Breaking Bread in Galilee – Food as a Bridge Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide
Alonei Aba, Galilee, Israel
“In Israel, where Jewish and Arab cultures are so tragically separate, I knew I could rely on the extended olive branch of friendship to overcome the cultural divide.”
When I moved to a farming village in the Galilee some twenty-six years ago, I was fascinating by the communities of Bedouins who lived in villages nearby. Every winter, when the seasonal rains turned the landscape green, I would see Bedouins out gathering edible wild plants, and marvel at how this most ancient of foodways was still being practiced in our hyper-modern times.
When I chose to develop writing as a creative outlet, my first project was to document the foraging of the local Bedouins. Over the course of doing my “research”, I discovered that initiating a dialogue over the subject of food was an extremely efficient way to overcome suspicion, hostility and timidity. Bedouin men and women who were total strangers graciously shared what they knew about these plants, their culinary and medicinal values, and even invited me to their homes to teach me how to cook them.
Out of that experience, I knew I had discovered my passion – to use food as a means to explore the Galilee, seeking out the people who are practicing traditional foodways. In Israel, where Jewish and Arab cultures are so tragically separate, I knew I could rely on the extended olive branch of friendship to overcome the cultural divide.
In Breaking Bread in Galilee – A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land, I describe that journey, as I traced foodways that are described in the Bible, as they are still being practiced today – particularly in the rural Palestinian communities of the Galilee – both Bedouin and Fellaheen (traditional farmers). In the process, I experienced the profound joy of deep friendships that began in a field of sesame or over a round of festive bread.
With Abu Malek, a retired schoolteacher, I struggled over weekly Arabic lessons, with breaks to discuss how food figures in the stories of the Bible and the Koran, while his wife, Um Malek rolled grape leaves or plucked the leaves off stems of malukhiya. And I spent long hours with Balkees, a gifted Palestinian cook, mother and friend, who grew up on the local foods of the Galilee and taught me how to approach them with care and reverence.
Over time, as our friendship developed, her immediate and extended family came to know and trust me, and accept me into their hearts.
With Balkees as my guide, I have harvested green wheat with a hand-held sickle, the heads of wheat roasted over an open fire to produce “farike” – the parched grain of the Bible. We have worked long days picking olives together, and shared the joy of watching the pure thick oil emerging in a fresh green stream from the press. We have picked okra and zucchini, growing in fields devoid of irrigation – as it was done for thousands of years, depending solely on water from the heavens and the earth.
Balkees, like most Arab women in the Galilee, lives a very circumscribed life. We are both so grateful that we have found a way to overcome the many barriers and open our worlds to each other.
A Recipe: Galilean Mejadra
And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”… Genesis 25:30
Mejadra is most commonly known as a Middle Eastern dish pairing lentils and rice. In the Galilee, where wheat was king and rice an exotic import, the lentils were matched with coarsely ground bulgur instead. The “red stuff” that Esau hankered for is generally considered to have been lentil stew. Galilean mejadra is distinguished by its ruddy color, derived from onions that are bronzed in a long and copious olive oil bath. Mejadra, served with leben and a little fresh salad, is Galilee Arab comfort food.
Cook 1/2 cup of small black lentils in 4 cups boiling water until soft. In the meantime, sauté 4 chopped onions in 1/3 cup olive oil until very brown but not burned. Once the onions are brown, add 2 cups of water to the pan and stir well. When the water has almost boiled away, add 2 cups of coarsely ground bulgur and mash it into the onions with a wooden spoon. When the lentils are soft, add them, plus as much as their cooking water as you need, to more than cover the bulgur. The type of lentils and bulgur used, and how much water is left in the onions, will determine how much liquid to add. You can always add more liquid or let the excess cook away. When the bulgur is cooked through, season with salt to taste.
For more, check out Abbie Rosner’s book, Breaking Bread in Galilee – A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.