While it would be difficult for me to pick a favorite regional cuisine, Mediterranean cuisine certainly makes the short list, so I am excited to be taking some extra time on the blog to share my recent
adventures in Spain, Egypt, Israel, Greece and Turkey. As we begin Part Two of my three-part series on the Lands of Time cruise, Riviera has just arrived in Israel.
I have been studying a fabulous cookbook called The Book of New Israeli Food by Janna Gur and have recently developed new Culinary Discovery Tours to the markets of old Jerusalem, Ashdod and Haifa. These tours, which will be offered this fall onboard Marina, will also visit several award-winning wineries.
Israeli cuisine is in the process of being rediscovered in the food scene, but I have always loved it because it is fresh, healthy and full of tradition. Celebratory Jewish dishes mixed with traditional foods of Arab and North African nations and the inventiveness of young Israeli chefs have turned cities like Tel Aviv into up-and-coming culinary destinations.
Last year when we were in Ashdod, I spent a lovely day at the market, and I was looking forward to exploring the markets of other Israeli cities on this cruise. We first called on Haifa. I hired a driver and off we went to explore the Jewish and Arab markets in the Old City of Haifa and in Acre, 20 minutes north of Haifa. Because it was Sunday, we first headed to the Wadi Nisnas district and the Jewish market in the Old City. The mangoes, peaches and melons were in season and plentiful. I stopped at one of the spice vendors and found grape leaves, which we used in our Gloriously Modern Greek class later in the week.
Dried fruits are always plentiful in Middle Eastern markets, and the apricots were so bright and soft, I had to buy a few bags for the tagine recipes in the upcoming classes on Moroccan and Turkish cuisine. The olive monger was happy to let me sample lots of olives until I found the pungent and salty variety that was my favorite.
My taxi driver accompanied me through the market, and I loaded him up with lots of goodies. Soon our arms were full so we returned to the taxi, having only spent about 100 shekels, or 25 US dollars – not bad! But we were just getting started. We dropped off our load and returned to the market. The driver figured out that I was a chef and was happy to tell each merchant, “She is a chef on the Big O ship in the harbor.” Here’s the view from the top of Haifa, so it’s clear the locals know when we are in port.
I then asked the driver if he knew “the greatest falafel place in Haifa,” because I had been there before but could not remember the name. Apparently, this restaurant lives up to its billing because he drove me right to it. Unfortunately, it was closed, so I snapped some photos to ensure I remembered it for my next visit. Falafel Hazkenim – I won’t be forgetting that name any time soon!
We continued through Haifa and on to Acre to visit the Arab market, which was open even though it was a Sunday. The owner of the market is also an endurance rider with his Arabian stallion, and we shared stories of his races and my days of foxhunting. (Needless to say, I did not share my most recent equestrian adventure in Cairo on Humphrie the camel!)
I wanted to visit a spice shop that I found last year, Kurdi and Berit, to purchase some coriander, cloves, cardamom and black pepper. When buying spices, I always tell our guests to avoid ground spices. Purchasing them whole and grinding them is so much more fun, and the food is more flavorful as a result of the extra care.
After spending a whopping $75 on spices, we wandered through the market so I could stop and taste my favorite hummus with mushrooms in garlic sauce at the local hummus hang out, Humus Said. The umami of this dish is delicious, and it’s easy to make at home! You can make hummus by pureeing garbanzo beans with extra virgin olive oil and a few tablespoons of tahini paste, salting to taste and adding a squeeze of lemon. Then sauté a pound of sliced mushrooms with garlic in about 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter. Pour the mushrooms and butter on top of the hummus and enjoy with grilled flatbread or pita. It’s a simple recipe and it’s heavenly!
Spices and hummus were only the beginning of my market adventure in Acre. Like many markets in the region, the Acre market offers almost anything your heart desires – produce, fish, pastries, ceramics, clothing, kitchen supplies, and even a cobbler to fix your shoes!
When we were traveling to the Dead Sea, we saw groves of date palm trees with nets to protect the dates from the hungry birds.
And here at the market those dates were for sale. Of course, I had to pick up some for a tasting in class.
I also purchased a kilo of sunflower seeds. We eat these by the bagful when in Israel, snacking on them like popcorn. The seeds here are huge and very tasty.
The breads and pastries in Israel were beautifully displayed and baked fresh daily. These little breads were covered with za’atar, a mixture of sour sumac, dried thyme and marjoram and sesame seeds. The bread is eaten plain as a snack or with the many varieties of hummus that you find here.
All kinds of fruit drinks were available, many freshly squeezed to order. Prickly pears were in season, and they make a delicious drink. You can find pomegranate and orange juices almost everywhere, and they are especially refreshing in the heat of the summer.
After a morning of heavy-duty shopping, I was ready for lunch, so I headed out to the German Colony to one of my favorite restaurants, Fattoush. I love their welcome sign, which is a beautiful tribute to tolerance and how food unites us all.
I ordered a shredded chicken dish (an Israeli take on shawarma) with grilled onions and fresh tomatoes and, of course, the pickled cucumbers that are so much of part of the cuisine of Israel.
At Fattoush I dined outside amidst the Baha’i Gardens, where brightly colored glass lanterns and balls dangled from the trees overhead. The setting was delightful and the food even better.
After three fabulous days in Israel, it was time to sail on to Greece and Turkey. As much as I would have loved to stay and explore more, I was very excited for what was to come in some of my favorite ports of call. In my final blog of this series, I will share more photos and experiences from my Mediterranean adventure, as the Lands of Time cruise concludes.