Tel Aviv market a bonanza from ordinary to exotic (Chicago Tribune)
TEL AVIV — Visiting a food market in a far-flung destination is a great way to get a sense of the people who live there. Israel is no exception. The market in Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, showcases the small desert country’s agricultural innovations and the immigrant backgrounds of many Israeli residents.
Tel Aviv’s Carmel market, also known as Shuk Ha’Carmel, is close to the shore and a short walk down Allenby Street from the city’s hotel area. It’s part flea market, with vendors selling clothes, trinkets, cosmetics and cigarettes — there’s something quirky about seeing Camel cigarettes for sale in a place where you often see real camels — but mostly it’s a foodie haven of dried fruit, exotic spices, local olive oil, imported cheeses and fresh fish, meat and poultry. You also could spend your time dealing with the more immediate needs of an empty stomach by visiting stalls that sell persimmon smoothies, imported chocolates, mounds of colorful candies, fresh falafel, halva, lamb shawarma and borekas, the salty stuffed Turkish puff pastries that seem to be everywhere in Israel.
Tel Aviv chef Yair Feinberg, 35, gives market tours to travelers as part of his culinary business Fein Cook. He also offers cooking classes, specialty dinners and works on an Israeli television version of “Iron Chef.” Feinberg, the son of Argentine immigrants, grew up on a kibbutz in Israel’s Negev region and trained to be a chef at L’Institut Paul Bocuse in France. He later worked in several Michelin-star-receiving restaurants in Paris, Provence, France, and Tuscany, Italy, before returning to Israel in 2005.
It’s easy to wander the market alone and relish your solo discoveries. But a trip with someone like Feinberg can add insight and explanations about what you are seeing.
Take the giant lemons, for instance. After sampling some of the largest and juiciest clementines I’d ever tasted, I was convinced I was in the land of giant fruit when I came across what I was sure were the largest lemons I’d ever seen — about the size of a 16-inch softball.
Feinberg said the fruit actually is a pomelo, a large citrus fruit originally from Asia. The pomelo is now grown in Israel, where it also is crossbred with grapefruit to create Israel’s Sweetie. Sweeties are similar in size to a grapefruit but sweeter, with thick green or yellow skin and a remarkable 40 or fewer calories per fruit.
Feinberg is happy to talk about Israel’s agricultural innovations. He said that when the country was young and dealing with its lack of arable land and water, farmers worked at developing fruits and vegetables that would survive and thrive in the desert climate. The results include special varieties of mushrooms and strawberries that grow large and sweet in greenhouses where insects are used to fight common diseases that limit growth, he said.
If your schedule is flexible, plan to visit the Carmel market on a Tuesday or Friday, when local artisans display and sell their wares on the nearby pedestrian mall and the area is turned into a kind of street fair. Jewelry, wood carvings and stained glass are among the offerings.
If you want to sit down for a meal during your market visit, consider HaBasta restaurant, a favorite of local chefs. Chef Maoz Alonim is known for his use of fresh ingredients.
For a good cup of strong coffee in a funky little storefront, head a few blocks southwest of the Carmel market to Levinsky Street and its spice shops. Stop in at Kaymak, 47 Levinsky St., where the American expat owner will give you something warm to drink, as well as a place to sit and watch the world go by. It’s impossible to walk through a market and not consider the people who shop there. While talking about how Israeli olive oil is different — strong and bold — Feinberg said that the description also might apply to Israelis.
“The culinary world in Israel is a mixture of a lot of influences from all the immigrant communities in Israel and the Arab background of the region,” he said. “One of the main characteristics of the Israeli food is that it has a very pronounced taste. The sweets are very sweet, the coffee is very bitter. … We use a lot of spices, fresh herbs.”
If you go
Tel Aviv is a cosmopolitan city where you can find myriad food choices in restaurants that offer cuisine that spans the globe. The Israel Ministry of Tourism’s website for North America, goisrael.com, offers a lot of good information about the entire country. You can search the site for details on Tel Aviv’s Carmel market and restaurants and night life.
Chef Yair Feinberg’s company website is feincook.co.il, but unless you can read Hebrew you’ll only be able to look at the photos. You can reach him by email, however, at email@example.com. He speaks and writes in English.