The Limitations of Cultural Identity for Food

pat out bread

Baking hubez saj in Fassouta

I recently visited my old friend Ayoub in Fassouta up near the Lebanese border in the Western Galilee – one of the few Arab villages populated almost, if not entirely by Christians. Ayoub’s wife likes to use a certain kind of rennet for making cheese from the goat’s milk from their herd, and I had brought some back for her during my last trip to the US.

One of the formative experiences I had when researching for my book was a morning spent with Ayoub’s sister and sister in law as they baked bread in the baking room next to their house. Working in splendid coordination, the two women baked about 200 “hubez saj“, huge, wafer-thin flatbreads, on a concave metal surface called a saj, heated over a wood fire.

I thought about that morning during a conference I attended last week on Israeli food studies at the University of Haifa. One of the speakers, a professor in the Land of Israel Studies Department, challenged the audience with an Israeli food trivia quiz. A section of the quiz was devoted to “Druze Cuisine” and one of the questions was “what is a saj?”

While my knowledge of Israeli snack foods history was insufficient to answer most of the questions, I do know what a saj is. And I also know that it is not necessarily Druze. Sitting in Ayoub’s living room, sipping herb tea and savoring his sister’s ethereal honey-drenched semolina cake, I asked him if the saj has any particular association with the Druze, whose communities are centered in the Galilee and adjacent Lebanon and Syria.

He answered by way of a story, telling me that his sister’s saj was getting rusty and they wanted to buy a new one. After searching in all the villages and towns in the area, they eventually ended up travelling all the way south to buy one in Hebron, a city that is far from any Druze community and whose Arab population is predominantly Muslim.

Ayoub’s wife then related that their daughter, who is the only Arab employee in a high tech company, once brought some fresh hubez saj to share with her colleagues at work. “Druze pita” they told her, based on their familiarity with the Druze men and women who sell hubez saj baked on portable, gas-heated sajs at fairs and stands in shopping malls. But we’re not Druze, she explained.

Attaching ethnic identities to foods may be convenient, and in certain cases appropriate. But in this little slice of the Middle East, I think it has already caused way too much trouble. Flat breads in their various forms, farike and bulgar, and even hummus and falafel for that matter, are what people who live in a traditional relationship with this Levantine land and its local foods consume, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. The defining relationship, I believe, is between the earth, the farmer, the miller and the cook, not any religious or national orientation.

pile of elrif

Whose flat breads are these?

 

When the scales will tip

These are grim times here, where a disproportionate number of innocent people are enduring great suffering because of the actions of a few.  Nothing new about that, and yet it is heartrending every time.  In the pastoral Palestinian town of Arrabe in the Galilee near the Bet Netufa Valley, they are mourning a 14 year old who happened to be too close to the Syrian border as he accompanied his father to work on the first day of school vacation.  Another victim, another family’s tragedy.

I was just in Arrabe and neighboring Sakhnin last week, tagging along with a small delegation of bakers from France who are seeking local farmers to grow ancient varieties of wheat for them.  As we opened the day at the Towns Association for Environmental Quality, an NGO  in Sakhnin doing education and research on sustainable agriculture, the challenges of communication across the cultural divide were fascinating to observe.  The idea that these visitors actually wanted to grow wheat which produces significantly lower yields than the usual varieties was counter-intuitive, in spite of their assurances that they were prepared to pay significantly more than the market value in recognition of the quality of the product.

examining wheat varieties

examining wheat varieties

One of the bakers pulled out his Ipad to show the farmers photos of the artisanal breads he bakes, unaware that the elegant loaves on the screen did not correspond at all to the local perception of what bread even looks like.  But good will, courtesy and respect go a long way in overcoming these obstacles, and the groundwork was established for future cooperation.

After visiting the epic expanse of the Bet Netufa valley for a close-up look at the wheat fields, we came back to Arrabe, to the restored stone building that houses Afnan AlGalil, a non-profit for empowering local women.  Our hostesses served us a lunch prepared entirely from products grown in and around the Valley – bulgar in mejadre (with lentils) and shulbata (with vegetables and tomato sauce), farike, okra in tomato sauce, labaneh, stuffed grape leaves and zucchini and fresh, whole wheat pita.   The room was suffused with pride, dignity, generosity and hospitality – and we came away uplifted in body and spirit.

I just wonder when the scales will tip, and the forces of universal tolerance, respect and love will set the regional agenda.  IMG_3441afnan algalil

batof

The “Batof”

Relating to Wheat

These spring days, the roaring of combines rumbles in the background – rending thick fields of wheat into neat rows of shorn stalks.  In the pre-industrial order of local agriculture, not only would this method of harvesting be unfathomable to a farmer watching from the side, but also the timing.  Why would anyone cut down their good wheat almost two months ahead of time, just as the grains in the ears were maturing (unless they were planning to roast it, but such a large portion of the crop?).

The reason, of course, is that all this wheat is being cut as hay, destined to feed the thousands of cows whose milk supplies Israel’s burgeoning dairy industry.  It may be hard to imagine, but until the German Templers came to Palestine in the late 19th century, there was no cow-based dairy industry here, let alone any practice of growing a food crop as fodder.

