The Best Hummus I’ve Ever Eaten and Other Stories from Jerusalem. A Vegetarian Journey Through Israel – Part 1

by Sala @ Veggie Belly on February 10, 2012

When I left for Israel late last year, I had no idea I would return so in love with the cuisine of this country. The fresh fruits and vegetables, amazing range of grains, and the huge markets are a vegetarian’s paradise.  Israel will easily rank in the top 5 of my best countries for vegetarians list.

The incredibly talented pastry chef cum food guide, Ariella Amshallem took me on a food tour of Jerusalem’s famous Mahane Yehuda market where many of these photos were taken. Ari is a vegetarian herself, and has tons of recipes on her blog, Ari Cooks. If you are ever in Israel, do not miss the interesting and fun food tours that Ari and her friends offer.

Making Pita Bread with Hassan

Hassan’s Pitot bakery is on Agrippas st, near the famous Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. It is a little, unassuming store front that you could easily pass by without noticing.  But I’m so glad I did, thanks to my guide Ari, because Hassan’s breads are so fresh and so tasty.

Not only are his breads so good, Hassan himself is such a warm and friendly person. He invited me into his kitchen, showed me how he makes his different breads and spoke passionately about his methods and recipes. Hassan also allowed me to spend several hours in his little shop, even letting me try my hand at the bread; mine turned out ameboid and misshapen, lol!

See the two holes in the background? Hassan bakes his bread in there. They are charcoal ovens lined with metal and are round and cavernous. “Like a mother’s womb”, Hassan explained. Interestingly, they call these ovens ‘tannoor’. In India we call them ‘tandoor’!

I  asked Hassan what’s the trick to his superb bread. He said it was his ‘old’ starter dough. He calls his dough ‘old’ because the very first dough was made in 1985. Since then, every day, Hassan saves a piece of the previous day’s dough and incorporates it into to the next day’s dough. This way, he explained, the dough has been ‘continuous’ for the past 27 years. The very first dough he made had some yeast in it. But since then he has never used yeast in his daily dough. Yet, the method of continuing the old dough gives his breads a mild yeasted quality.

Hassan comes from a line of bakers who make traditional Arab breads.  He is from Ramallah, a Palestinian city in Israel. He works hard, rising at 5am and often working late into the night. Hassan and his assistant Tzion make fresh dough every day using half white flour, half wheat flour, water and salt (plus some of the previous day’s dough).

Then they churn out dozens and dozens of large, round pita bread – pleasantly chewy and beautifully cooked in his charcoal oven. They then either dust the bread with black and white sesame seeds, or zaatar (and common Middle Eastern condiment make from sesame seeds, sumac and powdered hyssop or thyme).

For beautiful photos documenting Hassan at work, check out Casperit’s photos on flickr.

Hanukkah Donuts Like You’ve Never Seen Before

Israelis have elevated the donut to an art form. After experiencing the Hanukkah donut, I will never look at a donut the same way again. Hanukkah is an eight day Jewish festival of lights. Israelis eat donuts (sufganiyot) and other deep fried items during hanukkah.

I was lucky enough to be in Israel during Hanukkah and sample some amazing donuts. It was difficult to choose because they came in so many flavors and with hundreds of fancy filling.

During Hanukkah, donut shops were over flowing with people. This man loving selects his donuts :)

My favorites were the ones that came with an injectable syringe filled with sauce! What a cool idea! This one was a chocolate and vanilla custard donut. The syringe had a chocolate espresso sauce in it.

These donuts at the mahane yehuda market were the ‘regular’ type with a jam or jelly filling.

The Best Hummus I’ve Ever Eaten

I am crazy about hummus. I ate so much hummus in Israel, it was coming out of my ears! I wiped down plates and plates of luscious, creamy hummus with soft, puffy pita bread. Finally, I found it..the best hummus I’ve ever had..

It was in a humble little restaurant called Rachmo at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. This Kurdish-Iraqi restaurant serves up hearty dishes (tons of vegetarian options!) and the best hummus I’ve ever had.

The hummus at Rachmo was rich, silky and just exquisite. It had just the right amount of salt and lemon. And it was obvious that the restaurant is generous with the tahini (sesame paste) in its hummus lending it the creamiest mouth feel.

Above: the hearty vegetarian meal that my food guide Ari and I shared at Rachmo. Cabbage stuffed with rice and cooked in tomato and paprika sauce, pickles, hummus and pita bread.

A Vegetarian Meal with my Jerusalem Hosts Smadar & Eran

When I travel, I try to couch surf as much as I can. Couch surfing is a (not for profit) network that connects travelers with locals. You can sign up for couch surfing to host and be hosted.

I have hosted travelers in my house in the US many times and I’ve also stayed with couch surfers in their homes in other countries when I’m traveling. There is no money involved – the goal of couch surfing is cultural exchange.  (Yes, couch surfing is safe. Read their safety philosophy).

