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Israel’s eclectic mix of cultures, cuisines and people mirrors the myriad ingredients found in the country’s beloved breakfast dish, shakshuka. Jerusalem-born chef Atalya Ein Mor employs Israeli cuisine – and in particular shakshuka – to bring people together, providing a space for all kinds of folks to experience Israel’s diverse culture and cuisine.
Although the wealth of cuisine and diversity of dishes in Jerusalem are vast, for Atalya Ein Mor, there remains one dish that really evokes her understanding of Israel: shakshuka. The breakfast dish is a cross between a stew and a sauce. In the most ubiquitous version, tomatoes, peppers and onions are cooked down with a host of Middle Eastern spices (think cumin and paprika). As the sauce comes to a simmer, cooks will form small divots, then crack eggs straight in, letting the eggs poach long enough but not too long – so that the yellow still spills out when sliced into.
“The word ‘shakshuka’ describes a shakshuk, which is kind of a mix,” Ein Mor says. “Israel is a big mixer of culture from all over the world, and the food is a mix.”
For Israelis, shakshuka endures as a poignant depiction of Israel’s story. Just as the dish is a blend of ingredients, Israel too is a confluence of immigrants, refugees and cultures, forming one diverse society. Although locals remain divided on how to best make the dish – everyone has their own recipe, their own spin – everyone can agree that breakfast in Israel without shakshuka is hardly breakfast at all.
Ein Mor, a chef who grew up in Jerusalem, hosts strangers in her home for meals and runs cooking classes. During these meals, she will often serve shakshuka to big groups. She shops at the famed Machane Yehuda market – a pulsing market home to a kaleidoscope of fruits and vegetables, mountains of spices and the ephemeral smells of chocolate rugalach and sweet knafeh – gathering all the ingredients she needs to make the dish. With people circled around her dining-room table, she’ll set down silver pans – wisps of steam still billowing upward – of shakshuka, some bright red with tomatoes and peppers, others teeming with leafy green vegetables. Baskets of pita will grace the table, ready to soak up excess tomato sauce and runny eggs. For Ein Mor, this coming together over food endures as the best way to discover an entirely new culture while simultaneously becoming closer to one another.
“It’s a really good opportunity for people to get to know other people when somebody’s cooking for you,” Ein Mor says. “It’s like he’s giving his heart for you and sharing all his culture, all his background, with you.”
With her extensive knowledge of the city, Ein Mor also leads tours throughout many of Jerusalem’s bustling markets. “I’m also doing quite a lot of culinary tours around Jerusalem markets just to show other cultures [found in the markets],” she says. “Sometimes people are afraid of [differences].”
On these tours, Ein Mor guides small groups through the city’s buzzing markets brimming with colourful produce and small mom-and-pop food stands. She educates everyone on never-before-seen ingredients and unfamiliar dishes, providing the hungry with samples. It’s in these markets that Ein Mor finds unending culinary diversity.
Stops on her circuit might include a local bakery, where Ein Mor tears off pieces of a sesame-seed-flecked Jerusalem bagel – a puffy, golden-brown bread much longer and more oval than the more familiar puck-shaped variety – sprinkling its soft interior with a dusting of green za’atar. She’ll point out a falafel stand, which at first glance appears unremarkable. But what sets this stall’s falafel apart is the freshness. Rather than frying the chickpea-studded mix in advance, the shopkeeper waits until he gets an order before he plops spheres of the mix into a gargantuan vat of oil and then slips a handful of the crisp, crackly falafel into the mouth of a halved pita. Next, Ein Mor’s group might feast on hummus crowned with pine nuts, mopping the smooth chickpea dip with supple scraps of pita.
“I’m very happy to see the people I’m guiding enjoying the things they didn’t know just a few hours before we started the tour,” Ein Mor says.
When people are with Ein Mor, they’re coming together to break bread – whether that’s over shakshuka or digging at bowls of hummus – and unearth a new taste, a new cuisine, a new dish.
“When you eat somebody’s food, when you sit together around the same table and eat together,” Ein Mor says, “you can really discover a whole new culture and get closer to each other.”
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