Halo-halo, the Filipino dessert of American-style shaved ice, Spanish dulce de leche, and Asian mung beans is an edible example of the Philippines' unique layering of cultures. On the weekends, you'll find halo-halo at impromptu stands in Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station - and if you take a stroll through the surrounding neighborhood, you'll see a similar stacking of flavors in the eateries that cater to Israel's foreign workers and African refugees.
Pinoy-Namaste, with its blended Filipino-Nepali name, seems a good place to start. Anchoring a corner of the Central Bus Station, this restaurant and party hall serves favorites from the Philippines like kare-kare and lechon kawali. Kare-kare is a thick, peanut-based stew, peppered with beef, oxtail and vegetables. Depending on the cook's home region, this heavy soup is sometimes punched up with chili and mouth-puckering calamansi lime juice.
Lechon kawali is made from small cubes of pork belly. Fatty and soft, the bits are boiled in water spiked with garlic and salt. Next, the meat is deep fried to a golden brown. Under the guidance of owner Ruby Sukjai, Pinoy-Namaste dishes up lechon as juicy and crisp as it is in the Philippines.
Finding all the ingredients from home isn't difficult, Sukjai says, "We have everything inside the bus station." But recently Sukjai has been lacking a bit in customers, due to the Oz Unit's ongoing patrols of the area. As a result, her business, only a year old, is now sagging, and Sukjai is hoping to find a buyer for Pinoy-Namaste.
If you're looking to taste the Namaste side, you'll have to move along to the Surag Kiosk. There, in a small kitchen at the back of the store, two Nepali women pinch the tops of dumplings stuffed with chicken. After the dough is closed, the pouches are steamed, and then drizzled in a spicy sauce made of tomato, chili, garlic, and cilantro. This rich dish, known as momo in Nepal, seems to beg for a more ornate plate than the thin plastic one used at Surag Kiosk.
Cross Rehov Lewinsky and wander down Rehov Neveh Sha'anan. Though most of the stalls are nameless, music floating out into the street or a flag draped above a doorway announces their flavor.
Occasionally, these markers point you toward places where you wouldn't expect to find food. A stop at an internet cafÃ© revealed a brisk business of connecting Nepali workers to home via computers and bites of a buttery, lentil-based salad, topped with chopped onions and hot green peppers.
Further down the lane, a Chinese restaurant is marked by neither a flag nor music, but a simple red lantern and a white cardboard sign with handwritten black characters. This barebones spot offers four choices to customers - and if you don't speak Mandarin, you'll have to point to what you want, an experience familiar to those of us who have traveled in China.
Noodles and seafood in a steaming broth is popular among the men who are clustered at the tables outside. If there's no room to sit, opt for a large sticky bun - hot, chewy and filled with a flavorful mixture of meat and onions. Costing only NIS 5, it makes for a cheap and portable meal.
There is also a smattering of Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants along Rehov Neveh Sha'anan. Because the cuisine of both countries is almost identical, these eateries are owned and frequented by Ethiopian-Israelis, as well as refugees from Eritrea. At all, you will find injera - the spongy, gray flatbread made from teff, a grain native to the horn of Africa - accompanied by vegetable and meat-based stews.
ONE HUMBLE stall is operated by an asylum seeker from Eritrea, where he earned a first degree in chemistry and taught English, science and math to high-school students. The refugee, who asked to remain anonymous, has been in Israel for two years and opened his restaurant almost a year ago. Since Oz began its patrols, he says his business has plummeted, as has the mood in the Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood.
People live in fear, he continues, because they don't know Hebrew, and they are constantly exposed to rumors and word of raids by the immigration police. As a result, many people have left the city.
Neveh Sha'anan has been a shelter to one wave of immigrants after another since Tel Aviv's early years. The restaurants remind of that - there are a handful of Russian eateries in the area, reflecting the massive aliya from the former Soviet Union; Eden, a Persian restaurant, was established 45 years ago by a family who immigrated to Israel from Iran; and although none of their eateries remain, in the 1930s many Jews who had fled Europe lived in Neveh Sha'anan before moving on to other, more prosperous, neighborhoods.
But many of today's residents have apparently forgotten this past - the walls are littered with graffiti that are menacing to outsiders. "Stop immigration, save Tel Aviv," a black stencil says. Street art intended to support foreign workers has been altered to say "Deport me," and is adorned with swastikas.
And with the Oz Unit on patrol and xenophobic scrawls on the walls this once vibrant, pluralistic neighborhood is growing quiet. Just six months ago, you could buy panipur - delicate crisps filled with a spicy mix of potato and chaat masala, a common street food in the subcontinent - every weekend at a table in front of the Central Bus Station's Om Indian Store. Asked about the stall, an employee at Om Indian Store shakes his head.
"The people are going back to India now," he says.
Given its history of offering refuge to the weary, the neighborhood has taken on a taste of irony. Yet some of the Israelis who live and work in the area are more than supportive of Neveh Sha'anan and Shapira's newest residents. A small Israeli-owned and run market has posted a guard and a sign at their door to let the Oz Unit know: "Immigration police not wanted here."
Inside, an Asian shopper browses the selection. There is dried fish, dehydrated squid, pickled mustard greens, oyster sauce, and a Jewish touch: Shabbat candles. An Israeli employee smiles and asks the shopper if he is from China.
"Thailand," is the response.
Precious few restaurants in the neighborhood serve dishes from the customer's home country. But Mommy's, a Filipino restaurant, includes food from all over southeast Asia. At Mommy's you'll find chicken with fresh ginger, fried tofu, and a proper tom yum goong - the Thai soup flavored with shrimp and lemongrass.
Owned by Filipina Lucy Hazood and her Israeli husband, Mommy's also offers karaoke to its visitors, who are Israeli, Arab-Israeli, Ethiopian, Thai, Indian, Nepali, Chinese and Filipino. For now, the crowd is halo-halo-like - reminiscent of Israel's many layers.