Friday, December 25, 2009

Simple Fare

The mass expulsion of Jews from Arab countries in retaliation for Israel having the audacity to win the 1948 war was a great tragedy for hundreds of thousands of people. It also presented both a tremendous challenge and a tremendous opportunity to the Zionists who, with limited resources, found themselves having to resettle the refuges. I am one of those who think that while any peace deal must include reparations for Palestinians expelled from Israel to compensate for lost property and pay for resettlement, the same should be true for Jews thrown out of numerous Arab countries.

However, the nakba for Mizrachi Jews also provided Israel with a plethora of culinary delights. Tucked into Tel Aviv and other cities and towns in Israel are eateries, both large and grand and small and unpretentious (we, of course, prefer the latter) serving dishes just like your Grandmother would make. If, of course, your Grandmother came from Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Syria or some other sun and fun spot in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula or points East.

Liz and I recently revisited one such establishment and followed our noses to find a new one. Both are in Tel Aviv, both are inexpensive and, for those who care, both are kosher.

Tucked into a corner shop in the Yemenite Quarter is Simon's Soup (מרק שמון). We timed our arrival for mid-afternoon to finish shopping and avoid the lunch rush while still making certain to get there well before the posted 4pm closing time (the staff will close whenever the soup runs out or they just decide that enough is enough). This got us an outside table on the corner of the recently repaved (with bricks not blacktop) Yehyeh Kapah and Malan Streets. So we sat in the warm sun, breathing the mix of soup spices and kerosene wafting from Simon's kitchen with the occasional dollop of carbon monoxide from the vehicles passing by.

The Quarter's streets were first built in the days when vehicular traffic consisted mostly of donkey carts and camels. So Liz, who sat with her back to the street so as not to have to look straight into the sun, barely budged when the motor scooter zipped past. My view, with the restaurant to my back, was to watch the scooter go from my right to my left. Then, as if on some cue from a silent film director, a taxicab rolled past in the opposite direction, barely squeezing between Liz and the diner sitting at a table on the opposite side of Kapah Street.

A few minutes later, a small truck, coming this time from my right, pulled to a stop so the driver could consider the proximity of his side view mirror to Liz' head. I don't know what was happening on the other side of the truck but when it finally moved away I did notice that the diner sitting opposite Liz had moved her chair as far to the side of her table as she could. And, just when we were done being bemused at the first truck, along came the second, even larger, truck, inching its way between the tables, giving us lots of time to read the advertisement for fish, fruits and vegetables painted onto its side. Liz asked to be reminded, the next time we get this table (and there will be a next time), to sit on the Malan side to give the trucks more room. Malan has concrete columns intended to block cars and trucks from driving through a pair of restaurants on their way up to the shuk, while still giving easy access to scooters and pedestrians.

Simon's menu is straight forward. You order the soup. ((They also put out some bread (the variety and freshness of which depends on the time of day and day of the week), hilbeh (a gelatinous substance made from fenugreek that can be put in the soup or spread on the bread) and the ever present harif for those who like things very very hot.)) The soup is red and has all sorts of spices, a variety of chopped veggies and a chunk of potato. What you really order is the slab of meat that will sit in your soup. You can choose something cut off a cow such as steak (listed on the menu simply as "meat"), head, leg or udder or a chicken (usually dark meat, but you never know).

Liz, being more adventurous than I, has been working her way through the menu. (Last winter, she discovered what the Hebrew word בז (pronounced "Biz", rhymes with "Liz") on the menu meant when our waitress, convinced that we did not understand when she said "teets", grabbed her own breasts and said "these". Liz insisted that I use the more polite and anatomically correct term "udder" in this blog.) This time she ordered the head soup. And that's what she got, pieces of cow head including some tongue which was cooked to perfection. The restaurant removed things like skull bone, teeth and eyeballs before serving the soup. I haven't a clue if that was true before they cooked the soup. If you walk around the meat stalls in any shuk you can see a variety of heads from an assortment of domesticated animals, teeth, tongue and all, for sale and draw your own conclusions. Or ask your Yemenite Grandmother how she does it.

I had the steak. And, as always, just as you've made your way through a bowl of soup that is a meal in itself, the waiter comes out with a pot and asks if you want more soup. Say yes and you get your bowl refilled but test the soup first. The new batch is very hot, fresh off the kerosene stove.

A couple of days later, Liz and I found ourselves with errands that needed doing. She needed to get to her hairdresser's to schedule a session in time for next week's wedding (hopefully with Udi, her favorite stylist) and I needed to find one of those round batteries, this one to fit the bathroom scale. So we went for a walk, at first along the beach (I think I've mentioned the beach) and then inland to Ben Yehuda Street above Arlozorov, our old neighborhood, to reach Avi Malka and the really good housewares and hardware store (I don't know the name, I just know its on the east side of Ben Yehuda just north of Arlozorov).

Missions successfully accomplished (though Udi has moved to another establishment), Liz suggested we have a late lunch (or early dinner) at a new place that opened next to the Deborah Hotel, just north of Gordon on Ben Yehuda. Liz, in earlier trips to this part of town, was attracted to Odelia (אודלה) by the smell and by the fact that it always seemed to be crowded. Odelia offers Tripolitan food, either at its tables or for take away. Once again, just like Grandma would make, but this time you'll need a Grandma from Libya. Unlike Simon's Soup, which is off the beaten tourist track, Odelia is right in the center of Tel Aviv's hotel/restaurant strip. The Deborah Hotel is used by Birthright Israel, among other major tour groups. But today the place was filled with locals who know a good, inexpensive meal when they smell one.

Tripolitan food is serious workers' food. You start with a base of starch. There are about a dozen variations on humous. Every entree comes with a choice of couscous, rice or mejedara (spiced rice and lentils). Onto this the chef dumps whatever mix of veggies with meat or fish you have ordered. We (that is to say Liz) ordered the mafrum (מפרום - mystery meat baked on a layer of potato or eggplant but she knew that I would want to satiate my meat and potato Jones) and Chraime (חריימי - a fish cooked in a spicy red sauce). The mafrum had to come on the classic couscous because it had to. I asked for mejedara under the fish because I really like mejedara but the waitress told me to have the rice since the fish would be spicy enough. I went with her instruction (suggestion is just too weak a word to describe conversations with Hebrew speakers) and she was right. The rice soaked up the fish sauce and the spice level was just right. I'll get the mejedara under chicken kabob on the next trip.

Until now our favorite Tripolitan food has been found at Gueta in Jaffa. Gueta is still a place you must try (last time we were there the owner still displayed the large poster of his Grandmother who appears to be chained to a stove). But Odelia is of equally high quality and, for us, an easy walk from the apartment. Liz asked whose mafrum I liked better. I said I could not easily answer that question. Both are delicious though Odelia's is less greasy. However, to really be fair, we have no choice other than multiple tastings, alternating between the two restaurants, before attempting to answer a question of such moment. After all, as in all things Jewish, it's how you make the journey and not it's completion, that counts.

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