“Talk not while you eat, lest windpipe anticipate gullet (and life be in danger)!”
Jewish Talmud, Ta’anit
“How is it possible that the patissiers of the Middle East can make delicious goat cheese deserts that make you think not of goats but rather of heaven?”
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The Food – from Shawarma to Knafeh and don’t forget the pomegranates
This trip was not focused on gastronomical intrigue but we still managed to seek out and destroy large amounts of shawarma and countless pomegranates. Sweet shops are famous in the Middle East and Arabs in particular enjoy their honey and sugar-laced pastries such as baclava and knafeh. Nothing like a sweet shop in Bethlehem, attempting conversation with smiling, young Palestinians, going down the row of pastries and trying one after the other until you feel a sugar high followed by a carb coma. I’m not ready to give up chocolate and cherry cheese cake quite yet, but it’s a close call.
I may be mistaken but I think the food highlight for most of us was actually found in liquid form: freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. We experienced our first fresh juice on Sunday upon entering the Old City of Jerusalem. We stood around in awe, sipping and expressing sounds of pleasure, sporting purple mustached smiles like royal crowns on a jester. As the trip continued some of us added freshly squeezed oranges to the mix; a few remained purists to the end and would not taint the holy juice. The pomegranate squeezes out a deep burgundy, moderately light on the tongue and slightly tart with just the right amount of sweet.
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Shawarma is probably one of the more popular Middle Eastern dishes and consist of layers of meat stacked cone-like on an upright spit, turning delectably all day around a red and glowing element. This was our go-to after a hard day of water passage, goat dodging, and ruin exploration. The anticipation was palpable as we stood on tiptoes at the counter, pointing out our choice of condiments as the bemused vendor shaved off the ordered chicken or beef. They would then deftly slit a pita, slathered in some fresh hummus, and shove the meat deep inside. Fingers moving fast they would then add a fresh vegetable mix, sweet chili sauce and whatever else you pointed out from the colorful array of condiments.
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Our beloved guides also provided us with numerous picnics which we downed with hungry vigor and gladness, occasionally eating in the van as we careened through cities heading like Jehu to the next stop. We had no time for fancy tablecloths and preening waiters. No thanks; just pass the cheese and meat wrap, pop a Coke Zero and get out of our way. Most, if not all, of our food experiences were had in outdoor booths and open holes in the wall. In Jericho we enjoyed a kind of crispy stuffed pita-pizza right on the sidewalk, a mere meter away from honking traffic, just down from the Mosque. What a great time!
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We all look back with keen and delightful remembrance on the Bedouin tent experience, down south close to the Red Sea, a couple hundred feet off the beach. We took our places in the open air tent, settled into the soft, ground-level couches, tired and exhilarated from the day. Heath told the rather gruff older proprietor to just serve it up, whatever he was cooking in the back. He nodded soberly, grimaced, and disappeared. Rose and I took the opportunity to creep stealthily over to the kitchen where we looked in the door. He was deftly dicing and chopping up fresh vegetables and had a small fire going. He nodded to us and grunted something that indicated we were to go back to our table where we belonged and he would serve us shortly.
Within minutes he was back, bearing large platters of cut tomatoes and cucumbers, along with a variety of pickled delicacies. Then came the bowls of creamy goat cheese and even creamier hummus, all whipped to smooth perfection. The goat cheese was probably not my first choice. The hummus, on the other hand, was really nice. I occasionally buy hummus here in the supermarket but in Israel there were subtle differences of texture and taste that pushed it to the next level. Pita came in large round tortilla-like disks, thinner than usual, from which we tore off chunks and strips to dip into the cheese, the hummus, and the shakshuka.
