Jerusalem food blogging (part 1)-falafel and shawarma

This post is also dedicated to ALG, a good friend who didn't like the wording of the dedication I included in my last post.

So as promised, I'm going to try to produce some less grim content for this blog, and there's no better place to start then with food. 

Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that falafel's a very popular food in Israel. While it, like everything else in this country, comes with political controversy, it's ubiquitous and delicious, and it's become a troublingly large part of my diet. Most falafel places also serve shawarma, which is basically what Americans call "gyros" or what Europeans would call "doner" or "kebab"; a large tube of mystery meat (usually poultry of some sort, sometimes lamb is offered for an extra fee) cooked on a vertical rotating spit and shaved off into individual portions. It's a little terrifying from a food safety perspective, but it's sometimes nice for a change of pace.

While falafel/kebab places are pretty common in the United States, there are some minor differences between the way these foods are served in the United States and the way they're served in Israel.

In Israel, the first choice you have to make is regarding your bread. Most places offer pita (like pita in the US-a doughy pocket about 6 inches in diameter) and lafa (sort of like a cross between pita and a tortilla-it's larger than pita, a bit thinner and chewier, and the ingredients are wrapped instead of stuffed into a pocket). Because a lafa is larger, you get a larger portion of falafel/shawarma and toppings, so it's more expensive. Some places will offer a "hetzi lafa" (half lafa) for the price of a pita-I order this if offered, because I prefer the chewy, thin lafa to the heavy pita. Some fancier places will serve your falafel or shawarma on a salad or in a baguette. Whole wheat is rare, although some places, particularly in areas that attract American tourists, will serve it. 

After you decide on your bread, you're offered toppings. There's a pretty standard array of toppings that are available, and the cook will usually offer them to you one by one. The standard toppings are hummus, Israeli salad (just diced tomatoes and cucumbers), pickles, tehina (creamy, nutty sesame sauce), some sort of hot pepper paste (this assuredly has a Hebrew name, but I haven't been able to learn it because I'm always identified as an English speaker and the cook will just ask me if I want "spicy"), and, uniquely to Israel, French fries. You won't get tzatziki or feta here, even though they're common in American falafel places-since most falafel places serve shawarma, they can't serve dairy products.

(An aside-french fries are called "cheeps" in Hebrew, which is interestingly spelled ציפס .ציפס would normally be pronounced something like "tseeps" so I haven't been able to figure out why this spelling is used. Language study remains hard.)

After you're done with the standard toppings, you can ask for additional toppings. These consist of various fresh and pickled vegetables. You'll usually find a couple of types of pickled cabbage, spiced onions, fried eggplant, shaved carrot, and a few others. I think the salads may vary seasonally, but I'm not sure yet because I haven't been here long enough. There are also additional sauces, including a particularly tasty hot sauce called amba, which is made from pickled mango and curry. These are arranged on the salad bar in front of you. They don't cost extra, but they aren't offered, so you have to ask. This is always hard for me, because they look delicious, but I don't know the names of most vegetables in Hebrew so I don't know how to ask. Sometimes, if the restaurant isn't too busy and the cook doesn't look too frustrated, I'll try to get by through pointing, but I once ended up with a fairly horrifying beet salad by doing this, so there's an associated risk. An incentive to work on my language study, I guess.

I'll close this place out by reviewing some of the falafel/shawarma places that I frequent. I'll list the advantages, disadvantages, and a very important third factor. When eating spicy, greasy street food, gastrointestinal distress is a very real risk. So that my readers can be informed consumers of falafel and shawarma in the Ben Yehuda Street area of Jerusalem, I'll talk a bit about the gastrointestinal distress factor (GDF) for each restaurant. Happy eating!

This restaurant, Melech HaFalafel V'Shawarma (King of Falafel and Shawarma) is just down the street from me on King George Street.

  • Advantages: Cheap! Only 10 shekels (like $2.50) for a falafel in pita. They have separate lines for falafel and shawarma, which is a brilliant innovation that I haven't seen in other places. Since shawarma has to be shaved off the spit, shawarma orders slow down the line, which is frustrating when you just want falafel. Good fried eggplant. There's also a self-serve sauce bar where you can top up any dry spots in your sandwich.
  • Disadvantages: the shawarma's pretty greasy. Not all of the salads are great.
  • GDF: moderate. I once had an unpleasant evening after eating their shawarma, but I also spent that afternoon near the Old City during the peak of the stabbing wave a few weeks ago, so the confluence of anxiety and shawarma may have been the culprit rather than the shawarma alone. I've had their falafel a few times with no issue.

This place, Maoz, is across the street from me on King George. I'm not sure if it's related in any way to the Maoz in the United States, which is a fairly well-regarded falafel chain in New York.

  • Advantages-they put tehina on a few times during the preparation process. Most places only put it on once, either at the beginning or the end, which guarantees that the tehina will collect in one part of the sandwich, leaving part dry and part soggy. Maoz also has a self-service salad bar, where you can add some salads yourself if you don't ask for them during the preparation process. This is very helpful for English speakers like me.
  • Disadvantages-dry falafel balls. No fried eggplant, which is my favorite topping.
  • GDF-High. I'll leave it at that.

Moshiko is on Ben Yehuda Street.

  • Advantages-everything is really good! The falafel balls have the perfect texture and flavor, the shawarma isn't too greasy or fatty, and the salads are very fresh. Portions are huge, especially the lafa. More extensive salad selection than most places. They apparently have some sort of certification for good labor practices, so they pay a living wage and such.
  • Disadvantages-it's expensive. Everything is 10-15 shekels more than at the other places I listed. They won't put fries in your sandwich, and you have to order them separately on the side, further increasing the effective price differential between Moshiko and other falafel places. No self-serve salad or sauce bar. Very touristy-Birthright and other tour groups are usually advised to go here, so you'll hear a lot of English.
  • GDF-low, so far. I just had a shawarma from there, so this assessment may change soon. Wish me luck!

I'll leave you with some shawarma porn: