Prepare to be Shuk: A Guide to Mahane Yehuda
If you find yourself in Jerusalem and looking for something to do, sooner or later someone will direct you to Mahane Yehuda Market. Affectionately known as the Shuk, Mahane Yehuda is a giant open-air market that spans a few blocks in the city center.
The historical locale first came to life in the 1800s as a way for Jews to trade goods with their Arab brothers. Before the British could intervene, Jews were suddenly speaking Arabic, and Arabs were speaking Yiddish and Hebrew. The Shuk still exists today as a reminder of the beauty that results from melding cultures and cuisines, and most importantly, that if you welcome thy neighbors with kindness, you’re more likely to leave with a full stomach.
Between the early hours of the morning until the light fades, the Shuk packs a crowd of locals and tourists. Though it’s become increasingly touristy in the last few years, it’s still a must-see for everyone, both Israeli residents and visitors. It’s a staple for someone like me who lives close by and sometimes prefers the sights and smells of a market to a grocery store. Going to the Shuk makes my food shopping more like a mini event than a chore. If you do want to go to a supermarket, though, don’t worry; the Shuk is so large, there are actually miniature grocery stores within, in case you need to pick up some frozen goods or non perishables in addition to your fresh produce.
Politeness, however, will only get you so far in the Shuk. It is not the place for the faint of heart, or the faint of vocal chords.
The Shuk packs anything and everything you could hope for. Whether eggplant or nectarines, dragonfruit or brightly colored peppers or the most delicious persimmons and dates you’ll find around, if it’s in season and you want it, the Shuk has it. The Shuk probably also carries your favorite fruit dehydrated, yet somehow juicier than any dried fruit you could hope to get at home. Be sure to stop by one of the many sellers carrying barrels of dried fruits and nuts. The dried mango and dried apricots are an absolute must try.
Come to Mahane Yehuda with an empty stomach, because in addition to all the incredible food available for purchase, I can guarantee you’ll run into a merchant waving samples in your face. The vendors of the Shuk can often be found out in front of their stands, calling out to passerby to smell and taste their merchandise. And if there’s something you want to try, don’t be afraid to ask! In Mahane Yehuda, vendors are very enthusiastic about allowing newcomers to experience the many incredible flavors of the country. You can definitely score some halva samples (a sweet, sesame-based dessert) or some Turkish delight if you flash a smile and a please.
Of course, sometimes you won’t be overlooked at all. My first week living in Israel, a particular seller dubbed me ‘Freckles, Queen of the Market.’
Politeness, however, will only get you so far in the Shuk. It is not the place for the faint of heart, or the faint of vocal chords. If you want to make a purchase, you may have to assert yourself from within the sea of market-goers vying for the cashier’s attention. And do not let up your pace or your determination when walking through the narrow corridors that make up the Shuk’s center. There, the word ‘slikha’ will be your friend- excuse me/sorry! Especially as a woman, don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself if you’re trying to round a packed corner, or if you’re being overlooked as a customer.
Of course, sometimes you won’t be overlooked at all. My first week living in Israel, a particular seller dubbed me ‘Freckles, Queen of the Market,’ and hasn’t stopped greeting me as such since. That’s just how Israelis are- unafraid, unabashed, and wholeheartedly willing to address you directly and coax you to try and buy to your heart’s desire.
While all the food in the Shuk is delicious and worth a try, there are a few stand-outs I’ve come to love and recommend. My favorite bread stand is a kosher bakery on the side of the Shuk, off Agrippas Street and next to a Change Exchange. It doesn’t have an obvious name or distinguishing sign, but it does have the most consistently fresh and fluffy bread around, and for a pretty steadfast price.
If you prefer your bread wrapped around the Best Falafel in Jerusalem, just a few doors down from the bakery is a small stand by that very name. The real star at this stop is its red sauce. With just the right amount of spice and tang, I haven’t found red sauce like this at other falafel places, and I always find myself asking for ‘od’-more.
‘Jahnun’ is the place to go for Yemenite specialties, like a flaky flatbread topped with grilled veggies and boiled egg. For other ethnic dishes, check out Tzidkiyahu deli. Their stuffed grape leaves are the tastiest in the market (I did a personal taste test), and although I don’t eat red meat, my flatmates can attest that their kibbeh (ground meat fried in dough) is the best. If you’re craving something sweet, Marzipan’s rugelach is a nationwide favorite and will leave you dreaming of your next bite.
At the end of the day, anything you try at the Shuk is sure to be ‘tayim’ (tasty,) and you’ll be leaving with a happy belly and a slightly lighter wallet.