Tickle your tastebuds with Palestinian food
Savouring East Jerusalem
Kunafa and hummus. Falafel and Lahmacun. Sweet and savoury with a dash of umami but always delicious. The Old City of East Jerusalem is a feast of flavours and anecdotes. Gastronomy is a genuine reflection of a city’s soul. Join the dance that our tastebuds had on the gastronomical heartbeat of East Jerusalem and get ready to get hungry.
The street vendors selling strawberries, mint, and other aromatic herbs arose before the crack of dawn. Taking their positions on the smooth and shiny, centuries-old cobblestones close to the Damascus Gate, one of the seven gates of the Old City in East Jerusalem and the most monumental of all the gates. Understandably, they prefer this particular spot; bustling, crowded, lively, and one of the most popular ways to enter the city. It’s not just food the vendors are selling. You might very well find any trinket you are looking for. We are primarily interested in the plentiful food stalls in this part of the vibrant Holy City. Let’s dive deep into the palate of Palestinian Jerusalem. Y’Allah!
We have an early appointment today with Iman, our lovely guide. First stop on Al Khawajat Street. “Until the 1920s, Armenians traded gold here,” Iman tells us. After that, until 1967, when the Israelis occupied Jerusalem, it was full of tailor shops. But after the occupation, people stopped dressing so smartly. Except for a couple of small tailor shops, it’s all about street food now.
Boiled lamb Brains
Al Khawaja Street, Old City
I stop at a tiny butcher’s shop. It must be a good one as there is quite a queue. I see liver and tripe in the display case. Yummy. I decide to go for Khash, boiled lamb brain. Intestines are an acquired taste, but I love them.
Next door, at number 49, a man is traditionally making hummus: by hand with a mortar and pestle next to a giant hot pot full of chickpeas. The stall bursts at the seams with hungry clients waiting to get served.
At number 35 Al Khawaja Street, two tailors dressed elegantly sip tea outside their shop, chatting. Another one joins them. I ask him if he lives around here. He smiles and says: “I’m Palestinian. I was born here, and I’m still here. There used to be seventy families who made a living tailoring in this street,” he tells me. “Now, there are only six left. It’s hard to earn money nowadays as a tailor, but I want to remain here. This is my life.”
In the display, I see liver and tripe, but I go for a plate of boiled lamb brains
The Spice Shop
Al Attarin Street, Old City
“He is my friend, my accomplice, my doctor, and my chef,” Iman tells us, smiling, as we arrive at Hazel’s stall, better known in the city as Dr. Spice. “Tell him your pain, and he’ll give you the remedy. Tell him the dish, and he’ll give you the spice to cook it with,” Iman says. The souk is bustling with life at 4 Al Attain Street. The song of the caged birds brightens the chant of the afternoon prayer. “We are lucky today,” Iman tells me. “Sometimes, the queue lasts over half an hour.”
When it’s my turn, Dr. Spice looks me straight in the eye and asks, “What’s ailing you? “Muscle and liver issues,” I answer. He starts filling a jar with oils and combining different spices from numerous sacks filled with colourful and aromatic powders and grinds. “Hazel knows how to make special mixtures that cure many diseases. A talent coming straight from Allah,” Iman whispers. “The first few days you take this preparation, try not to stray too far from the bathroom,” the ‘Doctor’ tells me. There is already another queue of over ten people behind me when I pay him.
“Dr. Spice knows how to make special mixtures that cure many diseases. A talent coming straight from Allah”
When we turn the corner, a street vendor appears, carrying a large pot on his head. What is the selling? I ask. “Warak Dawalie, Palestinian stuffed grape leaves. Homemade!” says Iman as he orders two for us to try. I savour the delicious vine leaves stuffed with minced lamb meat and rice next to two men chatting and smoking from a shisha. How much can you eat within ten meters?
