Inside's Israel correspondent goes in search of delicious alternatives to hummus and falafel.
Everything about La Casa is horribly wrong. Its name suggests Spanish or Latin cuisine, its decor is a garish purple-and-white rendition of a Parisian street, and its menu is an attempt at kosher, Americanized Chinese food. But I came for something else entirely: its off-menu cholent.
It was my first stop in a hunt for the more unfamiliar foods offered in Israel’s capital. Downtown Jerusalem is hardly the first place that comes to mind when discussing exotic world cuisine, dominated as it is by the hummus, shawarma and falafel joints, greasy pizza parlors and cafés. More adventurous epicures, however, can suss out a great variety of delicacies from far-flung lands — kubbeh from Iraq and Syria, borekas from Turkey, curries from India, cured meats from central Europe — thanks to Israel’s abundance of disparate immigrant populations.
I’d heard from a friend that underground cholent was a hot item north of Jaffa Street, in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Geula. Cholent, a traditional Eastern European Jewish stew consisting mainly of beans, barley, potatoes and a variable type of meat, is cooked at length until thick enough to spackle a wall. The late-night cholent scene in Jerusalem’s Orthodox neighborhoods, however, is a striking departure from the Saturday morning slow cookers of my childhood.
Beyond its core ingredients, the dish is open to near-infinite variations. While its heart-stopping levels of fat, cholesterol and carbohydrates have made it passé among most health-conscious diners, it remains a Shabbat staple among traditionalists. And on Thursday nights, restaurants of all persuasions fix gargantuan batches of it.
“There’s a lot of people who make it with chicken, there’s a lot of people who make it with beef,” Joel Lefkowitz, proprietor of La Casa, said. “There’s no specific way how to do it. They say that the longer it cooks, the better it is.”
“You’re gonna laugh at me, but there’s people that put in coffee, there’s people that put in ketchup, there’s people that put in honey, mustard … ” Lefkowitz trailed off in a thick Brooklyn accent peppered with Yiddish, cataloguing the long list of possible ingredients, digressing to mention one adventurous chef’s inclusion of hashish as a special ingredient. “People who ate that were flying high.”
The steaming bowl of brown stew Lefkowitz served included authentic kishka — stuffed beef intestine — a delicacy that’s hard to come by in the United States. La Casa’s cholent was savory with a touch of sweetness (Lefkowitz’s partner copped to its secret ingredients being ketchup and fried onions), and a hint of garlic and paprika. He attributed Its smooth and rich consistency to the inclusion of beef fat — at only 15 shekels ($4) per bowl, an economical way to clog the arteries.
A 10-minute walk across the neighborhood is Eli’s, a Haredi fast-food joint that, even long after midnight, was packed with yeshiva students in black slacks and white button-down shirts. By the entrance is a separate menu just for Thursday nights, when customers stream in to buy cholent by the liter to go. The frenetic staff slaps slabs of steaming kishka on heaping bowls of chunky stew, served with a side of hot challah. This stew had stringier beef, more barley than beans and more potatoes than La Casa’s version. It also tasted faintly of mustard and was garnished with at least one stray beard hair.
The main cook, Berel, boasted that Eli’s sells more cholent than anywhere else in the world. To prove his point, he ushered me into the kitchen to back up his boast: a full dozen 9-gallon pots used to prepare that day’s batch.
Not all cholent places are such conventional establishments. Down the street from Eli’s is Taimeh, a real locals-only joint with a burly, bearded man sporting a scowl and a cigarette who slops meatless cholent into a bowl that you hope he hasn’t been using as an ashtray. At a mere nine shekels ($2.50) per dish, it’s hard to expect anything more than the runny slop that looks and tastes like an old sponge left to soak in a can of Heinz beans — and that’s exactly what I got.
Having sampled the Eastern European fare that cut short my ancestors’ lives, I sought something more exotic. The back alleys of downtown Jerusalem are host to a smattering of Ethiopian restaurants opened by immigrants who made their way to Israel from the heart of Africa in the past few decades. They’re uncorrupted by waves of tourists and unfrequented by most Israelis. The clientele are usually local working-class Ethiopian Jews enjoying a beer or a plate of injera topped with stewed meat.
The staple for any Ethiopian dish is injera, a sourdough flatbread made of teff, a protein-packed grain the size of a poppy seed that has been touted as the new superfood. Teff is left to ferment for days before being baked into a slightly spongy, oversized pancake. Utensils are customarily eschewed for using torn bits of the injera to scoop up the food.
