Taste bud coexistence

The Jerusalem Food Truck constructs a mosaic representing the city’s diversity.

The Jerusalem Food Truck 521 (photo credit: Judith Sudilovsky)
The Jerusalem Food Truck 521
(photo credit: Judith Sudilovsky)
The large, overstuffed Palestinian katayef dumpling, with its sweet apricot and ginger filling, was a lovely gesture in honor of the Ramadan holiday; and the large number of groupies following the Jerusalem Season of Culture’s Food Truck were not daunted by the late hour. In deference to the daytime Muslim fast, the katayef was served at 11 p.m. outside the Old City’s Jaffa Gate.
Mostly young secular Jerusalemites with a smattering of families, older couples and modern Orthodox in the crowd, they were milling around the truck even before the allotted opening time, as colorful fluorescent lights flashed and circled from atop the vehicle and a soundtrack played Mizrahi and Arab-influenced music.
Already on day 10 of the 23-day Food Trip event, which takes an old-fashioned food truck manned by well-known Jerusalem chef Assaf Granit to different corners of the city, serving a different meal selected by a different celebrity guest server each day at a symbolic price, ranging from 10- 20 shekels ($2.80-$5.60) per plate, the Food Truck has gathered a sizeable loyal following of foodies who wait for a daily text or e-mail message informing them of the upcoming location.
“It is the story of Jerusalem,” Season of Culture director Naomi Bloch Fortis of the traveling food project tells The Jerusalem Report. “And if, at the end, you put together all the locations, and the guests and dishes served, you just might be able to see the mosaic that makes up the city and its history.” A Food Truck cookbook is also in the works, aiming to be ready for Passover, she adds.
Taking place during July and August, the third Jerusalem Season of Culture brings to the city a variety of cultural events, ranging from music, theater, performing arts, lectures and, for the first time, food.
Granit incorporates his own interpretation into every dish. So for traditionalists, this was not the run-of-the-mill katayef pancake folded and filled with either goat-milk cheese or a sweet cinnamon-nut mixture and customarily served following the iftar meal that breaks the daily fast during the Muslim month of Ramadan.
“Every day is an opportunity for us to reach a different neighborhood and meet people we would not normally meet in our restaurants,” says Granit, the chef at the popular Machneyuda restaurant in the Mahane Yehuda market and two other eateries, as he sets out small plastic dishes for a confection of slivered almonds, pistachios and sesame seeds rolled in coconut, to be offered to guests along with the jumbo katayef and its side offerings of eggplant and zucchini jam. “Food is a common language for all of us,” he tells The Report.
Twenty -three days with 23 different guests also provides Granit with the culinary challenge of mediating between the guest’s dish of choice and the way he, as a chef, is inspired to serve it, he notes. They almost always finish the 300-350 portions prepared nightly, he adds pleased with the number of people who came to Jaffa Gate.
“I am for anything that gives us somewhere to go and something to do,” says Jerusalem resident Assaf Salomon, 28, who, together with his wife, Estee, 27, was among the few religious people who sampled the katayef. “Before, I didn’t even know what a katayef was, and now I know something new,” Salomon comments.
A sign confirming that all the food served from the Food Truck is kosher and halal is displayed on the vehicle, making it available to religious Jews and also Muslims, sectors that do not frequent Granit’s non-kosher, pricey restaurants.
Still, on this day, none of the ultra- Orthodox Jewish families who hurried passed the truck pushing baby strollers and with children in tow stopped to sample the food. Curious Palestinians stood by watching, but not quite daring to try it. One Arab father ready to get some for his family was discouraged by the long lines.
Ahmed Hikel, 20, from the Jerusalem area village of Ein Nequba and visiting the Old City with his nephews from Germany, stopped to enjoy the festive atmosphere.
