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?


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.

A Tabun is Born – Continued

Building our tabun was an elaborate process which involved the contributions of a number of people.  And it’s in this kind of project where you discover the blessing of having good friends.  Ron’s friend and work colleague Mahmoud Nassar oversaw the project.  He guided Ron and our friend Tzvika in how to shape and weld an iron frame for the tabun, with a metal door. 





Rami and Suleiman from Daliyat el Carmel built the base on which the tabun was set, and Elissa and I decorated the workspace with a mosaic.   




After numerous attempts to get the clay we needed from the best source in Nazareth, Balkees’ husband Muhammad finally got the owners of the ceramics factory to agree. Their eldest son Jouad dug out 10 sacks of clay from the earth by the factory and Muhammad brought them to our home.  


And then, this Friday morning, Mahmoud brought Abu-J. and Abu-S., two brothers from Nazareth – and his teen-age son Kareem, to come and finish the work.  The two brothers are both retired, and they know about building with clay from their childhood, when they saw their parents building ovens for their own use.  They only build these ovens for friends, which makes us even more grateful that they have agreed to come and build one for us.  I wonder how many local people still practice this type of traditional oven building…

They checked the bags of clay and agreed that it was excellent material.  We had already put 8 of the 10 bags of clay into a large tub of water to soak.  It has a deep yellow color and after the soaking is silky smooth.   They took the wet clay and mixed it with straw that Ron had brought.  At first, they covered the metal frame with chicken wire, and over that, they applied layer upon layer of the clay. 




After about 3 hours of work, it was finished – as beautiful a creation as you can imagine. 

We need to let it dry for several days, then we will light a fire inside over a few consecutive days to bake the clay.  And once it is working properly, we’ll have a “hafla” and invite everyone who had a part in making this tabun in our back yard.  At this point, what we’ll prepare in the tabun is a subject of great speculation….

A Tabun is Born

For a long time, Ron has wanted to build a “tabun” in our yard.  Tabun isn’t exactly the most precise term for what he wants – but the common denominator between a traditional “tabun” and what we will make is that they are both wood-burning ovens fashioned from a mixture of local clay and straw.   

The impetus that propelled this project from the back shelf to the top of the agenda was the arrival of my friend Elissa for a month-long visit.  She is very anxious to see how the process so she can go home and build a tabun in the yard of her home in Pennsylvania. 

And so, we started this weekend in the information gathering stage.  On Saturday morning, we drove to visit our friend Mahmoud, in his country place outside the village of Tur’an.  There, he has a very fine tabun, and we wanted to have a good look at it – think about its dimensions and other characteristics. 





His tabun was built around 6 years ago and is holding up very nicely without any protection from the elements.  They use it to cook bread, the greens-filled turnovers known as “sambusak”, cast-iron pots of chicken with vegetables, and even a whole goat, filled with rice.  Nothing, Mahmoud assures us, tastes better than when it is cooked in a tabun. 

Afterwards, we sat on the porch and had black coffee with cardamom, icy-cold pomegranate juice, and chocolates from Syria, while Ron and Mahmoud drew sketches for how ours will look. 





When we got home, Ron marked out with stakes where the tabun will be positioned.  The next stage will be to pour a concrete base.  I will keep this blog posted…