Despite being Israel’s third-largest city, Haifa is not always on the top of people’s places to visit and, having lived in Israel for 10 years, I have not spent much time there. So, when Jessica Halfin, the founder of Haifa Street Food Tours, approached me about spending a weekend in her beloved city, I jumped at the chance to discover its hidden charms.
Originally a baker, Jessica started offering food tours as a way to showcase the local culinary scene and to offer tourists an insight into Haifa’s diverse culture.
We started our tour in Konditoria Hamizrach in the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas, to sample some Arab sweets. This bakery has been run by the Mahroum family for over 35 years and is the offshoot of a larger bakery in Nazareth.
First, we tasted their homemade halva, which was softer and creamier than any I have had before. We also tried their traditional knafeh, made with cheese from Nablus and kadaif noodles from Nazareth, which differs from knafeh in Jerusalem, which is often made with semolina.
Our next stop was Burekas Turki M’Izmir in the downtown Turkish market area. Here the owner let us into his tiny kitchen to see how he stretched the dough to form the burekas before they are baked. As well as the typical potato and cheese burekas, we also devoured an Arabic cheese and fresh za’atar burekas, which is a local specialty. All the burekas were served perfectly with a sliced hardboiled egg, pickles and fresh tomato sauce and it is clear why this place is a popular hangout for students. We accompanied our burekas with some shots of Arnavim Arak, which is a local brand from Haifa marketed to young Israelis.
Our next stop was spontaneous, but the rows of Arak bottles seemed to beckon us in. Suidan Nehme seemed primarily to be an alcohol store, but also had shelves filled with produce from all over Europe that I have never seen anywhere else in Israel. The friendly owner invited us to drink a toast with him of Ramallah Distilleries Extra Fine Arak, and we also tasted the very rich Abu Salma Arabic coffee made by Nakhly in Shfaram, near Nazareth.
To build up an appetite, we climbed some of the many steps in Haifa away from the port and up to the business district. Our last stop was Hummus Bardichev (kosher), a family-run hummus restaurant that primarily services the surrounding office buildings. The owners have had a branch in the Carmel Center for a number of years and opened this second branch last year. One of the family spent a few years in Jerusalem eating at home-cooked restaurants like Azura in Mahaneh Yehuda and said he wanted to bring something similar to Haifa.
The hummus was warm and creamy and the pita bread fluffy and fresh. The menu included food from Iraq, Morocco and Libya, as well as some traditional Ashkenazi dishes. The highlights for us were the jug of fresh lemonade, which was perfectly thirst quenching and not too sweet, and the vegan malabi, made from coconut cream with candied pistachios on top.
We ended our tour with a glass of Tulip Espero 2015, a blend of syrah, merlot and cabernet franc. The Tulip winery in nearby Kfar Tikva not only produces an incredible range of wines, but is also home to adults with developmental and emotional disabilities, some of whom work in the winery. If you find yourself in the area, it is definitely worth a visit.
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Later in the evening, we met up again with Jessica to explore the downtown area by night. Although there are numerous bars to choose from, we were particularly curious to learn about the ones run by young secular Arabs. Impossible to find unless you are taken there, the entrance to Kabareet was hidden down a quiet dark alley, but just like an Aladdin’s cave, there were wonderful jewels within. The red painted walls of the cavelike bar and collection of mismatched, antique-looking furniture added character to this unusual establishment.
The barwoman who served us was Jewish and chose to work here to get to know her Arab neighbors and improve her Arabic.
It was a perfect opportunity to try another local Arak, this time a Golden Arak from Ramallah. Coming from Jerusalem, it was a refreshing change to see Jews and Arabs socializing so freely, and maybe it is a glimpse of things to come.
As spring approaches, Haifa is a good option for some time away.
Jessica Halfin’s tours are custom-built to client’s specific requirements. For more information: www.haifastreetfoodtours.com.