The best way to discover a place is to eat your way around it, right? And although I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel over the years, Tel Aviv is a major city where I haven’t really lived, worked, or even explored. So on our last trip, at the end of 2016, we took the opportunity to find out more about one little corner of it – the Levinsky market (and neighbourhood) – by joining one of Delicious Israel‘s walking tours. The tour was brilliant – interesting, exciting, informative, and delicious! – it was really the highlight of our trip, and one of our friends, who is a regular visitor to Israel, said it was the best thing he’d ever done in the country. Blimey!
Our guide, Moran, was amazing! She was knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and evidently knew both the area and the shop-owners very well. Moran had previously worked as a chef in some top kitchens (including Michelin-starred restaurants in London) and her expertise and passion for food, flavours and ingredients shone through.
We started the tour in a typical back alley. Here Moran explained the history of the area – the Levinsky neighbourhood was founded in the 1930s by poor immigrants who pooled their resources to build shops and apartment buildings in this corner of the developing new city of Tel Aviv. The architecture reflects the history – unadorned rough and ready buildings, narrow streets and small shops are still hallmarks of the neighbourhood. Unlike a standard market with stalls, the Levinsky market is really a collection of small shops, kiosks and cafes, and although it fits into just a few connected streets, I was glad to have someone to show us around who knew how it all slotted together.
Our first stop was on Merkhavia Street. Lupo Delicatessen, an ‘ashkenazi fish shop’, is now run by the third generation of the same family, and we were lucky enough to be introduced to all three generations. The family imports herrings and salmon from Europe, and prepares them locally, making delicious smoked fish, pickled herring and herring salads, as well as other delicacies like the amazing smoked tuna (my favourite) and incredible gefilte fish. There was also smoked fish roe, mackerel and vegetable salads. Kipper gave the man behind the counter a winning smile and got to try the smoked salmon too. She said it was delicious!
Having whetted our appetite we walked round the corner to Levinsky 41, a tiny hole in the wall serving fine coffee, cakes, and speciality fizzy drinks, known as ‘gazoz’. In the early 20th century, refreshing fizzy drinks made from carbonated water mixed with flavoured syrups were popular across the Middle East (it is probable that the name ‘gazoz’ entered the Hebrew language from Turkish). Levinsky 41 has added a modern spin to the concept, making wild looking concoctions from home-made fruit and vegetable syrups, preserved fruits, fresh herbs, and probably more, all topped up with sparkling water that bubbles from a hand-pump on the bar.
Since the tiny establishment has no room for seating, the owner, Benny, has parked a van outside with two bench seats in the back. Nothing like sitting in the back of a van, drinking a beaker of crazy leafy potion to make you feel like you’re on holiday!
My gazoz had beetroot syrup, preserved pears, pomegranate seeds, geranium leaves and lavender. It was fantastic! Not too sweet, delicious, fruity, floral and refreshing. DH preferred the coffee, a house blend prepared with a vintage 1960s hand pumped espresso machine. Magic!
Our next stop was Bourekas Penso, just a few doors down at Levinsky 43. Here we tasted fresh, crisp, tasty bourekas filled with spinach, cheese, and potato. The bakery was founded in the 1960s by a family who came to Tel Aviv from Turkey, and still prepares everything from scratch, including their own filo pastry. The bourekas were light, savoury, flaky and wonderful, served with chopped fresh tomatoes, sour pickled cucumbers, and eggs boiled in tea. What a combination!
As well as selling freshly baked bourekas, the shop also had freezers full of ready-to-bake pastries. Such a shame I couldn’t bring any back with me!
The Yom Tov delicatessen, right next door, was founded in 1947 in Istanbul. It relocated to Tel Aviv in the 1960s and still operates from the same tiny premises. A mountain of glistening olives, preserved peppers and pickled lemons overflowed onto the pavement outside, leaving limited space for our group to huddle round and taste the wonderful treats laid out for us.