Patisserie Abu Seir
New Gate Street, Old City
The bleak rays of spring sun brighten up the streets of the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Palestinian Jerusalem. It’s Sunday. The street is tranquil. Our next stop is at a bakery run by Iman’s daughters and husband: the Abu Seir café. Iman’s eldest daughter, Sara, writes her daily message to customers on the blackboard. “Some heroines wear capes. Others make coffee and pastries,” she writes. The message always ends with a FOH. “It means Factory of Happiness,” Sara tells me with a smile.
“For me, working for myself with my family is a gift,” says Ibrahim, the head pastry chef and Sara’s father. Ibrahim had previously worked as a head pastry chef in several high-class hotels. “Spending so much time with my loved ones is priceless.” The waitress brings us a mille-feuille cake with our coffee. It’s delicious. “My favourite,” Sara tells me.
“It’s not cheap, but my father’s baked artworks are worth it. When someone wants good cakes or chocolate, they know where to come.” Her mother looks at her and listens with visible pride. Her father tries to conceal it. “My father was in love with chocolate before he was in love with my mother. I think even more so,” she says as she smiles at his mother.
We enter the elegant shop. Chilled-out ambient music is playing. There are family photos with customers and newspaper clippings on the walls, a small Christmas tree next to a picture of the Dome of the Rock, and an amulet of the Hand of Fatima. “In our shop, there are symbols of all religions. Because everybody is welcome,” Iman tells me. “Anyone looking for an excellent place to enjoy good pastries is welcome.”
Lunch with the Karakashians
Using the endlessly meandering, smaller alleys of the Old City is either a way to take a shortcut or get hopelessly lost. But Iman knows the way. She stops in front of a small door: the inconspicuous entrance to a tiny paradise. We enter a courtyard with a garden of lemon trees and bougainvillea and climb the stairs to the door of a house. We enter, and a smiling family greets us and welcomes us into their home. Surprise! “To get to know the culture of this amazing city, you need to dive into authentic home hospitality. Be welcome,” Iman smiles.
We pass into a cosy living room, where we notice a weaving of Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia, on the wall. There are family photos and an old radio. “My father bought the house in the 1960s, in an era when the houses in the courtyard still shared a bathroom and kitchen,” Tzoghig Aintablian Karakashian, a friendly and frank woman, tells me.
The Aintablians and Karakashians are Armenian. The first Armenian Christians arrived in Jerusalem in the 4th century. But the great influx came in the aftermath of the genocide of the Armenian people by the Turks in 1915, which brought about ten thousand Armenian refugees to the Holy City. “The Armenian community was the first to bring, tailoring, gold trading, and photography to the city,” Hagop, Tzoghig’s husband, tells me with visible pride. “Our family came to Jerusalem for a project to renovate the tiles of the Dome of the Rock in 1919 and stayed in Jerusalem”
“Our family came to Jerusalem for a project to renovate the tiles of the Dome of the Rock in 1919 and stayed in Jerusalem”
We sit at the table. We drink wine and chat. “I have always dreamt of owning a restaurant, so it was easy for me to get involved in this project with Iman,” Tzoghig says. I wonder aloud if the food is the same as what you’d eat right now in Armenia? “An interesting question,” Tzoghig starts explaining. “The Armenian way of cooking in migrant families is more traditional. People tend to stick with what they know. The way you prepare food is a way of holding on to the homeland.”
The family speaks Arabic and English interchangeably with enviable fluency. They are interested in the food of my country, Spain. “We learn from each other at these meals,” Tzoghig says,
“You learn about our culture, and we study yours. I truly believe that understanding each other is the way to achieve peace globally.”
