Few places on earth exert such a strong cultural, religious and historical significance as Jerusalem. Considered to be among the holiest of cities by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Jerusalem is also a vibrant and modern capital, with the Old City (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) at its heart.
How exciting then to be invited to Jerusalem as part of the Vibe Israel 2016 Food Tour in which I was fortunate to participate (see my earlier Israeli posts here, including my write up of the best places to eat and drink in Tel Aviv - here).
|Mamilla Avenue with the Old City and walls in the background|
Barely a square kilometre of meandering lanes and markets, Jerusalem’s walled Old City really packs a punch in its four distinct ethnic and religious sections - the Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim quarters.
Several of the world’s most important religious sites are found here including the Western Wall and Temple Mount for Jews and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslims.
|The Western Wall|
|The Dome of the Rock|
For Christians, the Via Dolorosa, the route and its 14 stations where Christ bore the cross (also known as the Calvary) from the place of his trial to where he was crucified, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are just two of the most important sites.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was indeed a highlight of our visit, the sheer religious fervour of hundreds of Christians, many chanting and bearing potent incense made for a powerful experience, the church marking the spot where Jesus is said to have been crucified.
The Old City is a fascinating place, and simply walking around and taking in the atmosphere is in itself an experience.
The Old City is also full of old fashioned sweet shops, spice markets, and plenty of street food options.
|A 'sfiha' shop in the Old City|
There are many places from which to enjoy excellent views and photographs in the Old City, among the best of which is the roof of the Austrian Hospice.
But for me the best place for photographs is in fact outside the city, on the top of the Mount of Olives, a one-hour uphill trek from the city walls. Definitely worth the trek for that iconic Jerusalem shot!
But Jerusalem extends far beyond the Old City. I spent a few days here to discover a lively and thrilling place, great food, wine and nightlife.
One such place is Machneyuda Market.
Also known as the shuk, this is perhaps the culinary heart of the city for locals and tourists alike, a sprawling covered market selling everything from fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish to falafel, kibbeh, halva and kebab.
Machneyuda Market is crazy, bustling and has great produce, aromas and a buzzing atmosphere.
|Halva by Halva King|
At night-time, after the vegetable shops close, many of them turn into late night bars and eateries frequented by a young, Jerusalemite hipster crowd.
Beer Bazaar is a popular hang out place – it sells more than 100 craft Israeli beers, and is open from midday until the last customer leaves the shop, which is about 2am! It also serves what appeared to be some excellent small sharing dishes, which sadly I did not try, as I visited it for after-drinks dinner.
Not far from the market, the popular Arbes Café is where you find the real McCoy of hummus while in Jerusalem.
I was told here that the secret of good hummus is to soak the chickpeas overnight, cook them for 3-4 hours then let them cool down naturally for at least another 12 hours. That is dedication for you, but it pays off, their hummus was outstandingly good!
Also by the shuk, behind the Iraqi section of the market, Azura was a noteworthy restaurant we got to visit. Azura serves Jewish Middle Eastern home-style food slow-cooked in huge vats.
Expect various types of hummus, soups, grilled meats, and the most sensational mejadra rice I have eaten (a fantastic and buttery rice dish with lentils, broken vermicelli and fried onions). Azura is a very popular lunch destination, and on Fridays the line can be quite long. It is one of the city’s institutions, the food is hearty, well seasoned and delicious; the décor is simple but inviting. I highly recommend a visit to Azura.
Near the Old City, we had a great breakfast at Kadosh Café. Breakfast is the Israelis’ most important meal, and it is not unusual to be served salads, tahini and other foods alongside your order of French baguette or fried eggs.
Kadosh is a charming, 1960s café serving great French and Middle Eastern patisserie, cooked brunch options and good, strong coffee. The place is a favourite with locals and on our visit, it was jam-packed. It has a retro feel, with tables outside and is a great place to enjoy a coffee and watch Jerusalemites go about their daily lives.