I have stayed with couch surfing hosts in Latvia, Norway, Fiji, Israel, Argentina, and other countries. Each experience has been unique, and eye opening. By staying with a local person or family, you get a perspective that you otherwise won’t get sitting in a hotel room. In other words, you get more of a non-touristy, realistic experience of a country, which I love.

In Jerusalem, I stayed with a young couple via couch surfing. Smadar and Eran were kind and generous hosts and I learned a lot from them about Israeli life, food and culture. Like many Israelis, Smadar and Eran are very health conscious and eat light, fresh meals incorporating a lot of vegetables.

On the last night of Hanukkah, Eran made us a gorgeous salad with sumac for dinner. Sumac is a deep red, tangy tasting powdered spice. We had the salad with multi grain bread and cheese. The salad was light, yet satisfying and a wonderful reminder that even the simplest of meals can turn into a memorable one when you eat it with good people and good conversation.

After the sumac salad, we finished our Hanukkah meal with the customary Hanukkah donut. This one came with an injectable syringe filled with raspberry sauce. Eran and Smadar’s cat Cashew, inspects my donut above!

Eran’s Sumac Salad Recipe

For the salad
Arugula leaves
Other salad greens of your choice
Cucumbers, cubed
Red onion, sliced into rings
Mushrooms, sliced thin
Canned sweet corn, drained
Olives
Fresh mozzarella balls

For the dressing
Olive oil
Lemon juice
Sumac (substitute with lemon zest or cumin powder)
Salt & Pepper

Place all salad ingredients in a bowl. Eran eyeballed all the ingredients, so this isn’t an exact recipe. Add whatever vegetables you like to use in a salad.

Whisk together the dressing ingredients in a small bowl. Mix it up to your taste. I generally use 4 tablespoons olive oil + 2 tablespoons lemon juice and a pinch of sumac. If you like your dressing on the sweeter side, add ½ to 1 teaspoon of sugar.

Pour the dressing over the salad, toss and serve immediately.

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Comments

comments

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jaya February 10, 2012 at 3:54 am

The pictures are gorgeous and the bread looks absolutely delectably sinfully great! Am soo envious of you that you get to follow your hobby to such a great extent and do it such perfect justice! Excellent post and pictures as always and can’t wait for more!!

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2 Rosa February 10, 2012 at 4:21 am

Wow, what gorgeous food! The breads look particularly amazing. What a lovely salad! Now, my stomach is rumbling.

Cheers,

Rosa

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3 shruti | a spoonful of yumm February 10, 2012 at 5:53 am

i enjoyed reading every bit of it. great post !

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4 Olga @ MangoTomato February 10, 2012 at 9:51 am

I’m so glad you loved Israel: I’ve been there twice and share your sentiments about the people and the food and the culture.

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5 sandhya@vegetarianirvana February 10, 2012 at 10:02 am

I love visiting the ‘real places’ like bakeries, tea shops, markets etc where everyday life happens in countries I visit. Love your Jerusalem diary like all your other travel ones.

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6 Nupur February 10, 2012 at 10:06 am

Sala- wonderful post- I enjoyed going on this virtual food journey with you!

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7 Andrea (@FrSeed2Stomach) February 10, 2012 at 10:27 am

I officially want to go to Israel

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8 mythili February 10, 2012 at 10:30 am

I felt like I was wandering in the markets if Jerusalem reading your account. Very well articulated and thanks!!

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9 Viswa February 10, 2012 at 10:59 am

I can see myself living through the experience through your post. Beautiful

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10 Michelle February 10, 2012 at 11:11 am

Great pics Sala !! I loved reading every single word in your post today ..Can’t wait to see the recipe for the great hummus.Cashew inspecting the donut is just awesome :)

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11 Michelle February 10, 2012 at 11:43 am

Oh wow! It looks like such a wonderful (and delicious) place. Those donuts look stellar!

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12 Katherine Martinelli February 10, 2012 at 1:15 pm

What a great post! And gorgeous photos. I’m so bummed that I missed you when you were here, but it looks like Ariella took good care of you :-) So glad that you had such a wonderful experience and were really able to experience Israeli food!

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13 Prerna@IndianSimmer February 10, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Oh wow, Hassan’s bread story is the coolest thing ever! I mean starter 27 years old? Talk about history and traditions :-)
I am sure you have had a great time roaming the streets of Israel and must have spread love all along the way like you always do. Lovely post!

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14 Anna @ The Guiltless Life February 10, 2012 at 2:19 pm

I have heard a lot about couch surfing and it’s been recommended to me many times. I’m glad to hear from someone that has had such positive experiences doing it!

As for the best hummus ever, yay! I have always found that no two hummuses are alike. Personally I love chunky hummus and have found that hummus with a more obvious presence of herbs in is tastier to me. Your trip looks fabulous, I love the photo of the kitty with the doughnut!

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15 Happy Cook / Finla February 10, 2012 at 3:05 pm

I wish i could do the same too, but still enjoyed reading this post and the pictures.

