Come for the food, stay for the people
Nazareth food tour
Text by Veronica Yudkevich & Yahav Bar Yosef
Photographs by Veronica Yudkevich
After spending my teens in Nazareth Illit, I do not see Nazareth as an exotic or new destination, but not transparent either, and always appealing. I feel that I haven’t yet figured this city out, layered and complex as it is. Perhaps that is also due to the language barrier; not knowing enough Arabic always leaves me with a sense that something remains hidden from me, unfathomable.
So on a winter Friday I joined Matkonation’s food tour, to get to know the city a little better through my stomach. Danya (who photographed Dokhol Safadi and Michal Waxman’s book, Baladi) and Deanna fell in love with Nazareth a few years ago, and since then they keep coming back to sample its treats and to share with others its culinary secrets. They have a genuine understanding and appreciation of the local food traditions, and I’m grateful to discover through their eyes everything tasty, interesting, and unique that Nazareth has to offer.
Our sampling tour weaves through the streets and alleys of Nazareth, visiting, on one hand, the old and well-known establishments like El-Babour and Ziad Safadi’s grocery shop. At the former don’t skip the machine room from the beginning of the previous century, with conveyor belts and wooden crates that were powered by a steam engine, which also gave the place its name. Carts bringing fare from the neighbouring villages stood in line, animals quenched their thirst at the well, while the drivers from Kafr Kana, Kafr Manda, Reineh, and Iksal spent the waiting time in a small den that is still there.
On the other hand, new places are springing up, like Almahdi Sweets, one of the few I saw that has succeeded in merging a contemporary design statement with tradition, making it a great stop for a cardamom coffee with a little pastry.
El-Mashhadawi bakery is another must-stop opened a couple of years ago, displaying fares I haven’t seen before, like the crispy ‘karakish’ cookies with sesame and anise that the poor used to bake for Ramadan and stamped, lightly sweetened pitas with anise; two minutes in a toaster and a little butter make them a perfect sinful pleasure.
We arrive at the market. Even though many improvements have been made in the infrastructure and restoration, the revival that has hit old Jaffa and signs of which are seen in Akko, seems to be eluding Nazareth. All those closed shops hidden behind metal bars are a sad picture, and I can’t help thinking I’m walking in a ‘sleeping beauty’ kingdom. Up until a few decades ago the market was brimming with life; people from all around Nazareth came to shop here for food, (there was even a Jewish butcher who abided by the laws of Kashrut), wedding dresses, and jewellery, and to fix kerosene stoves. Then the customers migrated to the shopping malls, and today the elderly shop owners open their shops for a few hours, mainly to meet friends and spend a couple of hours together in a place that still means the world to them.
In one shoe store time seems to stand still. Shoes that were in vogue in 1979 are displayed on the shelves with a layer of dust covering them, as though preserving them all those years. At the entrance I meet the owner who immediately engages me in conversation. His name is Simon, he’s 87 years old and the shoe store, inherited from his father, is apparently the oldest in the market, established in 1930. Simon tells me about his wife who passed away, his daughters, the market, and his daily regimen, the inactive shop that he comes to every day to play backgammon with friends and, I think, maybe to catch a wandering passerby for a chat every now and then. I find his story fascinating; unwillingly, I leave to continue with the group.
Abu-Salem’s cafe, operating since 1914, is another meeting place for elderly men from the neighbourhood. Gathered in the large inner room, chock-full of smoke, they play backgammon and sometimes cards from the morning till noon, have a break for lunch and return to play again. To the right of the entrance, where the smell of cinnamon reigns, stands Abu-Amir, a handsome, meticulously dressed man in his 70s, a former teacher. He makes us a well-timed, hot, cinnamon tea served in transparent glasses, over which he sprinkles crushed walnuts.
On a Saturday morning three weeks later I’m back with my family to savor Nazareth yet again, to wander through the little streets with my mother-in-law, who knows them like the palm of her hand and to try to find other familiar faces from the past. Ziad Safadi’s grocery store takes Hannah more than 50 years back, and she reminisces about how, every day she used to buy a small bag of roasted seeds or chickpeas while waiting for the bus to take her back to the ‘moshav’ (village) after a school day in Afula.
I find myself quite amazed at people’s openness and at the ease with which a conversation springs up. Led by the intoxicating aroma, we came to Fahoum Coffee Roasters (our family’s exclusive coffee supplier for more than 20 years). At the counter stood an elderly customer waiting for the young employee to pack his purchase. Not a minute goes by and we are in the midst of a moral story about a Chinese sage.
Before heading to the market, we make a detour at Miriam’s Well, which has retained its name although no water comes out of it. In Nazareth it is still an axis relative to which distances are measured, appointments are made and groups are assembled. While wolfing down the hot ‘arusa’ with chillies and preserved lemons from El-Zaim’s, we can’t help eavesdropping on a tourist guide telling about Nazareth’s underground world of caves and tunnels, most of which have not been charted or studied. Suddenly the sounds of music and singing draw us to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, where a group of Ethiopian Christians garbed all in white are dancing and singing meditative hymns.
At the market, not far from Simon’s shoe store we run into Camille Asfour, one of the owners of an old textile shop. Hannah, who for years used to buy yarn and fabrics from his shop, including the fabric for her wedding dress, spotted him and we stop for a chat. At first he doesn’t recognize her, but memory takes wing, bringing up stories that even Hannah has forgotten.
At the end of our tour we make a quick stop at an old souvenir shop, to replace a couple of broken Armenian plates. The elderly shop owner and his son, in his 50s, are eying us with a glassy stare: more tourists in their shop. But we’re of a chatty kind, and as everyone brings up their recollections from the past the gaze clears, stories are shared, and advice is given.
Nazareth has many faces; while it’s patiently waiting to be discovered, it’s pleasant and interesting to take a stroll through its streets, getting to know it by smelling, feeling, and tasting. Even more fascinating is meeting its welcoming elders, pausing for a while to revisit the past, and to hear stories that are only waiting for an invitation to be told.
Recommendations for Nazareth:
1. Almahdi Sweets (Al Beshara St. at the roundabout near the Basilica of the Annunciation) - for coffee, baklava, kanafeh, and pastries
2. Ziad Safadi’s grocery shop (Paulus 6th St) - for spices, labneh, tahini, olives
3. El-Mashhadawi bakery (Al Beshara St, close to Miriam’s Well) - for lightly sweetened pitas with anise, ‘karakish’ cookies, ‘fatayer’ pastry filled with greens
4. Diab Abbas fruits and vegetables (Al Beshara St. next to El-Babour) - for seasonal greens and veggies
5. El-Babour antique building and mill (Al Beshara St.) - for spices and freekeh
6. El-Zaim’s shish kebab (Miriam’s Well square) - for ‘arusa’ - grilled, kebab filled pita
7. Abu-Salem’s cafe (market) - for cinnamon and walnut tea
8. Fahoum Coffee Roasters (at the market, Paulus 6th St, Tawfiq Ziad St. near the mall) - for coffee beans
9. Abu-Ashraf (market) - for ‘qatayef’ - a Ramadan sweet dumpling served all year around
10. Imad hummus (Tawfiq Ziad St. near the mall) -for the best hummus