The Jerusalem Marketplace - Serial Tourist's Guide

May, 2009 - Copyright by Morris Rosenthal - - contact info

The Serial Tourist's Guide to Jerusalem

Copyright 2006 by Morris Rosenthal

All Rights Reserved

Restaurants, Food Markets and the Shuk

Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) and Tishibav (The Ninth of Av) are the two full day fasts observed by religious, and a surprising number of not-so-religious Jews. That leaves 363 days a year (ignoring leap years and the three daylight hours fasts) that you'll need to feed yourself. There are three basic options for the serial tourist to obtain physical nourishment in Jerusalem. You can buy food to bring home and prepare, you can pay to eat out in restaurants or at food stalls, or you can live as a perpetual guest at other people's tables. This last option is particularly effective on Shabbat, since everyone wants to fulfill the Mitzvah (positive commandment) of celebrating the Sabbath, though if you have a shred of pride left, you'll bring a decent bottle of wine. The only further advice I'm going to venture on the freeloader subject is that if you want to get invited back, argue all you want with the other guests, but not with the host.

Jerusalem offers many more options for food shopping than the average American city, because parts of the economy are still in a transitional stage from a third-world country to something more modern. The oldest model for food shopping, the out door marketplace (shuk), still thrives in Israel, and the most famous shuk of them all is the Jerusalem Marketplace called Mahne Yehudah, located between Jaffa and Agrippas only a few hundred yards from the city center. The majority of stalls in the shuk sell fruits and vegetables, but there are also butchers, bakers, nut and grain sellers, cheese and dairy shops, spice merchants, and fast food vendors. The pace is fast, the crowds are often heavy, and the prices fluctuate wildly with the time of the day and the week. If you want to think positively about bargains, I've bought avocados, oranges and tomatoes for as little as ten cents a pound. On the other hand, with some dependence on season and political unrest, I've paid as much as fifty cents a pound for the exact same items.

The shuk has a very exotic appearance to those who have never been to an outdoor market. Chickens and turkeys complete with heads and legs lay in heaps or hang from hooks in butcher shops. Fish mongers club and eviscerate live fish before your eyes (if you're into that sort of thing), and all the vendors yell prices at the tops of their voices in a singsong. There's also no shortage of beggars looking for handouts. All purchases are carried off in the universal plastic bags (sakeet) that most people still recycle for use as kitchen refuse bags, though upscale Israelis have begun purchasing special kitchen trash bags, just to show they can afford it. All prices displayed in the shuk are in Shekels per Kilogram, so to convert the price into Dollars per pound at the current exchange rate of 4.4 Shekels per dollar, just divide by ten.

For all of the nice features of shopping at the shuk, there are also some drawbacks. While it's nice to encounter your food up close and personal before buying it, the same items have been pawed by a hundred other shoppers, so make sure you wash everything before eating it. Another problem for those who aren't used to aggressive sales tactics, is that some vendors will "make up weight" to get your purchase up to an even kilogram, i.e., if you wanted to buy two tomatoes, they'll throw six more in the bag for you. If you don't want them, just walk away. A less pleasant and less frequently encountered variation on making up weight is literally that, the old "thumb on the scale" trick. If somebody cheats you for 100 grams here and there, it probably won't ruin your day or your appetite, but there are some shuk guys (they are all men, by the way), who hate the world and just want to "do" somebody. I was in the process of buying some oranges from a guy once when an angry Russian immigrant who had re-weighed his purchase at another stall came back and gave the stall owner a five minute lecture about what kind business he was running. Dishonest weights are a sin from both religious and civil law perspectives, and how often do those coincide?

The next step up the historical food chain from the Jerusalem Marketplacet is the mini-market (and you thought those were a recent invention!). I'm not talking about 7-11 here, but the dry goods stores that proceeded supermarkets everywhere in the world. The Hebrew name, "makollet", could be loosely translated "has everything", which isn't a bad description. I'm not including the tiny shops that carry little more than candy, cigarettes and booze, just the larger dry goods shops that you could live out of if you didn't mind the prices. Many makollets feature the shelves up to the ceiling, so that the shop owner needs a pole-grabber to retrieve items. In some extremely old fashioned makollets, the customer doesn't have any access to the shelves at all, everything is fetched by the owner behind the counter. Makollets are great places to shop, except for the prices, which range from 10% to 50% over shuk and supermarket prices, depending on the items. The exceptions are the standard government subsidized items, like the sixty cent loaf of bread (great crust), or retail priced items like newspapers. The other reason some people use Makollets is they grant credit the old fashioned way, keeping a paper account book behind the counter.

