Every weekend, there is an unexpected yet familiar stream of visitors to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. They come as individuals or groups, entering the “Tel Aviv Mall” as if they were teenagers to shop, eat and relax. But this group is very different from most people you’d expect to find in the city.
They are speaking a babel of English, Chinese, Nepali, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai and many more languages, representing their polycultural origins.
Many appear to be regulars. They talk to the merchants about life as their shuk carts are filled, seemingly without making explicit orders. Watching and engaging in the Filipino shuk on the fourth floor of the bus station (primarily on the “street” with the post office) is quite an experience. It’s a beautiful scene that started hours before in the predawn kitchens of these dedicated Filipino women.
Most stories that begin at 3 a.m. in South Tel Aviv are not adventures you’d want to tell your mother about. But for the thousands of Filipino foreign workers and their families living in the Naveh Sha’anan neighborhood (and intrepid eaters like me), this is where the glory begins. In a dozen kitchens, Filipino women are transforming a variety of tropical plants, rice, fish and meats into a veritable feast to be sold in the bus station and a host of shops in Naveh Sha’anan.
With dawn still hours aways, Mary Lou starts preparing her Friday catering.
She starts with a variety of rice puto – delicate rice-flour steamed cakes – flavored with coconut milk, purple sweet potato, yellow cheese – and later, some tender stewed chicken. With the first batch in the steamer and others waiting for their own transformative shvitz, Mary Lou begins preparing her cassava root.
Peeling and grating fresh cassava is a labor of love. Though one can buy grated, frozen cassava from the handful of Filipino stores in the bus station, Mary Lou is unwilling to sacrifice on quality for her family and clients. Like a savta laboring over her kreplach or marzipan, Mary Lou devotes more than an hour to processing kilos of this root for her bibingkang kamoteng-kahoy (cassava cake). After grating, she incorporates the remaining wet and dry ingredients before baking. Throughout this whole process, she is steaming her glutinous rice cakes. It feels like a symphony of predawn efficiency.
Beyond the rice puto, a comfortable entry to tasting Tel Aviv’s Little Manila is Mary Lou’s malabi. A fusion, like all panlasong pinoy (Filipino treats), this malabi is made with rice flour, milk, coconut milk, peanuts and Israeli sweet corn. Unlike the more traditional Turkish versions found throughout Tel Aviv and Jaffa, this malabi has no syrupy topping or sprinkle of dry, clumpy spices, just crushed peanuts.
It is a pleasure to eat: the rice pudding is smooth and soft, but not overly creamy. It yields to the cheapest plastic spoons, yet holds its shape after a bumpy bike ride. But the highlight is definitely the pearls of sweet corn, whose pomegranate-like burst of flavor is a most welcome surprise.
Mary Lou has been selling homemade products in the bus station for almost a decade. Before prepared foods, it was origami art, which she was able to make while working as a caregiver.
However, after giving birth and taking a four-month maternity leave (unfortunately a rarity in the Filipino community in Israel), she had to get back to work (all too common). The 24/6 schedule of most caregivers was untenable for this young mother, so she transitioned to working as a housekeeper. Working Monday to Thursday with fixed hours has given her the time to raise a family and conveniently, to expand her catering business. Mary Lou sells her Filipino delicacies at five neighborhood shops, caters the weekly and holiday “kiddush” for the Jesus is Lord Church on the fifth floor of the bus station and fills special orders for fellow Filipino workers who too often do not have the time or resources to do so on their own.
Working as a caretaker, as almost all Filipino immigrants do is exhausting.
Rather than use their only day off to cook traditional foods, Mary Lou and others have created an opportunity to supplement their living with a thriving catering business. You can find their prepared foods at a handful of shops in the bus station’s Filipino shuk (primarily on the fourth floor, at Dragon Market, 11 Yesud Hama’ala Street, 121 Levinsky Street and at a handful of other pop-up spots in Naveh Sha’anan.
If you order in advance, you can also get home delivery (in Naveh Sha’anan) for no extra fee.
For many Filipinos, as well as Thai, Chinese and Nepali workers who do not live in Tel Aviv, there is another delivery option for those unable to make it the Filipino shuk on market days – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Many of the Filipino- focused markets, such as Manila Kamayan, are happy to ship packages of food across Israel. After receiving an order by phone and payment through Western Union (and potentially PayPal or Venmo in the near future), they send the packages on a bus, a practice common in much of the developing world.
Shipment by bus allows these workers to get a taste of home without spending their only day off schlepping to and from Tel Aviv. Furthermore, as buses travel so frequently from the bus station to many points in Israel, customers can also get freshly made pastries or non-kosher foods, like chicharrones, sent to them.
Many of the Filipino caretakers live and work in kosher homes, preventing them from preparing and consuming pork, shellfish and or other non-certified foods during their workday meals.
With a package of fresh asado pork or siopao (pork-steamed buns), they can get a taste of nostalgia, offering a brief respite from the demands of the day.
Dragon Market, Manila Cabalan, Manila Kamayan, and a handful of other shops in Naveh Sha’anan offer hundreds of products from China, Thailand, and the Philippines. A cursory investigation of the Manila Kamayan market reveals a number of certified products ranging from vinegars and sauces (not the fish sauces) to noodles, rice and frozen fruits.
According to “Auntie” Cony, the daytime manager, about 80% of the foodstuffs are imported from the Philippines with the remainder coming primarily from Thailand and China. However, almost all of the produce sold in these markets is grown in Israel. The ube (purple sweet potato), sweet cassava, bok choy, chinese broccoli, and so much more are grown in a few farms throughout Israel. These small farms sell most all of their produce to the handful of markets in South Tel Aviv, catering primarily to the 60,000 Filipino, Thai, Nepali and Chinese foreign workers.
