Tasting Osman's Dream in Tel Aviv

Published 24.08.2017 22:55
Updated 25.08.2017 20:36
The Pide Bianca Abdul Rachman is a tantalizing item on the menu at Onza, wonderful with “cacık.”
The Pide Bianca Abdul Rachman is a tantalizing item on the menu at Onza, wonderful with “cacık.”

The name Tel Aviv is a loose Hebrew translation for the title of the 1902 Austrian novel, ‘Old New Land' (Altneuland in German), which sowed the seeds for modern Zionism. Its philosophy of seeing the old in the new is akin to preserving Ottoman history, and although Jews were first forbidden to enter Ottoman Palestine in 1882, and those who did settle were deported in 1917 together with local Arabs,its culinary traditions were relatively uninterrupted and are a rich fusion of tastes that lulled Osman into a dream that lasted for over six centuries

Among the 10,000-plus civilian residents deported from Ottoman Palestine from 1914 to 1917 was a Polish Jew named David Grün. In the winter of 1911, after living in Palestine for five years, he moved to Thessaloniki to learn Turkish. It was in the multinational Ottoman city where he saw the future.

Months later, he met Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, a fellow Jewish law student who had recently graduated from Galatasaray High School in Istanbul. Together they enrolled at Istanbul University. Until he received his alma mater with Ben-Zvi in 1914, Grün also worked as a journalist in Constantinople, where he changed his surname to Ben-Gurion after the 10th century Romaniote historian Joseph ben Gorion.

Ottoman script at the entranceway of old buildings that reflect the character of Tel Aviv's oldest neighborhood of Jaffa.

Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi returned to Palestine at the beginning of World War I to recruit Jewish militiamen in the service of the Ottoman army. Within the year, as Turkish authorities went door-to-door checking for Ottoman citizenship, they were deported. Returning to Palestine in 1918, they allied with Great Britain to defeat the Turkish army during the Palestine Campaign. Three decades later, Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi signed the declaration of independence with twenty-four compatriots to establish the State of Israel in Palestine.

As many as 80,000 people pass through Ben-Gurion International Airport on a single day, yet likely few if any realize its name descends 10 centuries because a Polish Jew found lifelong inspiration in a Greek-speaking Hebrew scholar from Byzantine Italy. Even if the name of the airport carries modern political weight, its original story speaks to the holistic cultural history that is arguably best found in the local culinary landscape. Also known as Tel Aviv Airport despite its official territorial designation in an unincorporated area, there are brilliant signs among its food vendors that relate the premodern history when Turks ruled the land as they continue to influence the kitchen. From the modern port skyward to one of the most ancient in the world at sea-level, Ben-Gurion International to the biblical Jaffa Port, the taste of Ottoman cuisine is still ripe for the picking.

People from all walks of life around the world sit and enjoy the local culinary heritage of former Ottoman Palestine under the shadow of Jaffa's largest mosque, Mahmoudiya, built in the early 19th century.

Ilan's "The Alternative Cafe" serves a sweet, piping salep in the central lounge at Ben-Gurion International. Before coffee and tea grew to popularity, Ottoman citizens powdered orchid tubers into a valuable flour that currently goes for about TL 180 ($50) per kilo. It is said that Turks first made salep to replace traditionally alcoholic, warming, medicinal fermented drinks after converting to Islam in the eighth century. A recent consumer craze led to species endangerment, ultimately restricting orchid export from Turkey.

Salep brewers in former Ottoman territories like Tel Aviv will often use glutinous rice flour, despite the fact that orchids are widely distributed in the region. Its benefits to health continue to complement the global health food culture popular in Tel Aviv, as salep is known to alleviate respiratory and digestive illnesses, empower the heart and mind and increase sexual appetite.

