On the Perils of Food-buying in a Foreign Land
by Tony Eprile
I generally think of myself as an outsider. That has a lot to do with my having been wrenched out of the country I was born in, South Africa, and moved to England at a tender age, then having lived on both coasts of the U.S. and the middle as well. When I visit my birth country, people assume I am American. Here, in the States, I am often asked: “Is that a real British accent?” Depending on my mood, I’ll either explain that there is no such thing as a “British” accent, that what they’re hearing is a very defined portion of north-west London, plus a colonial overlay. Or, if I’m feeling marginally less cooperative, I’ll say: “It’s fake. Everything about me is fake. You caught me out.”
So when I move to Israel to teach for three months, I choose to live in an Arab neighborhood, albeit one that is going through a transition as Israeli Jews and foreigners are moving in. That way I get to fully indulge in my outsiderness. I've always felt that to really get under the skin of a place, you need to observe it from a perspective of some isolation. I’m a secular, English-speaking Jew with only the tiniest smattering of Hebrew gleaned from sitting in on my brother’s bar mitzvah lessons (I refused to have a bar mitzvah myself, partly because I’m an agnostic but mostly because the religious texts are horribly inaccurate about snakes and I happen to like snakes). I don’t keep the Sabbath, and I also eat all kinds of forbidden foods. (My religious relatives won’t eat anything off my plates, and when I searched for an apartment in Israel, I immediately scored out the ads that boasted of a kosher kitchen.) Many Israelis, I find, also eat forbidden foods— a small wine bar in a Tel Aviv back street serves the best calamari dish I have ever eaten. Living in Jaffa, I get to be aphasic in the two local languages—Arabic and Hebrew—and I have to be careful to whom I apply my tiny vocabulary in each of these tongues…the dark-skinned, Arab-looking gentleman selling pita bread gets very annoyed with me when I show gratitude with shukran instead of toda rabah. “No Ah-rab!” he yells at me. “Ivrit, ivrit.” But secretly, I think, I enjoy such mistakes. They’re a confirmation that I don’t belong, and I just may subconsciously seek them out in my determination to avoid the complacency that comes with comfortably belonging.
I believe it was T.S. Eliot who came up with the fanciful notion that a cat running down a flight of stairs in a tall building will, after several floors, decide that the endless sameness of these stairs goes on forever. In despair, the poor cat will stop and sit in paralyzed misery until rescued. This is much the way I feel faced with the array of dozens of different yogurt-like products in the grocery store down the street from my Jaffa apartment. I can just barely make out the Hebrew letters. I mistakenly buy labneh—a thick, salted yogurt that is normally served alongside salads with lunch or dinner, but definitely not something you want on your granola. As I carefully spell out the letters on the packages in front of me, I do make out the words for yogurt but also for labneh. This makes no sense to me; how can the contents of the containers be both? I relate my confusion to an Israeli friend who later informs me that I am probably misreading the word levanah for labneh—the letters b and v are almost identical in Hebrew and there are no vowels in the modern form of writing. Levanah means white; yogurt levanah is how Israelis refer to plain, white (i.e., not vanilla or fruited) yogurt. She does warn me, however, that there is a kind of cream cheese that is very popular and is referred to simply as “white”-- levanah. Little wonder that I stand for hours in the dairy aisle, disconsolate as a cat in a stairwell. But Hebrew is a tricky language, and another friend notes that the verb for “to know” and “to have sex ” are the same (remember all those sly jokes about Biblical ‘knowing.’), as are the words “pickle” and “occupy or hold dominion over.” (Thus, the sentence “I know someone in the occupied territories” can also be understood as “I have sex with pickled places.”) In this linguistic minefield, mistakenly buying cheese instead of yogurt seems a minor error.
