31 Aug A Golden Morning In Tel Aviv, In Search of the Perfect Bite
IN TEL AVIV, ISRAEL, it feels as if there’s smooth, upbeat jazz resounding throughout the city at all hours. Its locals are simply moving to the beat.
Music echoes on the boardwalk; it falls from the palms; it filters through the doors of buzzy cafes and bars.
That is every day except for Shabbat, Judaism’s day of rest, peace and holiness which begins Friday evening and lasts until Saturday night.
It was a warm and golden Saturday morning, Shabbat in Tel Aviv. My buddy and I knew the city would be closed.
Despite this, we set out on a quest to find the perfect lunch, for it’s a crime to waste a meal in Israel, a country whose cuisine reigns as my top two or three favorites, hands down.
Dishes commonly comprise fresh vegetables and sharable plates, delicious dips, skewers of meat, crunchy falafel and fluffy pita. Tastes are tangy and fresh, spicy and sweet, warm and satisfying.
I barely scratched the surface of Israeli cooking, yet the food — from the top restaurants in Tel Aviv to the 3am late night bite — had me in awe in terms of diversity, freshness, and overall healthfulness.
This is what I love about Tel Aviv: its lifestyle makes you feel good in mind, body and spirit.
There’s this soul-enriching blend of energy and calm which epitomizes the city.
In the morning before work, a local might get some beach exercise in by playing matkot and footvolley, beach tennis and volleyball with your feet, respectively, although those names just don’t have the same chutzpah!
One might hop on a bike or run the boardwalk, which bustles with endlessly stunning runners, walkers, roller-bladers and bikers.
If I lived in Tel Aviv, I think I’d catch a sunrise surf as often as possible at Ha’Maravi Beach and watch the ancient neighborhood of Jaffa — the crown jewel of the beach’s point — come to life with the rising sun.
In the evening, it’s almost impossible not to hit one of the charming cafes or bars to lull away the sunset with friends and delicious food and drinks.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, this city has a spark unlike anyplace else.
My mornings started by waking up at my hostel located right across the street from the beach, one I can’t recommend enough to experience the heart of Tel Aviv.
I’d come down in the morning and the music would be bumping; old school rap or just plain ol’ good vibes.
I’d say waddup to the bartender and whoever worked the front desk, all genuine friends within a couple of days. That’s how it is in Tel Aviv. Friends come easy.
I’d sip a cappuccino, write, and fuel up for the day as the world would pass me by. Then I’d hit the boardwalk for a workout at one of the free outdoor gyms that line the beach, go for a run on the water’s edge and finish with a swim in the warm green sea.
On Saturday, the city had simmered down. The narrow streets of the Kerem HaTeimanim neighborhood which my friend and I slowly sauntered through, were empty.
It was nice to see the neighborhood this way — still, yet bursting with silent beauty. Its charm reminded me of the Japanese concept Wabi Sabi, a sort of rustic imperfection that comes from earthly processes: the blowing of the wind, the salt of the sea, the day-to-day lives of people.
Vivid flowers hang from sandy second-story balconies and bicycles lean upon colorful and faded wooden doorways.
The sunlight falls through the buildings and mixes with the shade like the Taoist symbol for yin and yang, forming a journey of peace and harmony as one drifts through.
We headed towards the iconic Shuk Hacarmel, known as the Carmel Market, a lively outdoor market born in the 1920s.
After a morning of movement, my friend and I would eat pretty much anything. But today the stalls were closed, an unusual sight, the Shuk being one of the liveliest stops in the city.
A man and a woman stood leaning up against the market’s empty crates beneath the shade of the tarps and overhanging buildings. They munched on something delightfully appealing.
They looked cheerful in relaxed conversation, content in their simple breaking of bread. We craved what they had.
“Excuse me,” I said as we slowly passed, “do you know where we can get some lunch, something good that’s open right now?”
Perhaps in the past I would have walked by while my mind ran rampant, telling me to speak up.
I might have had the thought say something! Yet nothing would spill out of this tangled up noggin. Now I didn’t think, I just asked, and in doing so took a step closer to the life I hope to lead.
They looked at each other, polished off the piece of, well, I couldn’t really tell of what it was at this point, and replied, “Try this. It’s a dish we don’t eat all the time, just on Saturday mornings.”
My friend and I looked at each other grinning, both thinking the same thing — nailed it.
“It’s called jachnun. It’s a typical Yemenite pastry which we eat on Shabbat. You can get it at that cafe on the corner.”
We thanked our friends and ambled off, giddy with anticipation. As we did they called out from behind us, “and when you go you have to ask for the perfect bite!”
There it is, the open cafe, a beacon of hope for two hungry, sun-torched travelers. We ordered the jachnun, still unaware of what it really was — “and, uh, can you please give us the perfect bite?”
The two guys working the counter smiled and put the plate together while we took a small, tiled table outside in the sunlight.
The dish arrived, what looked almost like the tail of an animal made of dough, next to a hard-boiled egg, some red tomato salsa and pickles. Looks good to me!
Jachnun is made of rolled up dough that’s been brushed with butter and spices and cooked overnight in a smoked vessel — the jacknun is then baked or steamed, which gives it a sweet, smokey, chewy texture and taste.
“You have to cut the jachnun and eat it with a bite of egg and salsa,” the server told us. “That’s the perfect bite.”
It was unlike anything I’ve ever had.
I eat meat regularly at home, but in Israel, I swear I could go days without meat and not even notice. Everything else is so damn good. Jachnun is no exception.
I was moments away from passing those two lovely humans without saying a word. It was the four of us in an empty marketplace; my heart told me to ask, speak up, take a chance; the rational mind nearly succumbed to the trepidation.
Within that split second of action versus inaction, I took a chance and gained a lifelong memory. The choice is always there.
Speak up. Be a friend to a stranger. Smile. Ask. You never know what will come from acting on your heart’s request.
In typical Israeli fashion, when I did so, I was greeted by the warmth of strangers who shared a unique taste of their culture and home, something I doubt I would have found by wandering the streets hoping to find an open restaurant on my phone.
This is the spirit of Tel Aviv, a city that will forever maintain a special place in my heart: warm, open, caring, joyful — baked and drizzled with honey and spices.