There’s a travellers’ creed that the true joys of a foreign country lie in sampling native cuisine. If the menu is a technicolour laminate it’s probably no good. My deficiency is that I’ve always been a fussy eater. So a trip to Israel proved problematic.
For five days I survived by seeking out rare Israeli fast food joints and inhaling tubes of Mentos in between. Dinner had mostly consisted of bread and butter, or the occasional mound of flavourless couscous. So when my family and I descended to the dining room on our last night in a Jerusalem hotel, I was horrified to see that everything had changed. The plates were a different colour to previous nights; all cutlery was now plastic; a new menu displayed only incomprehensible food. The basket of bread rolls was conspicuously absent.
‘Passover started today,’ says my Mum. ‘There are rules.’
Photo credit Flickr: Scott Robbin
The rules seemed specifically constructed to starve me to death. Passover is one of the darker biblical tales, the climax of the ten plagues of Egypt; the death of every firstborn in the land. The Israelites daubed lamb’s blood on their doors so that God would pass over their children. The severity of this punishment won the Israelites their freedom, and they fled so quickly there was no time to leaven bread. So, during the festival of Passover, Jews do not eat leavened bread of any kind, nor use utensils or plates that have ever touched it.
Israeli hotels go a step further. To ensure the continuing custom of wealthy businessmen they remove all trace of anything but the most traditional Jewish foods. Which left me in a spot of bother.
Photo credit Flickr: Telstar Logistics
The only food I was likely to stomach was Matzo: bread at its most unleavened, flat and hard, like a centuries old cream-cracker. I wondered if I could use a shard of it to threaten the kitchen staff into cooking me a burger.
Other members of our tour group passed through the dining room. Like a condemned man I begged them fruitlessly for any forbidden treats they might have stashed away. My kingdom for a chicken nugget!
A hotel worker overheard me and beckoned us over.
‘You want food?’ he whispered, voice muffled by the collar of his uniform.
Photo credit Flickr: Unlisted Sightings
We stole through the hotel together like outlaws. The Sabbath elevator, always empty because it stopped at every floor, took us up to a deserted corridor.
‘Passover can be difficult,’ said the man as he ushered us to a storeroom door that he unlocked from a fist-sized bunch of keys. He disappeared inside without switching on a light. Cautiously, I peered in after him. I feared a sting, some kind of religious arrest. Instead he showed me the contents of a cardboard box.
Contraband. A tantalising rainbow of cakes and crisps and Mentos; all the goods that had been confiscated from the hotel shop.
‘Don’t tell no one, ok?’
Some travellers embrace the culinary idiosyncrasies of their host nation, no matter how outlandish, and would accuse me of breaking more than just the rules of the Jewish people. But as I staggered back to my room, arms laden with illicit snacks, nothing in the world could have made me happier.
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Category: Events & Seasonal Celebrations