Follow the Africans. Or the Asians. Or the Indians. I’m not being prejudicial here, I promise. I discovered something fascinating last Friday afternoon. I’ve taken to doing my marketing just before Shabbat – and I mean just before. Entering the fray at its very worst, I’ve left the house around 3 pm to go Shuk HaCarmel (the Carmel Market), partly out of lazy Friday bad timing, and partly (when I recognized the pattern) for the prices, which I never would have discovered had I not noticed my fellow shoppers. Maybe I should add – partly to experience this unique sort of excited chaos.
(Just realized I need to explain a bit: Israel until recently was pretty homogeneous, or well, all Jewish. There are lots of different groups of Jews, but Jews nonetheless. Arabs and Jews. And that was kind of that. Over the last 20 years, and especially the last 5 or so, we’ve had a huge influx of foreign workers as well as refugees and asylum seekers. This has caused a lot of tension. These people are needed in certain capacities, but they’re seen also as a burden. It’s a touchy subject, and in my opinion, it’s brought out the worst in Israelis. When there are no minorities present, it’s not apparent that there are racist tendencies. But now… In any case, I will blog more about this situation later. All you need to know is that these foreigners live separately, in old, squalid neighborhoods. They take care of our elderly. They bus our plates and wash our dishes. They sweep our streets. They do our dangerous construction work. And in many ways they are invisible.)
When I arrive at the market, the mayhem is overwhelming: huge crowds of people trying to push frantically through the narrow market, vendors shouting their brains out to make some last sales before they have to close, many vendors already packing up – using scary long metal hooks to lower high hanging items and noisily slamming heavy metal doors down over their stalls, tourists keeping things moving even more slowly by taking photos and lingering over cheap jewelry and mezzuzahs and Dead Sea cosmetics and za’atar covered pita breads (so cheap, let’s get some to snack on).
Then there are the real shoppers – people trying to get their Shabbat meals in order (and at this point, these guys are really pushing it with Shabbat starting so early – 4 pm ish maybe) or just get food for the weekend, or in my case, food for the week. I’ve located the guy with the cheapest cucumbers (1.99 shekels per kilo), the cheapest tomatoes (3.99 per kilo), the cheapest and freshest cilantro (1.50 per bunch), the cheapest and most beautiful mangold – beet leaves – (3 huge packs for 10 shekels), and the only two stalls that sell sorrel (3 shekels per bunch). These are my staples. The rest of the good stuff this week was icing on the cake. I got the most fragrant guavas I have ever smelled (and their taste ain’t so shabby, neither) for 7 shekels per kilo, really lovely persimmons (can’t remember the price, but I got a whole bag full for 5 shekels which is crazy cheap), and unbelievable deals on zucchinis and lemons and onions.
(I will always be amazed at the enormous gap between supermarket and shuk prices. Are the stores nuts?! Are the people, for shopping there?! And in more “civilized” countries where there isn’t a real down and dirty market – we’re not talking local farmers’ markets – nobody has a choice! Thank goodness we grow so much of our own food here in Israel.)
After I acquired the loot, I remembered I’d made a list of stuff to get if I had time, and it was good I remembered (because I really needed these things). I was out of most of the cereal grains and pulses I rely on – rices, barley, buckwheat, quinoa, lentils, etc. Not good. So I decided to take a small street parallel to the shuk back north so that I didn’t have to fight my way. And lo and behold, here was another crowd of people: the foreign workers. Sure, they were in the shuk as well, but on the side street, it was like their territory. There were more Filipinos and Thais and Nigerians and Eritreans than Israelis. It wasn’t crowded, but it certainly was like walking into another world. It was calm and “weekendy” – unlike the fracas I had just left. The shop owners weren’t shouting. People went on their way as if it were any other day. The variety of the shops was fantastic – grain shops, spice shops, butcher shops, butcher shops specializing in pork, and Asian food shops. Awesome awesome. I picked the first dry goods place with adequate barrels of rices and lentils out front, and it was a good thing I did. There were a good number of other shoppers, and I was the only Israeli. You know what they say about restaurants (and I suppose any business) – don’t eat there if it’s empty. And vice versa.
I began scooping barley and soy beans and wild rice into plastic baggies when I realized I might not have enough money to pay. The barley and soy were fairly cheap (10-12 shekels per kilo), but the wild rice was splurging on my part (16 per kilo). Each of my three bags was sizable – at more than half a kilo each, and I was certain that I would be forking up 30-40 shekels, which was quite possibly all the cash I had in my wallet. I make sure never to go out with a lot, because believe me, I will spend it. Even if it’s on produce, I’ll spend it. Buying exotic Korean cabbages and the like is not a necessity, no matter how much I convince myself it is. But if the money isn’t in the wallet, I don’t spend it. To my great delight, my bill came out to 15 shekels. I honestly don’t know how that happened. 15 shekels for two week’s worth of food is pretty awesome. The guy winked at me. I don’t know if he gave me a great deal because of my, well, feminine charms (right), because it was the end of the week, or because that’s just the kind of guy he is. The Africans and Asians kept on coming and going, and they seemed really happy too.
My shopping done, I continued north on the side street, and I passed what I can only describe as a ghetto butcher. Back in Rome, hundreds of years ago, there were two kinds of butchers: the meat butcher, and the offal butcher (or as I’d like to think – “the everything else” guy). Serious. They had their own pushcarts, and they sold door to door or on the streets. Rome is known for its offal dishes. It’s probably one of the few places in the Western world that places tripe in a place of honor on all restaurant menus. And the word “ghetto” is Italian – the place where they corralled Jews in – the first. Jews being very poor, I’m sure they ate lots of the other stuff. Hence, my ghetto butcher.
He was such a jovial chap, winking and cracking jokes with the customers around him, all of which were Thai and West African (which I ascertained after speaking with some in French). And they were buying – and I’m not cracking jokes here – skin. Skin and liver and especially (this really did seem to be this guy’s specialty) cow intestines. This large rubbery and hairy looking monstrosity was hanging by two hooks. My first thought was yes, this must be tripe. Then I second-guessed myself. It was so damned huge. And the hairy looking bits did not look like villi. It looked like shaggy hair. It honestly looked like thick skin and hide of a cow. I stared for ten minutes or so before asking on of the people standing next to me. The butcher happily hacked away at it, using a sharp knife to strip yet another slithery 6-inch chunk off, packing it up for his satisfied clients. Incredible.
I ended up spending a grand total of $20 for my groceries. I’m quite thrilled. And despite the fact that I had some other foodish adventures this weekend, this is what stuck. Ask me to tell you about knafe another time…