Tamarind, Tomatoes and Dried Yoghurt
The Aesthetics of the Palestinian Cuisine
By Ali Qleibo
The sweet aroma of garlic fried in butter with coriander (il-taglieh) always softened the hard, impenetrable stones and enlivened the empty cobbled back alleys of Jerusalem. The smell of the food being cooked conjured up memories of mother’s food. The Old City would become an immense labyrinth of kitchens, of homes of families, of mothers, fathers and children. Taking a walk in the Old City at lunchtime would always evoke the feeling of wellbeing and of home. The mysterious sense of inexhaustible joy triggered by the various aromas emanating from the kitchens of the Old City has never left me. The delicate garlic/coriander dressing that would be added to either the green bean (fasuliah), mallow (mulukhia) or okra (bamiah) stew always transforms Jerusalem into one big family kitchen in which I felt at home. All Palestinians eat the same food and each Palestinian’s mother’s food is the best - at least until he is married. Then, of course, it is his wife’s food that becomes the best. The Palestinian sense of identity, of belonging, of home, of warmth, security and stability is inextricably tied up with food. Mothers and wives were entrusted with this task. Despite the apparent similarity of the basic recipes, variations are inevitable. Recipes passed from mothers to daughters. A new daughter-in-law becomes an apprentice and soon the keeper of her new family’s culinary repertoire. Palestinians may appear extremely finicky about what and where they eat but this attitude underlies an inarticulate, unwavering loyalty to the cook; first the mother then the wife. It is an act of love; home cooking cannot be reduced to a commercial transaction. In contrast to the rich Palestinian home cuisine, the Palestinian restaurants’ menu looks quite bleak: overcooked barbecued kebab, shish kebab and meat cutlets with the conventional salads on the side. Everyday Palestinian food can be divided into two broad categories: stuffed vegetables (mahashi) or meat stews (yakhani). In the ‘mahashi,’ vegetables such as zucchini, gourds, cucumbers, carrots or eggplants are cored out and stuffed with rice and meat. In the ‘yakhanis,’ chunks of mutton are cooked with seasonal vegetables. In both the stews and stuffed dishes the sauce of tamarind, tomatoes, pomegranate or dry yoghurt imparts the final distinctive taste. The aesthetic structure informing the elements and grammar in terms of which acceptable combinations of meat, vegetable and marinade sauce are permissible rigidly defines the edible. The grammar governing the possible combinations is sacrosanct. Tampering with the recipes renders the food inedible (lagaweees). Stuffed carrots and cucumbers can be cooked in tamarind sauce. Eggplant cannot be cooked save in tomato sauce. Mixing categories is aesthetically fatal. The result is considered disgusting and inedible.
Spices in the Palestinian cuisine are used sparingly. The particular taste of Palestinian cooking is produced by the proper combination of two major elements: ‘hmudah,’ a certain degree of sourness, and ‘dasameh,’ a certain amount of grease. Palestinians express a great predilection for the sour taste. As such our stuffed vegetables and the vegetable/ meat stews are cooked in sauces with varying degrees of sourness. The sour taste and various distinctive flavours range from the use of pure lemon juice, yoghurt, unsweetened tamarind, tomato, sour pomegranate and, in early spring, grape juice. Stuffed carrots and cucumbers, for example, are cooked in sour tamarind sauce, zucchini (qusa); yaqteen and eggplant (bitinjan batiry) in tomato sauce. Yaqteen, a variety of squash, and qusa may also be cooked in yoghurt sauce. The typical Friday dish, Ma’lube, commonly associated with Palestinians, however, is a casserole that consists of rice, mutton, and eggplant. It is not cooked in any sauce. But since no food is eaten nashef (dry) - even kebab and shish kebab barbecued meat, de rigueur, must be accompanied by yoghurt - a cucumber salad or a fresh vegetable salad with fresh lemon juice dressing must accompany ma’lube, but not the other dishes.
