Everybody knows about Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world and the focus of so many religious and historical stories. Jerusalem, home of the wailing wall; the church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus was crucified; the Temple on the Mount and much, much more. But most people will not be so familiar with Mahane Yehuda Market, a place of foodie pilgrimage.
Located just a few tram stops away from the old city, the Market is a feast for the senses. Since the 1880’s this market has been the go-to destination for locals and tourists to seek out the freshest and sometimes most exotic ingredients found in Israel.
At the start of 2018, we hadn’t planned on going to Israel, or Jerusalem but when a close friend invited my wife and I to his wedding, we jumped at the opportunity. Generously, our newly married couple also became our tour guides. They shared our love of food and insisted the Shuk had to be part of our trip to Jerusalem, which itself was part of a whistle stop tour of Israel.
Entering Mahane Yehuda Market
The first thing you realise, when entering Mahane Yehuda Market, is the scale. Mostly under cover, the market counts over 250 different food stalls, cafes and bars set over many acres of land. If you’ve ever been to London’s Borough Market then multiply the size, noise and warmth by 10 and you are getting close! This place was a mass of mainly local shoppers out for their weekend produce from the local sellers or to catch up with friends over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee.
As we entered the market we spotted an old man offering fresh pomegranate juice for sale. Thirsty after many hours touring the city, we were keen to get refreshment. I’m not sure I’d ever eaten pomegranate or tasted its freshly squeezed juice, so in exchange for a few shekels, we tried a cup. The old man cut the fruit with a huge knife before squeezing the two halves to produce this dark red dark red and juice. It tasted somewhat alkali, like Cranberry drink only sweeter and richer on the tongue.
Out thirst assuaged we started to wander the packed lanes of food. A large fruit stall caught our eye, covered in a myriad of colourful and exotic fruit. Not just standard palette of a British fruit stall but a riot of exotic shapes and colours. I spotted a particularly vibrant looking fruit, larger than an avocado, with a dayglow pink exterior and bright green leaves. We bought this Dragon Fruit, opened it up with a knife and scooped out the fleshy insides. Like a bland Kiwi fruit, it was OK but I am told it would sever better as compliment to fish dishes.
A young boy stood in the middle of the packed market lane slowing our path as he handed out plastic spoons to passers by. Taking a spoon, we were gestured towards his older brothers in a covered stall where two huge stone wheels were grinding sesame seeds into this fresh Tahini. The spoons were for us to grab a taste of this freshly ground condiment. I was in the minority by not liking it but a few tubs went into our basket for later group consumption.
Into the next alley and we came across a seller standing over large tubs of what looks like pick and mix. With a large silver scoop he placed a few small cubes into the palm of our hands. Eaten raw these tasted like rich apple and orange flavours, much like finely diced, dried fruit. These in fact were tea infusions, simply add your chosen mix to a cup of boiling hot water and you will have a fresh fruit tea.
After what felt like an intense hour of food shopping, we took a break in one of the many cafes within the market. The dining options were certainly varied, from ‘Fish N Chips’ to fresh hummus or falafel. Our friends guided us to a small Lebanese Kitchen where we took up seats facing into the market. Bewildered by the unfamiliar choices on offer, we let our hosts choose the dishes. Out came Lebanese Tabbouleh, Rice Balls with Meat – and chips. The Tabbouleh was a fresh vegetarian dish finely chopped parsley, with tomatoes and mint ; The meat and rice was quite bland and heavy and the chips can speak for themselves. The chips, were, chips.
We chose to eat dessert on the hoof as we tried out another local delight – the Knafe or kanafe. The ingredients of this traditional Arab dessert did not sound convincing ; thin noodle-like pastry, soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup, and typically layered with cheese, clotted cream and nuts. It tasted better than it sounded, but still way too sweet to eat in any vast quantity.
Flagging at the end of a busy day, it was suggested a trip to the Gat juice stand would be the ideal pick me up. Gat Khat or qat from Arabic is a flowering plant native to the parts Africa and the Arabian Peninsula containing stimulant that shares qualities with manufactured stimulants like Speed and MDMA. It is said to cause excitement, loss of appetite, and euphoria. Great, where do I try?
We joined the long queue behind bankers, rabbis and housewives all queuing up with bottles to fill, but we only needed a cup to try it. The taste was quite bitter and unremarkable. At first I felt no effects of the juice, but a few minutes afterwards it felt like the clouds in my brain had dispersed. For a short time, I had this amazing clarity of thought. It wasn’t a sugar rush like a can of Red Bull nor was it a stimulant for other parts (shall we say) but it did do something. And remember this was from a small cup of juice – not a bottle load that other people were carrying away. Click here to read More about my experience with Gat Juice.
With a renewed clarity and energy we wound our way home, out past the lines of old ladies selling fresh grapes. They were sitting in the middle of a wide alleyway whilst stall holders on either side started to pack up, surrounded by old boxes of the day’s produce. The sun was setting but still fresh visitors were passing us, heading into get their fruit, veg and maybe a little Gat juice!
Mahane Yehuda Market address: Agripas St 90, Jerusalem, Israel