The First, First Fruits of Spring

20150403_114715Early on in Arabic class, we learned the names for the seasons of the year, and one of the topics for discussion was, “what is your favorite season?”   Visiting in Kufar Manda to practice my lessons, I took up this conversation with Abu Malek and Um Malek. I like winter best, I told them. The Arabic name for winter, “shitta“, is a synonym for rain, and I related how I wait all year long for the onset of winter rains that call up a plethora of edible wild plants.

Um Malek got a dreamy look in her eyes and said, “Spring”.  Since she is one of the most energetic wild plant foragers I know, I was interested to hear her choice, and asked her to explain.  Because of the zaatar, she said.

For those of us who associate winter with hibernation and spring with reawakening and new growth, these seasons have a very different significance here in the Galilee.  Winter, with its life-giving rainfall, is the time when local plants emerge, grow and mature. Zaatar has been evident on the hillsides all winter long, but now its soft, hairy leaves are large and suffused with potent essential oil, ready to be gathered, dried, crushed and mixed with sesame seeds and sumac to make dukka.

Other local foods, however, just reach an initial stage of maturity with the coming of spring.  In the market in Nazareth this past weekend, I saw soft green almonds on sale.  And on my walks in the fields, the wheat is tall and robust, loaded with fat, mature kernels of soft green grain.  Green almonds and wheat – as well as the new chick peas that will soon be appearing – are a delight to eat in their fresh, spring state, or in the case of wheat, ready to be harvested and roasted to produce farike, but their main harvest will only come later, when they are dry and more utilitarian.

By Passover, the wheat in the fields and the flowers on the fruit and olive trees give the traditional Galilee farmer an indication of harvests yet to come, assuming they can survive the upcoming, volatile 49 plus one days of the Omer, with their alternating thunderstorms and blistering hamsin (Arabic for “fifty”) winds.

In the meantime, as we retell yet again the Passover story of exile and liberation, we can also recall that this was once a harvest holiday, charged with promise and trepidation, and that first fruits can ripen in successive stages.

Extending my best Spring Holiday wishes!

Abbie

pre pesach wheat field

 

I could make ftayir myself

ftayer 1I have the recipe and all the ingredients. But preparing these little wild spinach filled pastries is one of those tasks that is more fun with a friend, and so I took the two bags of greens I’d gathered and went to visit one of my most esteemed culinary mentors, Um Malek, at her home in Kufar Manda.

In traditional local Arab cuisine, ftayir is the default application for wild spinach. The shapes and seasonings may vary, but the theme is same – a chopped spinach filling encased in savory dough. All of the cooks that I know here in the Lower Galilee prepare their ftayir in triangles. The coinciding of ftayir-making and Purim was too auspicious, and I was thrilled to have them as my three-cornered holiday treat.

I have never known anyone who is more connected to the land, the seasons and the local foods as Um Malek. For months now, she has been preparing meals for her and Abu Malek from the greens and mushrooms she gathers on her daily walks. And plenty of ftayir.

I hand over the spinach to Um Malek, which she expertly chops and seasons in one bowl; in another, she mixes the dough. Except for yeast and cumin, everything she uses – from the flour made of wheat grown and milled in Kufar Manda, to the sesame seeds, olive oil and zaatar – is locally sourced.

I could have made ftayir myself, but then I wouldn’t have sat opposite Um Malek, filling the circles of dough as she rolled them out, communicating more or less in my tentative Arabic, at peace in her company as she was in mine. It seems there is no currency to measure the value of the wild-spinach filled pastries I took home with me that evening, or the quality of grace that emanated from our hands.

chopping spinachmaking filling

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.

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.

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

Forgetting the Bulgar

Learning Arabic is confoundingly difficult.  I have learned languages in my life – Spanish, French and Hebrew – but Arabic is something completely different.   I have never invested so much time and effort, with such meager results, as in my study of Arabic.

The rules of grammar, the vocabulary, the accent – each of them stubbornly elude my grasp.  The other students in my Arabic class, all native Israeli Jews, don’t seem to be progressing any faster, albeit having the advantage of a Semitic mother tongue.  The Tower of Babel comes to mind again and again.

