“Hashuk” – Jerusalem’s Open Air Market

Selection of olives, Machane Yehuda Market, Israel

For many American foodies, the farm-to-table movement – and the ethic of slow, thoughtful, blissful eating that comes along with it – is inextricably associated with the good old USA. We grow our own vegetables in the cool overabundant mountains of Vermont or the wide-open red rock of Santa Fe or the rain-soaked greenness of the Pacific Northwest; we chop fresh-picked jalapenos into cornbread, and slice apples into simple butter pie crust for the quintessential American dessert. Our attitudes around food are often anchored in American growing seasons, landscapes, crops, habits, tastes.

But we Americans don’t have a monopoly on good eating, as I learned to my delight when I moved to Jerusalem this past year. Like so many locales around the globe, this city has its own rapturous food culture – as Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi have made clear in their gorgeous Jerusalem cookbook, Jerusalem is overflowing with a love of high-quality ingredients, a respect for old recipes, and a dizzying variety of manners and rituals that elevate ordinary meals towards greatness.

In particular, the produce available here is some of the finest in the world: mostly local, fresh to a fault, and utterly bound by the seasons. Heaps of artichokes rear their spiky heads, ribbed in purple and only pennies each, in every bodega one week; the next week, they’re nowhere to be found. Pomegranates and figs burst joyfully from the shelves, but try to seek out Brussels sprouts, spinach, or other cold-weather greens and you’ll find yourself in a desperate search around every specialty store in the city.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Mahane Yehuda,  a labyrinthine open-air bazaar known to locals as simply “hashuk” (“the market”). It’s a sprawling feast for the senses, so overwhelming on my first visit that I had to stop in a corner and take a few deep breaths. The air is full of sound – shopkeepers yelling prices and epithets at the top of their lungs, children wheedling their parents for one more chocolate rugelach, food lovers discussing favorite dishes in every conceivable language, old men singing Jewish liturgical tunes and reminiscing at smoky bars. The air smells like good pickles and fish and eggy challah bread. And, best of all, almost anything is open for sampling. On a hungry afternoon, one can walk from vendor to vendor, sneaking salty roasted fava beans, slivers of baklava, tangy olives marinated with half-moons of preserved lemon. This is not stealing; this is standard practice, and you quickly begin to cherish knowing exactly what your food tastes like before you buy it.

All this indulgence takes place on my way to the real star, the Iraqi Shuk, the well-hidden corner that boasts the cheapest and best produce in the city. There’s very little tasting there, because few things are small and portable enough to be sampled. But the colors, forest green and garnet and orange and chartreuse and royal purple, are themselves a pleasure – not to mention a spur to the imagination. One glance at those fat eggplants, and it’s impossible not to picture them baked until charred and crispy, drizzled with a light sauce of shredded parsley and minced garlic and cracked pepper. The huge slabs of winter squash look like they could be soup very soon. The tomatoes and the cucumbers could make a classic Israeli salad, chopped into delicate cubes and tossed with za’atar and good olive oil. Many of the vegetables have little cracks or bulges or blemishes, a welcome indication of integrity; their sun-kissed look and luscious aroma put supermarket produce to shame.

The whole Machane Yehuda experience is not so different from the best of the American farmers’ markets, only bigger in size, less pretentious, and boasting a palette of flavors all its own. It’s the rich Israeli food culture in miniature. Anyone who goes to Jerusalem really should come here, and buy a wild plethora of produce and some goat cheese and a good bottle of wine, and then whip it all up into a fabulous dinner. And be sure to invite plenty of guests – they’ll be thrilled to share in the bounty.

Sarah Marx first fell in love with good, fresh, sustainable food in a small community garden in Washington, DC; she's been a vegetable farmer and avid home cook ever since. A recent graduate of St. John's College, she's currently based in Jerusalem, where she works as a freelance writer and studies classical Jewish texts. In her spare time, she likes to climb mountains and drink dark beer.

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