As a kid growing up in the Krayot, small cities in the Haifa Bay area, I spent quite a lot of time in the ancient port city of Acre, usually to eat hummus at Said’s or Suhila’s. In high school not a week went by without a planned break between classes for hummus, knafeh (a sweet cheese pastry) and some puffs on a hookah. But there’s much more to Acre than that. Until recently I wasn’t too excited by the market in the Old City, nor was I addicted to the simple fish restaurants and the informal – not to say neglected – character of the place. Slowly but surely, things began to change, and I discovered the authentic local atmosphere I’d been looking for all along.
During one of my recent tours of the city I noticed two shop employees interrupting their work day to take apart local crabs for lunch. Just like that, at the entrance to the shop, with their own hands. Where were all those crabs when I was growing up, and where was I? Ha, at the hummus place. And now the market is full of crab, along with a variety of shrimp and fish that only Acre can offer. I’m sure they were always there; I just didn’t see.
And Acre is making progress – especially in the Old City. The squares are full of restaurants aimed at tourists who come in search of a variety of exciting local experiences. I decided to begin my most recent visit by taking a somewhat more touristy route than usual, to see what treasures I could discover.
A friend and I began in the Turkish bazaar (just follow the signs). Where someone once had the ambitious idea of creating a small tourist market, in effect what is left is a lovely covered alley. On both sides there are restaurants with interesting, authentic food and a light, enticing atmosphere.
We decided to go to Maadali, chef Adnan Daher’s restaurant, a modest place that remains under the foodies’ radar. It’s actually a small kitchen from which the chef himself serves the food to the few tables set up in the alley. Stuffed grape leaves, fatayer (a pastry filled with spinach), mutton kebab with roasted okra and other home-made creations are full of flavor and tradition. Maadali is an opportunity to eat Galilean food at its best. Not Arab or ethnic food – local food.
From a conversation with Adnan I realized that our next stop had to be the Kurdi spice shop in the Old City market. The truth is I didn’t find it so easily. I walked back and forth and asked for directions to the hidden store. After passing it five times, I was amazed to discover that the antique shop we were standing in front of was the store I was looking for. It was full of objects from bygone days and jars everywhere.
Marwan Kurdi, the owner and manager, welcomed us warmly with a big smile. He immediately served coffee made from beans he roasts on site, and we started to investigate his shop of treasures. Kurdi’s shop was handed down from father to son for four generations; Marwan proudly presents the spices and lets us taste and smell surprising fragrances. He points to spices from Kashmir kept in glass jars; they are not what I was familiar with. The cumin is totally different, the cinnamon is heady, the black pepper captivated me.
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When did you last see a place in which the owner is so proud and connected to the merchandise he provides? In my opinion that’s a rare sight. Marwan’s love of spices is evident and contagious, and it’s hard not to be swept up in it. He says that you actually won’t find every type of spice in the store. For example, there’s no garlic powder, because it’s too overpowering.
He volunteers tips on how to enhance the flavor of cayenne pepper, for example, by mixing it with oil and garlic. After you smell and taste the spices here, you understand that you can’t even begin to compare them to what can be found in the supermarket. In short, a recommended experience for anyone who likes to cook.
Similar but different
After leaving the spice shop we grabbed a few ripe annonas – which everyone agrees is a neglected fruit – from the nearest greengrocer, and sat on the ancient pier to relax with the sound of the surf and enjoy the breathtaking view of the bay. The waves and the sea air helped work us up an appetite and the desire for fish wasn’t far behind. Without thinking twice, we entered chef Alaa Musa’s El Marsa restaurant in the fisherman’s harbor. Once again I found myself devouring local food, similar but different. And once again the same subject came up and got me thinking. What is the new Israeli cuisine? By definition it certainly has to be local. Without getting into politics, Jewish cuisine brings with it foods from all over the world, but we are located in the very heart of the Middle East, surrounded by the local Arab cuisine: without butter and fatty cheeses, without beef and mushrooms that grow in an entirely different climate.
Maybe this is Israeli cuisine? You combine a little of this and a little of that? Whatever the case, the Middle East dictates sheep and goats. Goat cheeses, mutton, local fish, strong herbs, olive oil and vegetables – and the El Marsa menu represents all this honorably.
The beginning of the meal includes hummus, tahini, labneh, olives and garlic confit. If you skip those, you go straight to the first courses, which naturally all come from the sea. After all, we’re sitting on the marina of the ancient port city. Sour-spicy fish ceviche in dry yogurt, pistachio nuts and olives. Followed by bruschetta with roasted pepper and delicately pickled sardines, a pickled red bonito dried naturally, a perfect dish full of onion, spicy pepper and lemon.
Then comes calamari, surrounded by pine nuts and olives on labneh seasoned with fragrant sumac. I’ve already encountered this dish in other restaurants in Israel in similar versions, but the one at El Marsa surpassed them all. For the main course there was, as expected, a skillet of seafood with a simple and addictive sauce of olive oil and garlic. Next to arrive was sea bass with green beans and pickled lemon. The red drum fish served on freekeh (toasted green wheat), is a light dish, thanks to crumbs of goat yogurt that refresh every single bite.
There was quite a lot of food here, and still the meal wasn’t heavy at all. The freshness and the local ingredients ensure that the dishes are adapted to the climate, and it’s exciting to see the ancient city speaking a lively, up-to-date language. As someone who has spent quite a lot of time in Acre, I’m happy to see the evident change in the look of the street and the culinary language that is coming into being. The chefs who were born here, left to see the world and returned home are producing absolutely the right kind of local food.
I have no doubt that I’ll return often to taste the exciting food in Acre’s Old City. As I left the marketplace, I was full of inspiration and hope that the face of Israeli cuisine will become balanced in the coming years, and that my cooking and that of modern restaurants will welcome the fact that they are situated in the Middle East, when “Arab food” becomes “local.” Up-to-date Middle Eastern food in all its glory.