What would I be cooking if I lived in Texas, Japan or Scotland instead of in the suburbs of Tel Aviv? Would I still be infatuated with Middle Eastern food or would I be cooking like the locals- chili, sushi or haggis, depending on where I was.
There are those who assimilate and drop their food ways to embrace the culture of their new homes. Others hold tightly to tradition, bringing their recipes with them and choosing only ingredients they are familiar with. Many are still defining their relationship with food, their diets chosen for health, environmental, moral and even political reasons and have little to do with what they ate in childhood.
The effect of these preferences is not limited to the realm of the kitchen and dinner table but is echoed in the daily interactions of life. Food can be used to connect as well as divide. It takes a rare person who is comfortable enough with their own heritage to embrace that of another. Abbie Rosner, culinary researcher and writer from Israel is one such person.
I had the honor to meet her a few weeks ago on a culinary tour she organized in Nazareth. Born in the United States she moved to the Galilee region of Israel in the late 1980’s and began her immersion into one of the most culturally diverse areas of the country. Food would be the medium she used to connect with her neighbors and the bridge to overcome the barriers imposed by religion, language, age and gender. Although Israel is a multicultural country, sadly the diverse elements rarely interact. Instead, suspicion and misunderstanding take the place of words, broadening this rift. In the backdrop of past and continual conflicts, it takes respect, perception, sensitivity and an innate understanding of human nature to communicate between these worlds.
As we meandered the narrow alleyways of Nazareth, it was clear that Abbie had formed a relationship with the city and was not the usual text book guide. A vegetable vendor rose enthusiastically when he recognized her. A restaurant owner and baker looked at her with quiet respect as we stopped to purchase his kataif. She chatted with a friend she met on the way towards the Elbabour spice shop.
At the market Abbie pointed out produce not always available in Jewish neighborhoods- great big bunches of mloukhia, piles of grape leaves and crates overfilling with black eyed peas. Between the produce stands was a man who sat in reflection by his blackened store front. “He makes his own knives”, Abbie commented. To me this was a rarity, a remnant from another time. As I left with my two knifes wrapped in yesterday’s news, the shopkeeper gave me a smile and a tip- “Sharpen the knife on the back of a ceramic coffee cup” he told me.
Our trip culminated with lunch at the home of Muhammad and Balkees overlooking the old city of Nazareth. With extraordinary artistry and patience, Balkees prepared the foods her mother once taught her, continuing the family tradition.
She demonstrated how to roll the tiniest grape leaves, filling it with freekeh, roasted green wheat infused with a deep smoky flavor. To prepare hubs al kaleb she used her fist to divide even portions and gently pushed the nigella, sesame and anise seed studded dough into a wooden bread mold. “Treat it like a baby”, she advised as we attempted to emulate her. I learnt that fatayir is not only the Swiss chard stuffed triangular pastry but can be made with za’atar and cheese and shaped like rugalach. We watched as Balkees poured a luscious tehina-leben sauce over eggplant and bread slices to make a casserole called makdous fatteh. She scattered a handful of almonds over the dish and place it in the oven until hot and bubbly. A large bowl of cress salad, dressed in lemon juice and tangy sumac gleamed at the center of the table. When everyone gathered together, freekeh soup, the fine grains dancing in a golden broth, was ladled into white bowls and passed down the table.
We finished the meal with herbal tea, black coffee and katayef, a dessert popular during the month of Ramadan (which was a week away when we met). I gazed at the small grove of olive trees below her living room window and the churches and mosques on the hill opposite. The warm summer breeze calmly filled the house and I wondered how Abbie opened so many doors while for others they remained stubbornly closed.
A few days later I turned the first pages of her book, Breaking Bread in Galilee , and began to understand. Weaved through the seasons, it is an exploration not only of the ancient food traditions of the region but how her quest brought her together with the people who continue to practice it. It is a personal tale that lives outside the pages of the book as new friendships are formed, friendships without borders.
Updates, news and links
Aside from my trip to Nazareth it has been a rather unusual summer. My husband’s startup began in full force before their offices were ready to be moved into. Instead they worked at our house for almost two months, from morning until night. It was an interesting time and the kids took full advantage of the fact that I would be less likely to shout at them with the staff on premises (“clean up your disgusting room!!!!” turned into “Sweety, can you please tidy up your room”).
Now it’s back to normal. Well, almost. I’m still looking for a car. Walking in the humid, sticky heat leaves me on the verge of collapse even after five minutes outside. This of course is very restrictive since I have zilch energy to move. When the weekend arrives I can’t wait to get out of the house even if I have to drag everyone else out with me. We’ve been to a lovely trip to Wadi Nisnas in Haifa with Yael and Erez (I’ll need to load pictures on my facebook page) where we stuffed ourselves with falafel and baklava. Last weekend we drove to the Golan Heights to visit an artist colony in Ani-Am and a beautiful river called Nahal Ayit. On the way back we made a 50km detour to eat shishbarak (little arab ravioli in yogurt sauce similar to Turkish manti) in the village of Jish in the Northern Galilee.
I’ve also been on the lookout for the elusive hummus ice cream which I wrote about here. If you know where I can find it please let me know! I did find baklava, pistachio-halva and Pavlova ice cream instead but sadly no chickpea gelato.
Lastly, the International food bloggers that visited last month wrote several interesting articles about their experience here. If you want to know more about Israeli food you’ll enjoy their posts.
Uri Buri and his ice cream by Erin Zimmer
The obligatory market post: Mahane-Yehuda market in Jerusalem by Pille Petersoo
Shabbat food in Israel by Kerstin Rodgers