The gefilte fish is hot, like a meatball. This is not how it is supposed to be, and I apologize to the Italian friends who have joined me for lunch at Daitsch's restaurant in the heart of ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem.
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"It's not usually served like this," I tell my friends. "It's usually served cold. This way, it's sort of awful."
Luckily for both me and my friends, the gefilte fish has followed some truly good dishes. First there was the lip-smacking cholent, that simmering Sabbath stew of beans and meat that has been the Ashkenazi Saturday dish of choice for centuries. It is available here every Thursday, ahead of Sabbath. Then came the chopped liver, which delighted them with its nutty denseness and surprising texture. The group had never tasted either, and on the strength of both those delicacies, they refused to accept that Daitsch's gefilte fish is always so sub-par. Ask Daitsch himself, they said. Maybe he can explain.
They were speaking of Aharon Daitsch, who had just finished his own lunch and was seated at one of the modest Formica tables at this tiny restaurant on Mea She'arim street. A fully Haredi man in his 70s, his once-red beard now snow white beneath a massive grin, he was quick to explain the fish fiasco.
"We usually serve them cold," he said of his gefilte. "They're only hot now because it's Thursday afternoon and this is when we cook them, to be ready for families who take them home for Friday night dinner." And of course, he added, there's no accounting for taste. "There are customers who come here every week on Thursday evenings specifically for the hot gefilte," he said. "There's a saying: What's the only thing better than gefilte fish? Hot gefilte fish!"
Mea She'arim is a labyrinth of stone walls where children play beneath clotheslines heavy with hanging laundry. Alleys are plastered with black-and-white posters bearing dictums from the rabbis, edicts that the locals joke "hold up the walls from crumbling." From the dozens of tiny schools and synagogues wedged into this packed neighborhood comes a constant buzz of prayer, of the study of the Gemara.
This is the epicenter of Jerusalem's most pious Jews, and a staunchly anti-modern culture reigns. It is place known more for its fastidiousness than for its food, but like Daitsch's kitchen, there are a few gastronomic gems for those who know where to look. Daitsch opened his restaurant in the '80s, after closing a Judaica shop in the same space. "At the time, I knew nothing about cooking," he said. "I didn't even know which side of the plate to use to serve the food."
He did have a tradition to rely on, however: old-time Jerusalem Ashkenazi tradition. Daitsch's family has lived in the city for many generations, tracing its roots back to the "Old Settlement" of the 18th century, one of its first Ashkenazi communities. Every plate here serves up a piece of that history.
And his restaurant is not alone. You can find Ashkenazi food staples all over Mea She'arim, strictly segregated by milk and meat and prepared according to the most stringent laws of kashrut. At the Geula deli, which is meat, the cuisine's fleshiest incarnations are readily available. At the similarly-named Hadar Geula, dairy, fish and vegetable products reign.
Both delis offer a few chairs and tables for sit-down dining, and both serve blintzes. I first tried Geula's lovely liver-stuffed blintzes, and then headed over, in complete disregard to the rule requiring a six-hour gap between the consumption of meat and dairy, to Hadar Geula for the cheese.
Hadar Geula is Jerusalem's ultimate Haredi deli. While its fridges offer international salads ranging from Mexican guacamole to Arab matbuha, the counter presents an edible memoir of growing up in an Ashkenazi home, complete with particularly delicious latkes. The dairy standouts are the cheese-stuffed blintzes and a rich cream cake. Avraham Rott, son of the deli's original cook and owner Menuha Rott, speaks of them with unmistakable pride. They are the masterpiece.
For those familiar with the stigmas of Haredi cooking, such pride might be surprising. Eastern European Jewish food is poverty fare, crafted from the humblest and toughest ingredients and known to be cooked in order to fill a belly, not stir a soul. But even here, in a place so committed to distancing itself from the sensual, sensory world, there is food being culled out with love and respect.
Many Israelis, especially those with a Middle Eastern upbringing, will turn up their noses to jellied calf's foot and stuffed fish heads. These tastes are too difficult to acquire, too tough to swallow down. But for the folks of Mea She'arim, who grew up with these storied dishes, they are more than comfort food. They are soul food, they are joy incarnate, and they are being cooked for the crowds here every single day.