But the jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s dining scene is undoubtedly the MachneYuda Restaurant just around the corner from the eponymous market. MachneYuda, has been the most talked about restaurant in Jerusalem since its 2009 launch; it was created by the winners of Israel’s Iron Chef show ‘Krav Sakinim’ - chefs Asaf Granit, Uri Navon and Yossi Asaf, a champion of Jerusalem’s ‘slow food’ movement.
MachneYuda is booked out for months in advance but it keeps a few free tables for walk-ins. We took our chances and went to the restaurant as soon as it opened, luckily securing a table straight away. On the opposite side of the street, Yudale is MachneYuda ‘s sister café and bar where similar food is served in a more casual, cheap and cheerful set up.
The restaurant has a comprehensive Israeli wine list and will also allow BYO though there is a 35 shekels (£6.50) corkage charge. Despite this, it is still worthwhile buying a fine bottle at one of the market’s vendors and bringing it here.
The food at MachneYuda resonates with what I had seen at some of the best restaurants in Tel Aviv (reviewed here) – it was super fresh, well seasoned, zingy and punchy. I loved their generous use of herbs, spices, fresh vegetables and yoghurts, making for some heady and delicious cooking.
We started with beef tartare, pilardon yoghurt and pickled lemon (£10) - this was vibrant, fresh, beautifully seasoned and served in a crispy filo pastry cup with a lemony tahini.
Next up was one of their signature dishes, the soft polenta, with a mushroom ragu, Parmesan shavings and truffle oil (£10) – this was creamy, soft, warm, cheesy and totally scrumptious.
Another famous dish we had to order was their Shikshukit – a ground kebab served with tahini and refreshing yoghurt (£11).
We also had a platter of meltingly tender calamari with fresh tomatoes, amba (a tangy mango pickle made of mango, vinegar, salt, mustard, turmeric, chilli and fenugreek), and also hot peppers, garlic and herbs (£14). This was sensationally good served with some creamy and lemony tahini.
For dessert, we had Uri's mom famous semolina cake with tahini ice cream and yoghurt (£7.50) - a perfect sweet ending to an outstanding meal.
MachneYuda and Azura (no website - see Travel Essentials below for address) were by far the best restaurants I sampled in Jerusalem; they are very different in style but are great options in their own right. I recommend both very highly.
As much as I would love for you to travel to Jerusalem to try this wonderful food, you will not need to venture that far to experience it. If you live in London, The Palomar is MachneYuda’s sister restaurant right here in Soho/Chinatown area.
Once I returned to the UK, I was craving for all those punchy Israeli flavours and freshness, so I booked into The Palomar and I was anything but disappointed – we had a fantastic meal here that transported me right back to Jerusalem! I will be fully featuring The Palomar in a later post in the coming week.
|Spice shop in the Old City, Jerusalem|
Also in London, Honey & Co and Ottolenghi are great places for modern Israeli cuisine. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem cookbook is one of my favourite cookbooks right now, as are Sharif & Itamar’s The Baking Book and Food from the Middle East, founders of Honey & Co.
|View of the Old City from the top of the Austrian Hospice|
Writing as a chef and as a food and travel blogger, I can honestly say that my journeys through Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in particular, have really inspired me to learn the local cuisines and bring these flavours to what I do here – I love their abundant use of fresh herbs, spices, yoghurts, tahini; I love how they cook their vegetables, their understanding of seasoning and texture in their dishes; I love their wonderful stories, their generous spirit and the shared sense of camaraderie around food.
|Traditional sweet shop in the Old City, Jerusalem|
To say I was inspired by what I saw in Jerusalem is an understatement – Jerusalem has marked me deeply at many levels, and is a place I crave to return one day soon.
Thanks to Vibe Israel for their invitation to Jerusalem.
Nr. Shilo Street
Beer Baazar (inside MachneYuda Market)
Etz Hayyim 3
8 Machane Yehuda Street
+972 2 6235204
Shlomtzion St. 6
Beit Ya’akov St 10
+972 2 533 3442
34 Rupert Street