The bright side of Arabic class is the homework – which provides a very good reason to visit my friend Abu Malek in Kfar Manda.   Abu Malek is a retired high school language teacher, and over the years he has patiently worked through my lessons with me, spicing them up with proverbs and tales.

Today we sat on the rooftop porch in the warm winter sun and crafted sentences from my list of vocabulary words – under, over, inside, outside, this far and no more.  Just as we finished our last sentence, Um Malek brought up a tray with lunch – a platter of bright green tabouleh.

tabouleh

I love the way tabouleh is made here, with its overwhelming emphasis on fresh parsley.   Um Malek doesn’t speak Hebrew or English, and I asked Abu Malek to explain to her that in the States, tabouleh is made with more bulgar than parsley. Here, I told her, there is so much green that the bulgar is barely perceptible.  She burst into laughter, and explained that she’d forgotten to add the bulgar.

And we all laughed together because each of us has forgotten the bulgar at some point, and more than once.  On that rooftop this afternoon, we modestly scaled our own Tower of Babel , celebrating what we have in common over what separates us, reaching out to each other through friendship, laughter and a meal lovingly prepared and shared.

Abu Malek

   *** 

  Two auspicious developments regarding my book  “Breaking Bread in Galilee”:

  1.  A review recently appeared in the Jewish Review of Books, putting me in very distinguished company:

http://www.jewishreviewofbooks.com

2.  The legendary Kitchen Arts and Letters bookstore in New York City just re-ordered copies of my book.  I am so pleased.

Pining for Fakus

Summertime – and fakus are in season.  Fakus are like a downy, zucchini-skinned cucumber but tangier, crunchier and more refreshing than your average cuke.  They are eaten raw, without peeling – their fuzz is as inoffensive as that of a peach.

 I first encountered fakus in the “baal” vegetable field of friends – who grow summer vegetables for small-scale commerce in the local Arab market – without watering.  The fakus were scattered here and there among the tomatoes, okra and zucchini – pale green and snaky.

On a recent visit to Kfar Manda, Um Malek gave me a bag of fakus from her “hakura” (vegetable garden).   With some of them, I made a cold yoghurt-fakus soup, and with the others I scooped out the seeds, mixed them with labaneh, crushed garlic, and chopped mint leaves – then spread the mixture into the emptied insides, like the peanut butter filled celery-stick boats I ate as a child.  This is actually a childhood recipe from Balkees, whose mother used to prepare fakus boats for her and her siblings.

Dr. Harry Paris, who is a scientist at Neve Yaar, our nearby agricultural research station, just published an article about fakus, where he asserts that they are, in fact, the squash that the Israelites so pined for during their desert wanderings.  He draws evidence from Egyptian illustrations, among others, and a description from Yehuda Hanassi, of the process of removing the little hairs from the squash – calling it “fikus”.   The eventual evolution to the Arabic “fakus” is not such a long shot.

The zucchini’s now on the market, he explained, are a variety imported from the Americas, and cucumbers do not have the stripey exterior depicted by the Egyptians.

Life as a “locavore” is always a challenge, but when “local” is the Galilee, there is a special  satisfaction of eating a local food with such a distinguished provenance.

Pure Gold

One Friday morning a few weeks ago, I arrived at Kfar Manda for my weekly Arabic lesson, and as I climbed the stairs to my teacher, Malek’s apartment, on the porch/roof I noticed piles of wheat laid out on a canvas drying in the sun (where was my camera when I needed it?).  Um Malek (Malek’s mother) had made bulgar – which meant that she had acquired sacks of wheat from her brother – one of the few traditional farmers left in the Galilee – right after the harvest in June, taken it home and immersed it in a huge pot of boiling water for about an hour, then spread the grains out on the rooftop to dry.  After that, she would take the parboiled wheat to the mill in the village to grind it – coarsely for mejadra and finely for kubbe. 

Um Malek always joins us in our lesson at some point and she explained to me the bulgar-making process.  Um Malek is always busy, and her husband, Abu Malek assures me that that is what keeps her vital and healthy.  And last Friday, when I left my lesson, she was sitting at a table plucking the maluhiya leaves off their stems to make the soup that every home in Kfar Manda has for lunch on that day.  But before I could pass by, she reached down to her lap and handed me a bag of bulgar that she had clearly prepared for me to take home. 