Just feet from the intersection of Jaffa and King George streets, on the second floor of a nondescript building, is Queen of Ethiopia, a restaurant-bar with a colorful but ambitious name. While Queen of Ethiopia’s name suggests a more regal selection, the waiter informed us that there were two options to choose from — meat or vegetarian. We chose the meat. The injera was laid out on a platter and the tibs — chunks of beef or lamb sautéed with green chiles and onion — served atop it. The meat was tough and slightly overcooked. Thankfully there was a great variety of beer, including a light Ethiopian lager, dubbed St. George, that washed away the taste.
Disappointed but undeterred, I ventured a few blocks over to Shager, a family-run joint whose red, yellow and green-painted doors immediately distinguished it as an Ethiopian eatery. It’s a hole-in-the-wall in an alleyway just off Agrippas Street, a main food thoroughfare, where two elderly Ethiopian men in trilbies sat sipping Goldstar beer at a table beneath an olive tree’s boughs, chatting in the distinctive Amharic cadence.
Proving the maxim about choosing an ethnic restaurant by the proportion of its countrymen eating there, the food at Shager was the real deal. The savory chunks of beef, fiery green chiles and sweet fried onions, all seasoned with the ubiquitous berbere spice mix, were perfectly accompanied by the sour injera, and together produced a gustatory harmony unfamiliar to most Western palates. A bowl of fierce-looking mitmita spice mix, burning with African birdseye chiles, was thoughtfully placed alongside for additional garnish, in case a handful of tibs wasn’t enough to sear the tongue. The tingling heat of the tibs quickly subsided, but warmed my stomach from within for hours to come.
Spiced red lentils, split pea puree, garlic paste, stewed potatoes, diced tomatoes and slightly pickled cabbage graced a second platter with injera. The tomatoes were spiked with sliced hot green peppers, a rudimentary salsa and fragrant potatoes that offered momentary relief from the abundant heat of the aromatic lentils. The substantial portions dished out at Shager cost a mere 30 shekels ($8) for the vegetarian and 35 ($9.50) for thetibs.
Elem, the laconic 30-something woman who runs the kitchen while her son waits tables, said that most of the customers are Ethiopian, but that a few dozen tourists come in each week to try out the tibs and wat, a curried chicken-vegetable stew. She prepares the injera herself, painstakingly fermenting the teff flour and baking it into the traditional spongy, circular discs.
Up the hill, alongside Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, amid the near-constant hubbub of hawking and shopping, a discerning visitor may stumble across Khachapuri, a Georgian bakery specializing in the breads favored by former residents of the Caucasus region.
Khacha and puri, explained Mani, one of the owners of the buzzing establishment that opened in 2008, are the Georgian words for cheese and bread. It’s a staple in the former Soviet republic, one he learned to make from his mother and grandmother. He said there are four main types of the stuffed breads, indigenous to different regions of Georgia, that they serve at the bakery.
The harsh-sounding quartet of magrouli, imrouli, acharouli and panovani are the order of the day at Khachapuri, and at the constantly crowded bakery they sell like, well, hotcakes.
“A stressed Georgian isn’t a good thing!” Mani playfully shouts to a customer as he checks whether any panovani will be ready in the next half-hour, flashing a smile from the kitchen.
Panovani is a filo dough pastry filled with spinach and/or cheese akin to Turkish börek, traditionally made by Jewish Gruzini (Georgian) women. “My mother makes it every Rosh Chodesh,” he said, referring to the new Jewish month, adding that the time-consuming pastry is also eaten year-round.
Imrouli resembles a pita with a crispy exterior and soft interior filled with salty cheese that’s filling — a substantial snack for kick-starting a day’s shopping at the hectic market. At 20 shekels apiece ($5), it’s not the cheapest bite in Mahane Yehuda, but it’s worth the experience.
The most popular by far is acharouli, Mani said, and it’s no surprise why. “It comes from the area of Georgia near the Black Sea, so they make it in the shape of a boat.” Onboard: a generous dose of butter, a salty cheese akin to feta, and eggs cracked atop the bread as it finishes baking so they cook sunny-side up. The result is an almost calzone-like dish brimming with a creamy, savory filling capable of curing the most savage of hangovers. Toss back a glass of tarhun, a tarragon-flavored soda unique to Georgia and you’ve got a lunch to tide you over until the next morning’s breakfast.
Khachapuri’s popularity — opening a second branch near the Mamila mall didn’t relieve demand at is original location — means patience isn’t just a virtue but is mandatory, since orders might take up to 20 minutes to be filled. Try ordering, walking around the market, then coming back for your food, unless your idea of a good time is getting steamed in a hot, crowded Georgian bakery.
Ilan Ben-Zion is Inside’s chief Israeli affairs correspondent. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.