“We just saw something nice and came to take a closer look,” he says. “I saw the Hebrew, Arabic and English writing together on the sign and I liked it, like its something for peace. But if I want to eat katayef, I can get a kilo of the [unfilled] pancakes in the Old City for 15 shekels. But it is nice for the tourists. It is nice to see them using this kind of food here, especially for Ramadan. It lets lots of people get to know this food.”
Photographing the scene, Haifa tourists David and Iris Sheetrit ask, “Is this only in Jerusalem?” “This is a brilliant idea, offering food that connects people to the places in the different neighborhoods,” says Inbal This is a brilliant idea, offering food that connects people to the places in the different neighborhoods Halperin, 29, of Jerusalem, confessing that she had already followed the truck to three different neighborhoods.
Artist and social activist Matan Israeli, who is involved in exploring the seam line between East and West Jerusalem, selected the evening’s dish, noting also the significance of the border location between East and West Jerusalem. Granit’s slight twist on the dish was also an important part of the evening, Israeli says.
Moroun Moroun, 27, a Hebrew University student from the Haifa-area village of Isfiya, emphasizes that the name of the sweet is misspelled on the menu sign. Though pronounced either atayef or katyef, he says, it is always spelled as katayef. Later, an announcer for the evening acknowledges the mistake over a loudspeaker as he addresses the diners, to the enthusiastic approval of Moroun and his friends.
“This is not the start of anything, but it is nice. The [Arab] population of Jerusalem is less integrated than in the north; they are more religious, more conservative here and you feel the conflict more here,” notes Hebrew University student Halim Jubran, 30, from the Galilee village of Rame.
“These small events attract a certain type of people, but it doesn’t extend out. You need something much deeper to bring people together.”
Indeed, says Granit, while the diners come largely from Jerusalem’s secular population, he can do no more than bring his food to the different neighborhoods to entice other residents to take part in the gastronomic experience offered.
Later in the week Palestinian chef Kamel Hashlamon teamed up with Granit to serve a traditional chicken and frikeh, a green grain, dish, which was made with green wheat instead. Not as well known as other Palestinian dishes, he says he chose to serve the simple dish because it deserves more appreciation.
Hashlamon points out that by participating in the Food Truck event he is demonstrating that as a Palestinian, he can take part in such activities in the city without erasing his identity or denying where he comes from. “It brings light to a city I love and shows that life is good,” he tells The Report.
Old City resident Nasser, 27, observes the truck from a distance with a friend, but declines to taste the katayef adaptation.
He is still full from the iftar meal, he says.
Besides, he adds, it’s different to what he is used to and is afraid to try it. After a bit of encouragement, his friend, Muqman, 20, agrees to taste the almond-pistachio creation that is being passed out to the crowd and gives it the thumbs up.
“It is an idea – to change something in tradition. It doesn’t only have to be nuts and cheese, there can be another way too,” says Israeli, acknowledging that most people inclined to follow such a project are secular Israelis.
“You can change reality via food. And something sweet in our reality is not something trivial. Here, we are dealing with one of the most significant things – what we eat. People get engaged. They think about what they are eating, where the food comes from, whether it was sprayed with insecticide, who we support when we eat it and also who you are with and where you are and what situation you got into.”
While tonight’s dish gets mixed reviews from the diners, other days faired better, with numerous people raving about Granit’s version, assisted by radio personality Jackie Levi, of the fried Tunisian stuffed parcel called brik (in a version which had meat stuffed into thin filo-like dough along with hardboiled egg). A Food Truck version of the traditional Ethiopian injira stew – with both a vegetarian and meat version served with the help of Ethiopian-Israeli gourmet cook, poet and social activist Sewasew Desta, also garnered compliments, as did a stuffed zucchini dish served by singer Yasmin Levy. Likud Knesset Member Reuven Rivlin, the former Knesset Speaker, was another guest server later in the week in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood, choosing to offer an eggplant and tomato dish. The Food Truck also visited Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, where trauma Prof. Avi Rivkin helped serve up ulnik, a Polish pastry.
“I hope we are also passing out happiness with each portion, and with the music and the colors,” Granit observes.