At the Jerusalem outdoor market, a vendor cuts samples of halvah. // © 2011 Mindy Poder
Israel’s shuks (outdoor markets) overflow with more than just milk and honey — they are ideal places to discover and feast upon prepared Middle Eastern staples and fresh produce, purchase knick-knacks, clothing, housewares and Judaica as well as appreciate the multicultural makeup of modern-day Israel.
Like farmers’ markets in the U.S., Israel’s outdoor markets are found in most communities and are known for selling fresh, local items at value prices. Among the two biggest outdoor bazaars are Shuk Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem and Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv. Whether clients go to the Tel Aviv market, which is a bicycle-ride away from the beach, or to the Jerusalem market, which is located outside of the Old City in West Jerusalem, they can expect a feast for the senses. Both markets operate everyday except for Saturday in observance of the Sabbath holiday.
Though the Jerusalem market was the busiest on the day I attended — Friday — it was also at its most exciting. Anticipation of the imminent Sabbath holiday, which nearly all Israelis celebrate, was evident as shoppers ensured that they had everything they needed for their family’s large and joyous meal. The crowded, frenzied shuk stands in strong contrast to public spaces during the Sabbath, which are, in most parts of Israel and especially in Jerusalem, completely closed for business.
I boldly proceeded through the shuk, which was dense with people who were sampling, bartering, bargaining or, as in my case, ogling. A man in a paper crown lured me to his stand with samples — he is known as the Halvah King and boasts a variety of cake-like formations of halvah, a dessert made of tahini (sesame seed paste) and sugar or honey, but no milk, which makes it a popular treat for kosher eaters who don’t mix meat and dairy.
After I navigated through the sea of vendors, arranged in rows that also branch off into lesser-trafficked alleys, I found a booth containing bulk barrels of spices, herbs and blends, including zaatar, the quintessential Israeli mixture of dried herbs — basil, thyme and oregano — combined with dried sumac, salt and sesame seeds. I took a stab at negotiating the price, which is expected by the vendors, who are known to list inflated figures.
If it weren’t for the endless samples, exploring the market would build up quite an appetite but, hungry or not, clients should seize the opportunity to enjoy the shuk’s ready-made foods. Stacks of challah, braided egg bread customarily eaten during the Sabbath, are arranged next to towers of pita bread and sesame-seed rings, but clients who prefer healthier treats can find juice stands, where vendors serve freshly-juiced carrots, oranges, pomegranates and other fruits.
Marzipan Bakery, a famous brick-and-mortar shop in the Jerusalem market, is world-renown for its doughy chocolate rugelach. Also excellent are its Moroccan cookies, Syrian pastries and bourekas, pastries made of phyllo dough, topped with seeds and filled with salty cheese or vegetables. The market offers clients a chance to sample new flavors as well as interact with the Jewish, Muslim and Christian vendors who have contributed to the country’s cuisine.
And it is not a trip to the market, or any outdoor space in Israel, without sampling the street food. Schwarma, shaved meat from a rotating skewer, and falafel, fried balls made from spiced chickpeas, garlic and parsley, are worth the stop. Indeed, for all the variety and stimulus at the market, all it took was a pita sandwich — overflowing with fried eggplant, Israeli salad (a mixture of chopped cucumber and tomato), pickled cabbage, tahini, falafel and French fries — to convince me of the Holy Land’s reputed agricultural abundance.