I walked down the narrow, sunlit, cobblestone streets of the Yemenite Quarter in Tel Aviv. Running parallel to the noisy, crowded Carmel market, it’s a time-warp of a neighborhood where old-fashioned traditions still hold sway. Traditions like the everyday foods that grandparents brought from Yemen; like strong community ties.
I was looking for a tiny eatery where fresh lachuch flatbread is made every few minutes. The owner had said I could come to take photographs. Although different from each other in texture and taste, everyday Yemenite breads are flat and flexible.They serve as a base for patut, which is shredded seasoned bread scrambled with an egg, or as wraps for a fried egg or salad. See my post about the Rosh Ha’ayin shuk, where I photographed several of these breads.
I found the place and slid the door open. Inside there were small tables and plastic chairs and a well-worn sofa where some tired-looking men were lounging.
At the tables , customers were eating patut. Others tore off chunks and dipped them into little dishes of olive oil or fiery s’chug relish, or pureed fresh tomatoes, before popping the pieces into their mouths. Dishes of hilbeh, a goopy paste of fenugreek seeds, garlic, and coriander leaves, were on the tables too, next to cigarette boxes and ashtrays. Nobody seemed to mind that people were smoking. They all seemed to know each other well.
At the rear stood Nechama, a thin dark woman in a pink blouse and jeans skirt hemmed at mid-calf. A close-fitting fabric hat modestly covered her hair. Her glance was sharp and her manner reticent, but she welcomed me, and her smile, when it came, suddenly revealed a mature woman of considerable beauty. She was ladling batter out of a plastic bucket and pouring it into shallow black Teflon frying pans.
The pans full of batter sat for several minutes on the flames while the lachuch baked. When the disks were well pockmarked with open bubbles and their bottom sides baked a golden brown, Nechama shook them out onto a table covered with a clean, thick towel. There they could cool off without sticking to each other or drying out. The whole process took about three minutes.
Nechama cooled each frying pan down by running a little tap water over it, then dried it and used another pan to make the next lachuch. She explained that if you use a fresh pan each time, the bottom of the lachuch will stay smooth.
I’ve never seen such a fiercely clean kitchen.
On one wall was a shelf with a charity box and an old-fashioned instant coffee can next to a can of instant chocolate.
One man with a white T-shirt stretched over a big paunch talked to me in jovial English. My accent had given me away immediately. All the men, once they took me in, talked to me in a natural, friendly way – just to exchange, as they say in Hebrew, a good word.
Even the kashrut inspector, dropping in to look over the place and say hello, made a point of greeting me.
“Shalom, madame,” he said loudly.
I turned around and saw a tiny old man with a white beard. He was wearing a rabbinical-looking black hat and jacket. His dark eyes, set in the deep wrinkles of old age, were young, and twinkled curiously at the sight of this tall Ashkenazic stranger in the little shop.
“Shalom aleichem,” I answered respectfully. Then I had to explain, for maybe the third time, what I was doing there and what a blog is.
“Nechama, give me some olive oil,” said the fat man from his table.
“I’m out of olive oil,” said Nechama dryly.
“I’ll go and get some.”
“Well, all right, but only if you let me pay you.” She turned away to poke at something behind her.
“Pay me, pay me – why are you always worrying about money?” he grunted, heaving himself to his feet and exiting towards the grocery store.
Nechama sat down with me as the customers finished eating and went their ways. She told me that her husband, a neighborhood character and a great player of backgammon, had died suddenly of heart failure. They never had much money, but depended on no one. Now his friends gather for lunch at her place every day.
“They eat here to support me,” she said, her fine black eyes flicking to the opposite wall.
A large photograph of a stout, handsome man hung there over the sofa: Nechama’s husband. He had been loved, but had never worked very hard. Nechama was now counting on her community’s appetite for fresh traditional breads to keep her little place going. I silently wondered how she would manage when the first wave of sympathy was spent, but she said that her breads are becoming known and that on Fridays, she sells as much as she can make.
She wouldn’t allow me to photograph her. I didn’t even try asking for her recipe, the source of her income, but showed her the one below and she approved it.
I hope, for this brave and lonely woman, that her business succeeds greatly. And I hope that when the right time comes, she’ll know joy again.
about 20 lachuch flatbreads
recipe from The Book of New Israeli Food by Janna Gur
3 1/2 cups flour
1 oz – 25 grams fresh yeast
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon sugar
3 cups warm water
3 slices white bread
In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in all the water. Add the flour, salt, and sugar and mix to make a loose batter.
Soak the bread slices in warm water for 5 minutes. Squeeze the water out of them and put them in a blender to make a smooth paste. Stir this into the batter; mix.
Cover the bowl and allow the batter to rise till doubled – about 2 hours.
Stir the batter down and oil a frying pan lightly. Wipe away any excess oil. Place it over a medium flame.
Fill a ladle with batter and pour it onto the frying pan. When the top of the pancake-like bread is pocked with bubbles and the bottom is a dark-golden brown, ease the lachuch out onto a clean, dry towel. Don’t fry the other side.
Keep the lachuch covered. Eat warm – I favor the rip-pieces-off method myself.