Friday, March 19, 2010

The Shuk

There are a lot of things that make living in Israel, well...difficult. There's the driving for one; the riots; the religious zealots, who mess things up for everyone, but we're getting too political (another thing impossible to avoid in the all too promised land). But then there is Mahane Yehuda aka the shuk, the only place in Israel I visited more than once.
H., Y.'s cousin and our wonderful host during our two-and-a-half week visit to Irael, shops at the shuk every Friday. She has a system and the second I stepped into the raucous market I could see why. She parks, transfers the money she is going to spend from her wallet to an empty pocket in her purse, arms herself with her rolling basket, and then enters the shuk.
While this is not the lovey-dovey farmers' market and your new found Israeli driving skills could come in handy, one does form one's allegiances. H. goes to the same two veggie stalls every week, gets helped by the same man at the cheese shop, who frequently gives her presents and to whom she often brings coffee, gets her fish from only one monger, and while the fish is being prepared has coffee at the same delightful cafe. And they all remember her.
I thought we had a bulk department at the co-op. Having shopped at the shuk, I now know better. Every other stall was stocked with mounds of nuts, dates, raisins, apricots, ten varieties of olives, mountains of spices. Candies and cookies were sold the same way--from giant bins overflowing with product. I would have loved for the phobic among us, those who freak when someone reaches into a bulk bin with his bare hands, to witness the vendor shooing the doves off his almonds or to see the bins of hearts, livers, and gizzards refrigerated, but just barely.
It is a good idea to know what you want before entering the shuk or you might become completely overwhelmed, but if you don't just ask for a taste. A perfect example comes from the cheese shop. Yes, we knew we wanted cheese, but what kind? The cheese man was more than willing to make recommendations and to provide a taste of each. Meanwhile the wine seller behind us was choosing a bottle that matched the cheese. It no doubt helped that we were with H. (protectzia goes a long way in Israel), but showing a genuine interest in food doesn't hurt either. It's common, almost expected, to try a strawberry before buying a whole container, to try a few olives before choosing the ones you're going to walk away with. You certainly won't find any "no grazing" signs.
Another thing you will not find here, or anywhere in Israel as far as I could tell, is a bad cup of coffee. The espresso is made well and served well. At the cafe in the shuk the espresso is served with a tiny glass of seltzer. On our way to the Galilee we stopped at a gas station for coffee and were served at an outdoor table, the coffee in ceramic cups. Baristas across America take note.
Having visited Israel, even for a short time, I realize that I live in paradise and have no room to complain. We could learn a thing or two about the buying and selling of food, however, and how to make a decent cup of coffee.

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