Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda Market is a literal feast for the senses. Visitors to this outdoor market, or shuk in local parlance, are greeted with the vibrant colors of fresh produce, the guttural sounds of vendors yelling competing prices to passersby, the wafting smells of whatever is in season, and the tastes of rich halva, warm borekas, comforting stews and sweet tropical fruits. If you are a food lover, then a trip to Israel is hardly complete without a stop here.
Farmers’ markets may be the current international food fad, but Machane Yehuda has had a hundred year head start on the modern trend. Founded in the late nineteenth century as an alternative to the crowded markets of the Old City, the shuk has gone through a few iterations before becoming the tourist destination it is today. Originally named Shuk Beit Yaakov, in the early years the market was an unsanitary and chaotic jumble of people hawking their wares. The British cleaned it up and added permanent stalls and roofing in the 1920s, and it didn’t undergo another renovation until the early 2000s, by which time it desperately needed a facelift.
Today Machane Yehuda, also nicknamed machne, is one of the biggest and most visited food markets in Israel. Janne Gur, cookbook author and editor of Israel’s top food magazine, Al Hashulchan, says that the shuk is “very central and everyone goes to the market; if you go on a Friday morning or Thursday evening you’ll meet everyone there: judges, Knesset members… It’s an iconic place for Jerusalemites. It’s much more than a place to shop for food.”
Of course, markets are a part of Israeli life and Machane Yehuda is only one of many shuks. Every city has its own market with its own personality and character. The Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, the shuk in the old city of Akko, and the Ramle shuk are other favorites, but there are countless options. They sell only seasonal produce (a mango in winter is practically unheard of, for example) and while most of the offerings are similar from shuk to shuk, slight variations can be found.
But most would agree that Machane Yehuda is special. The market is home to many of the same stalls and restaurants that have been there for decades, and there is also a new wave of boutique food, clothing, and jewelry shops that are bringing in tourists and trendy locals. Jerusalem chef Michael Katz of Colony and Adom restaurants says, “I have known the Machane Yehuda market since I was a kid… The market has changed dramatically from a market that was a market – a place where you negotiate and bargain and usually you come to save a few pennies – to a trendy place that is…under the camouflage of a market.”
London-based chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi also grew up in Jerusalem and has noticed a shift. “The shuk kept its general spirit,” he wrote in an email, “though there are many more trendy places aimed for a younger and more affluent crowd. On balance, it is probably a bit less authentic than it used to be and serves fewer people’s real daily needs compared to 20 or 30 years ago (supermarket and shopping malls have become more numerous) but it is still a real market, not a showcase like many farmers’ markets tend to be.”
Ottolenghi’s famous endeavor, Jerusalem: A Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2012), is an ode to his hometown, including the market. “Restaurants in the shuk serve some of the most delicious food in town,” he notes, “but also food that accurately represents many of the Jewish communities that make up this city. There are traditional places where the dishes are prepared exactly as they used to be prepared in the homes of Jews from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and lots of other diaspora. There is a real sense of a national culinary memory in the shuk and this inspired many of the dishes in the book.” It’s hard to visit Machane Yehuda and not be inspired. Here, the flavors of the Mediterranean and the Middle East intersect and are available through incredible local ingredients. Pick up the best tahini made from 100% ground sesame seeds, the most incredible spice mixes from around the world, intoxicating date honey, fluffy pita bread, and creamy local cheeses, not to mention the freshest produce imaginable.The following recipes have been inspired by countless trips to the shuk. Hopefully one bite will transport you.
Bring the streets of Jerusalem into your home with these recipes.