Despite being located in the place long known as the land of milk and honey, Jerusalem still seems to fly under the international foodie’s radar. But this storied city, perhaps the world’s original travel destination, has quietly been undergoing a food revolution that’s elevating Middle Eastern cuisine. And word is slowly getting out.
Few food cultures can call on their diaspora quite like Jerusalem. A bounty of ingredients fresh from the soil and the sea, much-loved and well-stocked markets, and innovative chefs from a wide variety of backgrounds combine here to create the perfect recipe for hungry visitors ready to indulge in one of the seven sins.
Here’s what and where to eat and drink on your trip to Jerusalem.
Machane Yehuda Market
“My first language is food,” jokes Boaz Cohen, who actually is fluent in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Cohen, a chef with a master’s degree in social work, works with Yalla Basta, a culinary tourism outfit that runs tasting tours of Jerusalem’s famous Machane Yehuda Market, as well as foodie adventures in Tel Aviv and Nazareth. The Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall might be Jerusalem’s best-known must-see sights, but Machane Yehuda Market is the heart of the city’s local life. Here you’ll find Jerusalemites of all stripes stocking up their fridges and cupboards with just-picked produce, freshly caught fish and slabs of meat from the shouting stallholders doing their best to reel in customers from the passing foot traffic.
Cohen, shaking hands with friendly shopkeepers, is busy sourcing ingredients to make “salads”, a far-too-boring word to describe the heavenly final result. After a few stops at various stalls, we’ve acquired a pile of mangoes, cucumbers, ginger, radishes and watercress, and set up shop at an empty counter at a fishmonger, said to be the only one in Jerusalem who makes the journey to the sea himself, who provides us with raw red snapper. Everything gets chopped up – no recipe or measuring required – and mixed into a giant bowl and doled out on fresh bread scored from another Machane Yehuda stall. What’s it called, we wonder. “After you taste it, you will give it a name,” Cohen says. Let’s go with Holy City ceviche.
Come nighttime, the market stalls pull down their metal shutters, all spray-painted with street art-style portraits of famous faces, and the market’s hip but understated bars and restaurants set out their stools, which are soon packed with revellers nearly every night of the week. There is no bad time to come to Machane Yehuda Market.
Wine has been produced from grapes grown in the fertile hills of the Levant since biblical times, but this area is only starting to be noticed internationally as a serious vino producer. Divine bottles of all colours from across the country fill the shelves of the Mamilla Hotel’s simply named wine bar, Winery (currently closed due to Covid-19). All 120 options on offer here are all natural and preservative free, and the resident sommelier is on hand to narrow down the selection and provide snack pairings. Drinkers should be aware that some wineries are located in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights on land that’s been illegally annexed or occupied according to the United Nations.
Flavours of Jerusalem’s Old City
The sinuous Old City is a sensory overload that’s a feast for the eyes and the stomach. The boundaries between the Old City’s four quarters – Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim – are somewhat fluid, but all bring their own flavours to the table. You could go on a days-long sampling binge to try to discover the Old City’s best hummus (our money goes to Abu Shukri in the Muslim Quarter), or let your nose guide you into Shwara Bakery in the Christian Quarter, which has been baking bread in this oven for nearly four centuries. Before the sun sets on Friday night, arrange a traditional Sabbath dinner with a family in the Jewish Quarter; ask at your accommodation or try the website Get Shabbat. And of course, authentic Armenian dishes are what’s on the menu in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter: Bulghourji restaurant will cover your table with giant, steaming platters of starters and then assume that you still have room for mains.
On the farm in Ein Kerem
In the undulating pine-covered hills west of Jerusalem not far from where beloved chef and culinary ambassador Yotam Ottolenghi grew up is an organic farm started by chef Ezra Kedem, who’s also a restaurateur and continues to define the nature of Israeli cooking. Out in the garden, neatly ordered purple stems of kohlrabi poke out above the soil while nearby patches of herbs grow wild. Some have been harvested for today’s lunch of cucumber soup sprinkled with dried mint and pungent sumac that’s finished with a deep-cut swirl of olive oil and served in the small kitchen with free-flowing wine. Around the chopping block turned chef’s table, fresh tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers and gooey tahini are perfectly mixed together in the ever-changing definition of a salad. “We’re at the peak of Israeli cuisine,” chef Amir Noar says as he adds even more olive oil and lemon juice to the bowl, “because everyone is curious to see what’s happening here”.
Virgin Atlantic flies from London Heathrow direct to Tel Aviv from £298 per person, virginatlantic.com
One night at the David Citadel, Jerusalem in a Superior New City View room starts from £305 B&B thedavidcitadel.com
For further information about Jerusalem, visit itraveljerusalem.com