Supermarkets have been slowly arriving in Israel over the past two decades, but the competition has really picked up in the last year or two with the introduction of American style food warehouses, most notably "Mega" in Jerusalem on Pierre Koenig. Mega charges 75 I.S. (about $17) for a membership, but you get 50 I.S. back on your first purchase. Aside from the usual food warehouse deals on 5 gallon jars of relish, Mega is introducing generic bands to Israel, at appreciable savings. The other supermarkets get better every time I go to one, and let me put an end to one myth right here. Meat in Israel is cheap, at least compared to Kosher meat in the States. Years ago, meat was more expensive, of poor quality, and not always available, so it didn't develop into such a big component of the Israeli diet (outside of taxi drivers). Supermarkets feature just as much prepackaged food as their brethren in the States, and the service is surprisingly good. The one thing that might surprise you is the number of damaged boxes and dented cans on the shelves. This is less a question of "can't get good help" than "who cares, what's the big deal?" Most supermarkets feature a security guard who looks (or doesn't) at your receipt on the way out, in a half-hearted attempt to prevent shoplifting.

A hundred yards below Mahne Yehuda on Agrippas is the Shukion, a linguistic attempt to combine Shuk with Canyon (mall). The inside shuk is about as successful as most people predicted it would be, which is to say, not at all. In fact, I've never been in it when more than a third of the stalls were even open, and I've read about all sorts of lawsuits swirling around the whole mess. Surprisingly, one of the best supermarkets in Jerusalem is located in the Shukion, right above the "market" floor, and it even features warehouse style annex for household items such as diapers, detergents and paper goods. The only hassle is that while you can enter the supermarket by escalator, you have to fight with Israelis, who drive the large chrome supermarket carts as badly as they do their cars, for a spot on the elevators to get out.

Restaurants and food stalls are the other option for eating, and they cover the whole spectrum from very cheap to out of this world. I like treating some American friends to a quality burger and a beer in the German Colony once in a while - burgers, soup and one round of beers costs around $75 for three, with the tip. By the way, Israeli's tip 10% (or they sneak out), but I like sticking with American standards, especially since tourism is dead and the waitresses are working for peanuts. On the other end of the spectrum, a good falafel with all the fixings in a pita costs less than $1.50 at the shuk, or $2.00 in a supposed laffa. While everybody should know what a pita is, there's considerable debate on the difference between a laffa and an eshtanur. My take on the debate is that a laffa is really supposed to be a huge pita, about a half inch thick with no pocket, while an eshtanur is the same size, but a thinner, rawer dough, more suitable for rolling up. Some falafel and shwarma (turkey basted in lamb fat to approximate gyro meat) sellers use the two terms, laffa and eshtanur, interchangeably, but when you get a real laffa, you'll see the difference. Any meal ordered in a pita gets salat (diced cucumbers and tomatoes) stuffed in with it, along with the option for pickles, onions, chips (French fires) and hariff (burning hot). Most places also have several bowls of condiments for self-serve.

Stall food beyond fallafel begins with shwarma at around $3.50 in a pita, $4.50 in a laffa, and $5.50 for a plate with unlimited salads. Salads, or "salatim" in Isreal never include lettuce, but generally consist of eggplant dishes, various hot and spicy things, pickels and olives. The vast majority of non-European style restaurants also include salatim as a standard part of any sit-down meal. Aside from pita and falafel, stall food ranges from spicy Yemenite egg dishes to fried fish, cheese sandwiches and burekas. Pizza is considered more of an upscale dish and carries a premium not worth the food value. Shiskabob, called "shippudim", are also common fare. For $6 or $7 dollars you can get two shippudim of your choice, turkey, chicken, beef, liver, kitty - all meat, nobody puts vegetables on the stakes, but you do get salatim with the dish.

As we move into restaurants, the best place to eat in Jerusalem, for my money, the cafeteria style restaurant under the bookstore at the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University. For starters, most cafeteria style food in Israel is excellent. The high volume ensures that everything is fresh, the prices are low, and they've got more desserts than you can shake a stick at. The restaurant at Givat Ram (same location as the national library) is simply the best of these, with a full steak dinner running around $6 (including a can of coke!), and a variety of chicken, fish, and vegetarian options available for less. Service is your basic, grab a tray and some silverware and get in line. First you choose the two side dishes, like rice, potatoes, fries, mixed vegetables or gulash, and then you pick the entree. For people who hate being waited on but want a great meal, it's the only way to travel. They didn't pay me to write this - honest.

There are more upscale restaurants scattered all over the city, so I'm not going to go into any more by name, but international style places get more and more popular every year. I doubt there's a cuisine on the face of the earth that you can't obtain in Jerusalem, and most of it is pretty authentic, or at least, the cooks look ethnic and sport accents. I've eaten in several restaurants where they cook fresh pita style bread while you wait, and the former Soviet republics are well represented with meat restaurants. Jerusalem has several Sushi bars, all kinds of Chinese and Thai food, and a number of South American places. If you want traditional French or German, you might be better off in Tel Aviv, and good riddance to you!

Falafel and Chips at Mahane Yehuda

This guide is in progress, and I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

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