I’m lost in Tel Aviv, again. I picked a random street to walk down in the general direction of my destination, and I’m lost, but it’s okay. Wandering just on the outskirts of Shuk HaCarmel, I peer into each shop, my eyes fruitlessly searching for a notebook. Just something small to jot down my thoughts and dreams. I am so intent on my quest to discover new shops and find my perfect notebook that I fail to recognize the street that I’m walking down, that I’ve walked down a few times before. If it wasn’t for the brilliant blue doors and emerald green awning which mark the entrance to her little restaurant, I might have passed Irit’s, but it is the solo outdoor table that catches my eye. An elderly gentleman is seated there, enjoying a tall glass of orange juice. I suddenly snap back to reality as I realize where I am.
I feel a small smile creep across my face as I step into her place. Although Irit likes to keep the radio on, a mishmash of American 90’s, Top 40 and Israeli songs, the real music of Irit’s is the sound of her voice calling over the others. She once told me her age, swiftly followed by the jubilant exclamation that her soul is young! And it is; you can hear it in her voice and see it in the twinkle in her eyes and her glowing skin.
Irit is middle-aged, about the same age as my own Mother, though her cheerful, raspy voice and caring nature leads me to feel as though she is everyone’s bubby.
My intent is to say hello and continue on my way, but soon I am sitting at one of her mismatched tables in a mismatched chair sipping freshly squeezed orange juice prepared by one of her friends, Yosi. Although she is married, I imagine that Irit has many admirers, and Yosi may even be one of them. Irit once told me that she had to turn down many marriage proposals in just one day, and I believe her.
I share the news with Yosi and Irit, although it isn’t really news; I am leaving Tel Aviv in about 10 days, and Israel not long after that. They erupt, as all Israelis do when they hear that the Americayi is leaving.
ARIZONA! boasts Yosi, You are SLEEPING in Arizona! The excitement is here!
I try to tell him that Arizona can be exciting, but he presses on.
Sometimes (Arizona can be exciting), but here, the excitement is every day!
It’s true, there’s hardly a dull moment here.
I join Irit in her small kitchen and lean over the stove to find out how exactly she makes her fabulous eggplant. Is it low heat? Magic?
Low heat, she tells me, the same low heat used to make lachoch, a spongy and porous flatbread that she makes daily.
Soon I am greeted with a plate of Irit’s eggplant, my favorite dish of hers, along with a fresh pita and the last of the tahini. I am ready to adopt her as my 3rd grandmother.
When I am done, all that remains are 5 little lemon seeds, evidence of the whimsical, erratic method of Irit’s cooking.
Irit’s small restaurant is lit by bright daylight pouring in through the two open front doors. The sunlight spills into her small restaurant, and into the hearts of her loyal patrons. Irit is exuberant, always. Everything she prepares is the best I have ever had; the best shakshouka, the best eggplant, the best orange juice. Love is the main ingredient in her recipes, and you can taste it.
Irit’s Smokey Eggplant with Lemon and Tahini
Sea salt – a sprinkle, plus more to taste
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 clove of garlic, finely grated
Freshly prepared tahini
Parsley, for garnish
Tools + Method
To achieve the flavor of this dish you need to have a flame. Irit uses a gas stove on low heat along with a metal basket to separate the eggplant from the actual stovetop. You can use a cooking grate on top of a gas flame.
Wash and dry the eggplant. Light your gas stove and place a metal grill rack on top of the flame. Put the flame on the lowest setting and place the eggplant on top of the grill rack. Turn the eggplant occasionally until the outside of the eggplant is very charred and crispy and the inside is very soft.
Meanwhile, grate 1 garlic clove and juice half of a lemon and set aside.
Once the eggplant is done, transfer it to a plate. Using a small knife, carefully remove the blackened skin from the eggplant. You don’t have to get every single tiny piece of the charred skin; leaving very small bits and pieces enhances the flavor.
Massage the eggplant with a generous pinch of salt and grated garlic. Then top with lemon juice and a spoonfull or two of tahini and fresh parsley leaves. Serve alone or alongside pita bread to soak up all of the smokey, fragrant juices.
If you have leftovers, mash everything up (or if you’re fancy, put it in a Cuisinart) to make a smokey eggplant dip or spread for toast/pizza/spooning into your mouth…
Discover Israel’s Tasty Side
I first discovered Irit’s little cafe through my work with Delicious Israel. Inbal, the owner of Delicious Israel (and my boss here in Tel Aviv), took me to Irit’s for the first time on a culinary tour during my very first week as her intern. I have since returned to Irit’s many times, and I have Inbal to thank for that. If you are visiting Israel, check out Inbal’s Culinary Tours to get the tastiest view of the country and to discover more hidden gems like this one!
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