It took me years to write about Irit. Not for lack of material, but because she’s Tel Aviv’s best-kept secret, far too good to share. When I left Israel for New York last year, I missed her more deeply than I’d anticipated. Then, a couple of weeks ago, Jamie Oliver found her—damn, his research department is good. Soon the jig will be up, Irit will be the breakout star of Jamie Eats the Middle East (no insider info, just speculating), and lines will begin to snake down the street from her cafe. It will no longer be the place to go when you want a quiet bite, but I will always remember how blissful the old days were.
Irit means ‘chives’ in Hebrew. I thought about using chives as a metaphor for her—milder than an onion but with a slight bite, etc—but really, there’s little connection to be made, except that Irit is in the food business. She runs a small shack-like cafe on the outskirts of the Carmel Market, next to the house where she grew up and still lives with her daughter and dog. The cafe is on HaCarmel Street and has a bright blue door—that’s all I can tell you; there’s no name or address. If you’re intrigued enough, you’ll find it.
If the cafe has no name, you can be sure it has no menu either. Almost always, there is lahuh, a Yemenite pancake with an aerated texture similar to a flat crumpet, flavored ever so lightly with fenugreek to give it an unexpected funk. Irit cracks an egg into the middle and fries the sandwich on both sides in a grubby skillet on her double burner. When the outside is crispy and the egg is cooked, the lahuh is served with grated tomato, tahini pungent with garlic, and sometimes a Yemenite hot sauce called zhug, with dried red chilies added to the traditional long, green ones because they aren’t spicy enough for Irit, blended with lots of cilantro and garlic and a bit of parsley. When there’s no zhug, Irit will hack up a chile and mix it into the tomatoes. Both serve the purpose of cutting through the doughy richness with a fresh snap. There may be orange juice, which you’ll be instructed to squeeze yourself from fruits sold by Irit’s brother. Also, smoky eggplant, thrown down directly onto the burner until the skin is burned and black, served sliced down the middle, soaked with tahini, and occasionally garnished with pomegranate seeds or leftover herbs.
On Friday, the first day of Israel’s weekend when the cafe is packed, the menu grows a bit to include a salad—tomatoes, cucumber, herbs, and a seasonal fruit all cut into slabs and served with olive oil and salt. It’s always the best salad I’ve ever had. There’s shakshuka too, with runny yolks—infinitely better than the hipster spot down the road which smothers the simple flavors with redundant additions—feta, pesto, blah blah blah. Eating at Irit’s always reminds me that cooking suffers when you think too much about it.
When you visit Irit’s for the first time, you will be either giddy or mortified when she plays the Bee Gees (“Tragedy” is her favourite) and encourages you to dance. Either way, you’ll accept the shot of anise-y arak she pours for you, even if it’s the first thing you’ve ingested all day. Mid-boogie, you’ll probably pull out your phone to document this spontaneous dance party and prove how fun-loving you are. You won’t notice that she doesn’t drink with you and you won’t know that she does this to most first-time visitors. That is why I love her—she is deceptively quick, a natural businesswoman who knows that “off-the-beaten-path” sells, as does false cheer—if you mix it with genuine joy.
Although I visited Irit every couple of days while working as a culinary tour guide for Delicious Israel, it took a few months to know her when she wasn’t performing. I learnt that sometimes, she just couldn’t be bothered—to open the cafe, to make the lahuh dough, to buy challah to serve with shakshuka. But she was always ready to entertain, when someone entered the cafe it switched on inside her like a lightbulb. Mostly I learned that she was very kind, and that her kindness was never an act. It usually went unnoticed. On quieter weekdays there was always a motley crew slouching around the white plastic tables. Irit fed them for free, as her guests—lahuh or just cups of sludgy Turkish coffee, or mint tea.
I loved to visit in the afternoon, when I’d sit in a sun-dappled spot and sing along to the radio, listen to people gossip, or be drawn into discussions about religion or politics conducted in a mix of (my) shaky Hebrew, (their) shaky English, and hand gestures. Irit would flit in and out of the conversation with a laugh or a shouted objection, before turning back to the stove. We talked a lot about the gentrification of her neighborhood, Kerem HaTeimanim, the Yemenite Vineyard (the vineyard part is a mystery, but Yemeni immigrants founded the neighborhood in 1902 and established a marketplace in 1920, which later ballooned into the bustling Carmel Market.) At sixty(ish, I think—her weathered face says so but her energy and preferred get-up of perplexing slogan t-shirts and slouchy jeans suggest younger), Irit remembers when the view outside the cafe—now a sprawling parking lot and the David Intercontinental hotel—was sand dunes, camels, and donkeys.
I loved these stories the most, imagining Irit as a hyperactive child or a roguish teen. It took me back to when my grandmothers would entertain me with oral histories, helping long walks to pass in a flash. Irit stood in for my family while we lived apart, and I often suspected my grandmothers’ had slipped her something under the table to periodically badger me, “Nu, when are you getting pregnant?” But really, she treated everyone like family from the first meeting.
Too often, social media and technology are used as armor in social interactions—we can be friendlier and more self-confident from behind a screen. Irit is all those things on her own, dancing to her own beat, dressed in a grubby t-shirt that says “Killin’ It.” I hope that one day I’ll be brave enough to do the same.