We were only three- two students and the professor in that tiny class room at Ben Gurion University twenty-one years ago. All the others enrolled in the overseas program had packed their bags and left, afraid of the imminent threat of war. But Beer Sheva, a dusty town in the Northern Negev, seemed too remote for anybody to take notice, let alone become a target of aggression. I stayed.
A few months earlier Kuwait was invaded by Iraq back when Saddam Hussein was the regional hoodlum. It was the same day I landed in Israel and the very first news I received as I rolled my trolley out into arrivals hall. “Hey, welcome to Israel, do you know Kuwait was invaded?!” Fresh out of high school, my mind still on another continent, these political upheavals seemed distant to me. I didn’t understand the half hour news updates blasting from every radio or the conversations between strangers at bus stops.Sunrise over the Negev
As the tensions mounted and gas masks distributed to the civilian population, the Americans and Canadians stopped talking passionately about their dream of living in Israel. Their ideology turned tepid and one after another they left before we could be friends. By the time the government recommended setting aside a sealed room (one with windows and doors taped shut with plastic sheets in case of chemical attack) only five of us remained. Nationalism wasn’t what kept me tied to the country. I was only 18 and making my way for the first time – I sure didn’t want to return to my high school days and lose my newly acquired independence.
Even with a dearth of international students, the overseas program, to the University’s credit, continued as planned (I have learnt many times that in Israel, no matter what happens, life goes on). We became immersed not in our own little English speaking clique but dunked straight into Israeli society, unprotected within our cultural cocoon. It was to be the pivotal point of my life (the exact date actually was the first night the sirens went off and an unexpected guest knocked at the door) but I’m getting ahead of myself.Railway in the Negev
That semester I registered for a course titled Relationship between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews taught by Prof. Maurice Roumani, then Director of the Center for Studies in Sephardi Heritage. Twice a week I walked from the dormitories with my pen, notebook and gasmask to study about the social struggles that occurred between two very disparate cultural groups.
Years later, what I remember most from the hours of private tutelage under Professor Maurice Roumani was his indignation that butter was served in his native Libya while in Israel nothing was available but industrial flavored margarine. The problem, of course, wasn’t the inferiority of baking products available in the new country, but the prevalent attitude of disdain towards many North African immigrants. The butter-margarine comparison depicted the disillusion of being regarded as second class citizens. In the early years of Israel’s existence, the Ashkenazim, Jews from Eastern Europe, welded the political power and set the tone for many years to come.
With their eventual assimilation into a common melting pot, the majority of the issues amongst Sephardi and Ashkenazi have subsided. Though, sadly, as is human nature, the conflicts have always been transferred to the newest immigrants- the Ethiopians, Russians and today to the large influx of asylum and job seekers from Sudan and Eritrea.
Time will tell if these groups will also find a niche in Israeli society, enriching it while preserving their heritage.
Mafroum, Libyan stuffed potatoes
When I visited a small Libyan restaurant in Or Yehuda the owner, Effie told me proudly that some of his most loyal customers were Russian, a big change from the early years of Israel.
This recipe was adopted from the Hebrew recipe by Pascale Peretz Rubin.
5-7 potatoes, peeled
½ cup chopped parsley
2 onions, grated
500 grams ground meat
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 slices of bread soaked in water and squeezed or 3 tablespoons bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 tablespoons of water
1 large onion, chopped
5 large tomatoes, chopped (or can of 800 grams crushed tomatoes)
2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon hot paprika
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
2-3 cups water
Vegetable oil, I used olive oil
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients for the filling and knead until the mixture is smooth and uniform.
Peel the potatoes and slice them into 1 cm rounds. Slit these potato rounds making sure not to slice all the way through. Keeping the two sides connected helps the stuffing stay in place while they are simmering.The potato slices do not have to be connected but it helps keep them together
Stuffing the vegetables
Sandwich about 3 tablespoons of stuffing between the potato slices, molding them between your palms so the meat is nestled within the potatoes and does not protrude. The meat layer should be about the thickness of the potatoes.
In a deep heavy pan add enough oil so that is comes half way up the stuffed potatoes. Lightly coat each sandwich with flour and then the beaten egg mixture (not the opposite since the flour will start to burn). Fry the sandwiches in batches, turning once, until they are golden brown on both sides. Remove from oil and place them on a paper towel lined plate.
In pot large enough to fit all of the stuffed potatoes, heat about 3 tablespoons of oil. Add the chopped onion, stirring occasionally, until they soften and become translucent. Add the garlic and mix for a few seconds to release their aroma. Stir in the chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, 2 cups of water and spices. Bring the sauce to a simmer and continue to cook for about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Carefully add all the fried sandwiches to the sauce, stacking them up sideways so they fit. The sauce should almost, but not completely, cover them. Add a bit more water, if necessary.
Cover the pot, and simmer the stuffed vegetables for about 1 hour, or until they are tender and the meat is cooked through. Occasionally baste the top vegetables with some of the sauce. If the sauce seems too watery, use a slotted spoon to transfer the potatoes to a large tray. Boil the sauce with the cover off to thicken it.
To serve, use a slotted spoon to remove the stuffed vegetables from the pot to a serving platter, pouring some of the sauce over them. Serve with couscous.
Other mafroum variations:
Moroccan mafroum from My Jerusalem Kitchen.
Mafroum – Tunisian Stuffed Potatoes from Israeli Kitchen