Rest and Refuel

Posted on February 8, 2014

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Ron came home the other day, full and contented after an excellent meal at one of our favorite gas-station restaurants – Nimmer, near Golani Junction. You may be raising an eyebrow, like I did when I first moved to Israel, about the prospect of eating in proximity of gas pumps. But as it turns out, gas station restaurants can generally be counted on for fresh, tasty, if not formulaic, “Middle-Eastern” food.

As I delved into the culinary traditions of this region, I came to understand that gas station restaurants came into being in response to an age-old need to sustain travelers en route. From the time that merchants carried goods from points East to points West, resting stops were established at strategic points along their trade routes. Known in Arabic as “khans”, they offered caravan travelers and their pack animals a place to sleep and refuel. Certain khans continued to function through the beginning of the 20th century, and can still be seen today – one of my favorites is now a parking lot in Nazareth, but there are superlative examples in Akko as well.

And as it turns out, just down the road from Nimmer, covered in overgrowth, are the remains of a khan built during the Mameluke period (around the 16th century?), known as Khan el Tujar, or the khan of the vendors. A friend of mine – a food historian who is studying the evolution of local markets – invited me on an expedition to explore it. She explained that it was built near the junction between two Roman roads and that it had, until the early 1900s, hosted a weekly market. The question she was pondering was what led to its sudden decline.

We clambered over the rubble, peered through exquisite vaulted spaces, and discovered the remains of a well and a mosque. She found a piece of Mameluke-era pottery with its distinctive yellow glaze, and I found a chip of carnelian stone – too smooth and shiny to be just a pebble. We ate tiny dark-brown almonds picked off a stunted tree and cracked open with stones, and chewed on wild fennel seeds collected from the starbursts that topped stalks as high as our shoulders. Then we rested on a pile of stones, filling up on the beauty of Mount Tabor and the rolling olive-covered hills.khan 4

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