By Skylar Lindsay
Bright sumac and good olive oil on the goat cheese. Thin radishes and cilantro on the lentils with fire-roasted tomatoes. He nods with each dish, passing it on to the waiters. The mood is calm and clear, forty or so miles from the Gaza Strip.
Another cook works with a pan of shellfish, tossing shrimp and scallops up off the front lip. They hang above the heat before landing in a sizzle. The tension is sometimes palpable in Israel, but a little bit burns away on this grill in Jaffa, southwest Tel Aviv.
When I sit down to eat at Puaa, a neighborhood institution and a symbol of present-day Jaffa, I join in an exhale. Life in Israel can be tense. A foreigner slips between the insular groups of Israeli society. But there is a sense that each cultural sect, or “tribe,” as Israeli President Ruvin Rivlin and others call them, only looks out for its own members. I can’t claim to know why. This tension plays out in Israeli politics but also in daily life.
The blocks of old Jaffa pull oxygen in off the Mediterranean, through the wide streets of the flea market. Street art and crafty boutiques are plentiful. One warmly-lit pedestrian lane is full of Tel Avivis and foreigners eating, drinking and smoking. They fill the mismatched vintage, wicker and pastel seats outside Puaa, spread underneath green vines and the never-dark navy sky of Tel Aviv.
But taking a breather in Jaffa is a careful dance with a checkered history. It means engaging with the old Arab city’s choppy journey from Palestinian port to gentrified cultural destination. The port was a hub of Arab life, the industrial center behind famous Jaffa oranges – an industry run by Palestinians as well as Jews. Enjoying the calm in Jaffa also means contending with Zionism, riots, a war for independence, retaliation, a Nakba (catastrophe, in Arabic) and a recent depression. It would be a kind of foodie hubris to ignore this history. Know where you food comes from, know where your restaurant comes from.
I sit just inside and a mop-topped server in cork sandals, jean shorts and a t-shirt greets me. We talk for a moment about Puaa. It’s survived for two decades, apparently a feat in Jaffa today.
Like its atmosphere, the menu at Puaa is unique but still connected to Israeli and Arab cuisine. Puaa does the local majadera – spiced lentils and dirty rice with yogurt – and mansaf – a heavy thyme, pine nut and mince meat dish. They also do Cajun chicken and curried pumpkin dumplings. There’s a beans and roots salad too, with beets, coriander, and peanuts.
Susan Abulhawa, a Palestinian author, writes that Jerusalem “exhales humility,” despite its past. Present-day Jaffa, through its calm, shows a similar paradox.
Puaa exemplifies this aspect of Jaffa. It represents a culture that offers a calm escape both because of and in spite of Jaffa’s past. The aesthetic of Jaffa’s new art galleries, boutiques and trendy restaurants is classic gentrification, built on the Arab city’s history. Just last year, one of the new development projects uncovered a sign from an old citrus business: “Said Hajaj Oranges,” at 6 Salameh Street.
Puaa doesn’t pretend to reproduce Jaffa’s past – instead, it manufactures a beautiful nod to something new. The interior is your aunt’s eclectically decorated living room: doilies, retro housewares and all. There is an Arabic salad – cucumber, tahini, lime – but the bowl they drop on your table isn’t what you’d get at an old Arab eatery. The tucked-away location and atypically Israeli menu suggest a discovery, a new find – the latest iteration of Jaffa.
It’s not that everything in Israel needs to be wrapped in talk of the tension and located with respect to the conflict. I didn’t set out to see Jaffa and Puaa in this single dimension.
But there is a comforting honesty to the cooking at Puaa. And that comfort, the character of the cooking, on a strollable lane of old Arab Jaffa, clearly contrasts with life outside this microculture, forty or so miles from Gaza.
Black block lettering stuck on a shuttered business near Puaa says “Smile, you’re in Jaffa.” Whatever it means to be “in Jaffa” today, it’s easy to comply.
Skylar Lindsay is a writer and photographer publishing on social justice, travel, food, and human rights issues. A Seattle native, he grew up between statues of Vladimir Lenin and Leif Erikson and studied Peace & Conflict at Colgate University. He’s also worked as an ice climbing instructor, an organic tomato farmer and a Spanish tapas cook. Read his latest work at SkylarNoah.wordpress.com, and follow him on Twitter.