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Secrets of the Shuk: Revealed!

I write a lot in this blog about funny stories and weird occurrences in Israel. And sure, I’ve had my fair share of odd shit go down, usually completely independent of my actions. Crazy situations just tend to unfold in front of me, and I follow them because why not? But my day to day life here is pretty tame. I wake up early, I go to work in Jerusalem, I return in the afternoon, navigating through the completely hellish Jerusalem bus station and I’m back in Tel Aviv by early evening. Tal and I go to the gym, make dinner, see some friends, watch 30 Rock and go to bed. Simple. But there is one place I go every week, once a week, that still manages to blow my mind every time. And it’s where I go grocery shopping. Now, in the States, most people buy food in a grocery store. For some, it’s a chore. For others, it’s a blast. I was always the latter. Tal and I used to love heading to Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh every other week, filling up our cart with pseudo-healthy stuff, walking up and down each aisle and blowing a ton of money. But grocery stores, or at least ones as big as Giant Eagle or Kroegers or Stouffers or whatever, don’t really exist here. If you live in Tel Aviv, at least, you do your shopping at smaller specialty stores — most people have their fruit guy, their corner store for milk and cheese and cereal, a bakery for bread. It’s a more hand-to-mouth society; many people actually pay for their weekly groceries in installments — half now, half later. The mecca of this boutique shopping mentality is the shuk. Most major cities have one, and each has its own flavor. In Jerusalem, Shuk Mahane Yehuda is a complex maze, bright and lively. In Beersheva, the shuk looks much like the city — dusty and filled with Arabs and dirt-caked Jewish kids. In Yafo, Shuk Hapishpeshim is packed with crap… antiques, fake antiques, stolen bikes, any type of clothing, 8-track tapes, shoes, jewelry. I’ve seen full mannequins for sale there. There’s also a guy who just sells tube socks. My favorite of all shuks, though, is also probably the most universally reviled. It’s Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv. It’s my favorite, of course, because I live 3 minutes away from it. It’s where I do every ounce of my food shopping, once a week, every week. More if possible. Why reviled? It’s set up terribly. Shuk HaCarmel is literally one long alley, packed tight with vendors on either side and store fronts behind them, and overstuffed with shoppers most hours of the day. Awful, right?

But living so close, I’ve been in the Shuk enough to learn its secrets. And there are secrets. Every Friday morning, I head out with my big backpack and a shopping list. We hit all the best spots in the Shuk, and for the most part, avoid the crowds. We follow a well carved-out path to glory… and full backpacks. A key thing to keep in mind is that nearly all of the produce in the Shuk comes from Israel. Unlike America, where you can get every fruit during every season because we just ship it in from other countries, Israel’s produce is very seasonal. When it’s pomegranate season, you know it — they’re cheap and sold by nearly everyone in the shuk, even the guys who sell nail polish. When it’s strawberry season, people are throwing handfuls at you at every turn. And when the seasons of each fruit starts to end, you know it — the vendors get desperate, knowing the fruit is no longer at its peak quality. Without further ado, I present: Secrets of the Shuk, or, How I Spend Every Friday Morning.

1. The Entrance. The Shuk’s main entryway is a large square on Allenby. It’s arguably the busiest intersection in all of Tel Aviv, as three main streets intersect — Allenby, King George and Sheinkin (where we live). Street performers set up shop every Friday, including an old Israeli pop singer who had some hits in the 60′s and now sits on a chair singing them to crowds that somehow remain massive. It’s also, naturally, where the homeless people hang out. The secret here? Avoid it. We avoid the shit out of the entrance to the Shuk, and instead take a side street all the way to the other end. 2. The Wise Old Rice Guy. At the Southern tip of the Shuk, several cross streets hold hidden vendors. The tourists that stay on the main strip, and many Tel Avivis, totally miss out on the cheapest deals and friendliest vendors. Our first stop is the Wise Old Rice Guy, who sells every type of rice you could imagine, as well as dried beans, spices and bulk pasta, all out of huge burlap sacks on the ground. I began talking to him a few months back when I asked which chick peas would be best for homemade hummus (the answer is small ones). Nowadays, every week, he teaches me a lesson about the Torah in Hebrew. I usually understand about 45% of what he’s saying, meaning I now know that: there are really weird numerical symbols made in many Hebrew words, though I don’t know which ones; some holidays have special mystical meanings in Judaism, though I don’t know which ones; the Torah is very special, though I don’t know why.

