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.

My Name is Arum

fresh lufAfter my culinary memoir “Breaking Bread in Galilee” was published, I realized I had neglected to include the scientific names of the edible wild plants along with their colloquial ones.   If it is ever re-issued, I will remedy this oversight, and may even sketch each plant to fill out the picture, so to speak.

In the meantime, the seasonality of edible wild plants continues to be a consuming passion, and with the bountiful rain we have already had this autumn, it is thrilling to watch another cycle of new growth unfold in all its verdant splendor.  True to form, precocious luf, earliest of the forageable greens , is already sporting its shiny arrow-shaped leaves in lawns and thickets.  Because of its toxic load of oxalic acid, and the culinary mastery required to render it edible, I don’t generally prepare luf.  But I am happy to pick luf for friends who appreciate its gastronomic and health-inducing qualities, and yesterday was pleased to greet a Bedouin woman and her daughter who were gathering luf in the neighborhood.

The scientific name of luf is Arum Palaestinum.  A reader from Italy once wrote me to confirm that luf is indeed Arum, and that in Italy the local species of the plant is also consumed and considered to have medicinal properties.  The Oxford Companion to Food – an encyclopedic account of every consumable under the sun – relates arum to the more commonly known – and inedible- funeral lilly, and actually cites the “instructive account” of my book when describing how to prepare it.

With the unpleasant tingle of luf still fresh in my memory, I can only recommend expert forager Uri Mayer-Chissik‘s recipe for preparing luf – with the emphatic disclaimer to prepare it at your own risk…

Cooked Luf Salad – from “Wild Edible Plants”,  Uri Mayer-Chissik, 2010, Mapa Press (in Hebrew)

Chop 1 bunch of young, tender luf leaves, central spine removed first, then wash carefully.

Saute one large chopped onion in olive oil on low heat till browned.

Drain the washed luf leaves and add to the pot.

Add chopped wild sorrel leaves (about 1/4 of the amount of the luf) to the pot (optional).

Cook for about half an hour, stirring every few minutes.  Make sure that there is enough liquid, and add water if necessary.

Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and cook for another 30 minutes.

In order to ensure that the luf is ready, it is recommended to taste a bit to see that the leaves don’t cause a burning sensation.

The Other Side of Paradise

On these late winter mornings, surveying each new day I feel like I am living in paradise.  The weather is so temperate, the landscape lush and forthcoming, the wheat fields exude vitality.  Back west, my family and friends are hunkered down in the cold and snow as I gratefully soak up the winter sun.  The flip side of the coin, of course, is the troubling absence of rain, casting its shadow from an ineffectual gray cloud over the pleasure of a clear blue sky.

This weekend we hosted Abu Malek and Um Malek for an afternoon visit – because they are not mobile on their own, their son brought them, accompanied by his wife and two young sons.  We sat out in the yard and chatted while Um Malek collected pecans under the tree and picked luf, and the boys played on the rope swing.  In the relaxed pastoral mood, Abu Malek declared expansively. “this is paradise”.

Our village used to be like this too – he continued – but now that it has grown so big, there is never any quiet – the traffic is noisy on the narrow streets – the houses are densely built and there is no green landscape.  Butheina, the boys’ mother, told me that in their school, there is no playground, and barely even a yard for the children to play in during recess.

Her quiet, personal testament to the discrimination experienced in Israeli Arab communities passed opaquely between us and the warm afternoon sun.  And even now, the chill of that moment sits in my bones – a rumbling reminder of how far from paradise we really are.

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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…

What You See

A few days ago, Balkees and I spent the day with a journalist from Israel’s top food magazine, as she prepared an article about the edible wild plants that are now in season.  We started the morning in the village that Balkees grew up in, tromping through the lush greenery in the vast field behind her uncle’s house.  The oats he’d planted were just starting to show up green, the space between rows of lemon trees was planted with fava beans, and thriving in peaceful coexistence with these cultivated crops was a profusion of edible wild plants – chicory, mallow, wild spinach, luf.  This is paradise, Balkees stated.

The generosity of this season always strikes me as something sacred – the earth puts forth such a bounty of what can sustain us – simply there for the taking.  No sweat off the brow.  In fact, in the phrase from Genesis that is usually translated as “your food shall be the grasses of the field”, the actual word in Hebrew “essev” – basically means not “grasses”, but weeds –simply what grows.

A few weeks ago, just at the end of the olive season, Ron and I joined our friend Tzvika to check out a neglected stretch of olive orchard to see if it was worth the effort of a last minute harvest.  Between the rows of trees grew the most healthy, huge-leaved mallow, spinach and chicory that I’d ever seen.  I was thrilled, planning my return the following day with my bag and kitchen knife.  Yet the next day, as Ron and Tzvika were picking their olives, the owner of the trees arrived with his herbicide sprayer and systematically decimated the “weeds”.   That’s how farmers keep their area clean, Ron explained to me.

