The most popular dish at Baba Jim, an eatery in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, is doner kebab with lahmajoun: strips of meat dripping with fat, expertly carved from the doner (shawarma) skewer and placed on warm lahmajoun – a flat bread baked in the oven, spread with a thin layer of tomatoes, red pepper and ground beef, and sprinkled with fresh parsley, onion with sumac, grilled tomatoes and hot pepper. Fresh lemon juice is squeezed on top, then all the ingredients are rolled up in the thin dough. It’s so delicious you can’t help ordering another one as soon as you finish gobbling up the first.
The brigade of cooks at Baba Jim (“Daddy” in Turkish) – all men, and all born in Turkey – moves in perfect harmony and coordination. Yilmas, born in Konya, rolls out the dough so that it’s very thin, adds a perfect layer of the lahmajoun mixture and pulls the ready ones out of the oven. Ali, who comes from Urfa, is in charge of the grill. Yurdal comes and goes from the prep kitchen with fresh vegetables; and Baba Jim himself slices the meat from the skewer and carefully arranges it atop the lahmajoun.
Some eat the doner on a plate or in a pita or lafa, but most of the regular customers like to eat it with lahmajoun. “No, in Turkey, they don’t eat doner kebab inside lahmajoun,” says a Turkish friend who lives in Istanbul, laughing when he hears about the Turkish-Israeli invention. “Why put the meat into something that already has meat on it?” he asks in astonishment. Well, my friend, because it is absolutely delicious – the thin dough of the lahmajoun accents the flavor of the juicy slices of meat even more than a pita or lafa. And the doner-lahmajoun is not the only winning cross-cultural combo at this small workers’ restaurant by the Bat Yam beach.
Nissim Barak, known to all as Baba Jim, was born in Ankara, where he was called Mehmet Nazim Beshvirakatar. He only officially changed his name to the more Israeli-sounding version a few years ago. “When I go to the National Insurance Institute or the health clinic and they see my full name, I’m immediately in a losing position. Everyone gives me a hard time,” he sighs. “I lived in Israel for years without changing my name because my father was against it. He would call from Turkey and say, ‘If you change your name, I’ll cut you out of the will.’ When he died, I flew to Turkey, and a week after I got back, I changed my name.”
Baba Jim, a cook by profession, first came to Israel in 1995. “I was working in Northern Cyprus and then I was hired as chef at the Yamit Hotel here. I was there for three years, and then I worked in a catering company at the airport. Then I opened a small Turkish restaurant at Levinsky 78. It was a good time. There were a lot of workers from Turkey, Romania and Colombia in Israel then and they all sat together with Israelis at the restaurant.”
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The seven good years ended in 2002: Good times for foreign workers in Israel don’t last very long, even for those who, like Baba Jim, marry Israelis and have Israeli children. When he was forced to leave the country, he went to London and opened a Turkish restaurant there. When his status here was eventually finalized with the Israeli authorities, he returned to Israel in 2015 (“mainly because of my two children – Omer, who works with me, is enlisting in the IDF six months from now, and Shani is 21”).
When he returned to Israel, he opened this modest restaurant by the square that leads to the Bat Yam boardwalk. The floor is covered with a carpet of astroturf, there are simple plastic tables, and the walls are decorated with colorful prints of the Galata Tower in Istanbul, an iconic symbol of the city viewed from what was once considered the Jewish area. Turkish-Israelis happily gravitate to this small restaurant, and on Saturdays, when entire families come for the nostalgia and the wonderful food, it’s hard to get a table.
The Turkish-Jewish customers are joined by Turks who are in Israel as foreign workers. In the past three and a half years, Baba Jim has been a well-kept secret among all those who miss this marvelous cuisine. Russian immigrants familiar with many of the dishes thanks to the Central Asian countries that were part of the former Soviet Union, come too, along with lovers of good food from anywhere at all.
Behind the long, narrow counter are the three focuses of interest: a stone-tiled oven for all the flat breads and other pastries, the big grill and the hot, vertical doner skewer. The main attraction coming out of the oven is the wonderful thin lahmajoun, still showing the fingerprints of the expert baker. Only in Turkey have we tasted anything as good. Some think that the name lahmajoun, Arabic for “bread with meat,” is proof of Arab influence on the Ottoman Empire; others think it’s vice-versa. But it doesn’t matter, because the nicest thing about many foods is their ability to cross physical and metaphysical borders and freely migrate from one place to another.
Different kinds of lahmajoun are typical of various Turkish regional cuisines that border on the Levant, like the Urfa, Hattay and Gaziantep provinces. Pide, another flatbread, also has a long and fascinating history. The name alludes to a connection with other flatbreads like pizza and pita, and the variety of fillings (cheese, spinach, meat, sausages) attests to a time when such breads were used instead of plates. At Baba Jim you’ll also find pogaca – soft, buttery rolls filled with cheese, potatoes or meat – as well as a variety of excellent baklava.
The man at the grill prepares onions and tomatoes and fills long iron skewers with adana kebabs speckled with hot red peppers. The meat on the doner, a mixture of veal and lamb, is not only used for the doner-lahmajoun, but also for the iskender, another of Baba Jim’s most popular items. This, which like the doner originated in Bursa in Antalya province, seems to be proof that God didn’t love his chosen people, because he forbade them to eat meat with butter and yogurt. You take a piece of pide flatbread and place it on a hot skillet. Then you top it, alternately, with pieces of the dunar meat, warm tomato sauce, melted butter and cool yogurt.
Baba Jim, 1 Rothschild Street, Bat Yam, 077-4822730