Tasting Hidden Treasures in Jerusalem's Old City

Ancient bakeries? Tahini ground on a 300-year-old mill stone? Numerous culinary gems can be found within the walls of the Old City - if you only know where to look.

Rotem Maimon

It shouldn’t take much convincing to get someone to spend time in Jerusalem and discover its culinary treasures. But for some reason, most food-oriented tours start and end near the Mahane Yehuda market. Perhaps it’s fear of the unknown, because, only a short walking distance away, in the Old City in East Jerusalem, numerous first rate culinary experiences, no less enticing than those of Mahane Yehuda, can be found. Generally they are much less expensive and feature a dizzying variety of ingredients, the kind of restaurants that no true food buff can miss.

Kishak - dried yogurt. (Rotem Maimon)

To assist in our quest, we enlisted chef Kamel Hashlamon (former head chef of Turquoise restaurant, at the St. George Hotel in East Jerusalem,) who lives in the area and knows Jerusalem’s Old City like the back of his hand.

Morning coffee at Café Rimon

Located just next to the Old City’s Damascus Gate since 1986, Café Rimon has the best view of the nearby open air market. Not much has changed over the years; it still has four tables covered with colorful ceramic tiles and a small kitchen from which the owner brings coffee or watermelon. Over the years, the café has become a meeting place for Arabs and Jews alike, reflected on the menu by freshly-brewed Palestinian Taibeh beer, Israeli Maccabi beer, chamomile tea, fruit juices, Israeli wine and arak from Ramallah.

Café Rimon, Beit Habad St., next to the Damascus Gate.

Teddy Kollek's coffee shop. Cafe Rimon. (Rotem Maimon)

Take your coffee home – El Bek

There are more than a few places in the Muslim Quarter where one can buy aromatic, fresh coffee, ground on the spot. One of the best is El Bek, located just next to Café Rimon. This small coffee store is fairly new, relative to the shuk, and offers coffee beans from Yemen, as well as Colombian and Brazilian blends. Green coffee is also available.

Enjoy Basbousa and Ma’amoul with Abu Selah

He’s elusive. Did you come to the shuk early, or in the evening? If so, you missed him. Abu Selah sells sweets from his cart of wonders, which he opens in the afternoons, offering authentic Ma’amoul filled with dates and hazelnuts, as well as four different kinds of semolina cakes. Don’t miss him. (For those entering from the Damascus Gate, he’s just to the left, immediately after the gate.)

Siniya pita from the Nabil bakery

We barely walk a few meters before we hit Nabil’s bakery. We can’t ignore the pile of fresh pitas with za’atar, or the raineh – a dough triangle stuffed with meat or spinach. But one of the best reasons to stop here is the sefiha, a pita stuffed with ground meat and tomato sauce. Another option is pita with siniya – ground beef and tahini.

Bread for sale at Nabil Bakery inside the Damascus Gate. (Rotem Maimon)

A coffee break with strudel at the Austrian hospice

The entrance to the Austrian hospice on Via Dolorosa street in the Old City is marked by a large wooden door and bells to greet those who enter. The hospital-turned hotel for pilgrims, opened in 1857 and has been like a little Austria in Jerusalem ever since, complete with a quiet vegetable garden in full bloom. Classical music plays on the radio in the cafeteria, which is another great place to rest, and find tasty refreshment. The menu is known for its authentic Austrian strudel, but also for its incredibly unkosher sausages, pastas, and more. Bonus: for five shekels, you can go up to the roof for a great view of the entire Old City.

Austrian Hospice, 37 Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem

Strudel at the Austrian Hospice. A quiet oasis on the Via Dolorosa. (Rotem Maimon)

Old-time Jerusalem bagels at the Jabber bakery

There are lots of peddlers pushing around their bagel carts in the Old City, but it’s easy to tell that most of them were baked in industrial ovens. The bagels at Jabber bakery are an exception. The place is a hole in the wall, quite literally. It’s a two hundred year old cave with a wood oven where they produce the biggest, tastiest bagels in the city. They make hundreds a day, and they’re almost all gone by midday, so the chances of getting your hands on one after 12:00 P.M. are slim. Aside from the bagels, they make traditional sesame crackers during the month of Ramadhan.

