Green Black-Eyed Peas – Post 101

fresh lubiyaAfter 100 posts on the original Galilee Seasonality blog, this post number 101 launches a new blog/website I created to bring together my writing in all its formats.  Hopefully the transition has been seamless for followers of my blog, and I apologize if there have been any duplicate postings…

Putting the finishing touches on the new site, I was reminded that this is, after all, a culinary notebook, and that it has been some time since I posted a recipe.   I am assuming that most readers are familiar with black-eyed peas in their dried form, but how many of you have ever had fresh black-eyed peas, or even seen them in their pods?

Known as “lubiya” in Arabic and Hebrew, black-eyed peas have a long and prolific growing season, and are eaten in Arab homes in the Galilee from spring through fall.   My friend and mentor, Um Malek, grows lubiya near her home, on a small plot of land in the Batof – Bet Netufa Valley.  On a recent visit, she gave me a bag of freshly picked lubiya to take home (since Um Malek never lets me leave empty handed, I came prepared with a jar of our new olives for her from this year’s harvest).  Here is a recipe for lubiya from my other culinary mentor, Balkees Abu Rabiya.

shelling lubiya

Balkees’ Lubiya

About 500 grams (1 pound) fresh lubiya

1 onion chopped

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Clean the lubiya and shell.  The large, tough pods should be opened and only the peas inside collected.  The smaller, more tender pods are broken into small pieces the size of each pea.  Soak the shelled peas (and pods) in water for about 1/2 hour to soften.  Meantime, saute the onion in the olive oil till transparent.  Add the drained lubiya and cook, stirring, until they stop producing liquid.  Then add the tomatoes and a bit of water if the mixture is too dry.  Cook for about 20 minutes until everything is soft and stewy.  Season with salt and enjoy with fresh pita bread. lubiyacooked lubiya

 

 

Sweet as Carob Syrup

carob cooking 1For years I’ve wanted to observe how carob syrup is made.  Like many of the highly labor-intensive, traditional Palestinian foodways, carob syrup production is barely practiced anymore.  But several weeks ago, on a visit to Abu Malek in Kufar Manda, I saw an enormous pile of carob pods on the front porch.  Fall is carob season and the leathery brown pods generally accumulate under the trees; even though they are delicious to chew, few people find any use for them.  Less than a life-span ago however, in Arab villages of the Galilee, sugar was expensive and scarce and it was bread dipped in carob syrup that made life sweet.

Um Malek was busy with her field of okra and black eyed peas, Abu Malek explained, but someone had brought her the carob and she was planning on making syrup when she had some free time.  Please call me when she starts, I almost implored.  Over the years I have known this family, Um Malek has prepared carob syrup at least once, but I always heard about it after the fact, when I was gifted a small bottle of the precious, nutritious brown liquid. Um Malek uses carob syrup to make a kind of gelatin-like dessert – I love its dark earthy flavor for sweetening my oatmeal.

I was delighted to finally get the morning phone call from Abu Malek– “today Um Malek is cooking the carob – you are welcome to come over”.  When I arrived, at least half a dozen tubs were resting on the porch, full of coarsely ground carob which had been processed the previous day at a local mill.  In the yard, two large pots were cooking over open fires.  The first was filled with the ground carob covered with water. Periodically, she would scoop out the carob and discard it, then strain the brown liquid through a piece of cloth.  This distilled carob juice was transferred to the second pot, where it would slowly reduce for at least 12 hours.

to the fire

Making carob syrup, with whole carobs on the porch

straining

Straining the cooked, crushed carob

cooking pot

Cooking down on the fire

In spite of the heavy, late summer heat, Um Malek moved slowly and tranquilly between the rusty piles of carob and tending the fires.  She laughed off my offers to help, and was even more amused when I insisted on lifting the heavy pots.  Ever since she heard that my husband and I do the housework together, she is convinced I am hopelessly spoiled.

So many things separate our worlds – language, culture, narrative – but the friendship and trust between us rests on the things we share in common – a deep connection with the foods of this land and basic, human decency.

