It may not be on the tourism map, but if you like markets and exotic spices, not to mention toothsome Persian and Balkan delicacies, Levinsky Market is the place for you.
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Largely overlooked by foreign tourists, just a few minutes south of the Carmel Market by bus - Levinsky is generally full of locals doing their shopping. Food tours there have become increasingly popular there over the past few years -- again, among locals. The market, located on Levinsky Street on the blocks between Ha'aliyah and Herzl streets, contains numerous storefronts selling grains, legumes, spices and dried fruit from open burlap sacks or more tidily piled into bins, all on a narrow, crowded street with barely-there sidewalks.
The market was founded by immigrants from the Balkans -- Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria -- in the 1930s, much like the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood Florentin where the market is located. Some businesses are still being run by the descendants of the original shop owners, and you'll find various Balkan specialties, including a handful of shops selling bourekas, and a few delis. These include the Haim Raphael Deli, a favorite among veteran Tel Avivians with offerings that range from brined olives to cured fish, prepared foods and wine. And there's also Bourekas Levinsky, a family-run business that still uses their grandmother's recipe to make their crispy, coiled bourekas. If you ask nicely, they'll point you to the door down the street where the magic happens -- where family members roll out the filo dough and bourekas by hand.
As the years passed and Mandate Palestine became Israel, a significant number of Persian-owned shops moved onto the street, and they, too have left their mark. Round, dry loomi limes abound at many of the spice shops, and many of the sacks of food bear labels in Persian. Around the corner from the market, on Nahlat Binyamin 80, sits Salimi, a crowded yet efficient lunchtime restaurant serving a limited menu that includes the Persian herb stew ghormeh sabzi, gondi -- chickpea dumplings in a fragrant golden broth -- and grilled meats. Come early to beat the rush.
Most recently, newer establishments have opened there as well, reflecting a range of trends in Israel's food culture -- an Asian grocery, a Nazareth baklava store, a boutique Italian soda stand and too-cool-for-school vegetarian cafe Kaymak. At Kaymak, you can get iced coffee or rosetta-flavored soda served in a Goldstar beer glass, while later in the evening the atmosphere turns more bar-like.
And a word to the wise spice buyer: If you want to buy saffron, you're best off skipping the piles of yellow stuff labeled as such in Jerusalem's old city. That's safflower, a cheap imitation that's priced accordingly. Real Persian saffron can be purchased from Levinsky's spice sellers, but don't expect the pleasure to come cheaply -- there's a reason it's considered one of the world's most expensive spices.