Not Your Mom’s Home Cooking on the Outskirts of Tel Aviv

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A tray of makruta cookies filled with rahat lokum (Turkish delight) from Umm Ali’s Jaffa deli.
A tray of makruta cookies filled with rahat lokum (Turkish delight) from Umm Ali’s Jaffa deli.Credit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Umm Ali begins cooking for Friday on Thursday afternoon. Since her son Ali and her daughter Mai opened a delicatessen in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood, she cooks into the night every day of the week, but preparations for Friday are longer and more complex.

Umm Ali puts up a pot of maluhiya, a wild herb. “Maluhiya goes well with stuffed chicken. On Sundays during Ramadan all the Jaffa families eat stuffed chicken and maluhiya,” she says. She rubs boned chicken thighs with a mixture of olive oil, cinnamon, paprika and nutmeg, and fills them with rice seasoned with baharat; fries eggplant and squash for maklouba (a casserole of chicken, vegetables and rice); and begins to knead huge quantities of two types of dough – one for fatayer, pastry triangles stuffed with wild spinach, and sfiha, a kind of pizza with meat.

Mai, who has short black hair, tattoos on her hands, and a ready smile like her mother’s, helps with the peeling, chopping and kneading. “Every day I ask her to add another dish,” she laughs, referring to the wide array of foods offered daily by the delicatessen.

Mai has worked in the kitchens of Tel Aviv restaurants such as 2C and chef Ayelet Latovich’s Beta Caffé, and is in charge of vegetarian-vegan dishes. Ali, the eldest of Umm Ali’s eight children, is in charge of the variety of fresh salads.

Siblings Mai and Ali Sukar outside the deli in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood. Credit: Dan Peretz

“From the age of 11 I’ve been working in restaurants,” says Ali. “I started with Abu Nasser [a Jaffa fish restaurant]. I used to squeeze lemons, until slowly but surely I progressed to being a kitchen helper and a grill man. Later I worked for 10 years for Abu Hassan [a famous hummus place in Jaffa]. I know all the family’s hummus secrets.

“I’m a Canaanite,” says Ali, in joking defiance, while sitting on the bench in front of the delicatessen. “Let the Jews and the Palestinians quarrel among themselves; we’ve been here in Jaffa for generations.” Only a handful of the old Jaffa families remain there; the Sukar family (like the Kulabs on the mother’s side) is among them. Most Jaffa Arabs scattered in all directions in 1948.

“My grandmother’s father, who was a wealthy merchant, used to sail to Lebanon on cargo ships to bring merchandise. He had four wives, and when they fled in 1948 they forgot to take my grandfather, who was the youngest. He remained alone in Jaffa, and on the other side there’s a similar story,” recalls Ali. “The family tree goes back at least 250 years in Jaffa.”

The food connection

A tray of makruta cookies filled with dates from Umm Ali’s Jaffa deli.Credit: Dan Peretz

Seven years ago Ali purchased a small grocery store in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood. It was tiny and crowded, packed from top to bottom with food and cleaning products, the kind of store that served for decades as the socioeconomic center of many urban neighborhoods. Cookies prepared by his mother and his aunt Amana – semolina dough filled with date paste, and rolls of makruta filled with rahat locum (Turkish delight) were the first home-made products Ali put on sale.

“We tasted them and it was amazing,” says one of the neighbors. “That year during Ramadan the selection grew, and people started ordering and asking for the wonderful home-made cookies. Later on, fatayer also began to make an appearance on Fridays, along with other savory pastries.”

The two siblings made a short-lived attempt to open a modern vegetarian-vegan restaurant, the neighbor explains, but they soon realized that what people really wanted were their mother’s traditional pastries and cooked dishes. “The entire neighborhood – Jews and Arabs, rich and poor – attended the opening event about two months ago, and you could see how simple, tasty food has the power to connect them all. Since that day the business simply works, and everyone – Arabs and Jews – continues to come. In most delicatessens, even the best and most expensive ones, the food is semi-commercial. Here this is really home-made food prepared by their mother, who is a wonderful cook, and is offered for sale at almost laughable prices.” (Regular customers get a list of the changing daily selection on a WhatsApp group.)

Every day the sleepy, charming neighborhood delicatessen offers a large selection of home-made dishes to take out or to eat at one of the few tables there. You can choose flat pastries embedded with fresh za’atar leaves; large, rich vegetable patties, which are surprisingly light, with a wonderful bitter tang; masahan, chicken rolled up in a large pita baked on the saj (a rounded griddle); an okra dish in tomato sauce; or beet kube. Of the latter, Umm Ali says: “We learned to prepare it from our Iraqi neighbors in the Jaffa of our childhood. The Jaffa where people simply lived together without talking about coexistence.”

Umm Ali, 15 Shaarei Nicanor St., Jaffa, 054-884-9675

At Yorsh in Bat Yam, zakuska (hors d’oeuvres) might comprise pickled mushrooms, cucumbers and tomatoes, potato pancakes and slices of salo, home-cured and salted pork fat.Credit: Dan Peretz

Culinary discovery in Bat Yam

At Yorsh, a tiny Russian bar-restaurant in Bat Yam, it’s always Novi God (the Russian term for New Year). Even months after the New Year festivities, Christmas decorations still hang over the bar, and glittering disco balls light up the dark space. At noon the place is almost empty, but that’s the best time to appreciate Mother Russia with the help of an ice-cold glass of golden lager; pickled cucumbers and tomatoes; and somewhat sour rye bread with slices of salo, home-cured salted pork fat. We continue with solyanka (a rich soup of meat and sausages); blintzes filled with meat; and perfect potato pancakes – crisp and golden outside, soft and melting inside – served with sour cream. You could make light of the art of frying potato pancakes to perfection until you taste those prepared by Olga Goralov. They are grated and fried to order, and are offered in a variety of options.

Goralov, with an apron tied around her waist, comes out of the kitchen to bring her son, just back from school, a gargantuan plate of schnitzel and potatoes. She immigrated with her family from Ukraine 20 years ago and six years ago opened the family restaurant. It is hidden from view among the tenements of an old neighborhood, where she and her family serve a selection of dishes typical of their former homeland.

“I cook like at home and like my mother cooked before me. I’m here from morning to night, I don’t go out, don’t go anywhere. I only cook. Everyone helps – my older daughter, my son and my husband, too. It’s not an easy life, but I can also afford not to do anything,” says Goralov, explaining the vagaries of fate and the relative freedom her small business offers her. “If I don’t feel like washing dishes, I simply sit for a few hours with my feet up and don’t do anything. Even if there are a lot of dishes in the sink.”

Most local restaurants opened by former residents of the Soviet Union function more as events halls. Their regular menu is usually secondary to the overall entertainment experience, which includes live music, dancing and social mingling. Yorsh, as at the delightful Viking on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, is one of the special ones that serve an a la carte menu, and is open for lunch and dinner all week long. (“But non-Russian Israelis rarely come,” notes Gorlov sadly.)

Yorsh, 9 Balfour St., Bat Yam, (03) 506-4810

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