The love of Palestinians for the sour taste gets its clearest expression in the passion for fruits before they ripen fully. Fresh early April green almonds are a rage. While the blossom has not yet fallen from the tree, the tiny green fruit is picked and sold in the markets. The same feeling of excitement extends to green oranges, cherries and prunes. The elements of hmudah and dasameh reach a perfect balance according to the Palestinian palate in the festive meal of mansaf, whose mutton is cooked in dried goats’ yoghurt. The degree of grease or fat in cooked foods in the Palestinian kitchen has different forms. Depending on the dish cooked, pure olive oil, sesame oil (sirej) clarified butter and the natural fat of the mutton (liyyeh) may alternately be used. Samneh baladieh is essential for a more wholesome taste for the rice. A spoonful in yakhni fasuliah, the stew of beans in tomato sauce, enhances the taste of the simplest of Palestinian dishes.
Olive oil is indispensable for dressing all the salads and appetizers. Musakhan is a special peasant dish celebrating the hmudah and the dasameh, using chicken instead of mutton as its basic staple. Chicken is baked in a special oven, the taboon, whose main source of energy is camel and sheep dung. Instead of rice, the chicken is served on a circular loaf of whole wheat bread smothered with onions cooked slowly in olive oil. Chicken fat and the oil, in huge amounts, furnish the element of dasameh. The sour taste, on the other hand, is produced by the mixture of lemon juice (which is also considered indispensable in the customary purification of the chicken from its zanakhah, the intrinsic foul smell of poultry) and the extremely sour deep red spice, sumaq. Olive oil and sumaq with taboon bread doused in oil is a popular summer and autumn chicken dish. In this way the old oil is used up before the new oil season begins. Sesame oil “sirej" is used in frying. A tablespoonful used in conjunction with the minced meat, rice and spices enhances the taste of the mahashi, adding the indispensable extra taste of dasameh. From sesame oil, tahineh is produced. The white thick viscous liquid is indispensable for hummos. Tahineh, a smooth puree of chickpeas, one clove of garlic, and a generous squeeze of lemon juice, blended together, make the typical Palestinian morning staple, hummos. Tahineh with sugar and pistachios makes the halaweh that children like as a sweet snack, very similar to peanut butter, but with a thick crumbly texture.
Six easy recipes from grandmother In winter we looked forward to Fridays at grandmother’s. She would spend the winter in her country house in Jericho and all my uncles, aunts and their children would spend the weekend with her. The memories of the warm sun and the festive family reunions are evoked with the aromas and taste of the food she always had. Fridays and ma’lube are reminiscent of warm spring days in Jericho. “Dajaj bil sinniyeh," chicken baked in the tray is associated with autumn. Lentil soup and winter fuse together in my mind. The “lahmeh a’ waraq" with the aroma of the singed grape leaves in summer will always bring me memories of my wonderful childhood.
Ma’lube (upside-down) Winter and spring would not be the same without ma’lube. An extremely delicious casserole of mutton, eggplants and rice, ma’lube is very easy to prepare and has come to be synonymous with Palestinian family life.
Ingredients for six persons: two kilos of lamb cut into 300-gr gram shanks, one kilo of eggplant, three tomatoes, one green pepper, a kilo of basmati rice, cardamom, black pepper, saffron and salt to taste. The meat is sautéed in butter or olive oil until browned on all sides. Before adding the water, cardamom and pepper are added. Afterwards water is added, to the measure of the meat, and left to cook, covered. Meanwhile, the eggplants are cut into round one-inch thick slices and separately fried in olive oil to brown on the outside. In a glass of water the saffron is left to dissolve. When the meat is ready, add the eggplants, the saffron liquid, salt, and enough water for the equivalent of two cups of water per each cup of rice, keeping in mind that the vegetables will secrete the equivalent of one cup of liquid. After it boils the rice is added. Over a low flame the casserole is left to cook slowly for forty minutes. When the rice is cooked the whole pot is turned upside down on a large serving tray. It is left for twenty minutes so that it takes shape. As children we were invariably asked to beat the bottom of the pot, now upside down on the tray, so that all the rice and vegetables fall down and do not stick to the bottom of the pot. At this moment a generous portion of pine nuts and almonds is toasted in butter. When the pot is removed the rice should make a nicely-shaped cake, with the slivered nuts sprinkled on top of the deep yellow rice. This dish makes a very festive dinner. Usually “salatah arabieh" and yoghurt are served as side dishes.