Authentic Jerusalem bread for more than 200 years. (Rotem Maimon)

Hummus break at Ziyad Abu Shukri

The Shukri brothers were born to a long line of hummus makers. Their father taught them his recipe before they split up years ago. One launched the Abu Shukri brand, while the other, younger brother owned a bookstore. It took some time, but he eventually realized that the public prefers chickpeas to books, so he transformed his shop into a small restaurant that offers surprisingly good falafel, as well as hummus that is a legitimate contender to be best in the country. The two brothers prepare the same base from their father’s recipe, but Ziyad spices his a little differently with greens and lemon, and serves it at room temperature.

Ziyad Abu Shukri, El-Khanqa street, Christian Quarter

Little Ziad Abu Shukri's hummus. (Rotem Maimon)

Smell the coffee with Sanduka

This is another fine Old City institution that has been offering roasted Arabic coffee, with or without cardamom, since 1943. The Sanduka brothers, Wahid and Yakub, import their coffee beans from Brazil. On the second floor, above their small but innovative shop, is an old traditional coffee machine that roasts the green coffee beans on a hot surface. It’s hard to walk down the shuk’s main street without taking in the smells from their shop. And there’s nothing like a coffee after hummus.

Buy rare vegetables in the butchers’ market

At the entrance to the butchers market (shop number 15), you can find some evidence of what this market used to be – full of seasonal, rare vegetables that from the territories. That was the case until about eight years ago, when the restrictions were tightened and fewer farmers have been able to make their way to the market since. Before you continue on to the butcher shops, stop at shop number 17, where you can find kadaif, as well goats milk and cheeses you can use to make your own knaffe and dairy treats at home.

Fresh produce for sale. (Rotem Maimon)

We’ve found the best kebab. Really.

Similar to arguments about the best hummus, many can argue for hours about the best kebab joint in the Old City. As far as we’re concerned, Shahin’s kebabs scored the most points. Each part of the process is first rate, it’s kebab as art, from the choice cut of meat, to the mixture of spices and herbs, to the cooking, skewering and roasting on the special grill.

Abu Shahin, butchers’ market

Buy spices from a “sea of herbs”

Sea of Herbs is one of the most stand-out shops in the spice market (which has become more of a clothing market, over the years.) This spice shop is a pilgrimage site for chefs from around the country, looking for rare and hard-to-obtain spices. They offer spice mixtures that have been in the family for 200 years, alongside rare spices from exotic locations like Muscat, Riyadh, Pakistan and Nigeria.

Sea of Herbs, Beit Habad St., spice market

Pit stop for sweets with Jafar

Between the spice and cloth markets there is an old bakery that used to be considered one of the best in Jerusalem, definitely within the walls of the Old City. They’ve gone down a bit, as the years have passed and the competition has increased. But still, after all of the humus and kebabs, something sweet is definitely called for, and Jafar won’t disappoint. Knafe and baklava in lots of different flavors, and some cold water to wash down all the sugar should definitely do the trick.

Jafar, 40 Beit Habad St., Jerusalem.

The best place to buy halva and tahini

From the outside, Jabrani’s shop looks like a regular convenience store. But inside, a hidden door leads the way to a small, 130-year old tahini factory, complete with a 300-year-old Syrian millstone. They’ve been making four kinds of tahini here for over a hundred years, as well as three kinds of halva, all homemade, some even complete with chocolate coating.

Jabrani, 2 Ma’alot el Moliva St., Jerusalem

Basbusa on Abu Huta Street. (Rotem Maimon)

Surprise at the Armenian monastery. Armenian Sfiha. (Rotem Maimon)

Haleb. Syrian ice cream in East Jerusalem. (Rotem Maimon)