Land, Religion and Food
Last weekend, on the way back from the Golan Heights we stopped by a Muslim Arab restaurant called Elbabur in Ayn Ibrihim to taste traditional Arab Galilee food. While drinking black coffee at the end of the meal the waiter joined us to discuss food, culture and politics. He told us that Eid Ul Fitr, the celebration signifying the end of Ramadan and daily fasting would be on the same day as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, strengthening the fact that these two nations have a shared history and future, intertwined by religion and land. During the holidays food is a symbolic part of Jewish and Muslim celebration with special significance to the land on which it grows. Food is nourishment but above all it is a part of personal, national and religious identity especially during this time of year.
Islam is the most pervasive in the Middle Eastern region and hence most influential in the culinary style of these areas. Jews and Muslims share many of the same food adherences and restrictions and Jews living in these regions were able to more easily assimilate into the existing style of cooking. When looking through Nawal Nasrallah’s Iraqi cookbook for example, I recognize many recipes similar to my grandmother’s who lived in Northern Iraq, in what is now the Kurdish autonomous region. Jewish Arabs (also known as Mizrachi or Sephardic Jews) spoke Arabic and lived along side Muslim Arabs throughout the Middle East and their proximity facilitated the transfer of culinary culture between them. When they immigrated en mass to Israel they continued cooking the same cuisine, making changes to accommodate what was available and replacing some ingredients with regional foods. These Jews were able to incorporate indigenous wild foods in their diet partly because they recognized similar plants from their native country but more importantly they were able to communicate with the local Arab population and learn from them. When I asked my Kurdish friend, Osnat, who taught her about the plants she told me “our Arab neighbors, we learned from them.”
There are many similarities and differences between the laws that govern Jewish, kashrut, and Muslim food, halal, which stem from the same religious foundation. The list of animals forbidden by kashrut is more restrictive as it requires that mammals must chew cud as well as have cloven hooves, a condition not required by Muslims. Thus, various animals such as the camel are permissible under halal law, but not according to kashrut. Kashrut allows only gilled and finned animals, and prohibits shellfish such as lobster, shrimp, clams and oysters, while there is debate among Muslim scholars regarding the status of shellfish. Pig meat and any of its derivatives are strictly forbidden in both religions.
Today slaughter is only performed by a licensed, well-trained slaughter man for Jews (shechita) and Muslims (Dhabihah) but the actual requirements of the slaughter in terms of which vessels must be severed and which must be kept intact are different. Muslims require that God’s name be pronounced before each and every slaughter, but according to some it is permissible to recite the blessing afterwards. For Jews, a blessing to God is recited before beginning an uninterrupted period of slaughtering. After slaughter, both require that the animal be examined to ensure that it is fit for consumption but kashrut takes it a step further and requires the internal organs to be examined for signs of disease. Both Muslims and Jews drain as much of the animal’s blood as possible and avoid eating meat not fully cooked. In a Jewish or Muslim restaurant, you will not be asked how you want your steak, it’s always well done.
Muslims forbid alcohol of any kind, except what occurs naturally in fruits. This is one reason why coq au vin is not ever likely going to be a trendy dish in a predominated Muslim area. Kashrut allows any sort of alcohol, as long as it has no non-kosher ingredients. A small amount of wine or grape juice is used for blessings before the Shabath and holidays, but on one specific celebration, Purim, the wine flows freely. It is a mitzvah (good deed) for Jews to drink themselves silly during Purim and many are more than happy to fulfill this obligation.
Jewish dietary law covers not only the foods which can or cannot be eaten but also how a meal is prepared, how it is served, when the food can be prepared and when it can be eaten. These rules pertain not only to foods but anything that comes in contact with it, including all cooking equipment from silverware, dishes, pots and ovens. This level of stringency has no comparision in Dhabihah Halal. For example, there is a prohibition of mixing meat and dairy, which may not be consumed or prepared together, including all cooking equipment used. There are many more laws and interpretations, with each religious affiliation observing in its own way.
During the holidays when tradition is strongest there are many types of foods which are symbolic and are an essential part of the festive table. On Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New year, is a time for Jews to look back upon the year and repent for their mistakes in order to start afresh. Many foods eaten on this holiday, such as dates, pomegranates and apples and honey are associated with the Middle East and can be found growing in Israel.
Traditionally a blessing is recited over the pomegranates, the new fruit of the season, representing the passage of time. The blessing also symbolizes the gratitude of being able to witness another year come full circle. It is said that it has 613 seeds representing the number torah commandments which must be observed. Apples and honey usher the coming of a sweet new year and the head of fish or lamb shows that the Jews should lead other nations through their righteous acts. It also means that they will come out ahead and not at the bottom. Poopa Dweck, author of Aromas of Aleppo cookbook writes that dates are eaten in the hope that our enemies will stop harassing us because the word date (tamar) is similar to cease (tam) in Hebrew. There are other food items added to the table varying according to different traditions.
Eid ul Fitr celebrates the end of Ramadan, the Muslim monthly daily fasting and a time of self evaluation. According to the waiter of Elbabur the fast is broken by eating majoul dates in the morning. Those who are able to are also required to pay alms so that no mouths are left hungry. Although each group has a different way of celebrating this holiday sweet foods and special dishes are often made. The BBC site gives an interesting overview of traditions throughout the Arab world.
So what will I be doing for the holidays? I am hosting Rosh Hashanah dinner at my house but my guests, my mother in law and lovely sis-in-law will be making quite a few dishes leaving me nothing to do but to set the table and decorate the house. In reality I am always paranoid that there won’t be enough to eat so end up making a bit too much just in case. I once even dreamt that I had only two little burnt drumsticks to feed a large family right before Passover dinner and that was enough to leave me in a cold sweat. In anycase, my camera broke somewhere in the Golan Heights so hopefully it will be fixed soon so I can add some photographs.