Once within city limits, the global hubbub tends to gather on Tuesdays and Fridays as the pedestrian mall of Nachlat Binyamin Street transforms into a vibrant art market. All forms of original craftsmanship are on display under the welcoming smiles of local artisans. Clever syntheses of creative utility are purveyed, from psychedelic kaleidoscopes to three-dimensional puzzles, all harmonized to the irresistible music of wildly talented buskers. Within the wonderfully contemporary open-air ambiance, the white headscarf of a traditional Turkish cook appears over her bulbous, round-faced grill commonly seen on the streets of Istanbul, where she cooks "yufka" a thin slice of wheat flour for "börek" (Turkish pastry).

The Ottoman past is clearest to living eyes in the oldest neighborhood of Tel Aviv, Jaffa. Its inscribed buildings, mosques and eateries resound with echoes from early 20th century Constantinople, and more faintly with Turkic roots in the culinary history of Central Asia. In one of Jaffa's trendiest bars, Mainbazaar, tucked into a graffiti-filled alleyway, a curious item is listed on the menu: "lahmag'on." It is a variant spelling for the Turkish delicacy, "lahmacun," a crisped dough most often prepared with minced meats and mixed spices. Said to originate thousands of years ago in southeastern Turkey and the Levant, Jewish migrants brought lahmacun directly from Urfa to Jerusalem in the 1890s. Its emergence in history is contested as hotly as its oven-fired toppings are consumed. Armenians, who were integral to the pluralist Ottoman society, pronounce the dish closer to present-day Jaffa locals, as "lamadjo."

And onward in the shadow of the Ottoman scripts engraved in buildings over the centuries, as the high minaret of Mahmoudiya Mosque looms against the seaside to reflect its early 19th century past, the people are feasting at Onza Restaurant on Rabbi Hannina Street. It is the only full Turkish kitchen run by bonafide chefs in the neighborhood environs of the Jaffa Flea Market. At the helm overseeing gourmet "pide" and a unique diversity of "meze" are Muli Magriso, from a Turkish family, and Arik Darhani, who has worked in Turkish cuisine for over a decade in the long lost lands of Ottoman Palestine. They have a palate for local history as they serve an array of fruits and herbs, nuts and seasonings, from pomegranates and dates to almonds and tahini.

Many of the dishes at Onza are made with ingredients taken straight from the markets of Istanbul, such as for the "Pide" Bianca Abdul Rachman, with its basil cream cheese from new Constantinople cooked with regional wild spinach in a husky envelope of bread. After a fresh-baked simit and a cooling thick drink of cucumber-yogurt "gigik" (spelled "cacık" in Turkish), the "Feta from Istanbul" meze appetizer is as authentic as it gets, recalling the Greek taverns behind Dolmabahçe Palace.

Hyssop is served with "Feta from Istanbul" and with Honey Gin Tea, a soothing concoction also made with gin, chamomile, honey, and lemon. The legacy of hyssop as a herb used to cleanse sacred places conjures the archaic ecology of antiquity, when the Levant and Anatolia shared country in a landscape of smoky temples and wandering prophets between the Babylonian Empire and Hellenistic Greece.

Preceding and throughout the Ottoman era, Palestine was known as the land of milk and honey. In the 19th century, beekeeping technology made a leap, as people realized the dream of the Holy Land more abundantly than ever. Research scholar Tamar Novick recently aired her findings on the Ottoman History Podcast, proving how moveable hives greatly advanced the cause of early modern European settlers. And that ingenuity of transport, specifically in export was the basis for the most famous local food with the emergence of the Jaffa orange as its especially tough skin opened new citriculture trade routes from Ottoman Palestine to England.

As historians revisit the land, they unearth findings that are often relevant to contemporary society, such as the special role of minorities like Palestinian Arabs in the culinary heritage of Tel Aviv. Along the beachfront in Jaffa, they pour tamarind from ornate metal vessels seen in other formerly Ottoman cities like Cairo, and gaze at the turquoise-domed Sea Mosque over the storied port where myth tells of Jonah sailing out to the whale. Of perennial importance are the transnational and micro-local histories of foods. The sources of bodily nourishment are not only found in places, but also in times. In Tel Aviv, the past is tastable.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter