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How Home Cooking Transformed My Trip to Israel

By Alon Shaya, as told to Sara Button

May 8, 2020

From the May/June 2020 issue

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The Israeli port city of Jaffa was one of the spots chef Alon Shaya and his team explored during their trip.

Photo by Sivan Askayo

The Israeli port city of Jaffa was one of the spots chef Alon Shaya and his team explored during their trip.

Chef Alon Shaya talks about learning recipes from locals—and why it was the highlight of his trip.

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Last year, I took my restaurant management team to my birth country of Israel. It was important to me that they could bring their own memories and have their own stories to tell about the place that inspires our cuisine at Saba in New Orleans and Safta in Denver. Orit Levi, our guide from the tour company Via Sabra, led us on a jam-packed itinerary. In Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, we ate incredible hummus with eggplant and amba [pickled mango sauce] from a fourth-generation hummus shop owner. Just outside Jerusalem, in the village of Ein Rafa, we ate shrimp fritters and duck leg with saffron aioli on the outdoor patio at a restaurant called Majda.

A fish sandwich from Habasta, one of the restaurants on chef Alon Shaya’s Israel itinerary.

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But a major highlight of the trip was getting to connect with home cooks. One day, we went to the home of a Druze woman named Zaferat. [The Druze are an Arabic-speaking ethno-religious minority who live primarily in Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.] Before we began cooking, we sat in the living room with her and her family. They told us about their culture’s beliefs, which include reincarnation. There was a very moving story they shared about a little boy in their village who identified his family from his previous life, and now both of those families have forged a relationship. Listening deepened our experience—we felt like we already knew so much about them, that we were already part of their inner circle. Then, we went outside, and there were other family members just hanging out, and we struck up conversations with them. During cooking, some people worked on one project, while others walked around freely and talked, so it was very beautiful. And the food was crazy good—we made a number of dishes, including shish barak [meat dumplings with yogurt] and kibbeh nayeh [raw minced beef with bulgur]. Even a recipe for something as simple as tabbouleh could be made in a way that I hadn’t seen before. 

Left: The stuffed grape leaves Zaferat made with Shaya and his team; Right: ingredients for tabbouleh at Zaferat’s.

On our last day, we got to visit a friend of mine named Sharon and her family at their home in Rosh Ha’ayin, a city about a half-hour east of Tel Aviv. I knew her because New Orleans and Rosh Ha’ayin are sister cities; Sharon, a Yemenite Jew, had been to NOLA before, and we’d cooked together there. So it was very exciting for her to meet the rest of the team and for us to be on her turf. She showed us how she made Yemenite chicken soup, lachuch [Yemenite pancakes], kubana bread rolls, and we got to make zhug—a spicy green sauce. She had this amazing lava rock stone that we used to grind the herbs, garlic, and peppers for the zhug and make it in the traditional way in her kitchen. Sharon was very intent on us really learning her recipes, which I thought was remarkable. 

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It’s amazing to learn so much from these women cooking in their homes rather than reading about a recipe online or in a cookbook, or seeing a chef talk about it on television or YouTube. The whole experience was very humbling and warm. We felt welcomed, like we were part of the family. This is what makes travel feel special. 

>>Next: 12 Photos That Reveal the Many Layers of Tel Aviv

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