A Fresh Look at Some Local Foods

I was flipping through some photographs I’d taken recently, and found these three images, all which show interesting ways that indigenous local foods are processed in Galilee Palestinian society.

This is a photograph of luf (arum palaestinum), which was collected this winter during the season it grows wild in the area around Nazareth.

drying luf

I took the picture of the leaves spread out on a white sheet on the sofa of one of the living rooms in my friend Balkees’ mother’s house in Reine. Once they are completely dry – a process that could take at least a month, depending on how damp the winter is – they will be crumbled into a powder and put into capsules. This medication is being prepared for a family member who has colon cancer.

For more posts about luf, see here and here.

And here is a dish of habissa – a sort of pudding dessert made from carob syrup.

habissa

It was served after this exceptionally delicious meal I was fortunate to share with my friends Um and Abu Malek in Kufar Manda, where everything was fresh, locally grown and lovingly prepared.

meal in k manda

We had lubiya (fresh black-eyed peas), which Um Malek grew herself in the fields of the Batof (Bet Netufa Valley), and sautéed hubeisa (wild mallow), which she had collected on her daily early-morning walk. The pickles she had home-cured and the braised meat and leben (yoghurt) were also locally sourced.

Habissa, like another Kufar Manda specialty, malukhiya (jute), is an acquired taste. At this point, I am genuinely delighted to see either one of them set in front of me. The habissa that Um Malek served she had prepared using the carob syrup that she made a few months ago (see post). Habissa originates in a time that both Abu Malek and Um Malek can remember, when carob syrup was one of the few sweeteners available in a rural cuisine that depended almost entirely on locally grown products.

Basil – Permitted

basil in mosque  virgin with basil

This fall, I enrolled in an intensive conversational Arabic course at one of the country’s top language programs.  I had taken several two-hour once-a-week courses in the past, but was still incapable of expressing myself much beyond “my name is…, I live in…,” and my desire to communicate in Arabic remained as strong as ever.  Pricey and far, this course seemed to hold out my only reasonable hope of ever becoming fluent.

Now, for three hours a day, twice a week, a team of excellent teachers coaxes us through the intricate grammatical rules, nuanced pronunciation and array of regional dialects of Palestinian Arabic.  I am the only student whose mother tongue is not Semitic, and about 30 years older than the rest of the group – two serious strikes against me.  But I faithfully do my homework, practice with whoever will tolerate my hatchet-accent, and am enjoying the class immensely.

This week we had a field trip to Nazareth, a city I know well, which was very useful in helping me understand the explanations in Arabic.  We started at the massive Basilica of the Annunciation, then scaled down to the Church of Joseph the Carpenter and ended up at the Church of the Synagogue, an intimate stone-vaulted space where Jesus purportedly had his bar mitzvah. From there we passed through the narrow stone-paved marketplace to the city’s historic White Mosque.

The day was clear but freezing and none of these buildings are heated.  Chilled to the bone sitting on a bench in the open mosque courtyard and trying to follow what our teacher was saying, I noticed a potted basil plant that looked like it was suffering from the cold about as much as I was.  It is very common to see basil growing next to the entrances to Arab homes, not for cooking but to spread its pleasant smell as kind of a blessing over the home.  Its name in Arabic indeed translates as fragrant.

On a visit to Nazareth earlier this year I noticed a pot of basil placed at the foot of a statue of the Virgin Mary in the courtyard of the Basilica of the Annunciation.  And here, in the mosque next door, basil was also extending its non-denominational blessing.  Our teacher pointed out the absence of images decorating the mosque. They are “mamnua,” he explained, “forbidden”.

What a potent antidote that little plant seemed to the surrounding brittle scaffold of ideology, history, and contesting narratives.  Who doesn’t love the smell of basil?

 

 

Jordan Chickpeas

jordan chickpeasChristmas in mainstream Jewish Israel is a non-event, but in the Galilee, where 50% of the population is Arab, it’s another story.  In those Arab cities and towns where there is a Christian population, Christmas lights and decorations light up the evenings, and nighttime Christmas bazaars attract visitors, regardless of religion, over the weekend before the holiday.  This year thousands flocked to the Christmas market in Nazareth to see a performance by the winner of last year’s Arab Idol – a young Palestinian singer from Gaza.

We, on the other hand, were invited by our friend Akram to attend a more low-keyed Christmas market in his home town of Shefar’am.   A lesser known Arab city than Nazareth, Shefar’am has its own thousands of years of history, including settlement by Canaanite, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze communities.  The city still retains an ethnically mixed population, with many Muslims, fewer Christians, even fewer Druze, and no Jews.  At the Christmas market, crowds of Shefar’am’ites filled the narrow streets that lead to the historic center of town, which is shared by a mosque, church and defunct synagogue.

In front of the Orthodox Church, we passed two unorthodoxly thin and youthful Santas posing with children on their laps, then left the bustle and noise behind us. Inside, we reveled at the church’s exquisite beauty, somber eastern icons and a soaring performance by a choir from the neighboring Jewish anthroposophic community. There was a guest of honor in the audience, an archbishop from Lebanon in a tall black hat and black robes, who extended his hand to be kissed by a group of earnest young nuns.

From the stalls in the Christmas market, we collected black coffee and zaatar mixture give-aways. I bought a Palestinian needlework pillowcase and a bag of traditional anise-scented Christmas cakes, and we snacked on steamed lupine seeds and fava beans sprinkled with cumin.  Akram’s relatives greeted us with sips of Black Label cheer at an open-house in one of the historic buildings the family owns in the heart of the city.  While vendors of grilled meat were everywhere, in consideration of Muslim sensibilities, it was decided that the pig on the spit that was part of the previous year’s market menu would not be repeated.

Before we left, Akram gave us a bag of white and pink candies, freshly made for Christmas, to take home.  They had the same sugar-shellac coating like the Jordan Almonds which were once my movie theater candy of choice – but the shape was different – these were small, round and bumpy.  The surprise was what was inside – a roasted chick pea.  My kind of Christmas candy!

With my best wishes for a Happy 2015!