I have a neighbor who is never home and I am grateful for the benign neglect he shows to his yard, where I happily forage.  The other day I was picking wild spinach and another neighbor walked by, bringing her little brother home from nursery school.  What are you doing, he asked me.  I’m picking wild spinach I told him.  I’ll take it home and cook it.  He pondered that for a minute.  That’s gross, he said, and walked off.

ewp 1

ewp 2

A Foraging Celebration

Hussein's daughter with zaatar

Yet another rainy day and we can’t believe our good fortune – this has been the wettest winter for years and the landscape is celebrating.  The hills are lush and bright with wild flowers.  And of course, for foragers, there is a bounty of edible wild plants to pick.  We started the wild asparagus season early and enjoyed several meals of them, including an excellent asparagus soup. 

With my culinary tours I brought a group to the Bedouin village of Kaabiye.  Our host, Hussein took us to see edible plants in two surroundings – forest and field.  In the forest we found luf, zaatar, asparagus and saina (large bumpy leaves of the sage family), and at the periphery of an agricultural field, we found hubeisa (mallow), selek (wild beet greens), humeida (sorrel) and a thorny plant that we peeled and ate the stalk of. 

Saina - the winter alternative for stuffed grape leaves

Afterwards, his wife Riba prepared a meal for us of ftayir, which are pastry turnovers filled with a mixture of wild beet greens, zaatar and hot pepper, saina leaves stuffed with rice, and the greens which we had learned about. 

Everyone enjoyed tromping around and learning about the different plants, and of course the meal. But one of the participants told me that the highlight was being a guest in a local Bedouin home, which makes me realize that my culinary tour idea focusing on home hospitality has serious potential.

Luf at Last

Last weekend Ron and I were guests at our very old friends’, Fatma and Abdullah, in the Bedouin village of Kaabiye. I told them about my interest in cooking luf, and their daughter Hal’la, who happened to be visiting, invited me to come to her home one day and she would show me how.  This edible plant, which grows wild in these parts, is considered by local Arabs to be a delicacy and powerfully healthy. It does, however, bear a toxin which needs to be neutralized in cooking, and my one attempt to prepare luf on my own practically sent me to the hospital. But I was determined to experience the good side of luf (see my post of December 1) and this was my opportunity. 

 

We set a date for this afternoon and I drove to her home in the village of Ayadat, about 20 minutes from my home. Just in my own yard I had managed to pick a full bug of the ornate fleshy leaves which I presented to Hal’la, along with a bag of lemons I’d picked which I knew we would need.

 

Hal’la is a warm and gracious woman in her late 20’s – a housewife and mother of 5. Her husband is a Hebrew teacher in the local high school. We sat at the dining room table of her neat and well appointed home and she showed me how to remove the fibrous stem and spine of each leaf, fold it in half and place it on a pile. About half of the leaves I’d picked – the young, tender-looking ones – ended up in the reject pile with the stems. They were, as she translated from Arabic, “brother of luf” and would ruin the dish.

 

With the de-spining finished, Hal’la showed me how to take a pile of the folded leaves, wrap a big leaf around them, then slice the whole roll in half. Then she put one rolled half on top of the other and cut through them to make thin shreds of the leaves. When that was done, we chopped onion, sautéed it in a generous pool of olive oil, and when it was transparent, added the shredded luf.  Soon it was emitting plenty of liquid but Hal’la kept stirring the mixture so it would steam away.  This, she assured me, would prevent any unpleasant sensation in one’s mouth from eating it.  

Hal'la and her daughter

Hal'la and her daughter

 

 

When most of the liquid had dissipated, she added another full cup of water and again stirred constantly until that, too was gone.  I squeezed juice from about 5 small lemons and we added that to the mixture – after about an hour of cooking, the luf was a deep green, thick stew, and ready to eat.

 

Hal’la’s husband in the meantime went to bring fresh pita bread and we all broke off bite-sized pieces and dug in with gusto. Yes, it did have a very nice flavor. But within seconds the entire roof of my mouth and throat started to tingle with little needles. It wasn’t intense enough to prevent me from smiling and exclaiming over how delicious it was. But it seems that luf and I are not meant to be. 

 

The finished product

The finished product

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Luf Challenge

luf1

This is Luf. Now that there have been several good rains, it seems like every day a new luf plant appears in my yard.  Challenging me. 

In traditional Galilee Arab cooking, luf is not only a delicacy, but is considered to have powerful medicinal properties. A doctor I know told me of families bringing pots of luf to relatives in the oncology wards.  My experience, however, has been somewhat the opposite.

As a natural protective mechanism, luf is full of a kind of toxin. If you know how to prepare it properly, however, this toxin can be neutralized.  Two winters ago, my Bedouin friend Nadya, explained to me how this is done: you just use lots of lemon juice when you cook it. 

Following her instructions, I picked a nice handful of leaves, chopped them and sautéed them in oil, squeezing copious amounts of juice on the little green pile.  And in fact, it was delicious – until my entire mouth and throat started to prickle and swell. Trying not to panic, I sucked on a piece of lemon and after a few minutes, the symptoms subsided.  Last year, luf and I kept our distance.

But this year, I am ready to try again.  In my edible wild plants class, our teacher explained his own system for cooking luf – using wild sorrel leaves as the neutralizing agent. 

Perhaps eating luf for generations builds up some kind of tolerance – which I am, sadly, not the beneficiary of.  When I told Nadya about my luf experience, she just laughed. But the last laugh will be mine.  I am making a solemn vow that spring will not arrive without my having prepared, eaten, and enjoyed luf.   As blog is my witness.