After a morning discussing contemporary Israel in the context of its immediate geopolitical environment with Canadian-Israeli journalist and previous Arts & Ideas guest Matti Friedman, and a remarkable visit to Ein Maquba and Ein Rafa to see the incredible work of the Center for Creativity and Education in Culutral Heritage, we made our way to the famous Mehane Yahuda Market.

Before coming on this trip, the only independent research I did was on food. Where to eat, what to eat, and how to eat as many different things as possible. Mehane Yahuda figured prominently in this plan.

Mehane Yehuda is a partially-covered open air market with more than 250 vendors selling everything from air-dried salty-smoky-chewy beef sausages of every shape and size to probably fifty different kinds of feta, fifty variations on pita, the best chocolate rugelach, fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruit, a million varieties of spice blends, at least twelve varieties of za'atar, nuts, seeds, wine, falafel, shawarma, kibbeh, kebab, sashlik, baklava, fifty kinds of halvah, etrog lemonade, spicy pomegranate juice, malawach, and so much more. And I tried to eat it all.

Spices at the Yehane Mehuda market. Photo / Jhos Singer

We arrived at 2 p.m. on Friday. We thought we were prepared for the crowds, the jostling, the interesting Israeli interpretations of queuing and waiting one's turn. We were not. On our first lap around the main thoroughfare, we picked up a kilo of pistachio halvah, a delicious bureka potato-and-cheese pillow, six kinds of olives, a za'atar pita, and another variation on flaky bread, this time stuffed with spinach and cheese. Dear reader, did I mention this was all for the two of us?

Then we got in line for Marzipan Bakery's chocolate rugelach, which we smelled from all over the market. We watched as tray after giant tray of rugelach were emptied into containers for those ahead of us in line (and those who disregarded the line), and were finally rewarded with a plastic container full of the steaming hot, gooey chocolate pastry. I snatched one up immediately and burned the roof of my mouth. Delicious.

Our arms loaded with bags of goodies, we dove back into the main section of the market-- now even more crowded as everyone scrambled to pick up last-minute supplies for Shabbat, as sundown was a few hours away. The entire 250-stall market was as crowded as a BART train at rush hour, after a significant delay. We were pushed along the market by the people behind us.

Undeterred, we pressed on, and found a vendor selling an intriguing variety of fresh, young date. With smooth black skin, it looked more like a small oblong plum than a wrinkly, dry date. Clearly we needed to purchase some.

Dried date seller. Photo / Alexa Couphos-Hayes

I pointed at the dates. The vendor said "kilo?" I said, "just a scoop?" He looked at me. I pointed at his scoop. He looked at me. I gestured, making the motion of scooping some dates, or, as I learned when everyone started laughing at me, the motion of a rather offensive hand gesture. After an apology and some more back-and-forth, we ended up with a kilo of fresh Hayani dates.

Turning a corner, we came across Jhos waiting for his malawach. He had been waiting for about twenty minutes and we arrived just in time to take the first bite. A fried Yemenite bread a bit like Indian paratha, it is cooked in a covered frying pan and occasionally flipped. The dough goes in flat as a pancake and, all of a sudden the during one of the flips, inflates in a glory of puff pastry. Then, it's topped with a million delicious things.

After picking up Jhos, we grabbed some spicy pomegranate juice and citron (etrog)-mint lemonade, which we voted the most delicious lemonade in all the world. On our way out of the market we were seduced by a spice merchant, who sold us rose tea and sent us to another vendor for homemade, fresh za'atar and Israeli paprika, so fresh it was bright red and clumpy with the natural oils in the peppers. As sundown approached the market quieted and, loaded with our treasures, we walked back to the hotel to get ready for our Shabbat celebrations, discussing our experiences so far and how lucky we each feel to be on this trip.