Visiting the Judean Desert

by Sarah on October 16, 2014

According to Friedrich Nietzsche   “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. I think that’s nonsense. Even so, life should be lived optimistically, even when it’s not. That’s how I decided to start the Jewish New Year- with rose colored glasses perched on top of my nose.  Reality may bring other surprises, but as they say, at least I’ll be enjoying the ride.

This New Year found us driving past the Bedouin shantytowns of the Northern Negev and into a remote area of the Judean Desert, bordering the Dead Sea. It’s inhospitable in summer- searing temperatures, relentless sun keep people away. Yet despite the heat, we ventured there anyway in hope of solitude. This is a tad unrealistic during the holiday season when the entire nation is on a quest to find the perfect BBQ spot, the human version of the great wildebeest migration. According to news reports, most of them consolidated around the Sea of Galilee so we decided to travel in the opposite direction- south- in the hope that nobody else had thought of this.

And they hadn’t. For good reason too. The desert environment is not conductive to BBQing. The wind and the sand battled it out while we attempted to cook dinner over an open fire. Whatever I poured into the pan would fly off happily and land a meter off its target and on to anyone standing downwind. “Why did you pour olive oil on me?” Sparks ignited and melted the pepper grinder.

While I experimented with baking bread in a cast iron skillet, our neighbor‘s tent sailed off into the desert, zipping by at astounding speed. There were a gurgle of meek objections but the tent was already swallowed whole by darkness. It was gone and never coming back-probably perched on a mountain top in Jordan, hopefully without the original occupants.

All our food was coated in grit. The omelet was crunchy. The bread was half burnt. But it was all good anyway. We dipped the uncharred portion of the skillet bread in olive oil and clambered into the tent for the night. A few minutes later we clambered out when we noticed gigantic embers from someone else’s fire tumbling towards us.

By morning the Milky Way was flickering across another sky and the air had no memory of its hard partying the night before. All was still and we got what we came for- space.  It was all ours.

 {Views of Nahal Ashelim}

Once we left the campsite, we were completely alone in the wadi. It’s inaccessible without a good rappelling rope or a strong enough back to carry a day’s worth of water. Those who do venture in the heart of the desert are rewarded with silence and magnificent views. That’s hard to come by in this modern world.


Fish tagine with preserved lemons and olives

Fish is deeply rooted in Rosh Hashanah tradition and is often served at the holiday meal. The head of the fish symbolizes- as one might guess- coming out ahead in all life’s endeavors.

This dish is the antithesis of the subtly sweet and pale gefilte fish that Ashkenazi Jews prepare for festive meals. Chraime, as it is called in Israel, is fish simmered in a richly hued piquant tomato sauce. It was introduced to the local cuisine by the Moroccan and Libyan Jews who typically serve it on Friday night dinners or holidays. This version was inspired by Paula Wolfert’s recipe from her book Claypot Cooking.

Visiting the Judean Desert


    For the Spice paste:
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 heaping teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 heaping teaspoon Moroccan sweet pepper flakes (or sweet paprika)
  • ½ teaspoon coriander seeds
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • To Prepare the Fish:
  • 700 gram firm fleshed fish such as salmon, halibut or cod, deboned and skin removed
  • Olive oil
  • 1 small onion
  • 6 tomatoes, peeled and chopped (or one can chopped tomatoes, preferably Italian)
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 small green chili pepper, sliced (reduce amount or omit for a milder version)
  • 1 carrot, sliced
  • 1 bunch coriander, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin, pepper flakes and coriander
  • 3 tablespoons preserved lemons, cut into small pieces
  • ½ cup Kalamata olives, pitted, or other mild variety


    To Make the Spice Paste:
  1. In a mortar and pestle grind the pepper, cumin and coriander seeds. Add the salt, pepper flakes and garlic and mash into a paste. Rub the paste over both sides of the fish and let marinate in the refrigerator in a covered glass dish for at least an hour.
  2. To Prepare the Fish:
  3. Meanwhile, in wide and shallow sided pot, add a good glug of olive oil so it completely covers the bottom. Add the chopped onions and cook until translucent, about 10 minutes while stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for a few seconds before adding the tomato paste, chopped tomatoes, carrot and chili pepper. Reduce heat and cover the pan to allow the tomatoes to melt into a sauce, about 15 minutes. If the sauce thickens before the carrots have a chance to soften, add a bit more water. Add half the coriander leaves and stir until combined. Season with salt, black pepper, cumin, pepper flakes and coriander.
  4. Slice the fish into serving portions, about 2 cm wide add them to the tomato sauce. It should be barely submerged, but not drowning. Simmer with the top covered for about 20 minutes on low, or until the fish is fully cooked. Scatter with the preserved lemons, coriander leaves and olives.



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