The Making of Mutabak at Zalatimo, Jerusalem: An Old Family Recipe Survives

If you don't already know about Zalatimo, you probably won't be able to find it—or so my local tour guide tells me as we walk into this tiny hole-in-a-wall pastry shop. (Literally - the shop is nestled within the ancient Roman walls surrounding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City.) There are no menus, because Zalatimo only serves one dish: a savory/sweet pastry called mutabak, which is handmade-to-order from a 150-year-old family recipe.

Zalatimo's history is truly a family one: Mohammad Zalatimo opened the first mutabak pastry shop in the old city of Jerusalem in 1860, and the following generations have carried on the tradition, all the way down to his great-grandson (seen in the video below) who became upset when my fellow travelers and I took over the only four tables in the shop. (Granted, he was probably justified in feeling a bit miffed. As part of a culinary tour hosted by Kinetis, a non-profit organization, my traveling group included four other bloggers, our trip hosts, a Jerusalem tour guide, one photographer, and a three-person camera crew! For a shop that small, and with all the pastries made out in the open, it must have been disorienting!)

As I learned, mutabak's surprisingly simple ingredients—tracing-paper-thin dough, white cheese curds, sugar syrup, and a dusting of powdered sugar—belie a deft skill. Pastry dough this thin doesn't happen with a roller! It's all in the art of the wrist. Our chef flipped the pastry dough like a pizza, except he turned it over completely with each flick—one wrong move and it'll tangle, but do it just right (and, for the record, he did it just right every time) and the dough lands flat on the marble countertop, thinner with each turn until it's stretched to capacity. He followed this with a heaping of white cheese curds (sheep's milk, I'm told, soaked in water to release some of the salt), and folded it all together. Then into the oven for a few minutes, after which it emerged hot and crispy and ready for a final drizzle of sugar syrup and powdered sugar. Served with a cup of sweet Turkish coffee, it was a delicious experience, the perfect snack on a warm, dusty afternoon.

The BBC video below, which I happened to find while doing research, shows you exactly what the little shop looks like, as well as the technique in action!

Related: A Food Tour of Israel: Machne Yehuda Outdoor Market in Jerusalem

(Images: Cambria Bold)

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