Samphire and sourdough

With the Sarona shuk, a foodie dream comes to life in Tel Aviv.

The Sarona Market (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
The Sarona Market
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Friday morning in the Sarona complex, a green space in central Tel Aviv. Families stroll along tree-lined lanes. Shoppers venture into fashion boutiques.
Couples enjoy lunch alfresco at shaded tables outside cafés and restaurants.
Tel Aviv’s business towers loom high on the streets around the protected space, but the 140-year-old Templer houses, with their colorful shuttered windows and ironwork balconies, bring the eyes down to a more personal level.
A stream of people heading toward the back of the complex show the way to the brand-new, enclosed Sarona Market.
At the entrance to the modern building, there’s an enormous playground where kids can enjoy themselves. Picnic tables accommodate those shoppers who prefer to make an outdoor picnic of their purchases. Once you get past the guard at the entrance, it’s like going into a foodie dream. The ambient music sounds like an excited heartbeat, moving the shoppers along and keeping them alert. The air conditioning is industrial- strength. You’ll appreciate the need for many, many places to sit down. Because while the renovated Templer complex outside is about fresh air, culture, upscale shopping and leisure, inside the market it’s all about eating.
On the Friday morning that Metro visited the market, people stood elbow- to-elbow at the food stands, and whoever wasn’t eating was shopping for food or kitchenware to take home.
The Sarona Market offers 89 shops catering to the public’s culinary needs at every stage. You can fill up on a hot falafel, or stop at one of the delicatessens for an exquisite bite of smoked trout on a bruschetta, then proceed to one of the cheese stores for another taste of something delicious. As you make your way through the crowd, myriad food images swirl around you. A shiny ceramic amphora dispenses extra-virgin olive oil. A basket full of handmade lavender soaps invites you to pick one up and sniff the herbal fragrance. Natural food stores offer tehina, jams, cosmetics, flours. In fancy farmer’s shops, purple, white and striped eggplants lie next to baby zucchinis with their golden flowers still attached.
If you’re searching for unusual vegetables, you can try samphire, a wild shrub that grows by the sea and whose knobbly leaves have a distinctive, salty taste. In Hebrew it’s called salicornia, and it’s sold in one of the open vegetable stands for a reasonable NIS 10 per bag.
In fact, produce prices at the Sarona market are about the same as in your neighborhood supermarket or health food store – though it’s different if you’re buying hard-to-find products like handmade truffled butter or genuine English cheddar, both of which are on offer at the market.
If there’s booze on your mind, you can enjoy an entire wine-tasting session at a store that issues smartcards that allow you access to 20 wines out of its stock. Or you can go back to the store with the ceramic amphora and taste its handmade liqueurs or its whiskeys. In front of another store stands a beer barrel, where you can buy a large glass of fresh Israeli craft beer for NIS 18. Yet another store sells only beer, and prides itself on its selection of local craft beers.
Perhaps you prefer to stick with easygoing drinks. There are several coffee bars, easy enough to locate; just keep an ear out for the hiss of the espresso machines.
There is also a store where coffee aficionados can buy espresso machines and percolators.
The Palais des Thés shop offers a huge variety of exclusive teas. You can “taste” different teas by sniffing at a glass goblet that’s stood upside down over a saucer of tea leaves, the aroma of which fills the goblet. I have long searched for Lapsong Souchong tea and was happy to find it there. Fresh fruit juice stands diffuse odors of pressed mango and pineapple.
And even more refreshing is the stand that sells many kinds of fresh fruit popsicles.
“Traditional” has several meanings in the Sarona Market. There’s Chef Israel Aharoni’s ramen bar, festooned with flags bearing Japanese characters and staffed by somber Asians. In another section, two Druse ladies in traditional white headdresses and black robes, who don’t like their pictures taken, slap thin disks of dough onto a hot saj pan, and the flatbread bubbles up, making an appetizing smell. As in any Israeli shuk, there are stands displaying strings of dried chilies and garlic; all kinds of olives and pickles; cones of colorful spices; burekas and delicacies like kubbeh, stuffed grape leaves and halva. Several stores are branches of well-known shops in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market.
There are also conventional, seasonal fruits and vegetables for sale, although it makes more sense to buy purple potatoes and heritage tomatoes rather than ordinary cucumbers and carrots. During my visit, there seemed to be an excess of pumpkin and squash of all shapes and colors around, but they made attractive decorations.
There are several kitchenware shops, with woks, pasta rollers, copper pans and chef’s knives to turn the head of any serious cook.
Bakeries offer a bewildering choice of breads traditional and arcane: hallot; artisanal rye breads made from handmilled flours; quiches; focaccias topped with roasted vegetables; sourdough boules dusted with flour; white and whole-wheat baguettes. Delicate pastries, tarts, croissants, cakes and cookies seem to be on hand at every side.
One bakery offers rack after rack of gluten- free breads.
Carnivores will enjoy buying at butchers selling high-quality cuts of beef, lamb, duck and chicken. The standing rib roasts I saw looked excellent, even if they weren’t cheap. At least one of those butchers is kosher. On the non-kosher side, if seafood grabs your attention, another store offers live lobsters, clams, oysters, tiger shrimp and baby octopuses, along with enormous orange crab legs and the usual fishes.
Only a few stores display a kosher certificate, although many sell products that are kosher. The majority of the businesses stay open on Shabbat, and this sounds a sour note for some. The owner of one store with a kashrut certificate told me that the management fined him NIS 3,000 for every Shabbat he closed his store.
“It’s like telling us, keep away, we don’t want you,” he said. “I can’t afford NIS 12,000 in fines every month. I’ll have to close down.”
Wishing to verify this, I asked another store with a kashrut certificate about the Shabbat fine, and received the same answer. However, the second store had arranged some agreement with the management to avoid the fine. In the end, the Sarona Market authorities revoked the fine for closing businesses on Shabbat, following a viral Facebook post which led to public uproar and fiery letters from the Tel Aviv Religious Council and politicians.
If you’re not particular about kashrut, the Sarona market, with its ultra-Tel Aviv style, makes a good place bring friends for a tapas dinner. It would be pleasant to walk the length of the market, picking up a tasty nosh or beverage every so often, sitting down here or there as the fancy takes you, and possibly winding up with a more substantial dish at one of the restaurants. There’s a tempting ice cream shop to put a sweet finish on the evening.
Kosher-keepers would find a tapas evening harder to do, but some of the shop owners say that their fresh sandwiches and other products are kosher, even though the stores don’t have kashrut certificates. Caveat emptor – one must ask, and then decide whether to trust.
The Sarona Market is located at 3 Kalman Magen Street, Tel Aviv. Its hours are 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. For more information: