Just down the street from the bustle of Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station sits another, rather quiet, universe — one filled with scents of saffron and cardamom and heaps of dried fruits, teas, nuts and rice: the Levinsky spice market. Between dilapidated three-story buildings, the five-block market boasts a dizzying array of fresh but cheap products, including varieties of fresh olives, cured and smoked meats and cheeses, and invigorating herbal tea mixes.
The Levinsky spice market’s primary vendors are traditional Iranian Jews, many of whom fled the Islamic Republic after Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in 1979. The wave of Iranian shop-owners were preceded by Jews from Thessalonika, Greece, who, after moving to the nascent state of Israel, sought to open their own business as well as a place to recreate the smells and tastes of home. The market still has a few Greek-style bakeries that sell burekas and other filo-dough creations. The street Levinsky, however, is named after the Russian Zionist Elhanan Levinsky.
The spice market is king for hard-to-find Eastern spices. It maintains an aura of humble tradition (there is an active synagogue smack in the middle of the market) and it caters to a savvy audience. On a Friday, the local pubs and cafes spill out into the streets amid the Friday rush. At night, after the vendors have closed their shops, the market goes quiet — save for a few pubs and cafes that are popping up and cater to a low-key indie youth clientele.
Brothers Moshe and Avraham Charkhi, Iranian Jewish immigrants, run the Charkhi Deli (55 Levinsky), located on the corner of Levinsky and Hachalutzim Streets. They import Persian rice, Shaghzat, a whole grain rice that is a staple in many Persian dishes, and sell full-bean hilbe, fava beans, an array of lentils, rosewater, and more.
In one of the jars, hidden high up on a rack, is what they refer to as “Grandma’s Remedy.”
“Rather than buying medicine when someone’s sick, Persians take this,” explained Avraham about the blend of four spices (poulangou, esparze, ‘outume, and tochsharbati in Persian) that you mix with hot water and steep, twice, when you have a sore throat. It’s an old-fashioned traditional remedy for the sort who don’t believe in pills.
There’s also Shuk California (53 Levinsky), one of the more famous shops in the market, thanks in part to its large premises and central location. Boasting dried lychee or pears, a variety of almonds, and dozens of Turkish delicacies, Shuk California is also run by Iranian Jews.
Arama Cafe (51 Levinsky) is a unique shop that you can smell from a block away: Its scent is that of a coffee shop infused with dill and mint. Run by Zion Arama, the shop sells exotic and medicinal teas and a range of fresh spices. Arama is a longtime friend of master chef Yisrael Aharoni, “who used to buy all his spices here,” he added.
A favorite among Arama’s customers is his blend of authentic, white Yemeni coffee. Infused with pepper, cardamom and ginger, the mix has the same flavors as Indian masala tea. “The coffee beans are not fully burnt, which is why it’s lighter and healthier,” said Arama, “and that’s why it’s so tasty. It gives you a lot of energy… and it’s an aphrodisiac,” said Arama, winking.
One of the more interesting shops in the market is located on the opposite end from busy Haaliyah Street. Yom Tov Delicatessen (43 Levinsky) is a speciality store run by two brothers, Yomi and Eitan Levi. The shop is named after their grandfather, Yom Tov, who opened the the first version of the store in Istanbul, Turkey in 1947. Their father opened the store in the Levinsky market in 1969, and the brothers are the third generation to run it.
“We were here before the Iranians,” they teased.
“Our motto is natural and tasty,” the brothers explained. They have relations with hundreds of vendors and are the sole directors of that process. They deal with the suppliers, some from Turkey, others local. They compared it to picking products “with a tweezer,” meaning every detail and every seemingly small item has been carefully picked – for taste and for quality – by them.
The deli has kept its original commitment to fresh quality products and rare imports. The walls are stocked with foreign cheeses, the highest standard of olive oil in the world, dozens of olives — including their speciality, Zeitun Yom Tov, a blend of green olives with dill, garlic and lemon — and imported purple Kalamata olives, fresh jams made by their grandmother, halva, caviar, fresh bread, dozens of smoked and dried meats and fish (which they prepare in a separate kitchen in order to keep the shop kosher), pickles, grape leaves, speciality mustard from Demaux, France, vinegar, and more.
They also have Gruyere Reserve, a rare, French-aged goat cheese, that is essentially two slabs of cheese with a thin slice of chestnut tree placed in the middle that is then baked in a coal oven and aged, giving it a deliciously mild burnt flavor.
It would be easy to get overwhelmed by the choices, except that Eitan and Yomi let customers taste as many things as they want and make an effort to make them feel comfortable to ask questions and enjoy the experience.
It’s a blend of classy, and fair, and a tradition of home cooking, that keeps the customers coming back. At 8 p.m., people were still strolling in.
“When I want to spoil myself, I come here,” said Rina Artsi, an elderly woman who lives in the area. She explained that her husband died recently, and that in other delis you can feel pressured to buy large quantities. “But here, they are happy if you buy even the smallest amount,” Artsi added.
Moti Cohen, a marine biologist, from a small beach village, Mikhmoret, said: “I really wish we had a place like this near me.” With food prices for basics like cheese and milk on the rise in supermarkets, Cohen explained, “it’s a real pleasure to come here, pay a little bit more, and get a better product. It’s worth every penny,” he said, smiling, as he reached to taste the smoked gouda.
Places to eat/drink in and around the market:
Cafe Kaymak (49 Levinsky) is an eclectic neighborhood cafe/restaurant/bar. Their bean soup is probably the most famous (it comes with a side of Persian rice, all for NIS 25).
The cafe is low-lit with copper, middle eastern-inspired lamps and tiny artistic details that make for a particularly intimate atmosphere. It has a full-length window that also serves as its entrance and which is fully open to the sidewalk. When it’s open, people can sit along the window bar and watch the world go by.
The cafe, opened by Yosef Cohen in 2009, is generally packed. His incentive for opening the spot? He couldn’t find a good cup of coffee after moving back to Israel from Australia.
It’s a vegetarian cafe and buys from kosher vendors (and is closed on Shabbat), which is why it caters to religious clientele although it does not have a kosher certificate. On Fridays, the cafe offers a festive Shabbat meal to formally welcome the weekend, and on Saturday nights they have live music at 9 p.m.
Devotchka Sandwich Bar (41 Hachalutzim), which happens to be the Russian word for girl or the name of an indie-rock outfit, is a retro-chic cafe opened by Keren Adam in late 2009. Just two blocks south of the spice market, it sits on a narrow and quiet street and has the facade of a 1950s American diner.
Devotchka is a non-kosher eatery that serves up unique and scrumptious sandwiches. Try the matias (a young, herring fish) sandwich for an explosion of finely accompanied tastes: matias, fresh arugala and cilantro, a light blend of sour cream, potato pieces, and tiny slices of radish smacked between two pieces of crispy artisan bread.
It’s a perfectly lazy way to start the weekend and let Shabbat roll in. Plus, “it’s the best sandwich in town,” according to one neighborhood regular.
Boutique Naqnique (“Sausage boutique,” 50 Levinsky) is a sausage and sandwich deli/cafe also in the heart of the market. On a Friday morning, it bustles with families, couples, and friends who want to start their weekend in an informal atmosphere. Clients trickle in and out, some take sandwiches to go, others sit and enjoy one of the deli’s famous meat platters, which include an assortment of cured meats and smoked sausages, and a variety of sauces and spreads such as mustards and hot sauces, olives, pickles, and bread.
The restaurant is kosher and the owner, Amir Yekutiel, has a factory that makes the roast-beef and pastrami.
“I come here every Friday with my family,” said Nissim Chaim, a resident of Kiryat Ono. “It’s the most relaxing thing, to sit here and eat or maybe have a few drinks after a long week, and watch the market bustle on Fridays afternoons.”
Tony and Esther (39 Levinsky) is a two-month-old cafe on the opposite end of the market from Boutique Naqniq. Named after two grandparents of both the owners, Maayan Hershko and Amir Yekutiel (the owner of Boutique Naqnique), the non-kosher cafe features home-made cooking à la grandma and a slew of jams and spreads.
One special dish is a Libyan breakfast treat that co-owner Hershko’s grandmother made for her when she was young. “You can’t find it anywhere else,” she claimed. The dish, burika, is made from the dough used to make Turkish cigars which is then wrapped around sunny-side up or boiled eggs and fresh vegetables, accompanied with a few fresh spreads. The cafe also features Malka beer from a local Israeli brewery.