Along Tel Aviv’s Spice Route
Wed, 11/20/2013
Israel Correspondent
Inbal Baum and Yomi Yom Tov at the Yom Tom Delicatessen. Joshua Mitnick
Inbal Baum and Yomi Yom Tov at the Yom Tom Delicatessen. Joshua Mitnick

The meeting point is set for a most inauspicious tourist spot: the corner of Ha’Aliyah Street and Jaffa Road is a rundown Tel Aviv crossroads where pedestrians are drowned out by the grinding engines of public buses.

There, amid the chaos, foodie tour guide Inbal Baum is holding… a humble orange. The story of the citrus, which a century ago became the Holy Land’s best-known commercial brand  — “Jaffa oranges” — is a fitting prologue to a tour of the Levinsky spice market, which lies just a few blocks away.   

The market has a become a must-see among Israel’s culinary destinations, a trend boosted by the success of the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi and Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi.

Earlier this year the culinary magazine Saveur featured the Levinsky market as one of its top culinary destinations: “a five-block stretch of spice shops, delicatessens, bakeries, dairies, fish stores, and other food purveyors that represent the city’s past, present and probably future,” the magazine enthused.

Baum began giving culinary tours after leaving work as a New York lawyer to move to Tel Aviv. In the U.S., she was active in pro-Israel advocacy, but once in Israel she realized there were different ways to promote the state other than with political debates. She started “Delicious Israel,” a tour company that caters to foodie tourists.

Culinary tours have become “my way of advocacy, a way that hits people in the gut,” she told The Jewish Week. Tel Aviv, Baum says says, is becoming a hotspot for its mix of great restaurants and street food. “More people are understanding that there’s more than just hummus here because of Ottolenghi’s book.”

The spice market runs along Levinsky Street in the Florentine neighborhood. This off-the-beaten-track district that was founded in the 1920s mixes residential apartments, light industry, textile makers and upscale furniture showrooms. Its spice shops, the restaurants and the delis all seem to be family-run businesses handed down through generations.

“It’s an honor for me to keep this shop going,” said Uri Habshush, who works in a family spice shop begun in 1931 by his grandfather, an immigrant from Yemen.

With mounds of burnt-orange paprika, mustard yellow cumin and pepper, spice shops are an essential part of the earthy tones associated with Mediterranean markets.    

Baum says the Habshush shop is remarkable not only for its longevity, but also for being a supplier to local chefs. There are a variety of Middle Eastern spices, which range from Egyptian doah, a seasoning used for cheeses or olive oil dips, to Yemenite  hawaij, a minor hallucinatory spice used in coffee, to dried, shriveled lemons used in Persian stews. 

Habshush studied design in university but returned to the shop, preferring the daily interactions with customers to office work. It’s not hard to see why: He graciously shows us around the shop and offers us Yemenite coffee with cardamom ginger, cinnamon and hawaij that packs a small buzz.

Some people compare the feel of Florentin’s treeless streets and industrial feel to New York’s Soho or the Lower East Side; that vibe was undoubtedly the vision of a gentrification wave in the late-1990s that resulted in a boomlet of hip cafés, bars and clubs.

But unlike trendy Sheinkin Street and the Neve Tzedek neighborhood, the prettification remains incomplete, and the neighborhood retains an urban grit; it is a buffer between the renovated and glamorous boulevards of upscale Tel Aviv and the depressed areas near the Central Bus Station, where the city’s migrant communities live. Many people descend on the neighborhood for its high-end furniture and light-fixture boutiques.

In just a few paces Baum takes her group from a small-time nut- and-seed salting factory (which provides sunflower seeds to hoards of Israeli soccer fans) that looks like it must have changed little in 50 years, to the gourmet Naknik Boutique, a sausage and sandwich deli that evolved out of an old-time dried-meat shop.

The Levinsky spice market is a vestige of the 1930s, when a produce market was set up in the neighborhood as it began to attract diverse Jewish immigrant populations; Jewish immigrants from Greece and Persia settled there at the time, giving the shops and food a multicultural vibe. The spice shops eventually outlived the produce market, and the light industry endured.

Along for the ride with Baum is Ishay Govender, a South African food blogger. “As a food traveler but an outsider and first-time visitor, I had several myths displaced in a short period of time. Israeli cuisine isn’t made up of Jewish food alone,” she wrote after her visit to Israel. “The food is complex, multi-layered, a tribute to centuries of people who have moved to the land. And, it all exists side by side. Yemeni, Persian, Georgian, North African.”

Baum stops at Pereg, a spice shop that has branded itself by offering original mixes of nuts, dried fruits and spices that work as snacks or as toppings for rice. Dina Pereg, whose family hailed from Tripoli, offers visitors samples and poses for pictures; she credits her father with the store’s success (which is confirmed by a wall of pictures of Israeli celebrity visitors like supermodel Bar Refaeli). “He always insisted on doing things top quality,” she said.

Baum says she also offers tours of Jaffa’s food markets and famed hummus eateries. A route of hers through Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market passes by stands filled with Israeli craft beers, the fish monger that her grandmother in Ramat Gan comes into the city for, and an off-the-beaten track Yemenite kitchen (it literally feels like someone’s kitchen) that also serves up the Israeli staple shakshoukah.

Back in Florentin, across the street from Pereg, there are Turkish bourekas to sample at the Penso bakery. The boureka, another of the Mediterranean dishes that are ubiquitous in Israel, are savory fried pastries filled either with spinach, feta cheese, potatoes, or mushrooms. The pastries are crispy on the outside, and some have a doughy interior. Proprietor Jenny Penso’s family was originally from Istanbul, but has had the bakery ever since moving to Tel Aviv.

Just a couple of storefronts away, the Turkish delight continues at the Yom Tov delicatessen. The family deli opened in Istanbul in the 1940s and was re-established in Florentin in 1969. There, one can find a range of homemade pickled olives, cured meat and smoked fish. Another third-generation proprietor, Yomi Yom Tov brings out an appetizer platter of cheeses and roasted vegetables that is a riot of color and resembles a high-end caterer’s buffet.

Of course Baum’s tour isn’t exhaustive. You’d need far more than a couple of hours to cover all the culinary bases. One of the highlights of the Levinsky market, in fact, is best experienced without a tour group: The Persian restaurants here are well known for ethnic dishes like Persian meatball soup, but they are so popular, that Baum doesn’t bother to stop. “There’s no room to sit,” she said.

In between the bourekas and the delicatessen, we pass by Café Kaymak, where a local journalist hipster, Roy Chicky Arad, is camping out. Kaymak specializes in vegetarian dishes made with the ingredients from the surrounding market and is known for its breakfast menu, according to the culinary tourism website shuktlv.co.il. Chicky tells me about the other hangouts nearby: Tel Aviv’s first bar, and another bar set up by young people involved in Israel’s social protest movement.

A return visit is in the works.

editor@jewishweek.org