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A Fish Tale – An Interview with Haim of Haim’s Fish Stall

Tower of David |17/02/2022|196
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Jerusalem’s famous Machane Yehuda Market is historically composed of four different markets with different names. The Loans and Savings Market was established in 193, and was named for the bank that loaned the stall owners the money to establish the market. Over the years, this name was forgotten and the small market was absorbed into the larger Machane Yehuda.  A ceramic sign still hangs on one of the walls of the market and testifies to its history.  

Today, this part of the market is also a bustling dining and entertainment area and contains some of the best and most popular restaurants in the market. Among the different establishments are well-known institutions such as Pasta Basta, Uzi-Eli, and Jachnun Bar, and new spots are sprouting all the time, adding color and tastes to the market. One of the most popular and recognized eateries is Fish’En Chips and the long lines of people waiting for a table attest to its fame.  However, not everyone knows that Haim’s Fish stall, just down the street on “Strawberry Road” among other fish stalls, is actually the heart of a culinary “empire”. Along with Fish’En Chips, the restaurant “Michmoret” was part of the group. Although Michmoret closed, a new restaurant will soon open on the site.

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Here at Haim’s Fish stall, we met owner Haim Ohana, as he was cleaning, arranging and adding extra ice to the fresh fish in his display case.  In the cold of a Jerusalem winter, it seemed that we were just as frozen as Haim’s fish!  Actually, Haim claims that winter is the best season for fish, whether spicy or crispy, as it warms both the body and the soul.

We sat down with Haim and a hot cup of Turkish coffee on a bench outside his shop to learn about the market’s past and the present, as well as his thoughts about the future that hopefully will blossom there.  Haim’s father, Jackie, opened the fish store in 1974.  Since then, three generations of the family have worked and conducted business in the shop.  Jackie immigrated to Israel with his family from Casablanca, Morocco in the 1950’s.  He went to live in the Musrara neighborhood and very quickly, found work in the fish department of the large food concern, Tnuva.  Haim recalls that Jackie was a strong and diligent worker, known for being able to unload a truck of 4 tons of carp in just an hour. His manager was named Yitzhak Hertz and they soon became best friends. Yitzhak helped Jackie buy a flat in the Mamilla neighborhood and years later, when Yitzhak bought a flat in the Rechavia neighborhood, it was Jackie who helped him out.   Every Friday, the two friends would meet for lunch over salads, fish dishes and cognac and just talk.  This ritual was a sort of Kabbalat Shabbat every Friday. 

Haim, during the days of austerity in the 1950’s, which fish were available?

There were actually high quality fish then. Cod and other fish, were imported and arrived freshly frozen.  People loved frozen fish brought straight from the oceans.  The most popular fish at the time was carp. 

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So, what brought your father to open his own shop here, in the market?

Actually, it’s quite a sad story. One day, Jackie’s friend Yitzhak and his wife were driving near Kibbutz Hulda when they were involved in an accident.  Both Yitzhak and his wife were instantly killed.  Haim’s father lost a dear friend, and became so depressed that he left his work at Tnuva.  Eventually, he decided to open a store in the Machane Yehuda Market.  The knowledge gained over the years at Tnuva and his love for fish led him to open the fish stall that still operates in the same location.  As for Haim, he was at the Onim School in Kfar Saba.  He related that he was a bit wild but very social and he studied to be a chef.  After graduation, he worked as a chef in local hotels and at Shaare Zedek Hospital, until he decided to join his father’s store in the Machane Yehuda Market.

What did the market look like in the 1970’s?

In those days, the stalls in this area were only open until 11:00 am. They sellers would set off before daybreak for Ashdod, Jaffa, and the moshav communities in order to buy goods, and business was finished by the late morning.  There was a chicken store here and vegetable stands, and everyone closed up shop very early.  During the 1970’s we would sell 600-700 kg a week. In the past, there was much more work than there is today. Things have changed and the market looks very different than it did in the past.

When did the market change?  Why?

The Machane Yehuda market used to be an actual market, a market of goods. People would come  here to do their weekly shopping, buying everything they needed.  But from the moment that large grocery stores opened everything began to change. It wasn’t just that the supermarkets opened, they also provided large parking lots, many of them free of charge. It was clear that the rules had changed.  It became much more difficult to come to the market, there wasn’t much parking, and it wasn’t free.  All these are part of the reason for the collapse of the traditional market.

When did all this happen?

It happened gradually, but the peak was in the 1990’s.  Then everything started to change slowly, and this led to big changes that we see today.

