Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter is quiet on Saturday mornings. Most of the surrounding businesses, like the sidewalk cafes and food stalls at the nearby Carmel Market, are closed for the Jewish sabbath, commonly called Shabbat. Breezes from the nearby Mediterranean Sea roll down the shady alleyways, passing by the single-story rectangular houses that have stood there since the neighborhood was established in 1906. The only sign of life, save for a handful of open convenience stores, are people trickling into a few of these private homes. Tel Aviv’s usually crowded public buses don’t run between mid-afternoon on Friday until Saturday night, so they arrive by taxi or on foot in search of jachnun, a cylinder-shaped pastry with a long history that begins more than 1400 miles away from Israel in Yemen.
Jachnun’s looks can be deceiving. It’s not some kind of delicate, French-style baked good—it’s a hearty, savory beast designed to stick to your ribs. “It's the kind of meal that should hold you for the entire day,” explains Avihai Tsabari, whose company, Via Sabra, leads groups through the Yemenite Quarter as part of the In Search of Israeli Cuisine food tour. It looks like a thick crepe rolled in on itself several times and formed into the shape of a log. Then it’s baked overnight, low and slow for about 12 hours, until it caramelizes. The result is several flaky layers of rich and chewy dough with a slightly sweet taste. It’s always served with a hard-boiled (or baked) egg, fresh grated tomato and s’chug, a fiery sauce flavored with cilantro, parsley, garlic, cardamom, and fresh green chilis.
The Yemenite Jewish approach to cooking is resourceful and relies on simple ingredients. “Yemenite food, as I understand it, is poor man's food,” explains Israeli food expert and tour guide Joel Haber. After living in Yemen for thousands of years, threats of violence, oppression, and poor living conditions spurred Jews to leave their communities and emigrate to what is now Israel starting in 1881. After the the country was officially established in 1948, the Israeli government sponsored Operation Magic Carpet that transported many remaining Yemenite Jews to Israel. It’s estimated that 82 percent of the word’s population of Yemenite Jews live in Israel today, with others residing in the United States and United Kingdom.
Yemenite Jews brought their distinct dishes like jachnun with them to Israel where they’ve become a vital part of the country’s cuisine that blends food traditions from Jewish communities all over the world. Regev Eibenschutz, owner of Jahnun Bar in the vast Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, was first introduced to his restaurant’s namesake dish after his sister married a Yemenite man. “We would go to visit his mother’s house every Shabbat and eat jachnun there,” he recalls. “It was the best part of my week.”
Jachnun and its accoutrements are traditionally reserved for Shabbat morning breakfast and served warm after services at the synagogue “The idea of having something that cooks through the night for Shabbat is common to most Jewish communities around the world, and stems from the prohibition against lighting or using fire on Shabbat,” explains Haber. “Thus, in order to have warm food on the Sabbath, it must have been cooked and then kept warm on a fire from before Sabbath begins until the time it is eaten.”
Jachnun’s principal ingredients like flour, butter, and salt (sugar is usually added now, as well) might seem commonplace, but they were expensive at one time and reserved for special occasions like Shabbat. “The dough traditionally takes three days to make, since it is a multi-stage process,” explains Eibenschutz, “and the dough must rest in between each phase,” This unique dough, called ajin, is particular to Yemenite Jewish cuisine and found in other related dishes like malawach, similar to a pan-fried pancake. According to Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, ajin wasn’t made by any non-Jewish Yemenites. That’s because it’s likely an adaptation of Spanish hojaldre, a puff pastry that Sephardic Jewish exiles likely brought with them to the Ottoman Empire.
Israelis don’t limit jachnun consumption to Sabbath breakfast these days, so Eibenschutz keeps up with demand by making the dough in a factory. He also makes it with margarine so those who follow Kosher dietary laws can eat it at any time (Jahnun Bar is open 24 hours a day, even on Shabbat). In Tel Aviv, Yemenite restaurants like Saluf & Sons also serve jachnun until late in the evening, sometimes washed down with a shot of anise-flavored arak before hitting the bars.
Outside of the city, jachnun is also sold along roads. “By now it's everywhere,” says Tsabari. “Either... near main junctions or hand made by older folks that set up a little table and chair and sell it near their house.” If all else fails, head to a grocery store. Jachnun has become so common that you can find it there pre-made and ready to heat up at home.
Still, there’s something special about eating fresh jachnun on a Saturday morning, when all of the city is quiet. Instead of picking up a bag of jachnun, visit the Yemenite quarter, feel the Mediterranean breeze, and simply following the crowd.