat must be examined as to whether he is an apostate, and if he dies, non-Jews will handle his burial, and every believer must cook and keep [the food] in the oven, to make Shabbat enjoyable and to get fat, and he will be rewarded at the End of Days.

- "Sefer Hamaor," Rabbi Zerachia Halevi, 12th century, Provence

A staircase leads to Ohel Moshe's synagogue; next to it used to be other communal institutions such as a mikveh and communal oven. On Friday the Shabbat dishes were placed in that oven; on Shabbat, children and adults had difficulty concentrating on their prayers because of the aroma.

In any place in which there was a Jewish community, Assis and Horowitz say, a local Jewish sub-cuisine was created, through which foods typical of the area and of the dominant culture underwent a process of adaptation to dietary laws and halakha (Jewish religious law).

Only hamin, or cholent, a traditional Jewish stew that is usually simmered overnight for 12 hours or more, and eaten for lunch on Shabbat, is common to all the Jewish sub-cuisines created in the various regions. Every ethnic group and community has its own recipe and name for the dish, but the principle is the same, and hamin is clearly a Jewish food. The commandment not to "light a fire" on Shabbat appears in the Torah. A solution allowing people to consume warm food on the day of rest - by cooking it over yesterday's fire, as it were - was handed down in the Oral Law. During periods when the traditional Jewish establishment fought against internal enemies, like the Karaites (who did not accept the Oral Law ), there was condemnation of people who rejected consumption of hamin.

The Mahane Yehuda market

In the market, which was established in the late 19th century - and has in the early 21st century become a bustling complex of shopping and places to eat and drink - the pieces of the Jerusalem cuisine mosaic come together. Even someone very familiar with the market will discover new places and faces there today, thanks to the historical and culinary research done by the Ben Zvi Institute.

To book a culinary tour of Nahlaot via the Ben Zvi Institute, or for details about upcoming tours, call 02-5398858;

Divine Chakra

When Ilan Garousi, chef and owner of the Jerusalem bar-rest
aurant Chakra, comes before the heavenly court, he will have to his credit a creative nonkosher Mediterranean-Jerusalem menu; the establishment of a unique haven for the secular residents of Jerusalem; and the mentoring of new generations of local chefs and restaurateurs. There is no modern eatery in Jerusalem without people who acquired culinary knowledge and professional experience from this frenetic and talented man. Garousi also launched his new Cafe Chakra with young partners who worked under and alongside him.

Over three years ago the Chakra bar-restaurant moved into the round building that once housed the legendary Cafe Rondo, in the heart of the so-called triangle in the city center. It is located on the bottom floor of that building, while until recently the top floor, with glass walls that overlook an attractive public park, housed a coffee shop belonging to one of the national chains, yet another copy of its other branches.

Two weeks ago, after a comprehensive renovation in the spacious, light-filled area, the new cafe opened upstairs. The breakfast offered constitutes an abundant vision consisting of eggs, pickled fish, various salads and cheeses, breads, cakes, fresh fruit and homemade preserves. “Boker Shel Esther” (Esther’s Morning), named after a veteran Jerusalem snack bar once located opposite the Central Bus Station, features an omelet and a finely chopped vegetable salad with yogurt.

When it comes to light meals and fresh baked goods, favorites at the cafe are a croissant with Emmental and ham, focaccia with feta cheese and Clemata olives, or a skillet of eggs, potatoes and tomatoes. In the afternoon and evening they offer modestly priced and generous business meals such as fish kebab, classic local dishes, schnitzel and pasta.

Cafe Chakra, 41 King George Street, Jerusalem, 02-6482028.



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