On most nights, the Hinnawi Butcher Shop – with branches in Jaffa, Tel Aviv and Herzliyah Pituach – closes at 8. Last night, staff members were busy filling orders until 4 in the morning.
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On most days, Iwo’s Delicatessen – with branches in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – opens its doors at 8 in the morning. Today, in order to get a head start, staff members were asked to show up for work six hours early.
Like other popular butchers, Hinnawi and Iwo’s make a killing this time of year, as preparations get under way around the country to celebrate Independence Day in the quintessential Israeli way – throwing lots and lots of meat on the grill. Mangal is the Hebrew word for this national pastime, which refers not only to the actual grill, but also to the act of barbequing the meat.
“Between Passover and Independence Day, we haven’t had a moment to breathe,” says Marlen Hinnawi, who runs the meat department at the Tel Aviv branch of Hinnawi, a family-run establishment that began as a small butcher shop in Jaffa more than 100 years ago.
While the country was still officially in the throes of Memorial Day, many Israelis appeared to be taking advantage of the slow workday Monday to catch up on last-minute food shopping before Independence Day celebrations began, since most shops will be closed on the national holiday. While sad Hebrew songs played on the radio in the background, customers at Hinnawi examined different cuts of meat in the display case along with a wide selection of prepared salads, meant to serve as side dishes, in the nearby fridge. On sale right near the meat counter was an assortment of paraphernalia used for barbequing, including the basic portable mangal grill, available this day at a specially reduced price of NIS 35 (under $10).
A customer approaches Marlen to ask whether the meat has been slaughtered according to Jewish laws of kashrut. “Absolutely,” she replies, afterward explaining that this is a common query among customers walking in off the street. “We don’t have a kashrut certificate because we’re open on Jewish holidays and because our other branches are open on Shabbat, but the slaughtering is definitely done according to the rules.”
The most popular items for the Independence Day mangal, she says, are kebabs made out of a mix of chopped beef and lamb, onion and parsley, and a special “secret” blend of spices. But besides that, she says, “people buy just about anything that can be thrown on the fire – chicken, steak, patties, wings, you name it.”
At the special section of Tel Aviv's outdoor Carmel market, where fresh meat, poultry and fish are sold, business doesn’t appear to be nearly as hopping. Most of the customers making purchases at this rather gritty part of the market – and even quite a few of those on the other side of the counter doing the cutting, weighing and packaging – are migrant workers from Asia and Africa. Some of the vendors express confidence that business will pick up as soon as the ceremonies honoring the fallen victims of Israel’s wars have concluded. Others are less optimistic.
“The supermarkets are putting us out of business,” complains David Cohen, as he stands behind the counter of his empty stall. “Every year, things are getting worse. We can’t compete with their special deals.”
The sound of chopping knives landing on cutting boards is about the only noise discernible in the market at mid-morning — the usual blaring sounds of Middle Eastern music absent on this solemn day. Nissim Balbul, another butcher at the Carmel market, is trying to entice a customer, an elderly ultra-Orthodox woman, to purchase the “house kebabs.”
“Just smell this,” he says, as he shoves a tray of raw meat patties under her nose.
“Can I cook them with tomato juice?” she asks.
Balbul says he can’t complain about business, since he’s been busy filling Independence Day orders for the past two weeks. His bestsellers this year, he says, are entrecote and sirloin.
“What can you do? Israelis love to eat,” he remarks. “In our house, we have the mangal running 24 hours a day.”
At the more tony farmer’s market near the Tel Aviv Port, the staff of Iwo's have run out of room on the bulletin board for orders, handwritten on little scraps of paper, and are now pasting them onto the display case. At this time of year, says Re’em Azobel, the young, hip-looking butcher, Iwo’s likes to roll out its specialty items, which include prime ribs, female lamb chops (“they’re softer and juicier than the male”) and Kobe beef.
The Kobe beef, which comes from a special strain of cattle raised in Japan, is sold for NIS 600 (about $170) per kilogram (2.2 pounds).
Does anyone in Israel really spend that much money on meat?
“And how," he says. "I don’t even keep it in our display case – I just hold it aside for our special customers.”
Some clients, says Azobel, put in their Independence Days orders several weeks in advance, “though most remember just five or six days before.” The average order at Iwo’s is 3-4 kilograms of meat, or between 6.5 and 9 pounds of flesh.
His plans for Independence Day? “Mangal, obviously – lots of lamb chops, bavette steaks and Kobe beef.”