Ah yes, the shakshuka. The best dish of the trip, hands down, not withstanding it had no meat. “What, no chicken?! Where’s the beef?!” cries Ben. But nope, no meat, just a lovely, thick, savory, tomatoey, stars-on-your-tongue sort of goodness, baked in a cast-iron skillet. This is probably considered more of a breakfast food, in fact, but never-mind. The tomato sauce (chopped onions, green bell peppers, and garlic, seasoned with cumin, coriander, paprika and a dash of red pepper flakes) is prepped in the skillet and then, once thickened, two little impressions are fashioned into which fresh eggs are cracked. This is then baked a little longer, taken out and presented with reference, “Ah yes, whew! hot as coals, red as velvet, stay on the pita you little savory piece of paradise…”
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In the Yehuda market, the semi-open air food mecca in Jerusalem, we went in search of a famous wrap called malawach. This is a Yemenese dish, brought to Israel apparently by Yemenite Jews. It consists of a flat bread using laminated dough, something I didn’t know existed. It’s sort of like a layered puff pastry, the size of a large tortilla, that is then oiled and panfried. Most of the vendors selling this don’t resist the urge to show off their pan skills, flipping the bread up in the air, managing two skillets at once, the swirling dervishes of cuisine, enjoying the attention. The bread is then slathered with tzatziki and hummus, dried onions (more onions please, yes more, even more please, ah yes, thank-you), mushrooms, and a sautéed vegetable mix. It has a pancake-like consistency and for an entree vegetarian dish a little too sweet for me. Plus there was no chicken or beef. Rose says it was one o her favorites so there you go.
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A few days after arriving home from Israel, a sad thing happened. We ran out of baclava.
Baclava is probably the most well-known Middle Eastern and Turkish dessert. You can find it here in many places, often in a Greek restaurant, if nothing else. It is probably one of my favorite desserts and of course, once again, there is something special-tasting about it when made close to its origins. Local ingredients, local spices, local taste. Paper-thin, crinkly, layered pastry, squared or in round rolls, filled with pistachio, walnuts, or pecans and infused throughout with a honey syrup, the nectar of the gods. For me it brings back early memories of my dad, going with him as a little guy to pick up pizza at Spartas, a Greek restaurant in Aldergrove, BC. Occasionally he would order a small, white, to-go box of baclava. Indeed, this is almost one of my earliest memories of my dad, interestingly enough.
I celebrated my birthday in Bethlehem, in a small sweet shop, eating baclava. The Palestinian bakers, three young men, then packaged up a tight little box with an assortment for me to take home; sweet little squares stacked on top of each other, surrounded by tiny little rolls of the same, thin-pastried cargo, fit for a king. I half expected some TSA agent to discover it in my luggage, declare it unfit to fly, and then sit in some corner to polish it off when no one was looking. I would not have blamed him.
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Then there’s the famous knafeh, a very sweet dessert made with phyllo dough. Our leader and guide, Sir Richard the Brave, led the charge numerous times for this delicacy and once a sweet shop was sighted, was not to be deterred or dissuaded by traffic, weather, or exhausted fellow tourists. He told us at one stop: even if you all wait in the van, I’m still going in. This guy has a serious addiction to this stuff (he’s even made some since he’s home, which is quite a feat in my books).
As with anything, there are many recipes for knafeh. The ones we came in delicious contact with were made with kataifi or phyllo dough, a butter and mozzarella cheese filling, and bathed in a sugary lemon-scented syrup. Once so christened with said syrup, crushed pistachio nuts were sprinkled liberally over the top.
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We stayed in the small Palestinian city of Abu Dis, just outside the walls of Jerusalem with a lady by the name of Fadwa. She has turned her multi-level semi-apartment block into an Airbnb space. We found her to be the epitome of hospitality and even though the digs came with some drawbacks (whoops, blew the breaker again trying to shower), her warm personality made up for it. One morning she provided us with breakfast which consisted of fresh hummus, pita, and falafel. Falafel is basically chick-peas spiced up, mashed up, and formed into balls which are then deep-fried. I found them best dipped into hummus which doubles your chickpea intake for the day, a protein plus there, not to mention a methane booster for some. I should mention that grapefruit and lemon trees grew around the apartment and we enjoyed those fresh with our breakfasts.
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One last memory. The sound of a flat repetitious slapping coming from the kitchen as we wearily showered and got ready for bed. Curious, I went to check this out the first time I heard it only to find Sir Richard (Heath) slapping the flat of his hand against a pomegranate. This actually worked quite well to send the juicy fruit shooting out of it’s pod and into a bowl. Nothing like home-grown lemon-flavored hot tea with fresh pomegranates for breakfast.
(Part 3 to follow)