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?

 

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