A few times during this awful summer, when the destruction, hatred and lost lives seemed too heavy to bear, Abu Malek and I would speak on the phone, reaching out of our pain to confirm and draw comfort from our friendship. The call to make carob syrup signaled that happier times are upon us.

The first rains will soon soften the stone-hearted earth in preparation for the miracle of rebirth.  As we settle into our seats for another round of the seasons, I wish that the coming year will be, for all of us, as sweet as carob syrup.

Wheat, and Zaatar, to the Mill

I’ve started to research in earnest for the paper I’m going to present at the Oxford Symposium this summer.  The subject of the symposium is markets, and I will talk about the market in Nazareth as a site of pilgrimage, not just for Christians visiting the site(s) where the Annunciation is believed to have taken place, but also for the local fellaheen and their descendants, who brought, and still bring, their wheat to be ground at the El Babour mill*.

The cavernous rooms of El Babour’s Ottoman-era stone building, that once housed massive flour milling machinery, are now filled with orderly sacks and shelves of grains, pulses and local dry goods.  The milling machines that still operate are relegated to the building’s stone-cobbled back courtyard, where villagers and their pack animals once waited for their turn at the mill.  Yet for all the modern adaptations, this place continues to function as a living mill and I am fascinated by its enduring place in Galilee Arab society in our times.

In the past few weeks I have spent many hours at El Babour, where the kind and gracious owners, Tony and Jarjoura Kanaza, patiently answer my questions and reminisce about the mill around which their family’s history has revolved for several generations.  I waited to interview people who are bringing bulgar or farike to be milled, to document a ritual that has been practiced in this part of the world for millennia. But one after the other, the customers who came for milling services brought bags of zaatar,  not wheat.   This is the season for zaatar, and instead of crushing the dried leaves through a sieve to achieve the consistency needed for the eponymous spice mixture, a machine at El Babour does the job in seconds.  This concession to time-saving is not the only adaptation to the eminently local and politically loaded practice of producing zaatar that I have seen (for more on this subject, see the chapter on zaatar in my book, Breaking Bread in Galilee).

For the second year, now, an enterprising Palestinian-Israeli farmer has leased a field on which he cultivates rows of zaatar, where you can “pick your own” without risking a fine (wild zaatar is now a protected plant, and illegal to pick).  The field’s many patrons attest to a desire for control over every step of the zaatar-making process, starting at its roots, that has not been entirely eclipsed by (among others) the ready availability of commercial zaatar mixtures.

Back at the Haifa University library, delving into the literature on food anthropology, a reference to a “short food chain” struck me as a precise, if not laconic, summary of traditional Galilee Arab foodways.  And remarkably, with all the pressures and diversions of modern life, these traditions adapt and endure.

* More on the fascinating history of milling in Nazareth in a future post…

milling zaatar at El Babour

Milling zaatar at El Babour  

Pick your own zaatar

Pick your own zaatar

Wild to Cultivated to Wild

What a great pleasure it is to have a hakura, or kitchen garden, next to the house – particularly when its yields peak in mid-winter. Yesterday I stripped the hakura of just about all of the swiss chard to make a crispy filo-layered pie.  Washing and trimming the fleshy leaves, I realized how viscerally I love fresh greens – wild or cultivated.  In fact, new sprouts of waxy luf leaves are unfolding all over the yard, beyond the orderly rows of the hakura.  And even if I haven’t mastered the technique of cooking them, I will soon harvest them and bring them to someone who has.  

The changing of the year has been a time of self-examination, and now, almost two years after my book came out, I’ve decided that I need to return to what I feel is my calling – to research and write about how the local foods are grown, processed and prepared in traditional ways in the Palestinian-Israeli and Bedouin communities of the Galilee.  This time, however, I want to do it in an academic context – to structure my work in an orderly fashion, and to join a community of like-minded people documenting traditional foodways around the world.

