For many, Jerusalem has been and still is the center of the world. Bloody battles have raged for millennia over possession of the hilly city, with King David, according to the Bible, conquering it in 1000 BCE, the Romans in 63 BCE, Crusaders in 1099 CE, the Ottomans in 1517 and the British in 1917, among many others, who all staked their claim and left their mark. German theologist and cartographer Heinrich Bünting thought as much when he placed the city at the center of a three leaf clover—the leaves being Africa, Asia, and Europe—on his iconic 1581 Clover Leaf Map.
Each change of hands has left an indelible mark on the city and its geography, but Jerusalem’s culinary landscape has largely been shaped in the last 70 years since the establishment of the state of Israel and its capture of the Palestinian-majority East Jerusalem in 1967. During this time, centuries-old Levantine and Palestinian food traditions have been adopted and at times influenced by Jewish immigrants from the across the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere who took their varied kitchens and culinary innovations to the holy city. The interplay of European, Middle Eastern and Palestinian cooking make Jerusalem a pretty tasty place to visit. It is likely the only city in the Middle East where you can chase your hummus with an Eastern European bean stew.
Cholent with the ultra-Orthodox
Thursday night is when Israelis start their weekends, and Jerusalem is no different, with teenagers and university students flooding the city center. The city is home to the country’s largest population of ultra-Orthodox Jews, about 220,000, and instead of drinking in local bars, those residents have a different Thursday custom: eating a centuries-old Jewish stew known as cholent. Jewish communities around the world developed versions of cholent that allow for a hot meal on Saturdays while abiding by strict rules that forbid the use of electricity or the lighting of fires on the Sabbath. But it is only in neighborhoods like Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim that the humble stew is elevated to a late-night tradition, in which young men snack on the dish while participating in all-night study-thons of religious texts known as mishmar.
Even though it is served throughout the hot Jerusalem summer, cholent tastes like a 19th-century Polish winter. It’s based on a mixture of barley, beans, potatoes, and beef cooked at a low temperature for at least 12 hours so all the ingredients converge into an intensely flavorful mouthful. The pièce de résistance, placed on top of the stew, is a slice of kishka, a mixture of flour and chicken or beef fat that is traditionally baked inside a cow intestine.
The first known mention of cholent was by Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Vienna in the 13th century. According to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the name probably comes from the Old French chald/chalt (warm). On Fridays, Jews throughout Europe would heave pots of the bean stew to their local baker’s oven before sundown. The oven would retain its heat overnight, cooking the stew and keeping it warm for Saturday lunch. The slow-cooking method even inspired a Jewish American inventor to file the first patent for an electric slow cooker in 1936, which later became known as the Crock-Pot.
On Thursday night the streets of Mea Shearim, one of the Jerusalem’s oldest Jewish settlements, which dates back to 1874, are filled with black-hat-wearing young men who scarf down the stew along with other Eastern European Jewish staples like kugel, a noodle casserole. It’s rumored that one of the best cholents is served out of an apartment building near Jerusalem’s central bus station, but when I visited, the proprietor said he was closed for the Sukkot holiday. Still, Elie’s in the center of Mea Shearim was packed with young men, many of them taking the cholent to go in plastic containers and hurrying off to their study sessions.
As the Jews of Europe immigrated to Israel in the 1900s and assimilated to the local culture and climate, they largely left behind the heavy food of Eastern Europe and gravitated toward a diet rich in olive oil, chickpeas, and cucumber salads. Israeli historian Oz Almog writes that the transition in diet was part of a larger move to a create a Jewish identity that cast off the “pale, soft, servile, and cowardly” conception of the stereotypical diaspora Jew in favor of muscular pioneers determined to build a Jewish homeland. However, the ultra-Orthodox, known in Hebrew as haredim, or “those who fear God,” sought to preserve their way of life—and style of food—that was nearly obliterated during the Holocaust.
Like their diet, the haredim have retained a strong sense of separateness from mainstream Israeli society that is rooted in a 1949 deal reached with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. He exempted young ultra-Orthodox men from the military draft that is mandatory for the rest of Israeli Jews, permitting them to study religious texts in yeshiva, a kind of religious academy. The exemption, originally for about 400 students, has expanded to tens of thousands—with haredim among Israel’s fastest-growing population—and sparked a deep schism between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis.
Politicians often accuse the haredim of freeloading on the state’s social services and have moved to conscript the community, making Jerusalem a hotbed of mass ultra-Orthodox protests. Whenever the military draft issue makes the headlines, many of the same young men eating late-night cholent will likely be blocking roads and clashing with police instead.
If there is any bread in Jerusalem that is almost as famous as the city itself, it’s Jerusalem ka’ak, or ka’ak al-quds in Arabic. It’s a bagel that looks as if it had been stretched into a footlong oval and then engulfed in sesame seeds. You will find the bread being hawked on three-wheeled carts outside the Old City’s eight gates or around the East Jerusalem bus station. It is light and slightly sweet and is usually eaten for breakfast, alongside tea and dipped in za’atar, a tangy thyme-based spice mixture. Palestinians also love to eat ka’ak with sour-cream-like yogurt and hard-boiled eggs, an innovation that came with the flood of Jewish culinary influences after Israel captured West Jerusalem in 1948, according to Ronit Vered, a food writer at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Similar breads can be found elsewhere in the Palestinian territories and the Middle East, but Jerusalem’s bread is said to taste better because old-school bakeries still use wood-fired ovens, as they have for hundreds of years.
