A life of spice

The Levinsky market in Tel Aviv exudes an enticing aroma and an exotic aura.

spices 88 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
spices 88
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
The area around Rehov Levinsky in the Neve Shana'an neighborhood - not far from the old bus station - is one of Tel Aviv's most colorful and spicy areas. The Levinsky market, which spills into its numerous side streets, is possibly the best place in Israel to buy spices, herbs, and teas. They come in sacks brimming with fragrant aromas and bright colors and textures that artists dream about creating on their paint palettes. The merchants who hawk the spices and herbal delights are almost as colorful and spicy as their wares. A visit to the market can be an exotic culinary delight, with a history and cultural lesson thrown in for the bargain. Israeli vendors, whose backgrounds are Greek, Iranian, Turkish and Moroccan, offer new experiences for tastebuds and coffee with the kick of a mule. This writer was given recipes galore, told umpteen tales from "old country" folklore and lectured on how to cure ailments by creating a potion from this or that. The pulsating market is a magnet for gourmets, attracting professional chefs, bakers and proud homemakers from all over the country. Scores of herbs, spices, dried fruits, nuts, sweetmeats, beans and pickles are available in jars, bottles, plastic bags and beige cloth sacks - a selection of the latter stacked along sidewalks like platoons of Chinese terracotta soldiers. The vendors are rich in humorous banter between the stalls as regular customers join in, hollering above the din of cars snarled along the narrow street. Founded by Jews from Thessalonica, Greece, more than 80 years ago, the Levinsky market is tucked under and between somewhat dilapidated three-story buildings. In time, the Thessalonicans were joined by an influx of Iranian Jews, as well as immigrants from other countries where herbal remedies and spicy foods were the norm. The street itself is named after Elchanan Leib Levinsky, from Lithuania. Levinsky was a member of the Bilu Zionist movement and a multitalented author and businessman who made aliya to Palestine in the early l880s. Above 45 Rehov Levinsky, a sign proclaims "Established in l906." Welcome to Pereg gourmet, where present-day owner Dina Pereg and her two daughters stand behind a counter in their house of a thousand-and-one delights. Two huge pyramid piles of ground Moroccan paprika (that seem to defy the laws of gravity) adorn the corner of the counter closest to the street. Opposite the counter, rows of smaller jars on shelves hold dried parsley, basil, oregano, green dill, Mexican chili peppers and some items most people would neither recognize nor know what to do with. Dina is one of the most prominent local characters. A third generation spice merchant, she is the expert's expert when it comes to hot, curried or sweet and sour foods from different ethnic cultures. The line of people trying to squeeze in demonstrates how Dina is the queen of spice row. The few spaces not crammed full of dried herbs, peppers, ground nuts, hibiscus, cinnamon sticks, lemon, rye or dried leaves for teas are filled with photographs of Dina with well-known Israeli chefs, politicians, sports and entertainment personalities. It would appear from the photos that Israel's popular television chefs tune in to the Pereg channel when looking for the quality ingredients needed for their dishes. Dina and her daughters do not let shoppers feast with eyes and nostrils only. Every day, they make a dish or two of their own special concoctions and hand out small portions to customers. Trying out the manner of the moment, Avinoam Katrieli, who in shirt and tie looks every bit the president of an international investment and finance company that he is, grins widely. "I come all the way from Jerusalem especially to buy the best at Dina's," he says. Across the road, a family with deep roots in Iran offers sacks of dried goods, fruits, and many different types of nuts. Other temptations include a selection of olive and corn oils and, in a separate area, huge piles of sweet stuff. The Bardarian family members chatter away in Farsi, and the outer pillars of their shop are covered with what looks like sales promotions written in that language. Many of the goods inside the shop are labeled in Persian only. Don't ask how fattening the items are. A few doors down, in a shop selling similar wares, posters of two gentlemen catch the eye. On one, the late Shah of Iran looks sternly at the gentleman staring back at him from the opposite poster: Iranian-born President Moshe Katsav. A chat with a fellow called Nissim who sells olives from a barrel reveals that he was one of the last Jews fleeing Teheran to board an El Al plane as the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in 1979. Nissim doesn't normally sell foodstuffs, he explains - he was helping a sick relative for the day. He normally sells Persian carpets a few streets down. He tries to convince a shopper that she needs a Persian rug, and she jokingly asks if he has any of the flying variety. "You want a flying carpet that serves pita and humous? Then buy a ticket from El Al," he quips. A visit to the Levinsky market can prove highly educational - and a barrel of laughs.