For the first time, welcome my husband in his first guest post. He has never written a non-technical document in English, so please show your support and enthusiasm. Now let’s take a trip down my husbands’ culinary memory lane.
I've spent my childhood and adolescence years sometime in the seventies and early eighties of the previous century. It is a fact that can make one feel very melancholic. Not in my case. I remember my childhood as being a wonderful and happy time. I'm not in possession of an excellent memory to say the least and it frequently requires assistance. One doesn't have a better way to trigger a memory as smells and tastes. Sometimes a flash of flavor or the slightest scent can take me back in time to some wonderful days and joyful moments that at least most of them took place.
This is why I find myself once in a few weeks spending my lunch break in the area of Allenby, Hatzionut, and Wadi Nisnas streets in the city of Haifa. Here are concentrated some of the most modest yet delightful food establishments that my parents introduced me to. Today, many years after, I find in those places that time has almost not changed, longings, comfort and mainly superb food.
Several weeks ago my dear wife Yael and I, together with her best friend Sarah (both food bloggers), conducted a culinary tour along my memory lane. We’ve started in Allenby road, by skipping over the mythological Allenby restaurant (which deserves a special post), passing several household stores, waving back to beautiful beef slices at the Bambino butchery, and finally standing in front of Suidan. Any attempt to fit this institute into a conventional definition is sentenced to fail. Hanging from the front door are brooms, tin dustpans, and huge Luffa sponges. Inside the store one finds a variety of dried beans in sacks, most of the world’s spices, exotic sauces either Asian or Western cuisine, walnut oil, aged Balsamic vinegar, Porcini mushrooms, black or white truffles, coffee, world wines, selected single malt whiskeys, micro-brewed beers, Swiss chocolate and more. All stacked in a space the size of a modest old-fashioned grocery store. On our way deeper into the store we've found freezers containing an assortment of Arab cuisine delicacies such as Sambousak (pastry containing meat), Shis-barak (kind of meat Tortellini cooked in yogurt), cheese snacks and more. All are homemade and of fine quality.
Some of the real treasures are discovered in inner space of the store. The refrigerator always holds a selection of cheese from France, homemade Labane (soft goat cheese made from yogurt), Israeli boutique cheese, frozen sea food and cold cuts. Star of this show, is the eternal huge Parmigianino wheel. To me this wheel symbolizes Suidan. Long before Food channel or “Master Chef”, when the local culinary peak consisted of a steak in Pita alongside with “Bavarian cream” (don’t ask…), here stood this magical wheel, fulfilling the passion for quality food of the few who knew about it.
In charge of all those treasures is Pier, a charming and generous real foodie. Always ready to chat about a good cheese, Italian pasta, or snow white Nablus Tahina (Tahini). But it seems that he takes real pride in the splendid and delicate Arab food, which constantly streams to the back of the store directly from home. We had the opportunity to taste meat and rice stuffed vine leaves, stuffed cabbage leaves, meat Sambousak, delicate Labane, and excellent olives. However, transcending them all was the Fatayer, a soft pastry filled with Mangold (Chard) – a real delicacy.
Pier is clearly enjoying pleasing us with his stories about home cooking and his 4 years old granddaughter that can already stuff vine leafs (and also dances ballet).
On our way to the cashier, we are “forced” to taste some Halva of rare quality, restrained sweetness, and clear sesame taste, free of any tooth stickiness. Losing control on ourselves we packed also some Lindt Crème Brule stuffed chocolate and went on our merry way.
(“Suidan”, 39, Allenby road, Haifa)
11:30, we’re in the street again, conducting ourselves towards Wadi Nisnas. I’m dragging the two bloggers towards “Falafel Michel” and warning them that on our way back we’ll stop to taste Emil’s Shawarma, the Backalva at “Hamizrach” pastries, and if we’ll have room…
It seems that rivers of ink were spilled on the debate whose Israel's best Falafel shop: “Michel” or “Hazkenim” (the elders). As far as I’m concerned, the argument is futile and has the characteristics of a religious war. Indisputably Michel is the best. Way back around 1983 or 1984, during his lunch-break, my father took me to his workplace in the Solel-Boneh building, and from there to the Wadi, where I have seen the light. I ate the best Falafel in the universe. I have absolutely no need for unnecessary comparisons. I keep my zealous devotion to Falafel Michel holly institute. My father is no longer with us, but every time I eat at Michel’s, he stands next to me, dripping Tahina from his Pita like a pro.
Proper disclosure: I never ate at “Hazkenim”, a fact that does not prevent me from holding to my firm and righteous opinion about Falafel. I’m willing to fight over it to the last crispy ball. This is probably the closest an atheist like me will get to a religious experience.
