Barack Obama spoke with Israel's Channel 2 ahead of his planned visit to the Holy Land about a wide range of topics, from Iran's nuclear program to the US-Israeli relationship. He was also asked if he had any secret hopes of doing something like grabbing a falafel at a Jerusalem kiosk. The president said he would, "love to sit in a cafe and just hang out."
President Obama plans to make his first presidential visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories next week, putting him there just ahead of the Jewish high holiday of Passover. The Jerusalem hotel where the president's entourage is staying has already broken the news to the president. The menu in the hotel kitchen is strictly kosher. No exceptions.
During Passover, keeping kosher means unleavened bread only, so no sour dough, no pasta, and no beer. There are, of course, plenty of Jerusalem dining options for presidents and pilgrims alike, kosher and otherwise.
For a lot of locals, it doesn't get any more Jerusalem than Azoura. It's an old-school kosher restaurant tucked between alleyways in West Jerusalem's giant fresh food market called Mahane Yehuda. Azoura is the nickname of the founder, Ezra Shrefler, a Jewish immigrant from Turkey who opened the place in the early 1950s. His son Moshe runs the place now was happy to give this reporter a tour of the kitchen and talk about what makes the food special.
"It reflects the real Jerusalem and the old Jerusalem," Shrefler said on a recent morning. "[It's the way] people liked to cook many years ago, Jews that came mostly from the Middle East, from Turkey, from Iraq, from Syria, Lebanese, and Morocco, all these cultures."
If President Obama is able to break free from his security detail and tight schedule to grab a quick meal, this place might be on his list already. Shrefler said Rahm Emmanuel booked Azoura a few years ago. The then-White House chief of staff was in Israel for his son's bar mitzvah.
And what would the first course be for the American president?
"To start with, probably the kubbeh soup, which is dumplings stuffed in meat," and it comes in three or four versions, Shrefler said.
There is a sweet-and-sour version with zucchini, celery and onion. A bright pink version with beets. And then one with garlic, chick peas and a yellow broth spiced with cumin and turmeric. The dumplings are giant. One or two per bowl is plenty. And the soup is super spicy. But, as Shrefler said, "not spicy like Mexican food that you cannot put in your mouth. It's spicy that you can eat and enjoy."
And what comes next for Mr. President?
"For the main dish, I would bring to Barack Obama an ox tail," Shrefler said. "The best thing we have in here."
And I'm going to have to go ahead and agree with him. Like many traditional Middle East meat dishes, this one is cooked real slow. For two days, in fact. The ox tail gets boiled, cleaned, and boiled again. Then, it simmers for hours in big aluminum pot over a low kerosene flame with lots of oil, garlic, tomatoes and red peppers. It's served over rice and the meat just falls off the bone.
Shrefler said, "Israelis like their stomachs. They want their food cooked properly, which means slow."
But when it comes to dining at Azoura, it's often very "chick-chock," as they say around these parts.
"We < snaps his fingers >, right down to business," Shrefler said. "You cannot come and play with the waiters, you know? We have this, this, this, this, this and this. And that's what you get. That's it."
For Obama, however, Shrefler thought for a second and offered to make an exception. He said a special desert would be in order. His mother's basbusa cake. (Here's a recipe.)
If Barack Obama wants to go all foodie in Jerusalem, he might want to reconsider his pledge to keep kosher. And visit an upscale place just down the street from Azoura, called Mahneyuda.
"This is red tuna with some pomegranate seeds, yoghurt, coriander and parsley, and cucumber and wasabi sorbet," chef Uri Navon explained, as he handed over an appetizer that included a small dish of deep-fried squid atop arugula. It's what the cooks like to eat, he said.
This is one of Jerusalem's hippest places to eat. And squid, as the president may or may not be aware of, is not kosher.
Navon's partner, Assaf Granit said spring is a great time for Barack Obama to be eating in the Holy Land. The first olive oil of the season is ready, along with new garlic, seasonal herbs, great strawberries and nice fish this time of year. And if the US president does decide to drop by, Granit said he would encourage him to start dinner with some arak — that's anise-flavored booze — and then go with the flow by ordering the tasting menu.
"Ninety percent of our customers don't use the menu," Granit said. "They say to the wait staff, 'just tell the kitchen to do whatever.'"
"Most of the time we succeed in making people happy."
President Obama plans to meet his Palestinian counterpart in Ramallah, in the West Bank. But Obama would not have to venture very far from his Jerusalem hotel to find plenty of Palestinian food. In addition to its holy sites, the Old City has some quality street food — humous, falafel, olives, dates, and Arabic sweets, along with a little gem of a place that specializes in stuffed pigeon.
The restaurant is called Kosta. And it was started back in the 1930s by a Greek cook of the same name who worked for the British army. A Palestinian refugee from West Jerusalem, as he described himself, Fareed Harroubi runs the place now. He learned how to stuff pigeons from Kosta himself.
"Greek cuisine is similar to Arab cuisine," Harroubi said. "There's mousakka, tripe, stuffed grape leaves and most important, lots of olive oil."
"Our stuffed pigeons are young birds," he says. "They've never flown."
"Once they fly, they get tough. They're not as good to eat."
Harroubi bragged a bit too, saying that his Palestinian stuffed pigeons are much tastier than ones in other parts of the Arab world. Asked whether he would like to serve President Obama the house specialty, Harroubi said he was no fan of the US president. But if he did show up here, Obama would get the same hospitality as everyone else.
"We'd treat him like a regular person."