Jona van der Schelde

The little lady at the shuk

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As much as the next guy, I love walking down the colorful Carmel Market, slowly strolling through a sea of scent and sound. But really, it’s in the bustling back streets of the market that all the interesting stuff is happening – it’s less immediately inviting and in-your-face than the main stalls, but all the more enticing once you give in. There’s bulky men inside nondescript stores with Cyrillic signs, you can find good noodles dished out by a particularly well-integrated Thai woman with no patience for tourists, after-army Israelis sharing tobacco, loud music and shots, some of the best and most daring houmous spots (there’s houmous tikka massala and Mexican nacho style which sounds and is sacrilegious but also pretty good), hole-in-the-wall Yemenite soup spots, Eastern-European herring and Sephardic spice stores, dusty tailors next to brand new brunch bistros. 

There’s also the little lady. Well, that’s how me and my best friend called her. It may sound a little irreverent, but it’s meant with the utmost respect and deference. The little lady is the fearless chef/architect/mastermind/shotcaller of a fabulous food stall in the most picturesque alleyway of the shuk. It’s a beautifully organized stall, in which four giant pans are sizzling at all times and large amounts of vegetables, the little lady’s most valuable assets, are quite literally hanging loose all over the place. She stands in the middle of all this, making some of the best food in the city – a combination of hearty stews and funky salads that changes every day, as well as her self-made, formidably fluffy bread. 

All kinds of rumors swirl around about her. One friend told me that hér friend said the little lady was captured by pirates off the coast of Africa as a child and eventually taken in by those Somalian sea scavengers and raised one of their own. It sounds ridiculous, but seeing the way she wields a knife, bandana ‘round her head, I wouldn’t put it past her. 

More likely, though, is that she was, or still is, as is often whispered, a high-ranking general in the Mossad. It makes sense when you observe the awe-inspiring manner in which she manages her kitchen staff – she needs only half a word to command her waiters and one stern glance to reprimand them.

Other rumors revolve around her cooking abilities and the ease and calmness she displays in the eye of the storm. With heavy, gigantic pans sputtering and blazing directly in front of her, and impatient Israelis and tipsy tourists sweating and hollering around her, she stays ever so cool, only moving to the rhythm of her own soul. She looks at neither customers nor her colleagues, but strictly gazes from cauliflower to eggplant to beet tehina to persimmon and back again. You get the idea that she’s not totally there but yet she is, just performing on a higher plane. I have heard her be compared to both Coltrane and Sade, owing to her supreme stoicism and elegant equanimity. 

Another time I heard someone say she’s in fact Banksy, which sounds ridiculous, but then… her anarchist look and the creative way she combines colors in her stews had me scratch my head.

I read somewhere that she used to be a prodigious chemist, well on her way to nab a Nobel nomination, but she quit because she got bored. It sounded far-fetched to me but then I saw her constructing concoctions of olive oil butter and brewing kohlrabi broth with the precision of a lab scientist and I wasn’t so sure anymore. The boredom part would explain why she changes up her menu every day, always staying one step ahead of comfortability, cliché and complacency.

All in all, she’s a true hero in my book. When a friend was traveling to Tel Aviv, she was top of the list of my recommendations. Just… I couldn’t tell him the address, it was somewhere in those back streets, no clue which one exactly. If I was there, I bet I would find my way there in a heartbeat but I’m quite far removed. I’ve tried to search on the internet, even Google Streetviewed for hours trying to locate her stall, I asked my friends in Tel Aviv, all to no avail. 

Lately, I even started to question myself. Was she really real? 


But yes, of course she was. I’ve been to that stall, ate that fantastic food, observed her monk-like manners, felt the heat of the broiling stews and listened to the jazzy rhythms reverberating through the entire alleyway. All that must have been real, right? In fact, it was as real as anything I’ve experienced. She’s gotta be real. 

If you’re at the shuk sometime, look for her, for me. Please.

About the Author
Jona van der Schelde loves language and cycling. He lives in the Netherlands and teaches Hebrew.
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