There are food tours. And then there are food tours with chef Gil Hovav.
This was the latter. It was a Tuesday morning and we were in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Market, about seven square blocks settled by Romanian immigrants in the 1920s. Hovav was already chatting up the nut seller (Shina Shaul, 57 Levinsky) and testing my nut and dried fruit knowledge.
Those dark wine-colored berries? Not dried cranberries, but Persian zarshak, often used in rice. And the golden teardrop-shaped slices? Dried Persian garlic.
There were anecdotes, too. Hovav said as kids they used to call the chunks of sugar rock candy “sugar Kennedy,” because their Hebrew tongues couldn’t pronounce the word candy. And the nearby car covered with flattened boxes? It was being used to dry fruit. Go figure.
Levinsky Market has been undergoing a kind of renaissance among Tel Aviv’s chefs and foodies, and the market is a favorite for Hovav, a food journalist, radio host and raconteur who combines his family history — his great-grandfather was Hebraicist Eliezer Ben Yehuda and his grandfather was modern Hebrew journalist Itamar Ben-Avi — with his professional knowledge.
The purpose of our visit, however, was to show off what Hovav and Jack Gottlieb, his partner in this food venture, are doing with a new series of e-guidebooks.
Called “Israel’s Top 100 Ethnic Restaurants,” the idea is to introduce authentic Israeli culture and cuisine to tourists and create a kind of Jewish TripAdvisor.
“People who live here only know half the places,” said Gottlieb, a Boston businessman who is bankrolling the project as part of World Jewish Heritage, an organization he founded to promote Jewish culture worldwide. “So we decided to curate the best places in Israel as an e-book with a cultural app. It’s a kind of cultural Wikipedia.”
If Hovav’s tour is anything to go by, it’s a worthwhile read.
He’s the consultant on the project and Levinsky figures prominently in the book, given that there are more than a dozen creditable mom-and-pop restaurants nestled along its narrow side streets. And once you plan to head for lunch at Salimi, a family-run Persian restaurant (80 Nahalat Binyamin), you’ll end up wandering along the other streets of the unique market.
There are also more than a dozen family-owned spice and herb stands in Levinsky, renowned for their well-stocked shelves.
“Pops,” Hovav called to the owner of Arama Spices (51 Levinsky), “take out the canister of shakta mashkata.” It’s a Persian black seed that’s helpful in keeping women quiet, Hovav said with a wink.
The proprietor extracted the jar with a smile for the well-known Hovav. The chef is a charmer as well as a font of foodie knowledge.
We stopped to nibble some fresh marzipan and pillowy meringue kisses at Albert’s Cake Shop (36 Matalon Street), a family-owned Greek bakery that will soon be closing because none of the kids — who are all in high-tech — want to take over their parents’ business.
Cafe Levinsky (41 Levinsky) is a corner store where the favorite Israeli drink of soda water mixed with fruity flavoring is turned on its head with fresh fruit and herbs. We tried one with mulberries and another with yellow cherries and sprigs of rosemary. Hovav, meanwhile, plopped himself down on the lone wooden chair set out at the curb.
The cafe is a newcomer in these parts, but it fits in with Hovav’s list of favorites, which are the local, inexpensive eateries where proprietors prepare the food as they’ve been doing for years, often carrying on what their parents taught them.
“It annoys me that people come to Israel and go to tourist traps or have this misconception that new Israeli food is about the molecular preparation of pomegranates,” said Hovav. “You come here,” gesturing to the modest trappings of the cafe where we were now drinking glasses of “lion’s milk” — arak, an anise-flavored alcoholic drink, mixed with water — “and you’ll remember this place.”
It was Gottlieb who first reached out to Hovav when he started the project and was looking for an expert to guide him toward the best restaurants.
“I barely know how to cook an egg,” admitted Gottlieb.
But he knew that Hovav had all that kind of relevant, foodie information stored in his chef’s brain.
The project also counts on its curators, said Gottlieb, who volunteer their time to help write and edit the selections. They know that some establishments may end up closing, but that’s the advantage of e-books, which can be edited even after being published.
Besides, they’re loyal to the hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve authentic, ethnic meals.
“The real places keep their dignity,” said Hovav. “If there are 100 restaurants, 70 are really authentic and 30 will either close or serve schnitzel and veggie hamburgers because they know tourists love it. But that’s okay, because after a while, as a tourist, the authenticity frightens you. You need a place that serves safe Polish food and has A/C and takes credit cards.”
Hovav doesn’t want tourists to miss out on the other places just because they’re “under the radar and it’s a pity, because this is where truth lies,” he said.
The book is a community resource project, said Gottlieb, and includes the curators’ pictures taken with their phones and posted on Instagram, the social media application favored by foodies.
Later versions in the series will address the new Israeli kitchen, said Gottleib, hopefully with Hovav’s direction.
The next book in the series covers Jerusalem, and will include non-Jewish restaurants in the Old City and East Jerusalem, as well as markets, festivals and food workshops.
Head to the World Jewish Heritage site to download “Israel’s 100 Best Ethnic Restaurants” and for other information about the project.