For the love of Amba: How I came to eat swarma with a cabbie in Tel Aviv

Now you are not a customer, you are a friend. I can smoke,” Ofer, my uber driver turned friend said to me as he leant over to swipe his phone, turning off the metre.

As he quickly flicked open the box that was in his shirt pocket, he turned to me, in as much as one can turn in a car seat, “Want a cigarette?

I was back in Israel again a lot sooner than I had expected. In fact, I only left two-weeks prior thinking I’d be back in July. Instead I was back after one of my guides to Hebron messaged me asking if I wanted to join a trip to Gaza that a local tour company were putting together.
Politics in this region fascinated me and I wanted to get a better understanding of what was going on. I immediately said yes and changed some plans to make it work.

After security and border control gave me a hard time entering the country on an EL AL flight, I decided instead to fly with Turkish Airlines. Maybe it was because I had just left, maybe it was because he was bored, but the border security guard looked at my passport and quickly waved me through.

Lack of sleep the previous night after the drive from Germany to Prague, coupled with packing, navigating the roads back to the airport, and almost missing my first flight of the day had left me exhausted. Instead of navigating two buses with luggage I decided to take an uber to my hotel in Tel Aviv.

As Ofer drove away from the airport towards Tel Aviv we talked about his family in Miami (“He likes me visiting only to cook BBQ“) which quickly turned to talk of Israeli food.

I mentioned my love affair with amba, a tangy-and-spicy mango pickle condiment found in Israeli shwarma stores around the world. I told him how my good friend had introduced it to me in NYC and how it was the very thing I had sought out when I landed in Israel last time.

No sooner had the words left my mouth than a big hand reached across the taxi. He grasped my hand in his, “My friend!

He proceeded to tell me his love of this orange gold. “We should have dinner,” he only half-joked as he told me how hungry he was.

Let’s do it!” I declared.

He checked if I was serious. Having not been served a proper meal on my Turkish Airlines flight I was peckish and the lure of amba in Israel was too great to pass up.

Now you are not a customer, you are a friend. I can smoke,” Ofer my uber driver said to me reaching to turn off the meter.

As he quickly flicked open the box, grinning as he turned to me, “Want a cigarette?

After I politely declined his offer of a cigarette he expertly slide the stick from the box, lighting it in one quick move. With his next he rolled down his window to keep the smoke at bay.

He took off down the street at speed now the first drag of cigarette had been expelled.

I let him decide on the place to eat in Tel Aviv. I didn’t mind if it was swarma or kebab; if it had amba I was alright. He was the local so I trusted him.

Now the meter had stopped his driving speed increased, and so did the erratic nature of his driving; including one near crash. I had braced myself ready for my side of the car to impact with the 4×4 who had slowed for a taxi who had pulled out. I still don’t know what ‘space’ he was referring to.

That was fine. Plenty of room,” he told me as I gripped white knuckled onto the door and seat.

HaTikva Market – or Shuk HaTikva as it’s known by locals – in south Tel Aviv was our destination. This is where the people eat he told me. Not so many tourists visit here.

As the taxi turned into the market we drove along empty aisles waiting for stall owners to fill with fresh produce when morning comes. The people that usually thronged the streets just a memory.

There were some stalls where music continued to waft out and smells that made my stomach rumble. I could hear the laughs or young adults and see their hookah smoke down one aisle.

We stopped out the front of one shop. White lights glaring to the eyes in the dark. This was the place.

I didn’t know what to order so let Ofer do the ordering. He talked fast in throaty Hebrew. I recognised one word: “bevakasha” – please.

As we waited for the food and enjoyed the starter of roasted tomato and onions (so sweet and delicious!) plus – what else – hummus and pita. Ofer even provided me a lesson on the Israeli way to scoop hummus directly from the plate versus my knife-to-bread method. While we ate, Ofer offered me some insight into Israelis and their way of life.

Three or four days with me and you’ll be Israeli,” he said.

How does one become Israeli?” I questioned between a mouthful of pita and hummus.

First of all it’s not cheap,” he said and let out a laugh.

Our conversation paused as plates laden with skewered meat and vegetables, hummus, pita, and — were served. Finally, the sauce I had been waiting for – Amba – was placed in a dish on the table.

I felt like a child as Ofer cut the meat off the skewers for me, but was thankful I could focus on the feast.

Try this… now this… what did you think?” he asked.

It probably sounded like I was midst orgasm in the middle of the restaurant, surrounded by other men eating or drinking tea, as I couldn’t stop making exclamation gasps and letting out small moans of delight. The food was that damn good.

Amba is the orange sauce (second from right)

Every pickle, side dish and accompaniment only enhanced the soft, juicy grilled meat.

The beef in particular had been cooked wrapped around bits of diced onion giving it a delicious flavour with each mouthful. Add the amba and it was perfection.

All too soon the food was gone, the bill paid, and I was back in the taxi with Ofer as he sped off again, this time with our bellies full.

His phone rung a few times and I told him to take the call. He mixed English and Hebrew as he talked between the conversation on speaker phone and then with me as I tried to answer his friends questions about the food and my thoughts on Israel.

I’m so glad Ofer was the uber driver who picked me up at Ben Gurrion International Airport otherwise I would have probably ordered a stodgy pizza from the restaurant down the road from the Shenkin Hotel I stayed at in Tel Aviv (I did so the next night when it was raining outside. Wrong move).

Instead my return to Israel was greeted with great food, good conversation, and a new friend.

If you need anything while you are in Israel, let me know,” Ofer said as he typed his mobile number into my phone. “Food, disco, drinking friend, I am available. Even late.

As I waved him goodbye and gathered my bags I was left with one thought.

Welcome back to Israel, Nicole. This round is going to be a completely different.

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