Like most Middle East outdoor markets, Jerusalem’s main souk is the best source for produce, fish and meat. Fresh carcasses hang over the stalls, seafood is splayed on ice and mounds of fruit abound in every colour. The cramped overlapping stalls at Mahane Yehuda (Hebrew for the “Camp of Judah”) also sell bread, pastries, spices, hardware and household goods such as cleaning supplies and cookware.
Israeli street food – humus, falafel, schnitzel – has always been available at the market, to eat on the go as you shop. But recently the loud and crowded souk has also become a destination for going out: coffee shops, bars and some of the top restaurants in the city are interspersed throughout hundreds of stands in Mahane Yehuda.
Many among this new wave of chefs use the market location to make their menu seasonal, while others stick to their specialties, using the freshest ingredients surrounding them.
The hottest reservation – weeks in advance, these days – is for Machneyuda (a play on the spelling of the market’s name). The two-level restaurant with an open kitchen offers a changing menu with delicacies such as black risotto, lamb cannelloni, calamari and oxtail. Although the restaurant is not kosher, it is still closed on the Sabbath, from Friday afternoon till Saturday sunset. The music is loud and the crowd is rowdy, so if you prefer a more low-key experience, try their nearby sister café, “Yuda’le”, a cosy bar around the kitchen.
Azura (8 Mahane Yehuda Street; 972-2-6235204), arguably has the best humus in the city, if not the country. This popular Iraqi eatery is not new – it was once a shop with four tables – but recently it expanded to a dozen tables in an open outdoor square. The two delectable kubeh soups (red or yellow) serve an Iraqi version of the European matzoh ball, a torpedo shaped fried croquette filled with meat.
Pasta Basta has a few tables on the market’s corner alleyway and is a great hangout if you need a break from Middle Eastern food. For some reason, Jerusalem is a bastion of Italian cuisine and this hole-in-the-wall with a growing fan base offers a choose-your-own menu of pasta (penne, fettuccini and whole wheat fettuccini), sauces (curry and coconut milk, artichoke, four cheese) and toppings (roasted mushroom, kalamata olives, smoked salmon).
For dessert, the market has great options too. Marzipan Bakery (44 Agripas; 972-2-623-6218), sells such good chocolate rugelach (bite-size dough pastries rolled around chocolate filling) they send steady shipments to New York, and Halva Kingdom (12 Etz HaChaim Street; 972-54-7936805), sells 100 types of the sweet ground sesame halva treats.
If you prefer a guided tour of the market and want to try your hand at cooking your own food, the chef of the Tali Friedman’s Atelier restaurant takes groups around the stalls to taste the oils and spices and find the freshest fish and best produce. Then participants prepare the dishes for the whole group. The company Machne also runs specialized tours that focus on baked goods or wine and cheese, plus a cooking workshop with Jerusalem chefs.
Religious Jerusalemites base their week around the Sabbath, which begins Friday before sundown (a citywide siren signals the end of driving, cooking and use of electronics) and ends at Saturday, an hour after sunset. So the closer to you get to Friday, the more crowded and frantic the market will be. Sunday is a workday in Israel, so that is often when the market is least crowded.
And one last piece of advice: the souk itself is no place for polite, trembling lilies. A fighter’s stance is sometimes called for -- stiff core, elbows out -- and shouting loud enough until you get what you want.