Jerusalemite does not care for the word "foodie." It is a silly name for a serious passion: seeking out and consuming the very finest in comestibles. That passion is given ample outlet in Jerusalem, currently in the midst of the classed-up peasant food culinary revolution that has swept the world - but every self-respecting gourmet, gourmand, gastronome, epicure or (sigh) foodie knows that experiencing a city's edible best requires looking beyond the guidebooks, the restaurant reviews and the temples of modern haute cuisine to the humble workingman's establishments that feed residents from teething babies to toothless old-timers.
Sometimes the food within is weird, or at least unfamiliar. But as any traveler who's sampled raw sea urchin gonads in Tokyo, whole late-term-embryo-filled duck eggs in Hanoi or, uh... a garbage plate in upstate New York can attest, it is by embracing the new and strange that one truly experiences the soul of a culinary culture. Israel food tours are no different.
So put down the Lonely Planet and let Jerusalemite show you real Jerusalem food with this list of the top five Jerusalem foods you've never eaten before:
You can't really be a New Yorker without lox and a schmear. You're hardly Edinbourgeois if you eschew fish and chips. And you're no kind of Jerusalemite until you've tucked into a pita or plate full of meorav yerushalmi, a dish so identified with Jerusalem that it's named after it. Meaning "Jerusalemite mix," and often called "Jerusalem mixed grill" in English, the concept is simple: every edible-but-unappealing part of a chicken heavily seasoned with Middle Eastern spices and seared on a griddle with onions. Hearts? Yeah. Lungs? Sure. Liver? De rigueur. Spleens? Pray to God you don't forget them spleens. Don't be a sissy. Meorav is generally chopped up into a fairly uniform mix, and if you've ever eaten a hot dog, you've stuffed your face full of offal before - and it wasn't nearly as good as the signature meorav at Agrippas Street landmark Chatzot (pictured), just down the street from Machane Yehuda.
Not so long ago, Jews were Iraq's cultural elite, a full one-third of Baghdad's population, vastly overrepresented in commerce and the arts. Then they were expelled, and made their way to Israel to become this country's culinary elite. Anybody who's eaten falafel is familiar with the Iraqi laffa, a large chewy flatbread, but more obscure, and more delicious, is sabich, a dish either invented or popularized by Iraqi immigrants in Ramat Gan (althought the jury is still out when it comes to the origins of the name). It's true poverty food: a pita dramatically overstuffed with slices of fried eggplant; long-cooked, brown hard-boiled eggs; hummus; cucumber and tomato salad and spicy charif, then topped with amba, the pickled mango sauce adored by Iraqis. A whole rack of lamb wouldn't fill you up as full. For sabich in Jerusalem, there is no better choice than the aptly named Sabichiya on Shammai Street.
First, learn how to pronounce it: urban Palestinian Arabs pronounce the Arabic letter qaf as a glottal stop, so "Al-Quds" (the Arabic name for Jerusalem) becomes "Al-'Uds" and "maqluba" becomes "ma'aluba." No matter how you say it, though, it's tasty. Meaning "upside-down" in Arabic, and often called the Palestinians' national dish, maqluba is a casserole made from rice, sliced eggplant, sliced tomato, onion, cauliflower and mountains of savory lamb (or sometimes chicken). Plenty of east Jerusalem and Old City holes in the wall offer their versions of this homestyle fare, and upscale locavore bistro Eucalyptus is famous for its gussied-up version.
Desserts rarely make an appearance in weird food lineups. As much as human tastes vary from culture to culture, sweet is sweet, and what's sweet is rarely surprising - unless it happens to be neon orange shreds of phyllo dough drenched in syrupy sugar water and filled with gooey, salty warm goat cheese. Oh, confounding knafeh. It's a combination just about as incongruous as ice cream in a hamburger bun, but this Nablus delicacy is hugely popular in Jerusalem - especially during Ramadan, when feasting on pastries, dried fruits and nuts at night is traditional - among both Arabs and Jews. For the real deal, head over to Muslim Quarter landmark Jaffar's Sweets, where the knafeh is made fresh every day.
When it gets cold in Jerusalem, forget eggnog, brandy, or hot cocoa: the real restorative drink is sachlab. Called "salep" in English, and perhaps familiar to European readers if not North American ones, sachlab is a hot, sweet, perfumey drink, thinner than pudding but thicker than whole milk, derived from the powdered extract of certain species of Middle Eastern orchid. It doesn't quite taste like anything else, but topped off with a mountain of coconut shavings, ground nuts and cinnamon, it will let you temporarily forget that the city is 45 degrees, pouring, and a single, unbroken shade of gray-brown. All-night cafe Mifgash HaSheikh is famous for its sachlab, and no winter nighttime shuk shopping trip is complete without an invigorating dose from one of several sachlab samovars.
Now doesn't that all sound tasty? And after you've gorged yourself on Jerusalem's unique delicacies, don't forget to head to our friendly neighborhood witch doctor for one more only-in-Jerusalem refreshment: khat smoothies. Mmmm. Eat well, and stay tuned for more Jerusalem best-of lists in the coming weeks.
Photo of knafeh-making at Jaffar's Sweets by Ben Jacobson for Jerusalemite; photo of meorav madness at Chatzot by Asaf Kliger for Jerusalemite; photo of maqluba from Wikipedia under a GNU Free Documentation License; photo of knafeh courtesy of Tololy Tutunai from Flickr under a Creative Commons License; photo of sachlab by Harry Rubenstein for Jerusalemite.