Spice in the Souk

There is a book in my kitchen that has been talking to me. It is thick with a padded, damp cloth wipeable cover, full of beautiful pictures and recipes that are hard for me and look too big. But when I open it I can smell the spices and feel the cukes crunch and see faces and places that are not here. I leave home when I look at this book because I have none of my own words or pictures of this place. Traveling here was for some reason an odd, silent time, no personal record. When I leave home, I capture new places, outside of my head, but for some reason I didn’t do that with Jerusalem.

Old Jerusalem is curious. Parts are dark and smoky and other parts bright and sunny, it just depends on what section of the four you stumble through. There are things in the Old City that you have read about and even after reading you can’t really believe that something so old and so treasured by so many really exists. And you feel the tension around those treasures and the heat and the blood of a place that has been fought over so much that even when there is not active conflict, that conflict still sits so close to the surface that it could explode at any moment.

As you tunnel through the narrow streets, passing through the light into the dark, you enter the souk. And like everything else surrounding the souk in Old City, it is thousands of years old.  In Jerusalem it is appropriate that the souk is in the dark, close section of the City. The meat and veg and honey drenched sweets naturally erupt from a place like this, the darkness and smokiness is appropriate here and doesn’t seem scary or dirty or not fresh.

When you are a cook you have these experiences that forever change the way you think about food and what you do with it. Spice Street in the Old City souk is that way for me. Beautiful piles of colored powders and pods and strands of amazing, some totally foreign things that take your nose on a tour through the desert, across mountains and back to a smokey little drying kitchen in a dark corner of Old Jerusalem. The vendor I chose must have sensed that I knew the kitchen a little. As I chose things I wanted to take home, things mostly familiar to me, he threw in some that were completely unknown. We didn’t share a language so what I understood from him was translated by my own nose and gut and a lot of arm waving and pointing. He wanted to share what he knew with this big, blue eyed American girl who stumbled into his stall.  I left with a bundle of small clear bags full of beautiful treasures and a burning hot need to get into a kitchen right then.

I don’t have one particular recipe I love out of this beautiful book that makes me remember, but I think I am getting closer. I think it will be one that pushes me further to lentils, tomatoes, garlic, cumin, chili, yogurt and eggs. One that I have made versions of and need to make more often, just to keep remembering and just to keep stretching, back to the Old City and the souk.



Author: Eileen O'Toole

A quick service restaurant vet who loves food, teaching, learning and being a single Mom. Believes that waking up each day with a positive attitude and a smile on your face can change the world.

5 thoughts on “Spice in the Souk”

  1. I want to go back, but somehow reading your blog makes me feel I am there! I can smell the cumin and see the blonde with blue eyes with her hooded poncho on! L., M.


  2. Another friend has been raving about this cookbook for the last couple of years! Just reading your blog inspires me – and makes me really, really hungry (for food and travel).


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