Cholent crawling in Bnei Brak

In search of authentic Ashkenazi cuisine.

Moti’s delicacies include vegetarian, meat and hot-dog versions, and a mysterious cholent-potato kugel hybrid (photo credit: RACHEL MYERSON)
Moti’s delicacies include vegetarian, meat and hot-dog versions, and a mysterious cholent-potato kugel hybrid
(photo credit: RACHEL MYERSON)
Here in Tel Aviv, people love to label themselves “foodies” and compete over their latest meals. Though traditional Sephardi cuisine has been made fashionable and modern by chefs such as Meir Adoni, Ashkenazi cuisine has been left by the culinary wayside. Yet I was hearing rumors of an almost unexplored, thriving food scene from my father-in-law, of all people. Yes, a cheap, buzzing and regional food culture taking place on the streets of Bnei Brak every Thursday night, with one dish center stage: cholent.
Though many know this slow-cooked stew as hamin, this version is most definitely the Eastern European, shtetl version. Enticed by the promise of tastes of home and the alternativeness of it all, I set about organizing a field trip. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my Tel Aviv friends were unenthused about joining me. In truth, I managed to recruit only my husband (who didn’t really have a choice) and a religious friend, knowledgeable about the cholent scene.
I was instructed not to even consider beginning my cholent crawl until 10 p.m., dashing all hopes of an early night. As night approached, so did the nerves. What had seemed before an exciting excursion now turned into a cacophony of self-doubt: What if cholent was canceled this week? What if I wasn’t allowed to join my male counterparts at the table (I’d heard terrifying rumors of separate-seating restaurants)? A large glass of rosé calmed me, and turned getting (appropriately) dressed into a fun dressing-up session.
As we walked up Rabbi Akiva Street, one of the main thoroughfares in Bnei Brak, the streets became more crowded and we began to feel disorientated and out of space, so we skulked into the first deli restaurant we saw: Shteisel.
Ashkenazi goodies stared up at us from the glass-covered counter: gefilte fish, stuffed fish heads, rice and mincemeat wrapped in cabbage leaves beckoned temptingly, but we were here for one purpose, the cholent, though we couldn’t resist a generous slab of potato kugel, too.
The friendly waiter, decked in traditional haredi garb with peyot swinging merrily as he rushed around the shop finding us a place to sit and eat, informed us that they had been full since 7 p.m., with customers tucking in on-site and purchasing food for Shabbat. Dining alongside us were a young haredi couple, chatting companionably with a national-religious couple at the neighboring table about unaffordable house prices.
With an indulgent serving of meat cholent, our meal came to NIS 37, and we left groaning. Though the kugel was a tad under-seasoned, the cholent was fantastic; packed with beans, potatoes, kishke (stuffed intestine, though I suspect in this case, a vegetarian version) and visible chunks of tender meat in a thick, savory sauce. Our waiter refused to fall prey to our unsubtle attempt to prise the cholent recipe from him, attributing its superior taste to “a condiment that is called Shabbat.”
We popped into nearby kiosk Shloimale for a takeout plastic box full of vegetarian cholent. At 11:30, this popular spot was swarming with men eyeing the various treats on offer – from Jerusalem kugel (a sweet noodle pudding) to an impressive array of pick ’n’ mix and, of course, the ever-present bags of popcorn which, for some reason unbeknownst to me, is a staple snack in Bnei Brak. Though the cholent was definitely of lower caliber than Shteisel’s, with a dominant tomato flavor, an overload of black pepper and a hint of Pot Noodle, it was a bargain at NIS 8 for a “small” container and NIS 12 for a large one, which would fill up the hungriest of males.
While husband bonded with the hordes of males crowding around the cholent pot, I lingered outside feeling a bit of a spare part, watching the continuous flow of people leave and enter the Itzkovitch Synagogue next door, which hosts 24/7 prayer services.
Though I was bursting at the seams by this point, a brisk walk to the other side of town prepped me for our final stop: Moti’s.
This is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot which looks like a portable, derelict cabin. Against all instincts, we pushed open a dented iron door and crept through an uninhabited storeroom, utterly unprepared for the scenes that would greet us as we burst into the bustling restaurant. Bright lights, stifling heat, Jewish-style trance music at club volume and hordes of people attacked our senses as we struggled for a peek at the goods behind the counter.
A crowd of people three lines deep clamored to be served by a remarkably calm waiter who puffed on a cigarette while doling out Moti’s various delicacies, limited to vegetarian, meat or hot-dog cholent or a mysterious cholent-potato kugel hybrid, served plain, with meat or with black beans.
Though presentation and perhaps hygiene in general is not a primary concern – our meat cholent was carelessly ladled into a polystyrene bowl, then plunked onto a tray, spilling out over the sides of the bowl in a rather unappealing fashion – the atmosphere is terrific. The customers were an equal mix of haredim and national religious, with a couple of women thrown in, all chattering loudly as they tucked in. Taste-wise, the cholent placed second; the sauce was thick and tasty, though the meat was unforgivably sparse, and the kugel was excellently seasoned, though of an unusually, but not necessarily unpleasant, sloppy texture. Two plates and a drink came to NIS 54, a little on the pricier side but definitely the “It” location.
Our final stop of the evening was the Vishnitz Bakery, located opposite Moti’s, for hallot. Even at 12:30 a.m. the ovens were in full swing, churning out goods ranging from small rolls to huge, meterlong hallot, with 10,000 loaves said to be sold every Thursday. They are delightfully doughy and well worth a try, though not sweet.
Bnei Brak is not a pretty city, nor do residents particularly welcome tourists, but it is an authentic slice of ultra-Orthodox culture and Ashkenazi cuisine. I was glad that I had dressed modestly and had male company to converse with the local men, who weren’t keen to chat with me directly, but nobody was unfriendly and, really, I was only there for the good eats.
Shteisel, Harav Shach Street, off Rabbi Akiva Street Shloimale, Harav Shach Street, off Rabbi Akiva Street Moti’s, Shimshon Hagibor Street Vishnitz Bakery, 7 Shimshon Hagibor Street