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Haim, tell us a little more about your fish stand. Has there been a change in people’s tastes as well?  Which fish are sold there today?

In the past we sold many more salt water fish, there was an abundance from the sea and trade was open.  We would bring fish from Ashdod and Jaffa, and also go to auctions to acquire fish for our stand.  Sometimes we would even go to Gaza to get fish.  The stock was very good.

Do Jerusalemites eat less fish?  There isn’t a sea, river or lake nearby.

Certainly not. In the past Jerusalemites ate a lot of fish, generally more than today; they also were familiar with many more kinds of fish than today.  There was a generation of immigrants arriving from places where fish was an important part of their diet, such as Iraq, Morocco, Spain, Tunis, Tripoli and Eastern Europe.  The Eastern Europeans bought mostly carp used to make gefilte fish.  The Iraqis  bought a lot of barbus, which is a river fish; Moroccans eat all kinds of fish, but they love fresh cod, grouper and generally salt-water fish.The most popular fish in the past was carp, and after that, tilapia.

And today?  Which fish is most popular today?

Today salmon is very popular, maybe the most popular.  Eating sushi and carpaccio have become fashionable and that influences seasoning and preparation.  All types of food have taken on different forms.

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Haim, you manage three different businesses in the market: one is the fish store, the second is Fish’En Chips, and the third is the storefront that will soon be opening as another fish venue. Can you tell us a little about them?

The basis of our work is still the fish store.  When the market began to change its look, I considered what could be done with the space as well.  A few years ago, we went on a family vacation to celebrate the bar mitzvah of one of our children.  We went to Holland and stayed in a small village.  In the market we saw a fish truck where they fried the surplus fish and sold it as a tasty snack, coating the fish with batter and serving it with garlic mayonnaise.  This was the trigger that inspired me to open Fish’En Chips.   

It actually reminded me of the early 1980’s when we would travel to Rafi Nelson’s Retreat at Taba beach in Sinai and there we would sit with Rafi, the owner.  Enrico Macias often came to this beach in those days.  He would go down to the beach wearing a white robe with a backgammon game under his arm to look for someone to play with, and many times I played with him.  At Nelson’s we would eat whole, red snapper with French fries and a half an orange.  The whole meal totalled 20 NIS and it was enjoyed by everyone.  It was simple, delicious and not expensive.  There is something about this simplicity,  without waitstaff or salads and all the preparation around them, that served as the inspiration for the creation of Fish N’ Chips.  We opened the stall that sells tuna, salmon, and hake in beer-batter, with sides of French fries and different kinds of sauces.  We choose the best ingredients, we don’t want to give our customers the simple stock, but the best.  We are careful about freshness and every day we put out fresh stock.

What do you like best about running Fish’En Chips?

I love to see how grandfathers and grandmothers come here with their grandchildren and eat together. It really warms our hearts, since a satisfied clientele is our main goald.  I also enjoy the social interaction that is created here in the market.

Haim, we know that you had the well-known restaurant Michmoret, that closed during the Covid 19 pandemic.  What are your plans for the place now?

The store is now under renovation and will reopen in a few months as a new restaurant for, what else, fish.  It will be a casual place with simple and inexpensive dishes. A place to order fish on the grill, fried fish, nigiri which the customers can assemble themselves, and another dish that we are “cooking up”-  fish combo in a pita.

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One last question.  How did your mother prepare her fish?

My mother prepared her fish so deliciously that it was simply “plate shattering”, not one crumb was leftover and the sauce was licked clean from the place.  “She had the touch!” and my father was also a good cook and I hope that passed to us and that we all pass it down to the next generation.

By the way, all Haim’s stands and stalls have already been passed down to the second generation!  There is even a store in the Carmel Market, Tel Aviv. And the new venue in Machane Yehuda Market to wait for as well!

We couldn’t leave Haim without catching a prize recipe:

Prize recipe for Fish in the Oven from Haim’s Fish Stall

  1. Choose the filet of your choice:  salmon, seabass, mullet, bream, or tilapia. 
  2. Place the fish on a tray. Tip:  lay the fish with the fleshy side down and the skin up - all the flavors will be absorbed better.
  3. Prepare the sauce

 Juice from 2 lemons,

¾ c white wine         

olive oil to taste,

1 head of unpeeled garlic (best crushed)

salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste.

  1. Spread the sauce all over the fish and bake at 180°C for 25 minutes. 

Eat the fish immediately when it comes out of the oven - soft, flaky, and warm!  😋

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