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16 aarthi February 11, 2012 at 7:41 am

very interesting post….Nice salad..

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17 Siri February 11, 2012 at 9:43 am

Beautiful pictures Sala. Each one of them transported me to Jerusalem. Love the hummus and feel like having some right now! :D

Hugs,
Siri

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18 Jessi@slotheatz February 11, 2012 at 10:17 am

Just found your blog, it’s amazing. You’re pictures are so beautiful!! I’m saving up to take a trip like this, just travel around and eat the most authentic food made by the most passionate people. You’ve definitely got a new follower =)

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19 Miriam Kresh February 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I loved this post. It was absolutely faithful to the atmosphere in Machane Yehudah, and the portraits are unforgettable. You have my admiration! And now I got hungry for a fresh pitta, too…

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20 Magda's Cauldron February 11, 2012 at 4:21 pm

I have just made donuts last week. In Poland we eat a lot of them during Fat Thursday. The most popular would be jam filling. When I was researching them I found out that they popular during Hanukah. World is so small :)

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21 Shil February 11, 2012 at 7:54 pm

I loved the pictures and your description of Israel …Wish I could go now..

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22 nags February 11, 2012 at 8:56 pm

what a lovely picture-story. thanks for sharing, Sala :)

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23 Ana February 12, 2012 at 1:16 am

This took me back to my childhood growing up in the middle east eating freshly baked hot Quboos ( pita bread) with a generous serving of zattar. Those bags heaped with bread just make me miss it so much!

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24 pavithra February 12, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Beautiful post Sala, loved everything about this post and I always love visiting these kinda places. Have heard about ‘couch surfing’ but it was nice to know more from you. Beautiful meal by the way.

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25 manasi February 12, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Wonderful post, Sala. The pictures are awesome, as usual, a wonderful food journey.

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26 The Cozy Herbivore February 12, 2012 at 7:02 pm

Oh wow, looks like you had such a wonderful trip! Those bread pictures had me wiping drool from my mouth. And that hummus! I’m so glad you had such a good experience,the food looks so fresh and bountiful!

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27 Vijitha February 12, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Hey Sala
Gorgeous clicks and I am hoping to tag behind my husband during his trips to Tel Aviv. I wish I would see the place the way you did. Oh! Israel through lens is so beautiful. Will mail when we plan for the trip this Aug/Sep (guess that’s their festival season?). Loved the cute picture of the cat.

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28 Radhika | Just Home Made February 12, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Sala, What a fantastic read this was – a food story of Israel through your lens and to learn of the many vegetarian options from there..
Couch surfing though novel to me, sounds so interesting for a non-touristy insight into a foreign place!
Lady, you are living a travel life of our dreams!

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29 Sarah February 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm

So glad you enjoyed Jerusalem with Ariella. Mahane Yehuda is an incredible place and it looks like you found the tastiest parts.

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30 Soma February 14, 2012 at 7:05 pm

This is a treasure post :) really loved reading through this journey and all the photographs. Thanks much Sala.

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31 Janie February 14, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Hey Sala
I am enjoying your blog- the recipees and the beautiful photography.
Hoda’s restaurant on Belmont (at about 35th st) has amazing humus and a vegetarian mezza that is really good plus all the freshly baked pita you can eat.

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Sala @ Veggie Belly Reply:

In Portland?! Thats fantastic! I’ll check it out, thanks for the tip :)

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32 Tanya March 21, 2012 at 6:14 pm

What an excellent post! I’m Kurdish myself (from Sweden) I call myself. Will make sure I visit Israel some time!

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33 Joann April 7, 2012 at 12:11 am

Lovely pictures. I found your blog searching for vegetarian cooking ideas. I like that you are mixing travel along with your food experiences. I seem to remember the food from all the places I’ve, traveled more than some of the tourist things.

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34 Emi Reiner April 9, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Every time I surf the web, I’m amazed at the amazing talent that is out there – your photos, food, travel adventures – amazing! Thank you.

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Sala @ Veggie Belly Reply:

thankyou :)

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35 Akhila S April 21, 2012 at 1:36 pm

“WOW” are the only 3 letter, I could utter after going through your post. This is my first comment on you blog as I have been a silent follower. But, when there is a food and travel, the posts interests me all the more. Your veggie trip across america, was another masterpiece. It was such a fun filled joyous post, that I went so speechless, that I couldn’t leave a comment :)
All the best Gal!
I have made a note to read these posts again and write to you, when I plan to travel to that part of the world :)

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36 sam June 19, 2012 at 6:44 am

RACHMO is my favorite favorite favorite favorite! Every time I’m in Israel its all I can talk about until I get to go! My fav dish there is Kube soup (not veg– and one of my few meat indulgences), which is basically a beet based soup with vegetables dumplings called Kube (ku-beh)…. aka if a matzah ball and a meatball got married and had the most. delicious. baby. ever. Their hummus, obviously, is also insanely good. :) I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon your post singing the praises of my fav little restaurant!!

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