Like most of the Filipinos in Israel, Cony originally came here with the Overseas Foreign Worker program to work as a housekeeper. Though she came to Israel alone, she can’t remember a time here without Filipino food and family.
“In the Philippines, the whole village is your family – not like Israel, where you don’t know anyone in your apartment or neighborhood.”
According to Cony, family is very important for Filipinos, encompassing not just kin, but also the Yiddish term landsmen. When she meets someone from near her village, not to mention a sixth cousin, it is as if they grew up in the same home, and she does whatever she can to help. Cony describes how Filipinos in Israel really do adhere to the saying “we are responsible for one another” (kol yisrael avevim zeh lazeh).
In this spirit, she wrote a regular column in the community Manila Times, offering help and support to her Filipino family. Unfortunately, she had to cut back – traveling to hospitals and doing home visits was too much, especially for a “women of this age.” With a mischievous smile, she makes sure to remind me that if one were to “see [her] dancing, you would not know” that she is well into her 60s.
Between the long hours at Manila Kamayan and her age, Cony no longer travels far. Nonetheless, she still offers a chair to those looking for advice. Before I left, she introduced me to Pasita, the unofficial kosher Filipina caterer (she allows neither pork nor shellfish into her kitchen, and mixing milk and meat is forbidden in her home). Pasita also works in the shuk, renting space at Evelyn’s to sell her food every Friday and Sunday (she does not cook or work on Shabbat).
Pasita is a bundle of joy on a busy Friday morning, sharing her story with me while chatting with customers and friends. It’s almost rhythmic the way she moves between conversations and people. Like Mary Lou, Pasita’s cassava cake is big seller, but her specialty is definitely lumpia, egg rolls filled with bananas, mixed vegetables or beef.
“Eat the lumpia,” she encourages. “It’s meat. Kosher meat!” I pass on the beef lumpia, opting instead for the turon, or banana lumpia, a sweet, deep-fried egg roll filled with banana and sprinkled with brown sugar or pakaskas, a traditional, raw Filipino sugar. Frying has made the banana as smooth as custard, serving as a great contrast to the crispy, crunchy egg roll. Definitely a win.
The savory lumpia are also great but are elevated to a whole new level with her homemade sukang maanghang (spiced vinegar). Traditionally made with cane-sugar vinegar (available in bus station shops) and a mixture of hot chili, peppercorns, garlic, salt, and ginger, this mixture is a staple of panlasong pinoy. This dipping sauce is perfect with most everything else sold at her stand. (Side note: this vinegar could be the most quintessentially pinoy, offering a mouth-puckering jolt of zesty flavor that is featured in most Filipino cuisine.) Beyond the lumpia – I probably should have stopped after three – Pasita tells me she sells out of her papaitan (a traditional “bitter” stew of beef organs – heart, liver, kidney, etc) every day.
It is also given the sukang treatment, creating a harmony of sensations with her sweet-spicy vinegar. Similarly, her fried bangus (milkfish), adobo (vinegar- soy marinated chicken that is then slow cooked to tender perfection), and pancit (rice vermicelli noodles, with chicken and vegetables), are all enhanced with a splash of vinegar.
There are scores of savory dishes to choose from in the Filipino shuk on market days. Steamed dumplings, sticky rice balls cooked in banana leaves, a variety of stews, roasted meat, fish balls and so much more – almost all of which are served with sukang maanghang. There are other popular sauces – notably bagong, a shrimp/fish sauce, and banana ketchup – but these tend to be stronger, sometimes overpowering a dish rather than highlighting and complementing the diverse flavors.
For those with more of a sweet tooth, there are plenty of options to choose from. Beyond the various types (and colors!) of puto, there are many different cakes, puddings, and sweet breads.
Bibingka is a coconut-milk cake cooked in a banana leaf. It is reminiscent of the sweet, coconut muffins the neighborhood bakery always wanted to make.
Butsi (alt. buchi) is a sticky rice ball, coated in sesame seeds, and filled with sweetened adzuki beans. Unlike many other rice and cassava dishes, these two-bite rice balls have a little bit of a crunch from the sesame, which also adds another layer of complexity to these treats. An ideal little pocket of protein, this could be a new favorite amongst Tel Aviv’s gluten-free crowd.
For the adventurous eaters out there, how about an egg? Unlike Rocky’s raw egg breakfast, these two Filipino delicacies will definitely impress – and gross out – your friends. Itlog na Maalat (salted beet egg) is the milder of the two. Despite its beet-pink color, it is rather mild, tasting like a brined hardboiled egg… but better than the ones sitting on that Irish pub’s counter for the past decade.
Then there is balut, the infamous Filipino egg that has been disparagingly called the grossest food in the world. It is a fertilized duck egg, ideally 11 to 17 days old – too young and it is not developed enough, too old and it will have more significant bones and feathers – boiled and eaten plain, or with a hit of spicy vinegar. These eggs are not always available and require a special order.
The diverse Pinoy palette is difficult to describe, for it reflects a world of cuisine even greater than that seen in modern Israel. Developed in the vast Philippine archipelago of more than 7,100 islands, with heavy Spanish and American colonial influences, centuries of East Asian trade networks with nearby Indochina (Vietnam and Cambodia), Indonesia, China, Taiwan and New Guinea, Filipino food is explicitly a melting pot of cultures. It sounds intimidating, and it could be, but for those willing to get over the bright purple steamed buns and squishy gelatinous rice cakes, this accommodating fusion cuisine will help you understand why so many Israelis are now flocking to the Philippines.
If you can’t make it to the Philippines, or are simply interested in going on a domestic culinary journey, the Filipino shuk is not to be missed. It is most active Fridays through Sundays. Most prepared foods cost NIS 10 a container.