I don’t know what this looks like to you, but as far as I’m concerned, it is pure gold.

Olive Harvest Fund-Raiser

arraf 2

Dr. Shukry Arraf talks about olives

The olive harvest in the Galilee usually starts after the first serious rain, which rinses off the dust and plumps up the fruit.  In the one year on, one year off cycle of olive trees, this is an off year, and the price of oil – more than $150 for a 16-liter container – reflects the paucity of this year’s harvest. 

In spite of the lean yield, I decided to organize a fundraising event centered around the olive harvest, to benefit my friend Malek Murad’s non-profit organization, in Kufar Manda.  Malek is Abu Zaki’s nephew (see my previous post), and I met him when he translated for his uncle in our interviews. Malek had recently established the non-profit, called S.K.A. (an acronym for sustainable humanitarian assistance), and if I would help him with fundraising for it, he offered, he would teach me Arabic.

 What Malek and several colleagues have created is a secular charity, which provides subsidized food baskets, legal assistance and dental care to people from their community in severe economic need. The food comes from Israeli food banks and the professional services are donated by local volunteers. While by mandate they provide assistance to anyone regardless of religion, race or sex, the majority of aid recipients are from the Arab sector in Northern Israel. Unemployment is a severe problem among Israeli Arabs in general, and in Kufar Manda in particular. S.K.A. aims to give that extra boost of help to get people into mainstream society.

 The program for the fundraiser we planned included joining the olive harvest in Kufar Manda, a short lecture on olive harvesting in local folklore, a festive harvest meal prepared by Malek’s mother, wife and other women involved in S.K.A., and finally, a visit to the olive press in town. A journalist who writes about food outings for Ha’aretz newspaper agreed to write an article which would publicize the event, and we began to get calls. 

meal 2 We had hoped for 40 people to sign up, and in the end we had 58, coming from as far away as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ashkelon.  Seniors, young families, children and babies spread out over the olive grove, picking from tree to tree. The day was beautiful, the meal was excellent and the trip to the press was unforgettable – our visitors mingling with the locals as everyone watched the fresh oil come streaming out, then dipping pieces of fresh pita bread into a dish of that fragrant green oil.

 After the success of this day, I’m going to plan an edible wild plants gathering day for next month…

 

 

Sesame Revealed

From a recent discussion with a friend, I realized that there is a general lack of awareness about how sesame grows.  And since I recently became enlightened on the subject, it seems proper to share my insight with the curious. 

While sesame is a crop that was traditionally grown in the Galilee, these days most sesame in Israel is imported from sources in places like Ethiopia.  Still, there are a small number of local farmers who continue to cultivate sesame, and recently it was my good fortune to meet one of them.

This past summer, my friend Hadas Lahav, the driving force behind Sindyanna – a fair trade organization that produces zaatar mixture, olive oil and other locally grown products – invited me to join her to see the sesame crop from which she would be purchasing for her zaatar.  On a late August day, we drove to Kufar Manda, a large Arab city at the western edge of the fertile Bet Netufa valley, where we met the farmer, Abu Zaki.

Abu Zaki next to his sesame crop

 Abu Zaki next to his sesame crop

A tall and genial man in his 70’s, Abu Zaki directs us on the short drive from the center of town into the fields, and after passing rows of eggplants, malukhiyeh (mallow) and okra, we arrive at the sesame.

sesame while its still green

Sesame while its still green The plants are about knee high, with ropy stems bearing pods about the size of a pinkie.  The pods, when they dry, crack open on their own to disperse the easily identifiable seeds. 

Seeds from a dry pod

Seeds from a dry pod

About a week after our visit, I heard that Abu Zaki’s entire sesame crop was ruined – a casualty of some pestilence that affected the soil.  But other fields were untouched and Abu Zaki mediated so that another farmer would deliver the goods to Hadas. 

A few weeks later I watched Abu Zaki’s sister sitting in front of her house with a large sieve on her lap, sifting through a pile of sesame to clean it.  Only these women of the older generation, it seems to me, still have the patience for such labor intensive work.  And how long will the traditional drive to grow sesame endure in the face of rock-bottom import prices?

Did you ever see how okra grows?

Did you ever see how okra grows?