And now, let’s get to the matter. Upon your arrival, Michel (or most likely, his son) will welcome you with a smile and piping hot Falafel ball dipped in Tahina, just to calm down the stomach. There are no readymade balls. They will always be deep fried in front of your probing eyes. Crispy outside, greenish inside, the balls are stuffed into Pita bread, lovingly crushed under Michel’s palm. Now comes the turn of the vegetables salad, cabbage and pickles. The sauces department consists of wonderful lemon scented Tahina, hot sauce “weak or strong”, and garlic sauce. On every table a bowl of crushed olives and that’s it. If there’s heaven, then this is they serve at its gate.
(“Falafel Michel”, 21 Hawadi st. “Falafel Hazkenim”, just in front)
Threatened by Emil’s Shawarma awaiting us at the end of the tour, we had only half a falafel portion each. From there we proceeded up the road towards the market at St. John Street, where I occasionally buy fresh fish, shellfish and even frozen scallops (rare in Israel). The vegetable shops offer the best of the country, emphasizing the season’s greens: Akuvit (Tumble Thistle), Hubeiza (Mallow), Olesh (Cichorium), Mangold (Chard), green garlic, and artichokes. I tried to pull the bloggers towards the other branch of Bambino butchery only to receive bored yet polite looks, reminding me that girls will always be girls. Opposite the butcher lurked quietly among her pots, Nadima.
One cannot pass by Nadima’s place not wondering what’s hiding under the leads of her eight (I’ve counted) stainless steel pots, crawling in a single file out her tiny kitchen. Nadima, ageless woman, cooks every day a selection of Arab domestic dishes. Every guest is welcomed cheerfully, and quickly served with today’s dishes. We sampled some rice with minced meat, Okra in tomato sauce, Olesh (Cichorium), and Mangold (chard), all served with fresh vegies and olives on the side. For the first time that day we ate sitting down, peacefully watching the passer-byes, taking authentic pictures without the need to leave our chairs.
(“Nadima”, 37 St. John St.)
"I'm finished with food for today" declared irresponsibly blogger Yael to blogger Sarah, who nodded wearily. "But what about Emil…" I tried in and immediately shut up facing the looks I received. Well, since the food chapter was over for that day, we stopped for a couple of minutes in front of nice (picturesque) household shop, only to find ourselves accidentally entering a shop dedicated only to olives. Out of politeness we sampled only four or five types. I've found the "Black Syrian" to be the best. Despite its intimidating name it was the most delicate.
The nearby coffee vendors stall was open but deserted. We inhaled the scent of coffee with "Hel" (cardamom) and gained energy to proceed. Taking advantage of my acquaintance with the area, I slowly dragged the two blog champions towards the sound of church bells in Ein-dor St. I've found it unnecessary to mention the vicinity of the church to Emil's place.
Haifa decided to surprise us with yet another adventure. The church place was crowded with people. Marching bands, scouts in uniforms, clergymen in their best dresses and formidable beards, colorful balloons, and us. The event may be described as a joyful Mediterranean chaos. Leading the procession was an ornamented box containing the relics of St Theresa (from France, not Bangladesh), which visited Israel as part of her world tour. The religious experience has strangely affected us, and mysteriously we found ourselves gazing at the meat pillar revolving on the Emil's altar.
Like Michel, Emil was always there. I can't recall the first time I tasted his Shawarma, but clearly there my Shawarma standards were set. The secret, as usual lies in simplicity and quality of the ingredients. Here they know that Shawarma is a meat dish, therefore, you'll get mainly meat, an excellent mixture of veal and lamb, shining from the precise amount of fat. The garnishes will never outshine the meat; thick tomato slice, fresh onion, Tahina sauce, pickles and no more. That's the secret: knowing where to say "no more".
("Emil's Shawarma", 33 Allenby road)
The right place to say "no more" was "Hamizrach" Mediterranean pastry shop. This was our last station in the days' time tunnel. It seems that my family and I had frequented this humble place, which produces top quality Baklavas (Baklavas), for more than thirty years. The key factor here is the moderate usage of sugar, never overshadowing the tastes of Pistachios and locally handmade Filo (aka Phyllo) dough. One innovation lies in the use of Cashew nuts and almonds alongside my favorite traditional Pistachios as filling of the Baklavas. More than 30 years of blind faithfulness to the delicious pastries, excellent Knafeh (Nablus version of cheese cake), and ice cold lemonade never entitled me with the permission to enter the holly of hollies of the bakery. In contrast, my two beautiful smiling lady companion, on their first visit, even before tasting, got an invitation to the lower floor where everything happens. Humiliated, I followed them downstairs where we witnessed the miracle of the Filo dough stretched from a small ball into a huge transparent sheet, where the cheese for the Knafeh is submerged in water to release its salt, and where small mountains of pistachios, almonds and cashew await their turn to fill the Filo and become Baklavas.
("Hamizrach" pastry shop, 34 Allenby road)
We had a great day; great company, great weather and memories flavored food. Still, there are so many others places we haven't been to. We didn't have Siniyeh at "Allenby", warm Kostiza at "Maayan Habira ", Romanian Kebab at "Kafe-Glida Yunek", seafood at "Jako's" original place, Burekas at "Haagala"…I may save some of these to future posts.