Anthony Bourdain, noted chef and world travel show host, opines that in order to really get to know a culture, you must visit the markets of the cities. There you can find the building blocks of a culture; it’s people, ingredients, and cuisine. One morning through the streets of Machane Yehuda, and you’ll see a glimpse into the cultures and histories of Israel barely contained by two main thoroughfares and a warren of connecting side streets.
Welcome to Machane Yehuda, the pulse of Jerusalem.
Machane Yehuda is old, new, yuppie, yishuv, gentrified, fossilized, fresh, preserved, pickled, smoked, polished, and tarnished. Every sense is assaulted and your brain tries desperately to sort out the firehose of sensory information that has been turned on it (“I see halavah, but I smell fish…”). For some people it’s overwhelming, but for me, I thrive on it. It recharges my creative batteries.
I move slowly through the streets, absorbing the information coming at me from all sides. If I’m looking for something specific, I’ll note prices for comparison. I’ll always notice the newest produce in the market. Sometimes, I’ll spot an ingredient that I’ve never seen in Israel before (daikon, heirloom tomatoes), or notice two things randomly sitting adjacent to one another and start imagining how they might taste together.
I’ll always wander down specific side streets, such as the butcher’s street, to see what interesting things I can find there. I’ll test myself with the different items on display.
The vendor I go to for spices is B’Shekvitz. He earned my patronage by being patient with my questions and having things that other stores didn’t, like my wife’s favorite coffee. They also own the large spice shop on Yaffo, the one with the coffee bar inside. Sure there are other spice stores, but one is too pushy, the other too expensive, the other too dirty…
Buying cheese in Machane Yehuda is a bit of a religious/political issue. Bashir is not kosher. It does not have a teudah. Emmental (the shop, not the cheese) is not kosher, it also does not have a teudah. I say all this knowing full well that there are people who are going to flip out and argue with me. Don’t bother. If not having a teudat kashrut isn’t enough of a reason, with respect to Bashir, I’ve seen actual non-kosher items in the shop. I read an article where he admits to not having certification pridefully. I’m all in favor of him wanting to expand people’s cheese palettes, but not at the expense of causing people to eat non-kosher. I will gladly defend this in the comments.
Ma’adanei Tzidkiyahu (79 Etz HaChaim St.) is kosher. So, I patronize that shop. I get a varied assortment of cheeses from the major cuisines and I’m happy with his prices. What I don’t understand is why they don’t have a slicing machine.
Fish shopping in Machane Yehuda is fun. Well, it is now that I can recognize everything and know the names of the varieties, so it’s less intimidating, anyway. There is rarely a fishy smell as I wander past stalls brimming with the bounty of the sea displayed on ice, and I don’t have to look at a single crustacean. As I mentioned in my post on striped red mullet, I like A.R. Dagim. There’s a much larger and more popular fish shop with a wider variety, but I got into an argument with the guy working behind the counter about what a denis was (Gilt Head Sea Bream, pictured below, far right), so I don’t shop there. On the other hand, they have sushi-quality fish in the back. There’s another fish shop that was trying to sell me “white tuna,” and I was too flustered and confused to realize that he meant albacore.
Bread and baked goods in Machane Yehuda are one of the most eye-catching offerings in the market. Fresh pita bread, lafa, injera, rolls and sweet baked goods are sometimes so close together, you can float from one shop’s cloud of ethereal perfume to another without your toes touching the ground. The first right you can make on the uncovered street from the Yafo side will lead you to the Iraqi shuk. On the left is a bread shop that is an absolute must to stop at and smell.