The bread is a renowned Jerusalem staple—Palestinians across the West Bank sing its praises—but its origins remain ambiguous. The most apparent influence is simit, a sesame-crusted Turkish bagel, says Vered. Ka’ak is similar to a puffy stretched version of the Turkish standard bearer, and Ottoman rule over Jerusalem from 1517 to 1917 was a key influence on the city’s food and geography. The reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–66) is particularly noted for building the Old City’s eight-foot-thick perimeter walls. But perhaps the most lasting effect of the Ottoman era is its 1858 land code, which instituted a formalized system of private land ownership in the area and has been used by Israel as a legal basis to take control of lands claimed by Palestinians in the West Bank.
Hummus in East and West Jerusalem
Hummus in Jerusalem is largely defined by what side of the line you stand on. The Green Line, that is, which was drawn in 1949 after the war that marked Israel’s creation ended in a cease-fire with Israel’s Arab neighbors. In Jerusalem, the line split the city between the Jordanian-controlled eastern half—including the walled Old City and the major holy sites—and the western Israeli-controlled side.
Israel went on to capture the entire city in another war in 1967, but the invisible cease-fire line still divides Jerusalem and its hummus. In East Jerusalem, which is home to almost all the city’s 340,000 Palestinian residents, hummus is a purist’s affair. The hummus is simple, a bit lighter, more lemony, sometimes mixed with chopped parsley and plopped in a soup of high-quality olive oil. The only topping on a plate of hummus you will get in East Jerusalem is more chickpeas.
Abu Hassan and Abu Ali, outside the tourist-trafficked Old City, are two beloved East Jerusalem hummus institutions. They have been mixing tahini, chickpeas and lemon juice for generations, honing the dish, which, although simple, is notoriously difficult to perfect. Both places are right on top of each other, with Abu Hassan offering a small second-floor street view and Abu Ali a fluorescent-light basement alive with chatter and clinking plates. Like any self-respecting East Jerusalem hummus joint, they shut down after lunch.
Hummus in West Jerusalem—where Israelis are doing the cooking—can be spruced up (or down, depending on whom you ask) with toppings that reflect the influence of Middle Eastern and North African Jewish immigrants. Yemenite Jews introduced a fiery mix of ground peppers known as zhug, which typically accompanies your bowl, and dashes of paprika likely come from Moroccan Jews. Hard-boiled eggs and mushrooms are typical West Jerusalem additions to the dish.
Unlike East Jerusalem, the western part of the city approaches hummus as an anytime meal. Student-friendly spots that open late and play hip music, like Ben Sira, serve the dish into the wee hours alongside beer—a double act of heresy for many Palestinians.
Even though Israelis and Palestinians rarely eat at each other’s establishments, any visitor to Jerusalem should take the time to cross the hummus divide. While Israel touts unified Jerusalem as its capital, and U.S. President Donald Trump affirmed Israel’s position last year, the city remains deeply divided. Palestinians demand the holy city as their future capital, and much of the international community considers East Jerusalem occupied. Separate schools and bus systems between Arab and Jewish neighborhoods are the norm, and Palestinian attacks on Israelis are not uncommon. Because of a taboo against recognizing Israeli control over the city, almost no Palestinians vote in municipal elections. The resulting lack of city services in East Jerusalem, like garbage collection, is manifest. Hummus—as well as the rancorous arguments surrounding its proper preparation—is one way to fill your stomach while delving into the city’s ever-present politics.
The Jerusalem mixed grill
What was once a chaotic mix of throw-away organ meats slapped onto a pita for hungry laborers, the Jerusalem mixed grill, or meorav yerushalmi in Hebrew, has become a symbol of the city and a testament to the influence of Middle Eastern Jews on Israel’s culinary culture.
The dish, now standardized to a mixture of chicken liver, spleen, heart, and breast, was developed in the shops around the Machane Yehuda market in West Jerusalem in the 1960s or ’70s. The market was established in an empty lot during the Ottoman period to serve Jerusalemites living outside the walled Old City. Under British control (1917–48) the market was moved to a nearby plot and started changing hands from Arab to Jewish owners, many of them hardscrabble immigrants from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The market has come a long way from its origins and is now in the midst of intense gentrification, with bars, boutique jewelry shops, and sushi restaurants dotting its narrow alleyways.
Still, the scent of organ meats grilled with turmeric and cumin wafts through the area. Israelis top the sandwich with tahini and amba, a pickled mango sauce brought with the influx of Iraqi Jews. The Jerusalem steakhouse Hatzot, near the market’s southern entrance, is the epicenter of the mixed grill, with a street-facing takeout counter dedicated to the delicacy. Established in 1970, Hatzot proudly proclaims itself the home of “the original Jerusalem mixed grill,” however, the history of the concoction is a bit more complicated, with multiple people laying claim to the dish. Many credit restaurateur Haim Piro, who opened a hole-in-the-wall grilled-meat joint in 1968, with first assembling the organ meats. Supposedly, after a day without customers, a struggling Piro grilled his leftover meats to satisfy his hunger instead of throwing them in the garbage. The alluring aroma is said to have attracted a hungry passer-by, triggering the phenomenon.
Like much of Middle Eastern Jewish culture, its food was initially discounted by the dominant European Jewish (Ashkenazi) culture, which founded the state of Israel. About 850,000 Middle Eastern Jews, known as Mizrahim in Hebrew, fled hostile Arab countries and Iran in the 20th century. Thousands of Jews led prosperous and even wealthy lives in their home countries, but they were greeted with derision by many European Jews and were often placed in ramshackle transit camps.
Years later, the division between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews remains. The poverty rate among Mizrahi Jews is three times as high as that for Ashkenazi, and there has never been a Mizrahi prime minister, despite Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent accounting for roughly half the country’s Jewish population. But Mizrahi and Palestinian food have come to dominate Israel’s culinary scene, from street food all the way to modern Israeli fine dining. Humble dishes like the mixed grill are no longer shunned but celebrated as national treasures.