2. The Clementine-Slinging B-Boy.

Just down the block from Wise Old Rice Guy is a young man who only sells citrus fruits. He wears a chain and one time I thought he was wearing platinum grills on his teeth. I think I was just dehydrated and seeing things. I’ve cultivated a good relationship with him because at the height of clementine season I bought a dozen at a time. And these aren’t the tiny, golf-ball sized clementines of America. They’re the size of a baseball, maybe a softball. And when in season, they taste like absolute perfection. For several weeks this winter, Tal and I were eating 5 clementines a day. Ask to try one, and B-Boy will cut one open for you. But he’s not a bullshitter. I told him last week that his product was starting to slip, and he lowered his head, ashamed, and stepped aside. Till next year B-Boy, till next year.

3. The Single-Product, How-Do-They-Do-It Dudes.

Most vendors in the Shuk sell a variety of products that generally fall into a certain category: lettuce/herbs, fruits/veggies, candy/snacks, etc. There’s a huge range within those categories, and it’s impossible to tell how and why they sell what they do. Why does one guy just sell watermelons, onions and carrots? We’ll never know. But even more baffling are the single-product dudes. There’s one guy who only sells cherry tomatoes. One man sells only potatoes. Can you imagine growing up and on Meet the Parents Day at school, your dad comes in with a sack of potatoes, dumps them on the floor and says, “That’s it, kids”? Half the time, these gents don’t even have the best prices or product. If you’re going to be the potato guy, at least own it: sell the best damn potatoes in Israel for the most competitive prices. And shit, you should even offer free mashed potato samples to customers. One can only dream. 4. The Arab Shuk.

Blink and you’ll miss it, but there is a small pocket of veggie shops run exclusively by Arab vendors. Some of them are awesome; there’s a 14 year old kid who yells something that rhymes in Arabic and winks at me all the time, then we high five. There’s also a guy with no teeth who sells peppers. He’s great. The prices in the Arab Shuk are almost always better, but you have to be more careful of the product. Still, there are great buys in these stalls, and really nice folks. My tomato guy, awww shit, he the best.

5. The Bakery of My Dreams. Tucked at the southernmost end of the Shuk is my bakery. What’s it called? I don’t know. I don’t know names in the Shuk, just how awesome or not awesome things are. I do know, though, that this place makes the best whole-grain, thick crust wheat bread I know of. And it costs 10 shekels, or less than $3. And it’s baked that morning. Suck it, Giant Eagle. 7. Snack City.

Remember that dream you had as a kid that you were in a land made completely of snack foods? I do. I used to write poems about shit like that. Then I became a diabetic. Cruel irony, I guess. Anyway, if you were following the trajectory, we walked on a side street to the south end of the Shuk, where there are cross streets filled with shops. Snack City is our first stop when we loop back into the southern main entrance. And it’s exactly that spot you envisioned as a kid.

The vendor actually stands on a raised platform in the center of a huge, rectangular shelf, like some carnival barker. His shelf is filled with chocolate bars, cookies, gummy candies, cakes, chocolate spread, hard candies, chips and other things that will eventually kill you. 8. Carmela, Lettuce Girl of My Dreams.

Across the alleyway from Snack City is Carmela. This is the actual name, the only name I know in the Shuk, of my lettuce/mushroom/herb/green veggie shop. I know their name because 1) they just launched a Facebook page, and I’m pretty sure everyone in Tel Aviv was invited to Like it, and 2) I buy so much shit from them that they gave me a canvas tote bag with their name and logo printed on it. That’s right, an Official Shuk Tote Bag. Carmela is run by a bunch of dudes who clearly love their jobs. They usually play loud pop music and the elder Carmela guy sings. He does a great Rihanna.

Since Tal and I eat a lot of vegetables, my stop at Carmela is pretty extensive: lettuce, zuccinis, sundried tomatoes, mushrooms, asparagus, celery and sometimes more. Some weeks, I think the Carmela guys think I’ve asked for something I haven’t. “I didn’t ask for two heads of lettuce,” I’ll say in Hebrew. “Don’t worry. It’s a gift,” they’ll answer. Tote bag, and free lettuce. That’s how you define success.