Meanwhile, Takouhi Aintablian, the matriarch serves me another bowl of delicious Madzoon Ov Kufteh, a delicious spicy soup of meatballs and yogurt, accompanied by Lahmacun, Armenian pizza. The Aintablian Karakashian family bids us farewell by giving us lemons from their courtyard. They smell intensely delicious. We leave through the small gate with the precious and priceless feeling of having experienced a tiny bit of Armenia in the middle of Palestinian Jerusalem. Opening up your home to unknown guests. Isn’t that a perfect form of hospitality?”
sweet & cheesy
Al-wad Street, Old City
“I had to start from scratch here,” Ahdi Ja’Bari tells me outside his shop. “I used to live in Syria, in Aleppo. I had a big shop there. And very successful. Because of the war, I had to leave everything. I couldn’t take anything with me. I ran away. I came here. And I started all over again.”
Ahdi, originally from Hebron, is also known by the name of his business: Mr. Kunafa, which refers to a dessert dish typical of Arab countries, especially Palestine. Kunafa, also spelled kanafeh, knafa, knafeh, knafeh, kunafeh, or kunafah, is a cheesy pastry that can be served for breakfast, dinner, and dessert. A delightful sweet dish, but with a slightly salty aftertaste from the cheese and crunchy pistachios. Once prepared, it is placed on a small tray and put in the oven. When the cheese is melted, it’s ready to be eaten. It is addictively yummy.
Mr. Kanafa wears a shirt, tie, and red apron. A pair of sunglasses sits on his well-kept hair. “The Syrian people are very kind,” he says. “I learned from an old man who gave me the best advice: if you want to create something good, make it the way you would like to eat it yourself. Taste it, and then offer it to your customers.” A black and white photo of his grandfather as a young man dominates the room. While outside, we chat in his place, a large group of Jewish teenagers dance and sing at high volume, escorted by several armed soldiers. An older customer looks at them with indifference as he beads an electronic rosary.
Would you go back to Aleppo to resume your business? “I would go back without hesitation. I love Jerusalem. But I love Aleppo, and I would start from scratch. Again.
Assaf Al Nshasheby 1, Sheikh Jarrah
“I love to make people happy with my food.” Jack has seen how I’ve been licking my lips with pleasure as I watch the cook cooking. The smells of spices fill the room as I listen to my belly rumble. We’ve come to Al Liwan, a Mediterranean restaurant we’ve heard good things about from the locals. It’s located in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, on the ground floor of a stately building that houses an Institute of Culture and Arts and was the residence of the famous Palestinian writer Issaf Nashashibi.
“This place used to be a gallery,” Jack Abdallah, the restaurant’s owner and chef tells me. “I’ve redesigned it to be more traditional.” There’s a gramophone, an antique telephone, a radio, beautiful pottery adorning the open kitchen bar, and traditional artworks decorating the walls
“Most of the ingredients we use are 100% organic and of Palestinian origin: pickles, olives, carrots, chilies, oils… Everything”
Jack has a Lebanese mother and a Palestinian father. He was born in Jerusalem but has lived in Lebanon, and before opening the restaurant, he worked in security at various international consulates. “Opening a restaurant has been my dream for twenty years,” he says as he looks over the menu and chooses the best dishes of the day for us. There are breakfasts, lunches, and meals in the Palestinian, Lebanese, and Armenian traditions and international dishes with the Mediterranean touch of the house. “I learned to cook at home, with my mother and grandmother. Over time I realized that people liked my dishes, so I started a catering service. The next logical step was the restaurant. A lifelong dream in which I have invested all my savings.
He serves the day’s dish: Musakhan, a typical Palestinian dish with chicken, onions, and almonds, garnished with parsley and sumac, and served on flat pita bread. In addition, there is shakshuka, salads, and small trays of hummus and pickles. I only need three bites to know that the food is fantastic: “Most of the ingredients we use are 100% organic and of Palestinian origin: gherkins, olives, carrots, chilies, oils… Everything.”
“Breakfasts are our big specialty,” Jack says while we gauge the desserts. “This is the only place in town that opens at 7:30 in the morning, and it’s become famous among locals who come especially for our breakfast. All of our customers love our breakfasts. And as I was saying, that’s what I love the most: making people happy.”