The ancient port town of Jaffa where I’m staying is famous throughout Israel for its street food. There is Abulafia, a bakery owned by Christian Arabs that has been around since 1879, serving various kinds of brick-oven-baked breads covered with toppings—feta cheese and za’atar (the Middle Eastern spice made of a blend of herbs such as thyme and hyssop with sesame seeds and salt); baked eggs, white cheese, and tomato; tomato sauce and olives. There is always a long line outside Ali Karawan, which dishes out about five different kinds of hummus—including masabacha, which contains warm chickpeas and spices—alongside raw onions and fresh-baked pita bread. (Hummus is virtually a religion in Israel, and many of Ali Karawan’s guests eat in ecstatic silence. I don’t really like hummus, and I quite enjoy the look of horrified incredulity my confessing to this garners from any local, Arab or Jewish. “But it’s hummus,” they say, as if only some kind of Martian doesn’t endlessly crave this cement-like bean paste.) There are innumerable falafel and shawarma stands. But, unlike most of the tourists, I want to try cooking for myself while I live here, as well as for my family when they come to join me later in my stay. Being of hybrid cultures, I have been cooking “fusion” long before the term became popular. My desire is to come up with my version of the local style, using fresh local ingredients. And wonderful ingredients there are: spice shops are filled with wooden barrels or burlap bags containing numerous kinds of ground paprika and hot peppers, za’atar, special mixes of dried onions and herbs for rice, cumin and turmeric, and a variety of spice mixes representing each store’s particular family recipe for the ground lamb and veal mixture that is formed into kebabs. There are fish shops with very fresh whole fish on ice, though it takes me awhile to figure out what kind of fish these are. Among them are small red fish known as barbouni that are deep fried and eaten whole; denis, which is the local sea bream that is farm-raised in the Mediterranean; bouri, or red mullet, which is the adult version of the barbouni; a fish known as farida that resembles red snapper but turns out to have a very mild, white flesh. As the weeks pass, I gradually learn the names of the fish, but my poor Hebrew still gets me in trouble. I don’t care to go to the English-speaking fish shops on tourist-popular Yefet Street because the prices quoted me are more than twice those at the fish shops closer to my own neighborhood. So, after watching a Hebrew-speaking Filipino family buy several pounds of wonderfully fresh shrimp, I try to purchase a smaller amount for myself. “K’tan,” I say, having looked up the Hebrew word for little.
“No!” shouts the insulted fishmonger. ”Only gadol, beeg, beeg!”
“K’tan* amount,” I say, but he doesn’t understand the English word “amount” and assumes I am still insulting the size and quality of his wares. He slams the refrigerator door shut and for a while refuses even to look at this crazy foreigner going on about tiny shrimp. Finally I get him to sell me a half-kilo since I remember the word for half: khetsi. It’s about twice as much as I want for my stir-fry, but at least I’m not making an enemy of my local fishmonger.
As I begin to pick up Hebrew, I discover the truth of the phrase: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I learn the words for milk (khalav) and salt (melakh) but I tend to mix them up as the latter sounds more like milk than does the former (especially to someone who grew up in South Africa, where the Afrikaans word is melk). A waiter informs me that the word for decaf is batul (virgin); what he doesn’t tell me is that most people use the word natul (without). I learn that a cappuccino is hafouch, an upside down, since the milk goes in first, then the espresso. The first time I go with my family to a café after they arrive in the country, I show off my newfound Hebrew and order “Hafouch batul, ve melakh besad. Kham…realizing moments later that I’ve just ordered an upside-down virgin with warm salt on the side. The waitress raises one eyebrow and remarks: “Just order in English.”
* (I don’t at the time realize that this word refers to little in size only; the correct term would be k’tzat, a bit or a little. Be warned, however, that when an Israeli says he’s going to eat k’tzat hummus, he’s using the term ironically. Only a fool—or a foreigner—eats a little hummus.)
|Tony Eprile is the author of The Persistence of Memory, a NY Times Notable Book and Koret Jewish Book Award winner. He has written about food for Gourmet magazine and the anthology Man With A Pan (Algonquin) and is on the faculty of Lesley University’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing.|