Salatah Arabieh (Arab salad) In spring, fresh romaine lettuce fills the market. When I was a child, before industrializing agricultural products, all vegetables had a strong aroma. One smelled the lettuce, the tomatoes and the cucumbers. These three ingredients, plus scallions and fresh lemons and olive oil, made the most wonderful salad. My uncle Mohammad made the best salad. The lettuce would be cut in longitudinal strips and chopped into nice long strands; the tomatoes chopped into two-inch cubes. Finely chopped fresh parsley and mint gave it a particular zest. A pinch of salt, the juice of a whole fresh lemon and tablespoons of olive oil made it the most wonderful companion for the ma’lube.
Dajaj bi Sinnieh (baked chicken) An extremely easy dish to prepare, it was often enjoyed by all of us with great relish. Chicken is cut into eight pieces, cleaned and marinated in olive oil and crushed garlic. Zucchini, potatoes and tomatoes and an onion are sliced. All ingredients are arranged in the tray, surrounding the chicken. Set the oven to medium. Just before placing the tray in the oven add one glass of water in which salt to taste has been dissolved. Cook for ninety minutes. For the last ten minutes turn up the heat to brown the chicken, potatoes and tomatoes. Bon appétit.
Lahmeh a’ Waraq (meat in grape leaves) This is a typical summer dish. Wrapped in a few layers of grape leaves, the taste of the ground beef is richly enhanced by the fresh green flavour of the inside layer of the grape leaves and that of the singed, crunchy external layer. The taste always evokes the memories of lazy summer days and the fresh breeze under the shadow of the pine trees in our mountains. Lahmeh a’ waraq reminds me of the old family reunions in the woods near Qubeibah and the moon-viewing evenings at the shores of the Dead Sea before the 1967 war.
Lahmeh a’ waraq is very easy to prepare. For six persons, have the butcher grind a kilo of lamb meat (it can be a mix of beef and mutton in equal amounts) and ask him to add a few gloves of garlic and some parsley. At home add a bit of salt and allspice. A spoonful of samneh, clarified goat butter, or regular butter is mixed with the meat together with a generous amount of pine nuts. Mix thoroughly the spices, pine nuts and butter. An optional spoonful of lemon juice may be added. Roll the meat into small hamburger patties on a separate dish and set aside. Thoroughly wash two hundred fifty grams of large grape leaves. Butter a baking tray. Hold in the left hand a flat stretched grape leaf onto which you flatten the hamburger patty. Rotate the hamburger as you add layers of grape leaves. Four to five leaves should suffice for each patty. After you have laid them on the tray you may add slices of tomatoes on top as decoration. Some people also add slices of almost cooked potatoes. Add half a glass of warm water and put the tray in a pre-heated oven. Allow to bake slowly over medium heat. The hamburgers should not be covered in water; rather, a small amount should be added to prevent the meat from drying. After the meat is cooked, turn up the temperature so as to roast or singe the tomatoes, potatoes and the outer layer of grape leaves. The last stage, that of burning to a crisp the vegetables and grape leaves, is extremely crucial. It imparts to the hamburgers its unique taste. As youngsters we enjoyed the crunchy taste of the singed grape leaves. Now, only the first patty or two are eaten that way. As we proceed to the third patty and as the bite of hunger subsides we begin to peel off all the leaf layers. Lahmeh a’ waraq, as all other Arab meat dishes, is always accompanied by fresh yoghurt. Salatet Tahineh, a special salad for which father was famous, goes de rigueur with lahmeh a’ waraq.
Salatet Tahineh (salad with tahineh paste) For six persons you need five cucumbers, three ripe but firm tomatoes, two garlic cloves, fresh parsley and mint, half a lemon and three tablespoons of tahineh sauce. Peel the cucumbers and tomatoes and chop them to a size no larger than one centimetre. Chop the mint and parsley. The garlic must be finely chopped. Mix all vegetables in a salad bowl. In a separate mixing bowl (an old tea cup is ideal) pour the tahineh sauce and stir in the fresh lemon juice. Slowly the heavy sesame paste turns liquid. Since tahineh sauce is considered too heavy for digestion, Jerusalemites invariably add fresh yoghurt. Once the sauce has become smooth (watch out not to make it too thin) pour it over the vegetables in the salad bowl and mix it in. Remember that the cucumbers and finely chopped tomatoes will secrete their own juices which will further thin out the sauce. Since the flavour of the salad depends on the tahineh sauce, the degree of consistency and viscosity of the original dressing is crucial. Salt is optional.
