The sun is setting in Bnei Brak, and the chase for cholent is on. Hundreds of cholent lovers flock the streets of Tel Aviv’s Eastern neighbor, seeking what German poet Heinrich Heine calls, “the food of heaven.” If you listen closely you can hear their stomachs rumbling.
This bustling city offers both tourists and sabras the chance to experience an array of mouthwatering home-styled dishes alongside the finest Eastern European cuisine, but the culinary connoisseurs know where the cholent scene is cooking.
Let’s start with Zipori, one of the many famous delis that cholent lovers frequent throughout the week, especially on Thursday nights. This family owned franchise started way back in 1935, when the Zipori family moved to Israel from Poland. “My father walked on the plane carrying just one pair of pants and the shirt on his back,” says restaurant owner Chaim Zipori, “here in Israel he met my mother and together they opened this beautiful restaurant with just three meters of space.”
For most deli owners in Bnei Brak, cholent holds a deep emotional significance. “For us children that grew up in traditional Ashkenazi homes, cholent is not just about feeding your appetite, it’s about feeding your memory,” says Chaim. Cholent is not just food, it is love, it is home, it is family, and it is tradition.
What makes this restaurant so special is the homey atmosphere that customers experience each time they visit. Chaim makes a point of greeting everyone at the door with a welcoming smile. “I want everyone to feel like this is their home,” he says. The deli has tripled in size, and as you walk in you encounter a tank of cholent alongside trays of delectable kugels, tzimmes (sweet carrots and raisins), an assortment of livers, and kishke (a flour dumpling baked inside intestines).
What’s captivating is the diversity of people that come to eat. On this particular evening there were the expected Haredi crowds, some American Yeshiva students, but also a crowd of Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball fans, who had come to fill up before the game in Tel Aviv. When asked what they were doing at a cholent deli in Bnei Brak on a Thursday night, Noam and Amir replied, “we look forward to our cholent all week and we have been coming to Zipori for years.” Noam also said the food reminds him of his grandmother, who had recently passed away, and every time he eats cholent he remembers the sound of her laugh.
Those up for a culinary adventure need not look further. The smell of spicy cholent, potato kugel, blintzes and meat patties is a great way to track down the famous downtown deli, Muchan Umezuman. Don’t be duped by this humble little storefront; these cholent champions boast the best recipes in the country and cater to hardcore cooking enthusiasts worldwide.
This cozy little place was started 35 years ago by a Polish family. Yisrael, the son of the owner, says that what makes the deli special is, again, the heimish feeling they create through bringing the recipes of their grandparents and ancestors to life. “It takes us two whole days to get the cholent just right for customers to enjoy on Thursday nights,” says Yisrael, “our food is made with love.” Does food made with love means fewer calories? That’s yet to be discovered.
After the great cholent trek, many scurry to find the famous city bakery, Vishnitz (7 Shimshon Hagibor Street). This bakery is world-renowned for its delicious challahs. Once you go Vishnitz, your Friday night kiddush will never be the same again. These challahs are baked using special ovens, mixers and methods from the nineteenth century shtetles. Open all night, the workers are constantly baking as the challahs are snatched up by the second. It’s quite a sight to watch and should not be missed! Watching people run around the bakery also helps your cholent digest. Challahs come in so many different sizes; there is something special for everyone. Prices are also reasonable and the staff is very friendly. You can feel the excitement of the Sabbath as the sun rises early Friday morning.
To top it off, the most surprising discovery was a gas station that sells cholent all throughout the night. Turns out Bnei Brak’s bean obsession burns deeper than we imagined. If you need to fill up your tank and satiate a last craving before you leave the city, you can always venture to Menta, the gas station on Cahanmen Street.