Tables are stacked with luscious produce: strawberries, pomegranates, tomatoes, mangoes and melons, giant carrots, and grapes the size of small plums. (If you’re looking for a great deal, fruit and vegetable prices plummet to rock bottom at the end of the day when the storekeepers are about to close up shop.)
The vendors can be just as colorful as the products they sell. They call out their specials to passersby: some good-natured or flirtatious, others with a more aggressive sales pitch. A few venture into the alleyways with sample trays of baked goods and halvah (a confection of crushed sesame seeds) for potential customers. Shoppers, too, are fascinating to watch. Orthodox Jewish men with black hats and side-curls mingle with housewives and young men and women dressed in army fatigues.
My first trip to the shuk was on a Friday afternoon before Shabbat, probably the busiest buying day of the week. As I tried to wriggle myself down the aisles between the sea of shoppers, I felt slightly overwhelmed. After purchasing a bag of cashews and a jar of date honey, that’s as much shopping as I could sustain. No doubt about it, regular shoppers to the shuk on Friday have to have stamina!
But if you feel the need for some instant energy, you’ll find stands in the shuk selling Israel’s version of fast food—the falafel, made of deep-fried balls of seasoned ground chickpeas, stuffed into an opened pita along with an endless choice of toppings (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, pickles, black olives, cabbage), slathered with hummus, and squirted with a good dose of tahina sauce made from ground sesame seeds. The falafel vendor will even ask if you’d like french fries to top it all off. How to get your mouth around the gigantic assembly is one of Israel’s best kept secrets. But don’t even think of using a fork!
Shopping is also thirsty work, especially in the summer, so stopping at a stand that specializes in fresh fruit juice is a good choice. A juice vendor will custom-make a drink to your specifications with prices ranging from a mere 5 shekels to 15 shekels—depending on the busyness of his day. Bananas, apples, oranges, lemons and limes, pomegranates, mangoes, passion fruit—let your imagination run wild and mix and match. No matter the combination, the drink is nothing short of ambrosial. You may even get a marriage proposal in the bargain!
My next major shopping trip to the shuk was much more sedate, this time on a Wednesday morning. Fortified by a recent tour of the shuk with Jerusalem chef Tali Friedman, my two friends and I felt quite sure we could tackle the intricacies of the market on our own. It was an experience to savor as we wandered from stall to stall.
There were vendors who sold only halvah in an infinite variety of flavors. Tables in spice shops were piled high with dark red cones of paprika, while the floors were lined with bags of colorful spices from around the world. Cheese shops abound; one owner claims to know 1,500 different cheeses with his eyes blindfolded, and even knows what the cow or goat ate the day before it was milked! I’ve never tasted cheddar quite as outstanding as the one from the fromagerie in the shuk. We splurged and bought six savory cheeses and one desert cheese that tasted like an incredible creamy caramel with chutzpah—boldness with an attitude!
At one of the fish shops, the fishmonger good-naturedly swooped a large fish out of the cooler for our cameras, complete with a bright red pomegranate (or was it an apple?) in its gaping maw. Our next stop was a bakery specializing in delicate and savory bourekas, warm pastries filled with spinach and cheese; then on to a tiny shop with different varieties of olives from around the Mediterranean. Olive-lovers that we are, we sampled them all.
Laden with bags filled with spice mixes, teas, chunks of dried coconut and homemade granola, cheese, pastries, and fruit, we finally sat down at a sidewalk café and toasted a satisfying morning of shopping with cappuccinos and ripe, red strawberries. Candy and nut shops, clothing and housewares, falafel and shawarma (pita with meat and fillings) stands, juice bars, bakeries, and cafés—all can be found in the city blocks that comprise Jerusalem’s amazing open-air market. Unlike the commonplace weekly trips to the neighborhood grocery store, shopping at the shuk is a remarkable feast for the senses.
Source: By Kathy DeGagné, Graphic Designer
Photo Credit: Kathy DeGagné/ Bridges for Peace
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