Food treasures in Jaffa

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010

A food lover's tour of Tel Aviv would not be complete without a foray into Jaffa, the ancient, annexed port city to the south.

Restaurants aside, within a short walk you can find treasures in delicatessens, specialty markets and street stands -- not to mention what is considered to be the finest hummus around, at Abu Hassan.

Jaffa is a favorite haunt of Janna Gur, editor of the popular Israeli food magazine Al Hashulchan ("On the Table") and author of "The Book of New Israeli Food" (Schocken, 2008). She has made friends of the vendors at four of her favorite shops and agreed to take me there.

"Jaffa's a culinary melting pot, with remnants of a disappearing culinary world," she said as we headed down the main drag on a sunny Sunday. "Even really good tahini used to be hard to find commercially. Now it's difficult for me to think of anything I can't get here."

First stop was Seeds and Dried Fruit Meir (62 Jerusalem Blvd.; 011-972-3-682-2305), a 50-year-old, third-generation operation. Danny Azulay, 60, says, "Whatever you see here, it is all made by us" as he waves his hand toward bins of freshly ground spices, fruit leathers, just-roasted nuts and fava beans. The aroma of these items is evident from the moment you walk in.

Azulay showed us how he produces a kind of dry-roasted bitter almond. The three-day process starts with apricot pits he imports from Turkey. (It is not a true almond, but it approximates the flavor that adds depth to marzipan and almond baked goods). Because the almonds are hard to come by in the United States, getting a few bags to take home felt like a score.

Just down the street at a modest open counter-type storefront (94 Jerusalem Blvd.), Shlomi Levi, 33, handed us small cups of malabi, a cool milky pudding thickened with cornstarch and topped with a subtle rose-water syrup. The family recipe is Bulgarian, closely held and the best of the versions I tried during my culinary reverie in Israel.

"I think it's the best in Tel Aviv," Gur said as she dipped a spoon in. Some form of this dessert has migrated from street-food snack to dessert menus at a majority of Israeli restaurants, where it is sometimes served with a pomegranate syrup.

A few steps in the other direction took us to Avner and Rammi's Balkan deli (70 Jerusalem Blvd.; 011-972-3-682-9236). The narrow shop is crammed from floor to ceiling with shelves of canned and bottled goods. In the cases are several varieties of house-made Bulgarian cheeses, pickled and whole smoked fish, and an impressive case full of freshly made salads; on the day we were there, we counted 15 kinds of eggplant salads alone.

Last stop: a 35-year-old kosher bakery and cafe named Leon (11 Oley Zion St.; 011-972-3-683-3123) that sells frozen sheets of its phyllo dough. "It looks humble, but it has a pedigree," Gur said. Danny Buena, 45, is one of three brothers in the family business. He showed us some fresh sheets made with canola oil, water, salt and flour. It was easy to see why Gur makes a special trip to buy them. Held up against the afternoon sunlight, a single sheet had texture and a little heft. "We make it thicker so it's easier to work with," Buena said. The dough is used in the cafe's savory and sweet pastries called burekas, and it bakes up delightfully crisp.

Gur likes to keep sheets of it in her freezer for quick, last-minute dishes; I was wishing that the plane ride home had cold storage.

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