United over the falafel balls

On the streets of Jerusalem Judy Jackson finds that Palestinians and Israelis share the same tastes
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The Independent Culture
Za'atar is a murky green powder made from thyme. It is one of 80 different herbs and spices sold by Ahmed in his tiny shop in the Arab souk and it's his favourite. It has the consistency of sand, but mixed with olive oil it is transformed into a kind of Middle Eastern pesto. "Every morning I have to eat it for breakfast - the Israelis don't like it."

At a time when Israelis live in fear of the next bomb on a crowded bus route and Palestinians are still smarting from the shootings at the Temple Mount, there continue to be plenty of visitors to Jerusalem.

And they might be surprised to find that Jews and Arabs seem to eat the same foods, yet, like Ahmed, both sides are reluctant to admit it. Westerners might assume that sheep's eyes are an Arab delicacy and that falafel balls in pitta bread are an Israeli invention. In a city where two nationalities live side by side - within walking distance - the markets of Jerusalem should reveal how alike, or different, the street foods are.

I start by walking through the narrow alleys of the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's old city. The sound of a muezzin vies with the beat of Arabic pop music. Veiled women choose from piles of aubergines. Carcasses with tails hang in the front of a butcher's shop. On one hook is a 3ft-long set of flapping lungs, heart and liver. And coiled on a tray are metres of slippery, white tubing.

A guide called Artin is helping me in my search for sheep's heads. We pass an old man smoking a hookah and making crepes. Twenty bubbling pancakes are ready to be turned and filled with sweet soft cheese and nuts. The sweet smell of nut-filled baklava and coils of honey-soaked pastry mingles with the heavier aroma of pistachios and dried fruits.

Artin wants to show me the olives - every shade from light purple to the shiniest black, but I want to go back to look for the sheep's heads. On a marble slab are goats' heads, skinned and pink, while further back, massive cows' heads are waiting to be stripped of their ears. Watching the butchers deftly ripping away the skin one wonders why it's any worse than jointing a chicken, but it is. "This is cow, this is goat," says Artin. "The brains, they cook it with butter and breadcrumbs and then bake it. The ears? They eat it. It is very soft meat. The eyes? Some eat it, some don't."

The smell of burning charcoal comes from another butcher's shop. A customer has chosen a piece of lamb and has it minced in front of him. It is then chopped with parsley and onion and the mixture is formed into koftas and grilled on skewers over hot coals.

A stallholder despairs of selling his wooden camels and starts to eat a plate of kibbe instead. Four deep-fried patties, with a filling of spiced lamb and a crisp bulgur coating, are arranged on a dish with lime and sprigs of coriander.

All over Jerusalem there are fresh juice stalls, piled high with citrus fruit. Here in the Muslim part of the Old City, a stallholder is advertising first-of-the season clementines, slashed open to reveal bright orange centres. Fatye Tahar calls me over to his bar, boasting "We have two places to eat, one for Jews... and one for..." I think he is going to say "Arabs" but he actually says is that there's one for juice and one for... hummous and falafel. "Falafel is not Israeli food," he claims, "it's Palestinian".

Wherever I stop, people want to talk. They tell me about the effects of the closure of the West Bank. They describe the fish, salads and olives they like to eat and give me the recipe for shwarma: layers of turkey, threaded on to a large skewer which rotates in front of a vertical grill. Yar Nassan uses a razor-sharp knife to slice pieces from the outside. "The Israelis make shwarma too" he agrees, "and pitta bread with chips".

Outside the Old City by the Damas-cus Gate are more food sellers. It's a short distance to the orthodox Jewish area of Mea Sha'arim. And on through the old streets of Nachlaot, steep steps lead to Machane Yehuda, the Jewish market. For weeks after last year's bombs, few shoppers came to the covered street, but now, on the eve of Sabbath, it is bustling. Men laden with bags of persimmons, artichokes and giant radishes jostle with women choosing from a huge selection of home- grown produce: chillis, chard and fennel; lavish bunches of coriander, mint and parsley. Pomelos and pumpkins are piled high. The smells of olives, frying and grilled turkey waft through the streets. Israelis snack all the time.

Reputedly the best falafel is to be found at what looks like a hole in the wall. Shimon is the owner of Shalom Falafel. "Shalom" (peace), is not named after Yitzhak Rabin but after the original owner who brought the recipe from the Yemen in 1946. Here a machine extrudes the chick-pea mixture and drops the balls into sizzling oil. The crisp falafel are then drained and stuffed into pitta bread with salad and fiery sauce.

Falafel is actually neither Israeli nor Palestinian. It comes from Egypt. According to Razi Ilan, an Israeli sociologist: "It's a good living. One stallholder was approached by a man wanting to buy pitta offcuts for his chickens. For a week he sold the man sacks containing slivers of bread. The man had no chickens. He was a tax inspector assessing how much the stallholder was earning."

We pass a workman eating a take-away: kubbe soup. Kubbe, or meat balls, are covered in semolina but the theme is the same as the Arab fried ones. His menu also boasts kebabs made from bulls' testicles, udders, turkey pancreas, backbone and brains.

It seems then that both Arabs and Israelis are partial to grilled meat and both eat falafel. But I still have to find out about the heads. Are there any here in the Jewish market? Enquiries lead to a whispered "Yes. If you order them."

Three days later I stand looking into the eyes of a lamb. Eli the butcher says "Yes, the Jews eat lambs' and cows' heads, but not goats. But not the whole head as it's too large to fit in an oven."

Alas, no recipe. But on the bus to the airport I overhear a conversation. An Israeli woman, originally from Tunisia, is telling her neighbour how to put the finishing touches on a fish dish: "You have to serve it with za'atar bread." I remember Ahmed telling me how he smears the green paste on to pitta bread for breakfast. The woman continues: "we never had za'atar in Tunisia - it's Israeli, the Arabs don't eat it."

! Judy Jackson is the author of `A Feast in Fifteen Stories' and `The Jewish Cookbook', pounds 9.95 published by Lorenz Books this month