Looking for a potential home at the University of Haifa, I have spoken to several faculty members from different departments.  With Prof. Guy Bar-Oz in the Archaeology Department, who is a specialist in pre-historic and ancient foodways in this region, I had a particularly fascinating conversation.  When I told him my interest in foraging and the process of domestication of edible wild plants that I observe to be happening in our times, he countered with something that stopped me in my tracks.   How do you know that the wild mallow that you collect wasn’t once domesticated as a crop some time back in history, and just fell out of use over time and reverted back to a wild state?  How do I know indeed!  Clearly, there is so much to learn, and I am eager to dive in.

A few days ago, driving home from an exhausting day at a job that is more draining than I’d bargained for, I saw at the edge of the hills an older Bedouin man walking with three frisky little boys, presumably his grandchildren.  In his hands were two plastic bags full of freshly gathered luf.  My first urge was to pull over on the side of the road and follow him, to ask him about his foraging habits and what he had planned for that luf – his evening meal or perhaps to share with an ailing family member or friend.

But I drove on, more determined than ever that by foraging season next year, I’ll be able to ask those questions not just to satisfy my own curiosity, but to make their answers accessible to anyone who shares an interest in hearing them.  And I know that there are many, indeed.

stripped chard

Stripped Chard

 

jan luf

Wild Cousin Luf

No Rain, No Luf

It is dry here.  So dry.  By this time of year, we could have expected several serious bouts of rain, and at least a stirring of growth in the brown earth.  Instead we get the vaguest of clouds and downpours of thirty seconds that barely darken the sidewalk.

On a walk last weekend in the somnambulant hills, even the asparagus were suspended in barren, bare tangles of thorns.   Crossing the vineyard, Ron searched through the dried leaves to glean clusters of raisins, sweet and chewy – more seeds than fruit.  They are like the black olives* I cured this year, their desiccated bitter flesh barely covering the pits, which I keep only out of sentiment for the loving attention invested in them.

raisins 1

Yesterday I visited Abu Malek in Kfar Manda.  Abu Malek is retired and spends much of his time visiting friends in the village.  Some of them, like Abu Ali, are not well and homebound.  Abu Ali has diabetes and for months he languished, with no appetite, and I heard periodic reports of cures investigated, here and in Jordan.  At this point, Abu Malek told me, his appetite has returned, but there is only one thing he craves – luf.

Luf is that edible wild plant that requires special cooking to neutralize its toxins, and is commonly acknowledged in the Arab communities of the Galilee to have extraordinary medicinal qualities.  Luf is one of the first plants to appear with the winter rains – in an ordinary year, my yard would now be full of them.

Abu Ali asked us if we have any luf in the freezer, Abu Malek told me.  But a few weeks earlier, Um Malek needed room in the freezer and she took out the old luf she had and tossed it.  A pity.  At Abbie’s there’s plenty of luf, Um Malek noted.  But no rain, no luf.

So we have no choice but to wait.  For the rain, for the luf, and for relief from the bone-dryness that has bedeviled countless generations whose livelihood here depended on the benevolent communion of rain, earth and new growth.

***

*In fact, the original plan was to cure green olives (see this post)  When we got to the trees, however, there was barely a green olive to be found.  But plenty of beautiful black ones.  Following the signs can lead down a circuitous path…

Long-lost Relations

Last week I got a call that was entirely unexpected, from a man inquiring about a culinary tour.  Nothing unusual about that.  But then he went on to explain that we are, in fact, related – that my mother’s grandmother and his father’s grandmother were sisters.  My mother does not have a large family, and I certainly knew nothing about a third cousin who lives in Tel Aviv.

The more we spoke, the more excited I became.  There is something almost magical about discovering a new member of your family – like the most intimate of gifts.

I have often experienced a similar sensation with my friend Balkees, who readers of my book and blog surely remember.  In fact, it happened just yesterday when we sat together in her living room in Nazareth, savoring a long-awaited visit.  She told me about the olive harvest she’d just finished with her family.  Their 100 trees had yielded 21 jerrycans of oil – in spite of the fact that there were very few olives this year.   Few olives, but full of oil – of the best Suri variety.

I asked her about the word “leket” – the Hebrew word for gleaning which I wrote about in my previous post.  As I recalled, there was a similar word in Arabic.  “Lakat”, Balkees confirmed, means to pick – as in fruit.  As in olives.

Allocating a part of the harvest as an act of charity is also mandated in Islam, she reminded me – as it is in Judaism. And I recalled one year helping out in the harvest of olive trees planted around a mosque, where all the pickers were local villagers of little means.

Tasting fresh oil

Tasting this year’s fresh oil

Even as so much emphasis is placed on what divides Jews and Arabs, I am reminded time after time of how much we share in common.  And over our little cups of coffee and date cookies shaped like olive oil jugs, Balkees felt to me like my long-lost sister.  A woman of this land, eager to share her love of it with a kindred spirit.

The Next Installment

For my birthday last month, I received a book each from two close friends.  Each one of them – the books and the friends – has made a tremendous impression on me.

At long last, I have my own copy of the wonderful Jerusalem cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.  I find much that resonates in the conversation and friendship the two authors share, where food is the creative meeting point in their culturally disparate backgrounds.  I too have been blessed with similar experiences, and the relationships I have developed with Arab Galileans that began with discussions over food continue to be a source of joy and inspiration.

The second book is Sir Richard Burton’s original 1885 translation of The Thousand and One Nights.  Storytelling is an esteemed art in Arab culture, and I recently read a wonderful novel called The Hakawati, which introduces, among others, these itinerant Middle-Eastern storytellers.  The hakawati would travel from city to city, setting himself up in a tavern and telling his tales in nightly installments, always stopping at the point of greatest suspense, guaranteeing an audience for the following night.  In Scheherezade’s case, keeping her royal audience’s curiosity alive was what kept herself alive (and keeps me turning the pages night after night).  The exquisite detail, metaphor, fantastical creatures, heroism, lust and drama she weaves into her tales make the sanitized versions we read as children seem as pallid as the Scandinavian winter sun.

At the market in Nazareth the other day, I visited the Mahroum Arab pastry emporium, with its expansive spread of traditional sweets.  As we marveled at the myriad shaped confections of pastry and filaments, nuts and syrup drenched cheese,  the shop owner brought out a fresh tray, packed with little perfumed envelopes of flaky pastry wrapped around a creamy sahlab (a type of pudding traditionally made from orchid root) filling and sprinkled with crushed nuts.  These exquisite pastries, he explained, are called Bride’s Lips.

 Still warm from the oven, the sensual pleasure of those lips would not be out of place in any tale of enchanted princesses and their jinns.  Now, like a true Orientalist, I can’t wait to go back to Mahroum for the next installment.

Bride's Lips

Bride’s Lips

Roots are What Sustain Us

At this point in my life, birthdays are an opportunity to indulge in whatever I desire, and this year, not surprisingly, it was to spend time in the Western Galilee.  Maybe I was a Crusader in a previous life, or a farmer whose world view was bound by sage-redolent hills and the shining expanse of Mediterranean Sea.  Something about that landscape calls me back again and again.

We stayed in an extraordinarily lovely bed and breakfast place, where the owners treated us to home-made liqueur made from the green outer casing of walnuts, and their own excellent wine, distilled from Tempranillo grapes that they planted on the nearby slopes, and produced only for the pleasure of sharing with their guests.

