During a recent visit to Palestine with the Amos Trust, our Communications Manager Megan Perry had a chance to sample some of the most celebrated foods of the region. From the back streets of Jerusalem to the markets of Nablus we take a journey through some of the most iconic foods, learning how they connect people, offering comfort and community and making tangible years of culture and history.
These large, oval-shaped bagels, often covered with sesame seeds, can be found throughout Old Jerusalem, made fresh, every morning. They are a staple breakfast for many of the residents hurrying to work. As we walked the winding backstreets, we caught glimpses through narrow doorways and down stone steps to the small, dark bakeries, which still use the traditional ovens and where men, often with a cigarette hanging from their mouth, could be seen expertly kneading and dividing dough.
Jerusalem bagels are often served with za’atar (a traditional herb mix) for an added kick of Middle Eastern flavour. Bread like this, along with flatbreads like taboon, form part of a key food tradition in this part of the world, where bread, often large enough to tear and share, is a common feature of Arabic hospitality. Everywhere we went throughout Palestine, bread (and, of course, small cups of Arabic coffee) was brought to us – even walking along a road in a South Hebron village, a Palestinian woman came running out of the house with warm bread to share.
Sesame-based products are common throughout the region, and in Jerusalem you can find – if you know where to look – the Al Jebrini tahini factory, one of the oldest and most traditional tahini producers. The basalt stones used to grind the sesame seeds are more than 200 years old and would originally have been turned by a donkey. In the dark back room, sesame seeds are roasted, pressed and crushed to produce a variety of products, including tahini (one of the main ingredients of hummus), sesame oil and halva (a quintessential Arabic sweet).
Makloubeh means ‘upside down’ in Arabic and is a traditional dish consisting of meat, rice and fried vegetables. It’s a meal commonly cooked for guests or special occasions and is usually formed of layers of meat (often chicken), rice and vegetables (particularly aubergine), the dish is then turned upside down when served. We learnt to cook it with a Palestinian woman living in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. Aida camp was originally established in 1950 and is now home to more than 6,000 Palestinian refugees, who originally came from the Jerusalem and Hebron areas. Despite the difficult conditions in the camp, food remains celebrated and social occasions often revolve around meals such as these. Makloubeh was formerly known as bathinjania (bathinjan is the Palestinian word for ‘aubergine’), but the story goes that when the Muslim hero Saleh El Din (the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria and conquerer of many Western crusader armies) arrived in Jerusalem, citizens celebrated by cooking a giant bathinjania in his honour. On tasting this delicious meal which they presented on big serving trays, Saleh El Din turned to the chefs and asked what this fine ‘upside down’ dish was called, and from that moment on, the dish was called ‘makloubeh’.
In the narrow warren-like side streets and souks of Nablus, we came to a stall with large round metal trays and bright yellow semolina. We had been waiting for this – in fact, forbidden by our guide to try it anywhere else in the market. The kanafeh, a dessert principally made from semolina, sugar syrup and cheese, is the best in Nablus! The variant that we tried is Kanafeh Nablusieh, perhaps the most renowned version of the dessert, for which people travel from far and wide just to sample it. The semolina is spread out in a dramatic, ritualistic manner on the large pan, before being sprinkled with locally produced goat cheese and then placed over a burner to brown the bottom side before being flipped onto another tray to melt the cheese. The result is a unique taste, the creamy mild cheese combined with the sweet crunch of the syrup and semolina. Needless to say, it is delicious!
Israelis too have ventured to Nablus to sample the dish. Can a love for delicious food help to breach divisions between the two societies? The SFT’s Projects Officer, Bonnie Welch considers this in her article, A Culinary Peace Process?
The Jordan Valley is the deepest valley in the world, up to 400 meters below sea level. With its fertile soils, it is one of the most contested areas of the West Bank where Palestinian residents frequently face eviction or land and resource confiscation by Israel. One of the valley’s most iconic crops – the date – is key to the economy here. In fact, the majority of medjool dates produced globally come from this region. But for the conscientious consumer, it is important to consider where exactly these dates have originated. The best source for traditionally produced Palestinian dates in the UK is Zaytoun, a Fair Trade company set up to provide a market for Palestinian products. We were lucky enough to visit their date processing factory and sample some for ourselves. Set in the midst of the valley, near the ancient city of Jericho and not far from the Dead Sea, the factory offers employment for local Palestinian women who expertly grade and package the dates for export.
In the hills north of Nablus, we visited a village where the Anza Women’s Cooperative have been making maftoul, a type of giant couscous. The Cooperative is one of the successes of the Palestine Fair Trade Association which provides micro-loans to enable women to start their own businesses or projects. The word ‘maftoul’ means ‘hand-rolled’ and on our visit, we were shown how to do this, gradually blending water, bulgur and whole wheat flour. As Zaytoun, which sells the Cooperative’s maftoul, says, “Women prepare it today just as their grandmothers have always done, working together to crack, hand-roll and dry the organic wheat in the glorious Palestinian sun.”
Cuisine from the region is increasingly becoming popular, with several books being published, from Ottolenghi’s beloved Jerusalem to more recent publications like Yasmin Khan’s Zaitoun: Recipes from a Palestinian Kitchen or Divine Food by Gestalten. Some of the best recipes can be found in the book Bethlehem: Beautiful Resistance Recipes by Dr Abdelfattah Abusrour and Manal Odeh. The book was created in conjunction with Alrowwad Culture and Arts Society in the Aida refugee camp. As Abdelfattah writes in the Foreword, food provides, “a sincere and undisguisable insight into a people’s culture.”