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Organic Flavors

This article was published by the Xinhua Official News Agency of China English edition.

by Susana Mendoza

JERUSALEM, June 30 (Xinhua) — The beating heart of many cities can often be best experienced at their open-air markets, where bustling scenes of buyers and sellers offers visitors a chance to get the real flavor of the place.

Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda is a colorful case in point: Its busy main avenue and narrow alleyways are filled with colorful stalls piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables, tasty meats and seafood, aromatic breads, and mouth-watering sweets. Sellers avidly hawk their wares to the thousands of shoppers who come from all walks of life, and to tourists and passersby.

“This place dates back to the beginning of the 19th century,” said Yonatan Neril, the director of Eco Israel Tours, who is an old hand at guiding visitors around the market’s nooks and crannies explains. “When the neighborhoods started to expand outside of the walls of the Old City, and therefore needed a new market to supply them.”

A well known landmark to the locals, Mahane Yehuda (“Camp of Judah” in Hebrew) is a framework of small stands and coffee shops, boutique stores and clothes shops, all mixed together with the pungent fragrances of middle eastern spices.

“This shuk (“market” in Hebrew) is not the same one that was here a decade ago, it is becoming more chic with time,” Neril said, “and more ecological, since now it’s the trend in Israel to eat more organically cultivated goods. Also, there are a lot more varieties to offer, since a lot of the vegetables and fruits in the marked are imported.”

“Before the 1960’s, all of the products in the market were ‘ baladi’ – grown on small farms by local farmers,” according to one natural food shop-owner, “but since farm industrialization began and the city’s population grew, natural vegetables and fruits became scarce. We’re trying to reverse this, and organic dining is also becoming a trend.”

And what’s in the typical middle eastern dish, felafel, made with chickpeas and vegetables?

“Typical felafel ingredients are half grown in Israel, half imported, like the chickpeas, that always come Argentina,” Neril says, “or the wheat that usually comes from Kazakhstan or Ukraine, depending on the season.”

And, it turns out, Israel exports almost as much as it imports, with 2010 seeing a ten-percent rise in exports.

“In the shuk you will find seasonal fruits that Israel also exports,” Neril notes, “specializing in tropical fruits and naturally grown melons, that made up 1.2 billion U.S. dollars of exports per year.”

With over 250 stands, Mahane Yehuda offers a mixture of farmers market produce, and olives, oil, nuts and spices which are often grown organically in Israel.

“Israel’s olives are considered to be of a great quality, just like our olive oil, and all of the ‘Seven Species’ described in the Bible are available in Mahane Yehuha,” Neril points out.

The figs, dates, grapes, barley, wheat, honey, and pomegranates that make up the Biblical fare hold a prominent place in traditional Israeli cuisine. They even have a holiday of their own, Tu Bishvat, the Jewish “New Year for Trees,” and are also a motif on Sukkot, the “Festival of Booths,” and on Shavuot, the “Festival of Weeks,” where they can be found on many holiday tables.

Many recently-opened natural and organic goods shops have also flourished around the market and in the adjacent streets. They sell organically-grown eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, as well as other products made up of only natural ingredients, like vitamins and soaps.

From one nature shop in the eighties, six different health foods shops thrive in and around Mahane Yehuda.

“Israelis now want to eat healthier and are more concerned of where their food comes from,” says Ro’i Bibi, who owns the Teva ( Nature) Net health food shop. “And the demand for this sort of food is on the rise now. I’m sure that in a few years half of what you buy in the shuk will be organic,” Bibi believes.