Tiberias’s hidden heritage

A unique Israeli cuisine, served by chef Avigail Aharon.

Aharon’s tour may include a visit to the grave of Maimonides, who recommended a green salad for breakfast and whose recipe she faithfully follows (pictured) (photo credit: AYAL GUTTMAN)
Aharon’s tour may include a visit to the grave of Maimonides, who recommended a green salad for breakfast and whose recipe she faithfully follows (pictured)
(photo credit: AYAL GUTTMAN)
Tiberias, with its lakeside charm and stony remains of the ancient world poking up here and there, hardly strikes the tourist as a gourmet treasure. Fish restaurants abound, and there are plenty of pleasant cafes with tables set out on the pavement. A few higher-end restaurants by the lakeside and in hotels seem to complete the culinary scene.
But away from public view, there’s a food culture that dispenses generous hospitality, to friends and family only. Chef Avigail Aharon breaks with tradition and reveals the delicious secrets of Tiberias’s heritage flavors.
Aharon’s father was a local fisherman, and Aharon herself occasionally still fishes on Lake Kinneret. As a 10th-generation Tiberian, she knows every corner of the city and how people have always cooked there.
“Tiberians have lived inside these hills and walls for 800 years,” she explains. “The conquerors, the immigrants, and even the great rabbis who lived or are buried here left their mark on our food. And our proximity to the Galilee allows us to obtain the best of raw ingredients.”
Aharon takes tourists on culinary tours of the city, explaining landmarks and history along the way. Her tour may include a visit to the grave of Maimonides, who recommended a green salad for breakfast and whose recipe she faithfully follows. You’ll ramble with her on a city walk where she’ll introduce you to uniquely Tiberian customs. Standing at the remains of the ancient citadel, she’ll tell the story of the “Little Purim” that residents celebrate to mark the end of the Syrian siege of the city in 1742.
Getting down to where the food comes from, Aharon takes you to the city market. In a cheese shop, she shows you gvina tzfatit – the traditional hard white cheese made by the Kadosh family in Safed. This salty cheese is essential to calzones, stuffed pastries that Tiberians enjoy on Shabbat.
“It’s not Shabbat without calzones,” claims Aharon. “You don’t need to travel to Safed on donkey back anymore,” she adds with a smile. “It’s for sale in local stores everywhere these days.”
Aharon lets you in on a little-known food fact: until the British occupation of Tiberias, rice was unknown in the city. For centuries previously, people ate freekeh, smoked green wheat. When the British took wheat fields over for building on, they introduced rice. Tiberians took to the white grain eagerly.
“Rice, being imported, doesn’t require the intensive cultivation and processing that freekeh does. Yet freekeh is far healthier, and much more flavorful,” she says, turning a bag of the grain over in her hands. “It’s delicious as a side dish, cooked like rice. You can also use it like rice to stuff chicken or lamb.”
Aharon also takes you to a fishmonger’s to show you how to tell the difference between tilapia from Lake Kinneret and farmed fish. But Tiberians, according to the chef, don’t need to see the fish to know where it came from.
“Tilapia from Lake Kinneret is becoming rare,” she says, “But serve a Tiberian fish from both sources, and he’ll immediately know which one is local and which one was farmed, by taste alone.”
Aharon began her career in a field not related to food: she was a parliamentary assistant in the Rabin government. Disillusioned and sad after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, she returned home to cook.
“My husband’s the one who encouraged me to cook professionally,” she says. “You’re always cooking. Your friends come in and start eating. Why not make an income from it?”
“So about 20 years ago, I started a catering service, Avigail Potahat Shulhan. It was all family recipes, all the food straight out of my home kitchen. Business grew. I traveled to Romania to participate in a culinary contest, and returned home with two medals: one from the dessert category and one from the tapas category. I simply took my recipes and transformed them into tapas.”
“At that point, my husband told me, ‘All right, now you need to open a restaurant.’ So I did, on condition that all the food should be cooked from the recipes I inherited from my mother and grandmother – heritage recipes. I’d cook 30 to 40 portions for lunch, and when the food was gone, that was it, I’d close the door and go home. That’s how I preserved the home flavor of my cooking.”
Aharon would take a boat out to Lake Kinneret every Sunday, and catch fish for the whole week’s cooking. Favored guests and celebrities would sometimes go out fishing with her.
The small restaurant’s fame spread in the Israeli press, with enthusiastic reviews. Two years ago, Aharon had a famous conflict with the rabbinate when she refused to pay their mashgiah (kashrut supervisor) and joined an independent kashrut-supervision organization. “My grandparents and parents kept kosher – I keep kosher,” she says. “The mashgiah from the rabbinate did nothing but show up and take his salary. Why should I pay for that?”
She put a sign reading “kosher without rabbinate supervision” on the restaurant window. However, the rabbinate issued a statement that they have exclusive right to publicize the word “kosher.” The issue reached the press and TV.
Aharon eventually closed her restaurant. “I grew tired,” she explains. “Apart from waitressing and cleaning, I did every single thing in the restaurant. Certainly all the cooking; I’m extremely particular about the food.”
She retained the name “Avigail Potahat Shulhan” for the catering business she took up again. With regard to kashrut, Aharon now simply assures her customers that all her food is cooked “according to Torah law.”
Metro asked if Aharon has observed changes in traditional Tiberian cooking. “Absolutely,” the chef answers. “We’re cooking much more lean these days. Much less fat in the diet. Our forefathers worked hard physically. They needed those fats. But today, we work with olive oil rather than animal fat, and less of it. Traditionally recipes didn’t call for pomegranate, for another example, but I incorporate them into salads, as fresh seeds and as syrup, for the fresh flavor and nutrition.”
The old-fashioned Tiberian system of long, slow cooking prevails, but with a modern twist.
Book a culinary tour or workshop with chef Avigail Aharon at 050-823-3733. Aharon also has a Facebook page, and several videos on YouTube.