James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Will Someone Please Make Us This Yemenite Pancake Hybrid Stat?

Will Someone Please Make Us This Yemenite Pancake Hybrid Stat?

Lachuch in Tel Aviv

The first time I met Irit, she was running around her tiny hole-in-the-wall café, blistering aubergines and squeezing oranges, chopping salad and plonking plates onto tables. All the while, she screeched Hebrew greetings and orders to her customers. Her long grey hair was scraped into a messy bun and she wore a t-shirt with the words “I DO WHAT I WANT” on the back.

She’s the type of person you can’t not like. Irit has a little place in the Yemenite quarter of Tel Aviv, just behind the main Carmel shuk. It’s a quaint neighborhood of one or two-story buildings with flat roofs, that make it easy to imagine the old Tel Aviv, the one before skyscraper hotels and shopping malls. In Hebrew, the area is known as Kerem HaTeimanim, which translates as Yemenite’s vineyard, and it’s here that she grew up, when camels and cattle still crowded the streets.

When I arrive, the place is full. So instead of waiting, Irit gets me squeezing lemons for fresh lemonade, serving shakshuka, and making lachuch; a cross between a crumpet and a pancake.

Lachuch is classic Yemenite-Jewish fare, and is now ubiquitous in Israel, along with a fiery, fresh coriander relish, known as zhoug, and a variety of sweet pastries and breads, including a layered sausage-shaped roll of pastry and margarine that’s slow-cooked overnight until it’s deep brown and buttery sweet, then eaten with an egg.

Yemenite food has become an intrinsic part of Israeli cuisine, introduced with the waves of Yemenite-Jewish migrants who came to Israel, fleeing worsening tensions during the 1950s. Irit’s parents were among them.

Lachuch is a basic mixture of flour, yeast, salt, and fenugreek, left to rise and bubble for an hour before being fried into an airy pancake. It’s comparable to Ethiopian injera, I suppose. But Irit’s version is crispy. And has an egg in the middle.

The batter is rising in a corner. The day’s humidity is doing its job as bubbles appear, crackle and pop on the surface. It’s been sitting for an hour, and she insists that any longer will ruin it. She stirs the gloopy, airy mixture in a clockwise motion with her hand, while a pan with oil heats on the hob. She then scoops out a ladleful of the batter, slops it into the pan and tilts it so the mixture spreads and covers the base in a thin layer. Little bubbles appear on the surface as the base sets and browns. The main rule is not to flip it, but instead to cook it until set. Irit cracks an egg into the middle, then folds it up and allows the hot pocket to cook the yolk, allowing for egg white to spill out and form crisp edges around the lachuch’s now golden crust.

The lachuch is flipped and slam-dunked onto a plate with smoky aubergine and a crisp salad of fresh herbs and red peppers piled alongside. Tahini is drizzled liberally on top. She hands me the plate brusquely, almost forgetting the obligatory side of fiery zhoug and grated fresh tomato. We eat.

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