The sights, sounds and tastes of Jerusalem’s venerable open-air market are irresistible. Opened in 1928, the Machane Yehuda market encompasses a maze of downtown lanes bearing names such as Apple, Peach, Plum, Berry and Almond — just a few of the many foodstuffs you can buy there.

Tasting your way through Machane Yehuda

 

A tourist picking produce at Machane Yehuda(Photo courtesy of Abraham Hostel)

By Avigayil Kadesh

Where is the hottest new place for tourists to get a taste of Jerusalem? Hint: It’s not a museum, a shrine or an archeological dig. It’s Machane Yehuda (“Camp of Judah”), the largest and busiest outdoor market in Israel.

Opened in 1928, Machane Yehuda encompasses a maze of downtown lanes bearing names such as Apple, Peach, Plum, Berry and Almond — just a few of the many foodstuffs you can buy there.

The shuk (rhymes with “cook”), as it’s better known, has always been a favorite of visitors for its colorful, pungent, open-air atmosphere where Jews and Arabs bargain-hunt side by side amid the cries of merchants hawking everything from haloumi cheese and herring to chicken hearts and halva.

Lately, however, culinary tours of Machane Yehuda are all the rage as Jerusalem has invested in upgrading the infrastructure of the shuk, and high-end arts shops and trendy eateries find a place among generations-old produce stalls.

Tasting your way through Machane Yehuda

Stocking up on sweets at Machane Yehuda.
Photo courtesy of Abraham Hostel

The stories behind those venerable family businesses provide the backdrop for a new series offered by More Gastronomy and Tourism, says co-founder Reuven Pilo. He and his wife, Mor, joined with fellow Jerusalem native Michael Weiss of the Go Jerusalem Internet tourism portal to establish a whole menu of tour choices in the market.

“We found ourselves looking for something with added value to do in Jerusalem,” says Pilo, a former chef and now purveyor of culinary tours of Israel.

“Many tourist companies bring visitors to museums, archeological parks, the Kotel [Western Wall] — but they don’t bring them to the people of Jerusalem. And if you’re taking about Jerusalem you’re talking about a melting pot of ethnic communities. All those other sites are important, but we think that the business we developed brings you to the real Jerusalem — the people, the food, the customs.”

For the first time ever, the partners got the shuk’s vendors (some of whom were entirely unfamiliar with the Internet) listed on a modern website that also provides entrée to tours focusing on niches – patisserie or wine and cheese, for example. During one excursion, participants buy fresh, exotic ingredients for a gourmet cooking workshop afterward.

‘It’s like coming to a show’

With More, you can opt to tour the marketplace with a licensed guide or with a professional chef. If you prefer to browse on your own and at your own pace, a NIS 99 (about USD 26) Shuk Bites ticket () provides you with a map and a punch-card of vouchers to try a variety of products. Whichever way you go, the site promises you’ll have “character-drenched vendor interaction.”

Tasting your way through Machane Yehuda

Ticket to the self-guided Shuk Bites tour

“Just come with the ticket and enjoy the best bites the shuk can offer, from boutique cheeses to genuine burekas and organic tehina, to health drinks by [the Yemenite ‘medicine man’] Uzi Eli – it’s like coming to a show,” says Weiss.

Little wonder that the partners perceived high demand from individuals and groups regarding the Machane Yehuda market, Weiss continues. “It represents the most colorful, rich, spicy, interesting market in Israel, and since it’s been redeveloped in the last five to six years, it’s become a big magnet for those coming to Jerusalem from abroad and from other areas in Israel just to see the market.

“We noticed it was not being presented in the right manner, and filled this gap with a one-stop portal launched in November, providing detailed information about the market, its streets, shops and bus stops. It’s not just another commercial shopping site. You can learn about the personal stories of the stall owners and what Machane Yehuda represents to them. The shop owners love it — it’s rebranding the market in a more sophisticated way.”

The colors of the market

The Machane Yehuda market anchors a downtown neighborhood of the same name established in 1887 by a bank manager, a metal worker and a railway worker. The latter named it after his recently deceased brother Yehuda.

Over the years, it started getting pretty shabby until Eli Mizrahi, then president of the shuk’s merchant association, got the Jerusalem municipality to cooperate in upgrading the pavements and lighting, and installing security cameras and awnings.

Since then, several cultural events have taken root in Machane Yehuda. It started with jazz concerts in the summers, and now every Monday night in July the shuk comes alive with the Balabasta Festival — an eclectic mix of unusual temporary sculptures, jugglers, clowns, Capoeira and waltzing as bands play music on the cobblestones and rooftops.

Recently, a city-sponsored urban art initiative dubbed Tabula Rasa spiced up the Iraqi section of the bazaar with works by painters, sculptors, photographers, graphic artists and even some of the stall owners.

Mayor Nir Barkat, who participated in the projects as well, said at the opening that Tabula Rasa “adds color; it adds spirit to the changes that are happening here.”

An infusion of young tourists

Though the majority of the stalls in Machane Yehuda are still owned by the same families who’ve manned them for generations, newer businesses have moved in. Another modern touch is the opening of the long-awaited light rail, which began operating on the Jaffa Road side of the shuk in October 2011.

The market also got an infusion of young foreign tourists when the Abraham Hostel opened in 2010 on Jaffa Road just a few blocks away. The hostel offers off-the-beaten-track tours of Jerusalem, including a Market Cooking Tour on Sunday and Thursday afternoons for hostel guests and others.

“We begin with an interactive and historical tour of the Machane Yehuda market with a local guide, who will navigate you through the hustle and the bustle of the marketplace, showing you the interesting sites and hidden treasures between the market stalls. At the end of the tour, you pick up fresh food from the market, and bring it back to the Abraham Hostel kitchen for … a hands-on lesson in cooking a traditional, vegetarian Middle Eastern meal. You will help clean, fry, boil, bake, cook, chop, slice and stir the ingredients, with the guidance of our in-house chef,” the site explains.

“It was always a dream of mine to have such an experience in the shuk,” says Gal Mor, 34, Abraham Hostel’s co-founder and an experienced tour director.

“We meet at the hostel, head to the market and explore its background history and the culture of the different types of foods available there. We shop and interact with vendors, then come back to the hostel and cook a big feast of local cuisine – including dishes such as kubbeh [Moroccan meat dumplings], kebab, majadara [rice and lentils], tabbouleh [bulgur and mint salad], babaganoush [eggplant salad], accompanied by some local arak [an anise liqueur] and great Israeli music.”