A Fabulous Taste of Israel

Shopping in the Shuk: A Foodie Walk-about in Jerusalem

I credit author James Michener with the best quote about travel: “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.”

So I went to Israel, loved the food, was fascinated by the customs, delved into the religion(s) and couldn’t help but embrace the people. (I experienced that engaging Israeli candour, a refreshing directness that can take your stereotypical (somewhat reserved) Canadian like me by surprise at first, and you quickly learn to love it.

But, I’ve got to say, Israel had me at first bite. Food is an intrinsic part of the culture, and that’s what I relished during a foodie tour of the Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, known locally as “the shuk” (market), which is about a 20-minute walk from the centre of Jerusalem, bordered by Etz HaChaim, Agripas and HaArmonim streets and extends up to the Iraqi and Georgian markets.

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Machane Yehuda is an open-air market that is bustling with activity. It’s a sprawling maze of alley ways, small streets lined with lively – and talkative – vendors, and crowded walk-ways where coffee shops, butchers, fruit stands, restaurants, bakeries, clothing stores and souvenir sellers vie for attention from  Orthodox Jews, immigrants, skate-boarding students and tourists who have one thing in common: they’re hungry.

Mimi

Parisian-born Mimi of Mimi’s Bistro is just one of the welcoming faces you’ll encounter in the shuk.

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I found the best way to explore this popular food market was a self-guided foodie tour called “Shuk Bites.” It’s easy, cost-efficient and guarantees you a sampling of the best the market has to offer. It costs about $30 and you’re given a map with a punch card of coupons which you redeem at a selection of six eateries and food stands. And the added beauty? You also get to experience the flavour of Jerusalem itself – its people. (If you want to spend a little more, you can arrange a personalized tour of the market with a Jerusalem-based chef.)

(Friends of mine visited Jerusalem last year and lucked out with a guided tour of the market with poplar local chef Moshe Basson of Eucalyptus Restaurant., where I ate on my second-last night in Israel. Try to get a tour with Moshe. If not, you definitely want to make reservations at Eucalyptus. It’s right in the old city.)

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Time flies quickly in the market. You can munch the best halva, get a hair cut from Eli at Ranaan’s Barbership, purchase a yarmulke at The Kippa Man, have a cherry beer at a snug little bar-eatery called May 5, or spend some time yacking it up with Shlomi and Aviram at their father’s fish-and-chip stand called, what else, Fishenchips. And if you share my passion for falafels, plan to turn up hungry and leave with a belly full of happiness.

All walks of life converge in Machane Yehuda Market. The shuk is a visual microcosm of Jerusalem culture. (Photo: Doug O’Neill)

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The cast of characters in the Machane Yehuda Market are as colourful and diverse as the foods and products! Chatty, friendly and curious shop-keepers are par for the course.

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Touring the shuk requires only two things: an open mind and an empty stomach.

Mimi from Mimi’s Bistro sums it up best: “To me, the shuk is” The heart of the city. Here you can see all the different kinds of Jerusalem.”

Have you participated in any food tours in your travels? Would you recommend them?