WHEN HENRY Kissinger walked out of a posh Jerusalem restaurant he commented to an aide, "In a country with a million and a half Jewish mothers you'd think the food would be better." Well, it is, but one must wander off the tourist path to find it.
Having lived in Jerusalem for three years, my husband and I were delighted to return recently and savor foods we had missed for eight years. Unlike meals in restaurants geared to Western tourists, our daily fare was more Israeli, more Middle Eastern. Most people cannot afford to "eat out." mInstead they nibble outside or sit in tiny cafes.
Jerusalem is one of the world's most glorious cities. Everything is visually directed outdoors toward the walled Old City. Inside, the golden Mosque of Omar, sitting on Mount Moriah, is the hilltop where Abraham was supposed to have sacrificed his son, Isaac, a site holy to three religions. With a spectacular view at every hour of the day and into the night when the walled city is lit up, the visitor and long-time resident hesitates to spend a moment inside.
Jerusalemites awaken early. To get the most of a gastronomic tour of the city, it is best to follow suit.
Hunger will lead you to one of two early morning spots. If you have a sweet tooth try Zalatimo's, a small sweet shop known throughout the Middle East. Located between the 8th and the 9th stations of the cross literally beneath an access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Zalatimo's has been operating since the time of the Crusades. Started by a Venetian pilgrim, the shop stayed in the same family until recently when Mohammed Ali Zalatimo took over. He learned to make the family specialty, M'batak, in Damascus, and when the last members of the family were satisfied with his prowess, they sold him the shop. Mohammed has been making M'batak for 40 years, preparing the think stretched and twisted dough stuffed with sheep cheese, baking it in a huge coal-fired oven, then soaking it in sugar and water. You can eat the sweet in the shop, open from 7 a.m. to noon, or you can carry the M'batak with you.
If you prefer savoury breakfast fare, then wander down the Via Dolorosa and ask for Abu Shukrei.
Shukrei, known as the best hummus maker in Jerusalem, always stands at the back of his tiny shop, which is without windows. You'll know him by his fez. Behind him is a deep cauldron filled with simmering chick peas that have been cooking slowly all night. When you place your order Abu Shukrei and his assistants start working. In a bowl they put garlic, chick peas and salt and pepper, grinding the mixture in a mortar and pestle until is is of the right consistency. Then tahina, sesame seed paste and lemon juice are added and the mixture is placed on a flat plate. Olive oil is dribbled in the center and paprika sprinkled on top for decoration. Extras such as pine nuts or foul (fava beans) can be added. Hummus is served with warm pita bread baked in a neighboring oven and the combination is so delicious you will never again want to eat anything but the homemade variety.
After breakfast you may need some exercise. Walk around the walls of the Old City or hike through the marketplace to the New City. By now it should be about 9 a.m. Wander down Jaffa Road to the intersection of Ben Yehuda. There you can nibble on some hot from the oven burekas, paper thin pastries filled with cheese or, our favorite, spinach and cheese. Coated with butter and sprinkled with sesame seeds, these turnovers are baked to a golden crispness.
Onward and upward toward the Bukharan Quarter for Jerusalem's best falafel. The Bukharan Quarter, adjacent to Mea Shearim, the ultra religious quarter of Jerusalem, was started in 1891 when wealthy Jews from Bukhara engaged engineers and city planners to plan a quarter with straight, wide streets and lavish some houses. After the Russian Revolution, with the passing of time and fortunes, the quarter lost much of its wealth, but even so the area retains certain elegance.
In the Bukharan souk there is a tiny felafel stand owned and operated by Shlomo, a Yemenite Jew who came to Jerusalem over 30 years ago. Lines form outside his stand from 9 to 12 each day except Saturday as he meticulously makes felafel. Each night he grinds and mixes his chick peas, burekas and spices. As his customers arrive he patiently scoops each round of felafel in his "felafel maker" and drops it into the boiling oil. After each is crisp he places eight balls into a full pita bread and adds pickles, turnips, tahina, lettuce, tomato and, it you like, a peppery hot sauce.
Walk down Jaffa Road still farther to Mahane Yehuda, the Jewish Marketplace. Hundreds of tiny stalls are filled with fresh spices and vegetables, some from the time of the Bible. In some shops you'll see women, seated on the ground, plucking chickens. In others you'll see ornate pita bread being molded and baked.
If, by now, it is around 1 p.m. and you haven't eaten your way through the marketplaces, it is time for lunch. There are favorite restaurants nearby. At tiny Cohen's you can have mimulaim, stuffed vegetables. If you leave your order to Syrian-born Moussa Cohen's discretion -- depending on his mood of course -- he will give you a meal like this: stuffed eggplant with meat and rice, stuffed carrots with rice and mint leaves, stuffed onions, peppers, tomatoes with prunes or figs stuffed with nuts and poached in pomegranate sauce for dessert.
A vegetarian lunch delight is Lebanese Bavly's with cold fried vegetable patties, eggplant salads galore and interesting vegetable dishes, better than any I have tasted elsewhere. Bavly's also runs the eating concession in the Israel Museum cafeteria.
A third lunch favorite is a new find this past trip. It is called Chen and is a hole-in-the-wall eating establishment on Jaffa Road aross from the Post Office. The Kurdish restaurant is packed at lunch with municipal employes. Kibbee, a Kurdish specialty made from lamb, onions and bulgur, is found in many incarnations. Torpedo rolls stuffed with rice and meat with a crust of bulgur and meat, fried kibbee and kibbee dumplings are found in various soups. It is said that if a Kurdish woman cannot make good kibbee, don't marry her. The most unusual and the most delicious food are the homemade soups with the kibbee dumplings. And what soups! The tomato, cabbage, beet, lemon soup had such a delicate balance of flavors that I immediately took home the recipe.
After a heavy lunch it is time for siesta or coffee and a rich pastry. Viennese coffee houses with rich chocolate and whipped cream pastries are a Jerusalem tradition. The gastronome and people watcher should while away a few hours at one of the more famous such as the Cafe Atara on Ben Yehuda Street in the center of town.
When I lived in Jerusalem, my favorite pastry was a crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside macaroon with chocolate on one side. The King David Coffee Shop still serves the same cookie.
It was often a toss up between the King David's macaroon and a rich chocolate cake made from cocoa, ground almonds, sugar and breadcrumbs, served in the splendid courtyard of the American Colony Hotel, once a pasha's palace.
Now, for serious evening eating. For those who want a big splurge try Chez Simon, a Moroccan-accented French restaurant in the heart of the New City; or the Georgian restaurant, started by new immigrants from the Soviet Union; or Sahara, one of the three brand-new Moroccan restaurants which serves homemade pastilla using the Moroccan paper-thin equivalent of strudel; or Mishkenot Shananim, a kosher French restaurant with an extraordinary view of the Old City.
For less expensive meals, consider the Dolphin, an Arab-Jewish co-owned fish restaurant with such unusual dishes as trout with almonds and apples or fish with orange sauce. Lea's Hungarian restaurant, started by Holocaust survivors, has marvelous chicken with stuffing under the skin and palacsinta. Lea's has an outdoor terrace and weather permitting -- it usually is in Jerusalem -- you can sit outside and breathe in the marvelous fresh air.