9. Meat Alley.

Meat Alley is the most accurate name on this list. Meat Alley is an alley that veers off the main Shuk path and is filled with exclusively butchers. I cannot stress this enough: if Meat Alley existed in the States, it would be shut down for health code violations before the first handful of chicken feet was sold in an unsealed plastic bag. Blood runs from the stalls into the middle of the alley, as the vendors hose down their back rooms. You can buy anything in Meat Alley, from fine steaks hacked off a hanging half-cow to boneless skinless chicken breasts to a bag full of chicken hearts. Some people would vomit if they accidentally walked into Meat Alley. The place fucking stinks. 10. The Almighty Asian Import Store.

As we near the conclusion of our weekly shopping trek, we always stop in this hidden gem. Run by an Israeli guy that looks like a Danny DeVito playing The Penguin in “Batman Returns” without makeup, the Asian Import Store is where you can find a huge array of Thai, Japanese and Chinese products. The owner carries a bunch of Mexican and Italian stuff, because why not. Every week, we say hi and converse a little bit. He always asks how the girlfriend is, and if I want to try a new sauce. The answer is usually good, and yes. This is also where I buy bulk tofu, and save about 30 shekels. His Wasabi Peas are delicious; his Ramen noodles are fantastic. He is the sensei, and I am but his student. 11. My Beautiful Bulgarian Fish Man.

Most Friday nights, Tal and I stay in and make Shabbat dinner together before we meet up with friends. The centerpiece of that dinner is almost always a fresh salmon filet, and it’s always bought from my Bulgarian fish man. Bulgarian Fish Man and I became friends slowly. For the first few months, he simply took my order, cut up the fish I wanted and handed it over. But as he saw my devotion to his delicious and reasonably priced fish goods, he let me into his inner circle. Nowadays, I call ahead and tell him what I want, so when I show up at the end of my shopping trip, it’s already there. During December, Bulgarian Fish Man wore a Santa hat and decorated his fish store with tinsel. He’s a Russian-speaking immigrant with a bushy mustache who’s been here for a few decades, but he ain’t no Jew. And he always gives me some scraps to feed to Crouton, our beloved alley cat that lives next to our apartment. I also list him as my emergency contact, because I know he’s show up, and I trust his judgement. “You’ve been in a car accident, who should we call?” “Bulgarian Fish Man. He’ll know what to do.” 12. The Post-Shopping Snack. Of course there are tons of different foods to buy in the Shuk. I don’t know what many of them are (what is that wax-covered fish thing sold by olive vendors?) so even my scope is limited. But there are also a lot of great foods to eat in the Shuk, and upon completing our shopping trip, burdoned with filled backpacks and plastic bags on our arms, Sam and I often find something to devour. Below are a list of my favorites: A. Beer Bazaar This is easily the most exciting thing to happen to the Shuk since God created the Shuk. A few years back, 4 buddies opened a little beer shack on a sidestreet next to the Shuk, and their only products are Israeli-made craft beers and delicious bar food. Literally, my two favorite things. Israeli craft beer is notoriously hard to find and expensive, and for a beer-obsessed drinker like me, Goldstar and Tuborg just don’t cut it. I’ve made it a point to try a new Israeli IPA beer every week. B. The Falafel Wiz Kid. There’s an 18-year-old kid who runs his own falafel stand. All he does, every day, is make falafel. And he’s amazing at it. He’s going to put his kids, and his kids’ kids, through college on the strength of his falafel. I bet he drives a really fancy car and has sex with tons of sexy women, possibly including Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli, solely on the merit of his falafel. C. Fruit Shake From Heaven. Ten shekels, whatever fruit you want, in whatever combination you want, blended with ice. Come summer, I’ll drink this as much or more than water.

Epilogue: When The Sun Goes Down. As the Shuk nears closing time, things get weird. Prices go down, to nearly nothing. I used to go shopping during that sweet spot, when prices are at their lowest just before the Shuk closes. But then I started to feel like a creepy homeless guy, because that’s who comes out around then. This is because shop owners don’t throw out their own goods in trash cans. When the Shuk closes, they chuck anything not worth saving until next week into the street, creating piles, sometimes several feet high, of discarded food of all kinds. Old people tend to scour the most carefully, slowly walking up the Shuk and picking through the piles. I often wonder if they’re poor, or just bored and wanted to go for a walk. After the sun goes down, a tractor comes through the narrow Shuk alley and collects all the waste. By the next morning, it’s like the huge piles of refuse were never there. To think what Israel could do with all that extra food.

Some people go to the beach for serenity. Some climb a mountain and sit alone. I wade through a sea of thousands of people, all yelling and sweating on each other to get the best prices on cucumbers. I can’t wait until Friday.

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