We visited the Christian Arab village of Meilia and stopped at a small, family-run arak factory, where the chief distiller, who mastered his trade in his native Lebanon, carried more sorrow in his eyes than a sea of arak could erase. arak

At the peak of the village, among the crumbling walls of an ancient citadel, we picked figs and looked for signs etched in the stones.  

 stone carvings

figs in meilia

By the most fortuitous circumstance, we spent an afternoon exploring the nearby Arab city of Tarshiha with Amnon Gofer, one of the most knowledgeable guides in the Galilee.  Following his lead through the narrow alleyways of the deserted old market, where ironworkers once repaired the local villagers’ farm tools, he showed us fat swaths of tobacco leaves, picked ripe from nearby fields and hanging out to dry.  tobacco

From a lookout at the top of the city, our guide pointed to the crest of mountains that cuts off the Western Galilee at the border with Lebanon. This is not the natural border that delineates this region, he explained; historically and culturally, it is the Litani River in Lebanon.

The grapes for making arak and wine are harvested on either side, as are the Tsuri olives likewise cured and pressed.  For the Arab communities of the Western Galilee, whose ethnic and cultural ties are closer to their neighbors across the unbreachable border, at least the local foods they share in common are within their reach.

An Okra Post

This is a summer post about generosity, serendipity, and okra.

On a recent visit to my esteemed friends Abu Malek and Um Malek in Kfar Manda, inevitably I left bearing gifts – two plastic bags with produce freshly picked that morning – the lubia (fresh black eyed peas in their casings) and okra that Um Malek grows in the fertile Batof Valley soil.  My gratitude over her boundless generosity is heightened by the process I have gone through, learning to accept these gifts with the same grace with which they are extended.

Some days later I came home, exhausted, after a day of work in the city.  The sun was low in the sky, and my hammock beckoned.  A quick internal survey found that I was more tired than hungry, but with my last bit of energy, I took out the okra from the fridge.  Without even trimming off the caps, I tossed them in olive oil, sprinkled them with sea salt and put them in the oven to roast.

Lying in the hammock, I did another little survey.  The breeze that was brushing over my bare arms – was it too chilly or just right?  With the golden light filtering through the olive and cypress trees, I concluded that it felt like a feather-light pashmina shawl being gently pulled up over my shoulders, and I fell asleep.

However long I slept, I woke up coherent enough to quickly check on the okra.  It was roasted to a crisp. I tasted one of the little toasted pods – it was like a wonderfully upgraded potato chip.  I couldn’t have dreamed of a better snack!

roasted okra

Cactus Spirit

I recently returned from a very eventful visit to the United States, which included, among family visits and presentations, a meeting with the wonderful environmentalist, writer and local foods pioneer, Gary Paul Nabhan.  Several years ago, I read his seminal book, “Coming Home to Eat”, and his description of a visit to extended family in a village in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon has always stayed with me. The hospitality he experienced and the local foods he was served seemed so familiar. After all, the border between Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon is a line drawn in the sand (so to speak), and the indigenous foods and foodways among the Arab populations on either side of that line are very similar.

Gary gave me a book he wrote, called “The Desert Smells like Rain”, in which he documents his explorations of the foodways of the Tohono O’odham (Papago) Indians of Southern Arizona.  Once again, in an entirely different context, the descriptions of dry agriculture, the sacred relationship between farmers and always-scant rain, the exquisite balance of sustenance between cultivated and wild edible plants, and the eclipsing of traditional foodways by modern farming, all rang true to the agricultural landscape I have come to know here in the Galilee.

One story in the book stood out in particular, about how the Papago relate to the saguaro cactus – those monumental succulents that raise their bristly arms skyward across the Southwestern horizon.  According to Papago tradition, these cacti are actually members of the community, with human spirits that should be treated with utmost respect.

I couldn’t help but think of our local, ubiquitous sabra cactus, which bears its own symbolic legacy.  Well-known tradition has it that the sabra symbolizes native Israelis, who, like the cactus fruit, are “prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside”.  In Arabic, the sabra is also charged with significance, where its name is associated with the word “saber”, Arabic for patience or long-suffering, i.e. enduring the relentless heat of countless dry summer days.

Ironically, the sabra is actually indigenous to the American Southwest, and a relatively recent transplant to the Middle East.  One could only wish that the Native reverence for the human spirit, in whatever form it may take, could so successfully set down roots in this land as well.

sabra cropped