The patriarch of the family, now in his 90s, still makes the stuffed vine leaves, rolling each one by hand, and wow they were good! Kipper was very keen on the feta cheese with pesto, but DH and I both went wild for the hibiscus flowers stuffed with goats cheese. The flowers are candied and then pickled, and have an amazing sweet and sour flavour and a soft crunchy texture, which goes so well with the smooth tang of the goats cheese filling. We bought a huge tub of them and then had to figure out how to wrap it up to get it home in our suitcase…
Konditoria Albert, tucked away down nearby Matalon Street, is Tel Aviv’s only Greek bakery, established by a family from Saloniki in 1935. According to Moran, the family still meets in the shop once a week to pick over piles of almonds by hand, selecting only the best to make the family’s wonderful fresh marzipan and almond biscuits. Their efforts don’t go unnoticed! The marzipan was the best I have ever tried, soft and not too sweet, with a subtle, beautiful almond flavour. Even DH, who doesn’t usually like marzipan at all, was won over.
He was really blown away by the almond biscuits though! Soft and delicious, like the greatest macaroons in the world. I loved this shop – it was run-down, a little grubby, really no frills, but you could sense how proud they were of their history and traditions, and of course of their products. We watched the grandpa of the family, who is now in his 80s, rolling the marzipan in the kitchen. As we walked from shop to shop and Moran introduced us to the different characters in these terrific family businesses, we could see that everything they made was prepared with love, and you can taste it!
We made a brief stop outside Gargar Hazahav (‘The Golden Chickpea’) for a quick bite of falafel. They were the best I’ve ever tasted, crispy outside, soft within, and quite green throughout with fresh parsley – delicious! But we were running out of time and Moran was keen to squeeze in another couple of stops…
A tiny juice bar – sorry I don’t seem to have noted the name – also drew customers for its vegan malabi. (Tel Aviv, and indeed Israel in general, is heaven for vegans & vegetarians.) This rosewater scented pudding is usually made with milk (a bit like blancmange) but the vegan version used coconut cream to produce a silky and delicious pudding. Malabi typically comes topped with a bright pink pomegranate and date syrup, and this one also had fresh pomegranate and shredded coconut. It managed to be rich and refreshing simultaneously, sweet, fruity, just amazing! I’ll be having a go at making something like this at home so watch this space!
Our last two stops were for spices, and finally halva. The halva was a world away from the stuff that comes wrapped in plastic or foil in supermarkets here. This was fresh, nutty and flavoursome. The texture was soft and slightly chewy, but without the grittiness that halva sometimes has. By this point in the tour, we were pretty stuffed (especially after I’d gorged on the vegan malabi) so unfortunately I couldn’t take full advantage of the plates of delicious halva that were laid out for us. Something to come back for… just look at those pistachios!
I’ve left the spice shop till last because we returned there after the end of the tour and stocked up on bags of spices to bring home – apparently the smallest amount available is ‘a shovelful’! Moran had introduced us to some new spices and seasonings, including smoked dried Persian lemons which were available either whole or ground, and are used to add a smoky citrus flavour to rice. We also tasted the ubiquitous za’atar (hyssop) and hawaij, and I also tried some sweet hawaij l’cafe or hawaij for coffee, not to be confused with the more usual sort which is technically hawaij l’marak – hawaij for soup. The sweet hawaij is a wonderful blend of ginger, cardamom, and a few other spices, and I’m looking forward to trying it to flavour cakes, biscuits and desserts – Yum!
The tour lasted about two and a half hours and we all had a brilliant time. I was so proud of Kipper who didn’t complain once about the walking, and gamely tasted everything – I think she actually surprised herself with some of the things she ended up liking! In fact the only thing she really didn’t like was the gazoz – I seem to have the only 6-year-old in the world who doesn’t like fizzy drinks!
We chose this tour based on location and availability, but there are loads available in Tel Aviv and many of Israel’s other cities, from numerous different companies. A quick google search will provide lots of options. Israel is such a foodie paradise, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed!
Our tour of Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Market was organised and run by Delicious Israel who run a range of walking tours, workshops, winery tours and more. We paid $75 per adult, but prices vary depending how many people are in a group. Kipper went free! Check their website for more information.