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Johnny Cash in Tel Aviv
Back to November-December 2019
Shlomo and Doron in Tel Aviv is famous for ful (fava beans) and hummus, although it’s just a shallow storefront with a handful of tables in a narrow alley. Midmorning, an older gentleman sits at a table sorting chickpeas, and I'm greeted with a large bowl of ful that's lighter than usual—they had strained out the beans and only served the puréed sauce topped with lemon, garlic, tahini, parsley, paprika and cumin.
The chef, Elad Shore, is young, good-looking and Instagram-ready. In a country where hummus “wars” are part of everyday life (garlic, no garlic, grainy or smooth, warm or room temperature, etc.), Shore blew the doors off few years ago by using hummus as a starting point for Mexican, Balkan, Shakshuka and Falafel-flavored hummus. At first, customers wouldn’t even venture a taste.
In the Levinsky market on the previous day, I spend a lazy afternoon with Shira Petel of the Shaffa Bar. Petel used to style hair on the same street, started serving food to her customers, ditched the hair salon for an eatery which eventually turned into a large outdoor café. One of her most popular dishes is siniya, named after the Arabic word for tray, which is made with lamb and tahini although her version adds cauliflower, tomatoes and onions. But Shira also goes modern with roasted cabbage napped with Greek skordalia sauce and arugula salad with roasted grapes.
On the streets of Tel Aviv, electric scooters are everywhere, outdoor cafés are full and bustling well past midnight, and during a dinner at Habasta, the guy next to me at the bar meticulously consumed a plate of crab crudo while other patrons sang along (out of key) to Johnny Cash songs and danced in the street.
In the Carmel market, a destination for every Tel Aviv tourist, you can find excellent couscous (I got a crash course) and a woman who has mastered flatbread on the saj, the domed metal grill, turning and twirling the dough like a cheerleader’s baton. Filled with tabbouleh, it was a marvelous sandwich. The market also offers the very best fresh dates, bags of “almonds” that are at the center of apricot pits (they taste faintly of marzipan), cheap sunglasses, an upscale cheese shop, fruit smoothies, halvah, Middle Eastern pastries and T-shirts.
The problem with culinary travel is expectations. If one goes to Tel Aviv looking for hummus, shakshuka and “Israeli” salad, one will not be disappointed but you will miss the point. It would be like traveling to Boston in search of baked beans and apple pie. That world exists but it’s anachronistic. And don’t travel looking for the exotic, a concept that is entirely in the eye of the beholder. I was once mowing a field in Vermont with my ancient 404 International Harvester. A bike tour stopped and took pictures, thinking that I was an iconic farmer not a part-timer who simply wanted to knock down the weeds.
The best way to travel is to forget what you think you know. You might end up eating Thai food in Tel Aviv, one of Israel’s most popular cuisines. You can visit Jaffa, the historic port next to Tel Aviv and find Simon’s house from the New Testament but you can also experience excellent Greek food at Kalamata, which has a panoramic view of the Mediterranean. And the Israeli salad is also problematic. In Galilee, it is called an Arab salad; in Athens it’s Greek. Elad Shore wants to serve you a Mexican hummus, not the classic, and shakshuka, although on many menus, is now being stuffed into breads in Yemenite bakeries.
A good traveler is there to meet the people, not to have a storybook experience. I recently interviewed Yewande Komolafe, a talented cook who grew up in Nigeria before moving to the States for college to study biochemistry. She noted that people often ask whether Nigerians live in houses and her answer, “No, we live in trees.” Lagos is home to 20 million people.
In our travels for Milk Street, we prepared a Moroccan lamb tangia in a sealed clay pot in the embers used to heat water for a hammam. We have also had dinner at Mos Burger in Tokyo, grabbed pizza in Oaxaca, and enjoyed pulled pork in Sydney. In Dakar, we cooked in kitchens right out of the suburban American playbook, but also pounded okra in a large wooden mortar and pestle and tasted food on the back of our hands.
The world is not exotic; it’s just life in a different place. Spend a little time in Croatia, Galilee or Tunis and you realize that the cooking is practical, not romantic. People make the best they can out of whatever is at hand.
And so you end up drinking Arak or Mezcal at a table a long way from home but it’s the same table everywhere. It’s the one where we come to drink, eat and celebrate what makes us human.