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!

Back from Oxford

I just returned from my first time participating in the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery – an annual conference of food historians and other professionals and non-professionals who are engaged in food inquiry.  It was an extraordinary experience to be in the company of so many like-minded individuals from all over the globe, in a setting that was edifying, convivial, and simply lovely.

I presented a talk on the El Babour Mill in Nazareth, illustrating that an unmediated, entirely local and personal relationship between the land, the farmer, the miller and the consumer still exists in the Arab communities in the Galilee.  Speaking to an audience that appreciates the value of local and traditional foodways in historical and social contexts, and having the opportunity to hear such a range of fascinating presentations, was a gift.

And now I am back, to my pastoral Galilee setting which is, in its own way, as beautiful as the refined and manicured gardens of Oxford.  From there, the conflict here seemed remote, but from here, it is geographically and personally much closer to home, and the consciousness of it is almost paralyzing.  Trying to make sense of what is going on, I consider this narrative and that one, finally discarding them all in recognition of a complexity that defies individual understanding, and the broad appeal of that lowest common denominator of an eye for an eye.

For respite, I dip into the fascinating book I bought at the Symposium, “Tastes of Byzantium”, written by the eminent food scholar Andrew Dalby, one of the longstanding Symposium participants.  But even through the heady descriptions of the spice trade and markets of Constantinople, the subtext of battle, intrigue and power struggles wafts through, and I am reminded of how tragically little human nature has changed over the millennia.

talk

Thanks to Pamela Sheldon Johns for photo

st catz

Beautiful St. Catz

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

Spring Fodder

How to catch an acute dose of spring fever – open the bedroom window at 4 AM; when the chill, citrus blossom-drenched air surges into the room, inhale deeply until intoxicated. 

Winter is my favorite season here – the magical emergence of new seasonal growth that we experience from December, in other parts of the world is most commonly associated with spring.  So if winter here is like spring, then the real spring is a riot!  By mid-March, the crazy blooming and blossoming of flowers, undergrowth, and trees is simply out of control.

I recently read about spring as it was experienced here about a century ago, in the first volume of Gustav Dalman’s “Work and Culture in Palestine”, written in German in the 1920s, and recently translated into English.  It is an extraordinary work that documents traditional life in this place as it was practiced more or less since antiquity, just before European and global intervention led to its almost total demise.

The first volume (of 8 in all), focuses on the seasons, and it was very exciting to consider Dalman’s account of spring with all its commotion in the background.  He explains that the wild growth in spring, which at this point is almost waist-high (and which I tended to look at only for its culinary qualities) represented a celebration of fodder for the animals of farmers and herders.  From a fellaheen saying that he quotes (and I paraphrase), the shepherd before spring needs to be smart, but when spring arrives, he can sit back and relax.  Fattened up on the bounty of fresh greens, the cows, goats and sheep give rich and abundant milk – a true expression of the fat of the land.

Dalman speaks of the sap rising in the trees during this season – the expression is familiar, of course, and in my more “interconnected” moments, I’ve visualized trees surging with life energy, but I never understood it in such a visceral way.  These days, I feel like I am tapping into these same energies of growth and renewal for my new academic pursuits.  To my great surprise and delight, a proposal I submitted to the prestigious Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery was accepted, so I will be talking about the wonderful wheat mill in Nazareth, El Babour, in England this July.

In the meantime, if spring is all around, or just around the corner, I hope you enjoy the rising sap as well!

fodder

fodder cut from my neighbor’s yard

Rest and Refuel

Ron came home the other day, full and contented after an excellent meal at one of our favorite gas-station restaurants – Nimmer, near Golani Junction. You may be raising an eyebrow, like I did when I first moved to Israel, about the prospect of eating in proximity of gas pumps. But as it turns out, gas station restaurants can generally be counted on for fresh, tasty, if not formulaic, “Middle-Eastern” food.

As I delved into the culinary traditions of this region, I came to understand that gas station restaurants came into being in response to an age-old need to sustain travelers en route. From the time that merchants carried goods from points East to points West, resting stops were established at strategic points along their trade routes. Known in Arabic as “khans”, they offered caravan travelers and their pack animals a place to sleep and refuel. Certain khans continued to function through the beginning of the 20th century, and can still be seen today – one of my favorites is now a parking lot in Nazareth, but there are superlative examples in Akko as well.

And as it turns out, just down the road from Nimmer, covered in overgrowth, are the remains of a khan built during the Mameluke period (around the 16th century?), known as Khan el Tujar, or the khan of the vendors. A friend of mine – a food historian who is studying the evolution of local markets – invited me on an expedition to explore it. She explained that it was built near the junction between two Roman roads and that it had, until the early 1900s, hosted a weekly market. The question she was pondering was what led to its sudden decline.

We clambered over the rubble, peered through exquisite vaulted spaces, and discovered the remains of a well and a mosque. She found a piece of Mameluke-era pottery with its distinctive yellow glaze, and I found a chip of carnelian stone – too smooth and shiny to be just a pebble. We ate tiny dark-brown almonds picked off a stunted tree and cracked open with stones, and chewed on wild fennel seeds collected from the starbursts that topped stalks as high as our shoulders. Then we rested on a pile of stones, filling up on the beauty of Mount Tabor and the rolling olive-covered hills.khan 4

khan 2khan 1

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

A Time to Pick Olives

Once again the olive harvest.  I like to speculate that not an autumn has passed since they were first cultivated, back in obscure pre-history, that people haven’t gathered olives here in this place that I live. Taking part in this ritual makes me feel like the tiniest link in a very long chain.

But the analogy goes further, or wider. A few days ago I joined my friend Balkees’ family as they harvested their olive grove in the village of Kfar Reine, outside Nazareth.  About ten men and women – Balkees’ brothers, sisters and sisters-in-law were at work when I got there mid-afternoon. They pulled tarps from under one tree to another and we circled the branches, pulling down their olives till they rained down onto the canvas.  The children ran from tree to tree, collecting olives in buckets, climbing in the branches, and sifting out leaves in an improvised sieve – the screen of an electric fan.  Everyone chatted, joked and laughed, all in Arabic, and I understood only a small fraction.

But that didn’t matter.  The conversation accompanied my work like the most pleasant background music while I focused on the olives – black, green and purple, fleshy and lean, plump and wrinkled, intact and bruised. I heard the muezzin calling and the children shouting. I felt the heat of the sun ease as the day wore on and the shadows of the trees grew longer.  I sipped a small glass of thick, black, cardamom-scented coffee, then returned to the olives.

But most of all, I felt a part of something larger – like I was woven into the fabric of village life that still endures in the Galilee.  Where the community depends on the contribution of each person’s hands, and rewards that effort not only with a year’s supply of olive oil, but with a sense of place, value, belonging and accomplishment.

How few are the opportunities in our modern lives to experience this.  I think my sister, who just pounded miles of pavement on behalf of the Obama campaign, knows the feeling well.

An ingenious sifter