Yet now, we feed wheat to the cows, and at the same time, more and more people are developing allergies to the ubiquitous gluten-heavy grain which has been bred specifically to meet the needs of industrial food processing.

The relationship between wheat and human subsistence – once so elegantly straightforward – has become complicated in our times.   I find this to be especially perplexing here in the western curve of the Fertile Crescent, where the symbiosis between humans and their staple grain is so deeply and locally rooted.

During Passover, when the “luxury” of leavened products is set aside, it is worthwhile considering the price we pay for soft, air-filled bread, and if we are truly and healthfully sustained by foods produced using methods that are environmentally and humanely questionable.

pesach 2014

From my Galilee home, during this season steeped with spiritual significance, I extend best wishes to you all for the spring holidays!

Breaking Bread in Galilee

I consider it very auspicious timing, that my new book – Breaking Bread in Galilee – A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land – has entered the world during the height of spring.  These days, there is gold everywhere you look, in vast waves of wheat stalks rolling in the breeze, or shorn and flattened in orderly rows, waiting to be collected into bales.

The grain harvest signifies the end of one agricultural season and the opening of another.  Already, the summer fruits are sending out their emissaries – fuzzy green almonds that can be eaten whole, tender grape leaves for rolling and stuffing, luscious pomegranate flowers and fragrant olive blossoms that wreak havoc on those with allergies. 

Breaking Bread is the product of years of exploration, thought and discovery.  I explored the distant corners of the Galilee, navigating along back roads and through villages that I’d never imagined I’d find.  I read the Bible, for the first time, and found common and timeless elements that connect its imagery with my contemporary landscape.  I had innumerous conversations in kitchens, offices, fields and groves.  I met people who opened their homes and their hearts to me, as I came to them with the simple question of “what are you cooking? picking? growing?”   The experiences, insights and joys of this adventure fill the pages of my book. 

I am grateful that my inspiration to write this book coincided with the revolution in the publishing world that makes it so much easier to introduce a book into the world.  Even if agents and publishers may not consider it a profit-maker, I believe one-thousand-percent in the value of its message.  With great pride and joy, I invite you to partake of it. 

At this point, for readers in the US, the book is available either through amazon, or on my own “e-store”, accessible at: https://www.createspace.com/3847258

If you are in Israel or elsewhere, send me an email and I’ll send you a book – 50 NIS plus 10 NIS postage.  info@galileecuisine.co.il

Hubs el Tabun

As I put the final touches on my soon-to-be-published book – Breaking Bread in Galilee – A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land – bread seems to be looming large in my consciousness.   Yesterday, on a particularly enjoyable visit with the Murad family in Kfar Manda, I was lucky enough to watch Samakh baking hubs el tabun.   Hubs is Arabic for bread, and the tabun is the sheet-metal oven in the front yard upon which the hubs is baked. 

The beauty of Arab village life is not generally found in picturesque vistas, but in modest, authentic domestic scenes.  The rocks Samakh has scattered on the round baking surface, that keep the heavy dough from sticking to it, are a direct continuation of this most ancient baking tradition.  This bread is a product of wheat grown in the fields below their home and ground into flour in the mill down the street.   It is dense and chewy, lumpy and full of flavor.  Samakh bakes as she learned from her mother, with heat fueled by a wood fire.  Watching her work the dough, I want to etch this timeless scene into my memory.  

Samakh gave me two platter sized breads to take home and I think that there is nothing more valuable than this exquisite gift.

Bread baked over fire

There is something about the Western Galilee that enchants me.  The landscape is so rugged and pristine,  and it seems like the spirits of Crusaders are still hovering in the air.  There are villages here that are particularly isolated from mainstream Israeli life, and one of them is Fassuta.  It is populated by Christian Arabs and is small, compact and very orderly.  I have had the tremendous good fortune to develop an acquaintance and friendship with a family there, who has shared with me the traditional foodways they practice.

Early yesterday morning, I drove up north to get to Fassuta in time to join the older generation of women who were baking bread –  every other week they bake, and distribute to all the members of the family.  The flour is made from locally grown wheat – either what they grow on their own using seeds that have been in their family for generations, or what they buy from neighbors – and which they take to the mill. 

I joined Angel and her sister in law in a small, smoky room on the side of the house where the baking is done – a fire was going underneath a “saj” – upon which they were baking what is usually called “Druze pita” – and what they called “enrif”.

Early that morning they had prepared the dough and rolled it into about 200 balls – enough bread for Angel to distribute to her four daughters and their families and her brother’s family.   Her brother will only eat bread cooked over a wood fire. 

 

Sitting on the floor facing each other, with their legs outstretched, Angel patted out the balls of dough into disks, then passed them to her sister-in-law, who twirled them thin and huge and patted them onto a blue pillow. 

Using the pillow, she flipped the dough onto the hot saj and Angel arranged it with her bare hands. 

We chatted about baking and they told me that making bread in the winter is so much easier.  You use more yeast than in the summer, but the heat of the stove, which in summer dictates baking at 4 AM, makes the work cozy and pleasant.  According to an old saying, they told me, bakers in the winter don’t need to get paid – the heat from the oven is compensation enough.

 

what we ate with the fresh elrif