Buying Meat: From Hebrew Burbs to Old City Meat Alley

June, 2006

Hello from Jerusalem!

Buying good meat here has been a challenge and I’m not just talking pork which is very tricky to obtain though I’ve found ways.  We’re not huge meat eaters but when we do partake we like it tasty and not too expensive.  I’ve been through several meat purchasing phases and finally, after nearly two years here I think I’ve figured it out.  So maybe this last year and a few months we might be able to enjoy decent, affordable meat.

The first year here we lived in the suburbs five minutes from a big, chain store supermarket where the meat section was filled with large, unidentifiable-to-me hunks of beef, very dark red with little marbling and no uniform shape or cut I recognized.  I now realize I could have asked for specific cuts like fresh steak or ground beef, except that I didn’t and still don’t speak Hebrew, and the butchers spoke scant English.  I tried frozen, prepackaged, uniformly rounded “steaks” but they were hardly good enough even for stewing.  We wonder if kosher meat slaughtering makes it taste different to us.  Whatever the reason, we weren’t thrilled with much meat we ate, except for fresh chicken which is hard to mess up.  And of course they sold no pork, which we were starting to crave after a few months here.  And then I discovered Iwo’s.

When I found Iwo’s Butcher in downtown Jerusalem I felt like I had stepped into a smoked meat scented paradise.  The store is chock-full of fresh meat, including pork, ham, bacon, good European salami, aged English cheddar cheese (lots of cheeses are available in Jerusalem except for decent cheddar), plus U.S. condiments and sauces.  The butchers are friendly and speak good English.  The big problem with Iwo’s is that a single little pork loin or a quarter pound of cheddar costs $10.  Pork chops, pork steak, fresh ground beef: all was of the highest quality, freshness and price.  At first I didn’t care, I was that hungry for good meat, but after the flush of carnivorous euphoria wore off, I cringed at the prices.  I would cough when he told me the price hoping to drown in out, then fling my debit card on the counter to avoid having to actually count out the cash, and become absorbed reading labels of imported bottles of barbecue sauce, exercises in denial that changed the price not one shekel.

Then I discovered an excellent Arab butcher.  I sometimes shop in East Jerusalem first at a nice little grocery with lots of American products, then at a fruit and vegetable stand with amazingly low prices and good quality produce.  One day I visited the butcher shop next door, a delightfully meaty, culturally rich atmosphere I enjoyed.  They served me thick, cardamom-laced Arab coffee while I watched them hack hunks of beef from huge cow portions hanging from large, stainless steel hooks, then push the hunks through a grinder producing very fresh ground beef.  I also discovered lamb which I love for its wonderful flavor and low cost.  Alas neither my wife nor daughter like lamb, though one of my sons and I have almost perfected the art of grilling a whole leg of lamb.  We cook one whenever he visits.  Once when both sons were visiting we purchased testicles (goat? sheep?) that we cut up, skewered, and grilled.  Testicle isn’t my favorite meat.

After our move near the center of town, I switched to an Israeli grocery close to home where Ahmed, the nice, helpful, English speaking butcher sells me good ground beef, custom cuts of beef and even fresh turkey for the holidays.  Between this and my east-side butcher I was almost in hog heaven meat-wise, minus, of course, any hogs.  Then, a few weeks ago a friend introduced us to a butcher in the Old City on a narrow alley filled with meat shops.  The smell of this alley is rich with the aroma of raw meat.  Large, blood-dripping beef quarters hang in front of the shops.  Legs of lamb and stacks of chickens fill cases and counters along the way.  Some stores specializing in organs are filled with trays of brains, kidneys, lungs, hearts, doubtless testicles, and who knows what else.  On our second visit to the Old City not three weeks in Jerusalem, my daughter and I turned onto this lane by accident.  She felt queasy and sick to her stomach for hours afterwards.

At first glance I didn’t think I would ever want to buy meat from one of these shops until my friend introduced me to Ayman, the butcher.  His shop at the end of Meat Alley is clean, and all of the meat, except one cow quarter hanging and dripping out front, he keeps in coolers.  To shop at Ayman’s is an experience that can’t be rushed.  He is a master butcher who takes pride in his work, plus he’s a good host.  Before we even discuss meat, we exchange the usual Arab greetings (but in English for my sake): Hello my friend/ peace be with you/ how are you?/ thanks be to God.  Then: which would you like, tea or coffee?  Then, he finishes cutting meat for the customer before us and washes his hands.  Then the tea and coffee are brought and we sip for awhile.  (I dropped by at 5:30 on my way home from work this past week and he apologized that the coffee shop was closed).  Finally he asks what I would like.

At this shop I feel comfortably out-of-place, different but accepted.  Each time, Ayman has tried to teach me something about meat, such as the relationship between fat and good flavor.  I love watching him at his craft.  He uses three or four different knives: a long butcher knife to trim hunks of fat, a cleaver to cut lamb chops apart, a smaller, thin knife to perfect each piece.  He keeps a sharpening steel at hand and uses it every few minutes.  This past week I purchased steaks every bit as good as from Iwos but at half the price.

Affordable pork is still hard to get though I have found ways.  I can order 7 pound pieces of pork loin for near U.S. prices from a duty free sales store I patronize.  I can get Israeli ham (raised on a kibbutz in the north, they raise them on pallets above the ground, so that this unclean meat is not “on” the Land so it’s o.k., or so I’ve heard) in Tel Aviv.  And friends send us, from time to time, U.S. made, already cooked and dried bacon in a box, an amazing product that I think is the cultural and spiritual opposite of the fresh meat I buy from Ayman’s shop.

About literarylee

I sling words for a living. Always have, always will. Some have been interesting and fun; most not. These days, I write the fun words early in the morning before the adults are up and make me eat my Cream of Wheat.
This entry was posted in Jerusalem Letters and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply