Saturday, October 18, 2014

Mahane Yehuda Market - Cooking Tour (Sukkot Activities)

Over the holiday season in Israel (September/October), there are many things to do all over Israel.  Although many Israelis go on vacations outside the country, many families have visitors during this time period.  In our circle of friends, a few families had parents and siblings visiting this year.  Some of the families were looking for activities that would make a suitable outing for a whole family with a wide range of ages.

Inside Mahane Yehuda
One of our friends suggested a walking/cooking tour of the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem.  This sounded like fun to us, so we agreed.  We wound up with four families participating, a total of 19 people on a beautiful October day during Hol Hamoed Sukkot.

There are several different companies that offer these types of tours but our organizer chose Abraham Tours, a group that operates its tours and its kitchen out of a hostel that adjoins the Mahane Yehuda market.  The company website offers a regular cooking tour on Tuesdays for 80 N.I.S. per person.  Since our tour was a private tour, the cost was somewhat higher - 130 N.I.S. (or about $42).

Mahane Yehuda is a bustling market that includes outdoor, partially covered areas as well as parts that are indoors.  Vendors sell fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, fish and many other items.  It can be quite crowded but it is almost always very lively.  Walking through the market anytime is a multi-sensory experience.  There are food aromas of many different types, the sounds of people haggling in different languages (though mostly Hebrew, with an array of different accents) and a wide-ranging mix of Israelis and tourists, religious and non-religious alike from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Our tour was set up as a guided tour through the market with stops to purchase a preset list of ingredients.  We would then take the ingredients back to the hostel kitchen and whip up a fresh, quintessentially Mideastern meal guided by an experienced chef/ tour leader and her colleague.

We had arranged to start at 9:30 a.m.  This meant leaving Ra'anana at about 7:45 a.m.  In heavy traffic, this drive can take longer than 1.5 hours but, for some reason, during Hol Hamoed Sukkot there was less traffic than usual.  We were at the market by 9 a.m. and even had time to grab a morning coffee before starting.

Our tour guide, an outgoing and friendly young woman, had grown up in the U.S. before moving to Israel.  Our group had opted to take the tour in English so there were no language issues.  We were provided with a fairly short introduction to the market and a bit of history about it.  We were then off on our shopping expedition.

For the next hour or so, we made our way through different parts of the market, stopping at various stalls to collect ingredients.  It was fairly early in the morning so it was not too crowded when we first started.  But it is a bit challenging to keep a group of 19 together, particularly when the group includes some younger children.  Mainly, this was a shopping trip rather than a guided tour of the market.  We picked up a few pointers along the way (like how to buy the perfect eggplant - look for one that is very light, we were told) and we stopped at some out of the way vendors who we may not have otherwise found (like the vendor whose booth consists mainly of products made with etrogs).  I confess that I sampled an etrog-qat-triple berry fruit concoction and it was quite good.

Along the way we picked up some really nice produce.  The fruits and vegetables were wonderfully fresh - much more tasty than many of the fruits and veggies that are available in Canada or the U.S. most of the year.  We were preparing an all vegetarian meal.  Along the way, we collected tomatoes, eggplant, cauliflower, kohlrabi,  kale, coriander leaves and many other items.  Our guide purchased all of the items and we all shared the schlepping back to the hostel.

By about 11:00 a.m. we made our way over to the hostel kitchen.  This was not a kitchen that would be confused with the film studio set for the Emeril cooking show.  Rather we were in the midst of an operating hostel, with hostel guests coming in and out of the kitchen.  There was a reasonably well equipped kitchen  and a decent amount of counter space.  There were a range of heavily used, cooking implements, pots and pans from many different backgrounds (much like the market itself).  But the emphasis here was on functionality rather than luxury or even convenience.  I also note that the kitchen is not kosher certified which is one of the main reasons that our group had opted for the vegetarian option.  There are probably a number of different groups that operate tours like this in strictly kosher kitchens but we compromised with this setup.

Putting together a full meal for twenty people in an hour and a half can be reasonably challenging.  Certainly it is something that my wife does regularly (with the assistance of her trusty sous-chef) but here we had lots of helpers.  The key is organization and our tour leader was quite organized.  She delegated tasks in an orderly fashion and in no time the kitchen was filled with the sounds of greens being washed, onions and garlic being chopped and other veggies sizzling on the stove.

Tomato Arugula Bryndza Cheese
The food was absolutely delicious.  All of the ingredients were very fresh.  The emphasis was on the Middle Eastern kitchen so we prepared a fairly healthy selection of aromatic culinary delights.

I'm not going to give away all of the tour secrets (we were provided with a full list of recipes at the end of the tour) but I think a bit of a look the menu should be fine.

This salad was quite tasty.  It featured cherry tomatoes, arugula and bryndza cheese (a feta-type cheese).  Fairly easy to put together.

Roasted Eggplant with Lemon Juice and Tehini
One of my personal favourites was the roasted eggplant dish.  Once again, the preparation was not particularly complicated.  It involved roasting a bunch of whole medium-sized eggplants and then peeling them and adding lemon juice, tahini, spices, feta cheese and olive oil.  The combination of the tastiness of these well chosen eggplants as well as the perfectly matched blend of spices made this a mouth-watering delicacy. 

We also prepared a roasted cauliflower dish, a middle eastern rice mixture, cooked with pre-mixed spices that we had picked up in the market and a fennel-kohlrabi-kale salad with mint leaves.  For dessert we prepared dates with walnuts, which was also a fairly healthy way to end the meal.

Green Shakshuka
One other main dish that we prepared was a green shakshuka featuring a mixture of pan cooked green vegetables that was then baked with strategically placed eggs and feta cheese.  The dish was a success both from an aesthetic point of view and for its taste.  It was also reasonably easy to make and seems like it would be a great dish to serve at a brunch (though brunches seem to be somewhat less common in Israel because of the six day work week).

Overall, I think all of the adults on the tour had more than enough food to eat and enjoyed most of the different dishes.  If some of the people were not thrilled with certain ingredients, for example coriander leaves or fennel (with its distinctive anise taste), there were enough other choices to still provide for a decent meal.

It probably would have been nice to have had an appropriately paired Israeli wine with the meal and maybe a nice fruit salad to go with the dates for dessert.  We could have also enjoyed a sampling of the Iraqi/Yemenite or other distinctive breads to accompany the tehini (instead of plain pita) and maybe we should have put together a big bowl of humus.  A fish dish of some sort might have also been interesting using one of the local fish.  We added in a couple of jars of green and red hot pepper sauce (Zhoug) that were not part of the menu and that we purchased separately to go with the tehini.  I personally enjoyed all of the dishes, other the fennel salad, which is just not my thing.  But some humus or fish would have added in a bit more protein.

Of course, some obscenely decadent chocolate souffle could have interested the kids but that would not have fit the Mideastern motif.  Not that my waistline would have necessarily benefited from that type of dish...

Unfortunately, for many of the kids that were with us, this was not a dream meal.  Some of them had a felafel or a shwarma after the meal in the market area.  Some were wondering when we were going to bring out the burgers and french fries during the meal.  But the kids still had fun on this trip, especially since there was a piano in the room, a billiards table and a few other activities to keep them busy (when they weren't helping with the cooking or cleaning up).  They enjoyed the socializing and sampling some of the items that we tasted as we walked through the market.

Overall, it was a fun activity and a great way to spend a day with some friends and family while the weather was still nice and just before the chaggim came to an end.  It also added some interesting dishes to our cooking repertoire which we hope to try at home soon.

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