A great challenge and delight when travelling, around the country, around the world, or even to the other side of town, is food. Experimental eating and fumbled pronunciations are the order of the day, googling unfamiliar menu items, letting yourself be amazed by smells, tastes, textures, what’s combined with what, and where on your plate or table. My children struggled mightily with pâté, foie gras, and cassoulet in Paris, so we wound up in a lowbrow TexMex place they loved. Twice. In China, I was served 100 year old eggs that simply defy description. But sometimes you make a grand discovery, like the broken clay pot kebab in Turkey, unbeatable for flavor or presentation.
When I asked a rabbi friend what to do while in Jerusalem, he suggested a Food Tour – and so we booked one at the Machne Yehuda food market. The market is a massive thicket of small stalls in tight alleyways, where the risk of sensory overload is intense. Our thrown together group of eight was interesting: from an older man very proud of all the money he’d made (and quick to tell you all about it) from New Jersey, to a young woman glued to her smart-phone, we shared lots of nods and hmmms and smiles as our guide, Hila, showed us around, provided tastings, and best of all told stories.
Israeli food, since Israel has only been around since 1948, and the people who live here came from all over, is a mishmash of Turkish, Arabic, Georgian, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Moroccan, Persian, and many other influences. I could regale you with what we tasted (if I could recall it all, and spell the words decently), but it was just fantastic, making me feel guilty for the hundreds of people I’ve taken to Israel who’ve had to settle for hotel cafeteria fare served en masse or the daily quick lunch of falafel or shwarma.
But the stories amid the smell and tastes of the food was a feast for our senses. Quite a few restaurants (and we’re talking little spaces with tables jammed tightly together, with lots of chaotic shouting and laughter going on) are family-run, with a photo of the current owner’s grandfather who escaped Poland, got to Jerusalem and started a restaurant. Others are known as hangouts for the old retired men of the city, who play cards all afternoon and debate the social and political issues of the day. That’s what food’s for anyway, right? Not just to provide you nutrition and energy, but to feed your soul in the company of others – even the guy who made a lot of money and the women glued to her phone.
Maybe the best known restaurant in Machne Yehuda was a little dive jammed with diners flowing out into the street called Azura, legendary for its Kurdish kubbeh soup. The cooks sweat over massive pots over kerosene fires. When a pot runs out, it’s just over, pick something else. What caught my eye was a poem posted on the wall (the green board in the photo above) by Yossi Banai, a popular actor and musician who ate there all the time. Why?
At the restaurant of Azura,
In the small market behind the large market
I saw in the kitchen, in pots over kerosene flames
Many longings looking for some warmth over a small fire
And all the smells of potatoes, rice and spinach patties
That permeated my nostrils
Brought back, for a moment, my mother.
This. Boom. Lovely. Food is food, but the best food is about people, with stories and histories. And a smell or taste can take you somewhere impossible otherwise. I love it that when our niece got married in Santa Fe, and at several other family gatherings, we acknowledge the still painful absence of Lisa’s mom, Jean, by preparing and enjoying dishes she always made for such gathering. We have her recipes written in her hand. So it’s Mimi’s chocolate cake, not just chocolate cake, and Mimi’s spaghetti (although she must have spooned in something not on the recipe as, to me, it’s just not quite the same – or is it just that she’s not there?).
Smart restaurateurs understand. Danny Meyer, who shared the secrets of his fabulously successful dining establishments in New York in his book Setting the Table, explains that the food should, of course, be good – but restaurants are all about relationships. Here in Charlotte, Lang Van is always ranked in the top 10 citywide. But is it the food – which is great! – or is it Dan Nguyen, who is simply the most welcoming, joyful, brilliant owner/hostess on earth? I’m embraced, I’m called “my love,” she has the wine I like in hand for me before I’m seated, and my order is being prepared already. She knows. And I could vanish for 5 years and on my return, she’d have the wine and know what I’m hungry for.
I know people who almost always eat at home, which is lovely. What I love is that, if you aren’t just fussy about high quality cuisine, you can get out of the house or travel to other places and find yourself surprised to find a home away from home. The smells might just bring back, for a moment, somebody you’ve loved.