Shorbet Adas (lentil soup) Four hundred grams of green or red lentils are soaked overnight in water. One onion is sautéed in butter and four cups of water are added. The lentils are drained off, rinsed again and then added to the boiling water. A pinch of salt and coriander are added. Keep checking the covered pot and add water when necessary. Three cloves of peeled garlic may be added. When the lentils are cooked, turn off the heat. Puree the lentils in a blender. If the puree is too thick, add enough water to attain a soupy texture. On cold winter evenings dry morsels of bread are added to each soup bowl, making this a warm and tasty light meal.
Fast Food: Hummos, Falafel, Manaqish bil Za’tar In every Arab city, on residential and commercial streets and around every corner one sees a big wok-shaped frying pan in which round brown balls of falafel sizzle, sending off the most delicious aroma of chickpeas spiced with coriander. Chickpeas play a very important dietary function in the Arab cuisine and go into the making of all kinds of fast foods, ranging from the ubiquitous falafel to the more specialized, sophisticated hummos. Falafel is a sandwich: the falafel balls, tomato and cucumber salad, and pickles are put inside the pouch of the pita bread. All the ingredients are doused in tahineh sauce. Hummos, on the other hand, is eaten more formally, while sitting at a table. The scene is familiar. Hummos is eaten by scooping it up with morsels of pita bread. The fresh bread is dunked into the paste and each morsel is washed down with a gulp of sweet mint tea. Mint and coriander are typical aromas of hummos restaurants. Hummos is served in a variety of forms. “Musabahhah" refers to a special hummos dish in which the peas are not ground to a paste but remain floating, literally “swimming" in tahineh sauce and oil and decorated with sprigs of parsley. “Fattet hummos" is regular hummos to which shredded bread is added. In this case one need not scoop the hummos with bread; it is eaten with a spoon. As a child I remember fattet hummos as our Friday breakfast. (Hummos restaurants provide home delivery whereas falafel vendors do not deliver.) At home father would toast pine nuts in clarified butter and sprinkle them over the fatteh. The taste is scrumptious. Invariably falafel is served on the side. Hummos may be served with fried, finely chopped meat, and then it becomes a meal. The variations are infinite.
Za’tar and Zeit Za’tar is another Palestinian delicacy. It is a spice mix made up mainly of wild local thyme. Winter evenings are unimaginable without za’tar and zeit (olive oil). Pita bread is toasted crisp red on either the fire brazier or the kerosene stove (despite our severe winters most Arab houses do not have central heating). The bread is then dipped first in the oil and then in the za’tar. Fried goat cheese may accompany this delicacy. As with most fast food, mint tea is always the favourite accompanying drink but it is slowly being substituted by Coca-Cola. As a variation za’tar soaked in olive oil is used as the paste for another delicacy, “manaqeesh bi za’tar." This paste is spread on top of flat bread dough then baked in the oven; a sort of Palestinian pizza. Za’tar may be substituted with eggs, then it is known as “manaqeesh beid," or with finely chopped goat cheese to which parsley and oil have been added, hence known as “manaqeesh jibneh."" All these snacks are washed down with mint tea. There are informally set times for coffee. At home we drink coffee first thing in the morning, after the siesta and when visitors come calling. When served to visitors it must come after the cold drinks, the fruits and the pastries. When coffee is served it is a sign for the guests that they may leave. Only after lunch, which is the main meal in Palestine, would coffee be served. Most people postpone the coffee until three thirty, following the afternoon prayers, when they would relax over a cup of Arabic coffee as they prepare for the evening. No one would call before four. Siesta for us is a sacred, private time that is rarely if ever violated. Hummos and falafel, manaqeesh bi za’tar, jibneh or beid, the aromas and scenes mix and with them the unforgettable flavour of Palestinian cities is instantly conjured. Artist, author and anthropologist, Dr. Ali Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. Among his books in English are, Before the Mountain Disappears, Jerusalem in the Heart, Another Autumn, and The Mystery of Japan. His art work is prized in private collections internationally and nationally. Qleibo is considered one of the leading oil painters in Palestine.
Photo: Courtesy of Darna Restaurant, Vera Maria Fernandes, Steve Sabella, Courtesy of Al Bardauni Restaurant,