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Thursday, 21 March 2013

Ancient Food Forges Arab-Jewish Friendships

Yotam.OttolenghiThanks to an Israeli TV chef based in London and an American immigrant in the Galilee an ancient food has become a modern fad - and a great way of forging Arab-Jewish friendships.

The work of Yotam Ottolenghi and his Palestinian business partner, Sami Tamimi is well documented. But so far less celebrated in Europe and the U.K. is that of freelance writer, Abbie Rosner, who has spent many years studying local wild plants  with the help of her Bedouin neighbours.

What’s more,  alongside her love of foods like  freekeh (roasted green wheat), hilayon (wild asparagus) and zaatar (the name of both an edible wild plant and a popular spice), she continues her struggle to learn Arabic and has developed a deep affection for her Arab friends. Abbie.Rosner

Reading Rosner’s book, Breaking Bread In Galilee, it is clear that many resentments between Arabs and Jews are as much cultural as political. But a commitment to investing in a shared history – some of it biblical - can help to overcome them just as personal friendships will continue to achieve much when political pacts fall apart.

Even living the sometimes harsh life of a Galilee farmer’s wife, Rosner has  retained a romantic view of the area. She writes lyrically of its natural beauty and quotes liberally from scripture as illustration.

But descriptions of ‘foodways’  (local eating habits and culinary practices) aside, the real charm of her book lies in her developing friendship with Balkees, a Muslim woman from Nazareth, whom she first meets at the archaeological museum on Kibbutz Ein Dor.

The pair is separated by age and culture but joined fast by a mutual love of the land and the food it produces. This empathy encroaches on other matters and any reader would share the shame felt by Rosner and her husband, Ron when they first visit Balkees and her family during the fast of Ramadan:

Breaking.Bread.In.Galilee“Her family’s land holdings were much larger when she was a child … and the compensation they received in no way offset the suffering over their loss. The painful memory filled the room and settled in the pit of my stomach. Out of a conversation that started over bread, four almost strangers sitting in a Nazareth living room were delicately treading on an aching scar of the conflict between Israeli Arabs and Jews. None of us could fix it, or make it go away. But it was the simple act of speaking and listening with open hearts that guided us through.”

So somehow the two families scramble over this hurdle and eventually the Rosners are invited to help make freekeh on  land owned by Balkees’s friends. The grain is harvested and roasted for threshing by hand, using the same methods and wooden handled sickles employed in biblical days.

The one difference now is that the green wheat is ignited with a cigarette lighter or by a blow torch powered by butane gas!  Only when it is sufficiently charred and dried is it threshed by a tractor-operated machine. So it’s small wonder  that very few local farmers continue to produce it. The grains are then stored in the shade to retain their green colour before being sent to a local mill to be ground. A coarse texture is used for  general cooking and a fine variety is used in freekeh soup.

Initially I  was astonished  to discover that  people in the U.K. are prepared to pay almost £8.00 a kilo for commercially prepared and packaged freekeh (e.g. Melbury and Appleton). But I must suppose that the long, laborious partly hand-made manufacturing process somehow justifies the price. Does anyone agree?

* Abbie Rosner’s book is the first title to appear from her self-owned Hilayon Press.

* Tabouleh has long since been a favourite Middle Eastern dish in the west, so I’m closing the first half of this piece with a version made with freekeh rather than bulgur or couscous.

Freekeh Tabouleh

  • 1 cup freekeh
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup quality olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped fine
  • 2 tbsp. fresh mint, chopped fine
  • 1/4 cup basil, chopped chopped fine
  • 3 green onions, chopped small
  • about 16 cherry tomatoes, chopped or 3 roma tomatoes, diced
  • sea or kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Prepare freekeh according to package instructions, draining well. Allow freekeh to cool slightly, then toss with olive oil and lemon juice. Freekie.Tabbouleh

Combine freekeh with chopped parsley, mint, basil and green onions until well mixed. Add tomatoes and season generously (don't skimp!) with salt and pepper.

(Credits: Vegetarian Food and Flickr-Photo Sharing).


If You Can’t Beat ‘Em – Eat ‘Em!

A less savoury aspect of Israeli cuisine emerged along with the recent plague of locusts which  invaded the country from Egypt appropriately in time for the Passover holiday.

Although they are insects, four varieties of the creature are deemed kosher in Jewish law and halal for strict Muslims. So the attitude in many quarters has been ‘if you can’t beat ‘em – eat ‘em!’

As a vegetarian with a delicate constitution, I  am personally affronted that Israeli TV has taken an unwholesome delight in reproducing hugely magnified images of them on screen. 

But despite my rising nausea  and to the consternation even of the Orthodox rabbis who reluctantly designate them as kosher,  locusts continue to be a popular treat among the Yemenite community.  But I will not tempt you with Moshe Basson’s recipe for locust pasta, and will conclude instead with a description of how they are prepared. Are you ready?

“First throw your live locusts into boiling vegetable stock. They will squeal like lobsters as the air shoots out of their shells. When they have turned pink, remove from the stock with a slotted spoon.

“Take off the heads like you might do with a prawn. Remove the black thread from along its spine, its wings and the smaller legs. You can leave on the two long hind legs”.

I trust that I have not lost this blog too many readers and wish everyone who’s celebrating, either a kosher and happy Passover or a happy Easter.

Mark.UlyseasThis piece first appeared in the April 2013 edition of Live Encounters magazine ( edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.


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