Shabtai Shrefler of outside Azur.
By Danielle Crittenden Frum
Scattered throughout Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are what as known as “worker’s restaurants” — the Israeli equivalent of a diner, offering cheap, plentiful home-cooked dishes, usually of specific ethnic origin. Often these restaurants can be found in the center of market areas, such as the Levinsky and Carmel shuks in Tel Aviv, and the Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem.
To a hand-sanitized visitor from North America, some of these places can feel a bit sketchy. You don’t often experience food service directly from a possibly-never-washed stew pot onto a piece of waxed paper or plastic plate. But if you don’t eat in one (or two or three) you’ll have missed one of the central culinary and cultural experiences you can have in Israel. It’s in these modest restaurants — often operated by two and three generations of a single family — where you can taste fusions of spices and ingredients you never could have imagined.
Worker’s restaurants are not places to linger, but I’ve spent many happy pauses in such restaurants. I first encountered zhug — a fiery hot sauce composed of mixed spices — at an outdoor table of a Yemenite restaurant. Ful-hummus is an Egyptian take on the ubiquitous Israeli staple — it’s almost like a hummus stew covered with warm mashed-up fava beans. My youngest daughter still dreams of the take-away Georgian cheese bread we ate on the fly: imagine a just-baked hot slab of peasant bread oozing with salty melted cheese and (optionally) a fried egg.
Which brings me to Azura, a second-generation Kurdish-Iraqi-Turkish-Sephardic restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem’s famous open-air Mahane Yehuda market. (Yeah, talk about fusion cuisine.) Azura was founded in 1952 by Ezra Shrefler, an immigrant from Turkish Kurdistan. “Azura” was his nickname. “Azura” is also the name of the restaurant’s signature dish of slow-cooked eggplant topped with spiced beef and pine-nuts. The restaurant is now run by his Ezra’s son, Shabtai, and his eight siblings. The family prepares food in a line of huge pots simmering over kerosene burners.
Shabtai stopped by my outdoor table as I frowned over the menu. Aside from the eggplant, the restaurant is known for its kebbah soups and sofritos. A kebbeh generally refers to a dish made up of finely chopped, seasoned meat, with onions and bulgar wheat, usually formed into balls. At Azura the kebbeh was served stuffed inside semolina dumplings, floating in either a spicy or lemony broth. Sofrito, by definition, is a Spanish sauce commonly made from tomatoes, onion and garlic, and used as a base for other recipes. FWIW this is not what sofrito meant at Azura. The menu used “sofrito” to describe a variety of aromatic slow-cooked stews. Indeed the secret to Azura’s dishes, as Shabtai explained, is that “Everything here is cooked overnight, over a flame. Very simple food, like you’d have at home.”
Copper pots simmering with Azura’s dishes of the day. Photo by Danielle Frum.
Well maybe not everyone’s home. We should all be so lucky. I ordered a sampling of pretty much everything, warning in advance that I’d disappoint Shabtai by not finishing it. But Shabtai’s cooking did not disappoint me. From the kebbeh soup to the eggplant to the sofrito, plus hummus and a couple of other small side dishes — the food effused authentic home cooking just as Shabtai had promised. It was like being fed by a Kurdish-Iraqi-Turkish-Sephardic grandmother. The secret, as he revealed, was basically cooking the hell out of everything on low heat. You think this might dry out, say, the eggplant or the beef, but the opposite occurred: all the spices and ingredients melted together to form a new dish entirely. And I mean melted. Ordinarily, stew is cooked until it the meat and vegetables are fork tender. Shabtai’s method, however, produced culinary alchemy: meat and vegetables were bound and fused until they became one tender, flavorful mash.
Azura’s beef sofrito. Photo by Danielle Frum, before she ate it.
It occurred to me that a North American cook could possibly replicate some of these dishes in a slow cooker, so I asked Shabtai for the recipe for his beef sofrito. He happily conveyed it to me — in that way someone who cooks from instinct and tradition will do. “You just take beef … and some pepper and salt … and cook it overnight.”
Since coming home, I’ve done some more research and developed a fragrant version of Iraqi sofrito that comes close to Azura’s (although I couldn’t replicate the experience of eating it in the lively, noisy market). I cooked it overnight — and then into the next day. Shabtai was right: 12-18 hours on low heat only makes for a better stew. Enjoy it during one of these final wintery evenings, before spring is upon us and the slow cooker is put away.