Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Palestine: The Gift of Going Home

Friends, I went home.

And it was such a gift.

It was waking up every morning to that white bright sunlight of Palestine, and not being able to believe that I was actually here.  The smell of toasting Arabic bread and frying white cheese, the rhythmic pounding of stone masons outside, the slanting rays of the morning white sunlight, smooth tile under my sandals -- all of these welcomed me home.

It was walking the old familiar streets of Jerusalem, streets where I knew every stone, every curve of the sidewalk, every step embedded with memory.

It was also moments of being a stranger in my own land, in bewildering disorientation as we whipped down highways that I had never seen before, drove past settlements and walls that had not existed, finding myself a stranger in my own land.

It was walking my children and husband through all of the sacred spaces of my homeland, crowded with pilgrims and tourists, letting their eyes rest on the same sights and scenes that was the backdrop of my childhood.

It was popping in to say hello to an old classmate, spending long, leisurely days with old friends and dear family, days that lingered into night, with elaborate, beautiful meals, coffee and fruit, all of the children playing around us, while we settled deeply into our chairs and into our friendships.

It was eating cucumbers and olives, frying orange-yolked eggs in olive oil, and watching my children pile freekeh and wara' dawali and stuffed eggplant high on their plates, and then asking for seconds.

It was biting into warm, honeyed kanafe in Nazareth, chopped salad for breakfast in Tiberias, hot falafel sandwiches from Damascus Gate,  shaved shawarma sandwiches in Bethlehem.

It was standing in front of the dryer, unloading some clothes, and then stopping in my tracks, realizing that the words in my mind were Arabic and not English.

It was turning on the faucet to wash my hands, only to find that our water had run out;  it was teaching my children to only flush when necessary, to guard the water pouring out of the faucet, to wonder if I really needed to wash that load of laundry.

It was driving and driving through the land, my eyes trying to memorize every olive tree, every curve of the terraced hills, to burn them into my heart forever.

It was opening the windows in the evening to a rush of cool air, the twinkling of Ramadan lights, and the call to prayer, my children running to see watch the wedding fireworks exploding out of the village below us.

It was entering into my parents' world for a little while, to walk down the same road that they walk, to see the fruit of their labors, the swirl of community surrounding them, and to know, also, that this chapter of their lives is slowly ending, and that this moment is almost over.

It was slipping back into the ceremony of the culture, the handshaking and kissing, the serving of coffee and cookies, remembering who to serve first, and remembering that everyone who enters our house, from auntie to washing machine repair man gets the same treatment.

It was also teaching the children that there are certain times when no matter what, they do not speak - at a checkpoint, going through security, at the airport.

It was a quiet peace, even in the crashing of mixed experiences, even when floundering in my melty identity.  The gift was that I got to be there again, and that my homeland and I got to sit with each other like old friends who meet again, embrace, and ask each other:  So, tell me how you've been?  

Friday, May 5, 2017

Going Back to Palestine: What we Gain, What we Lose

This months marks ten years (!) since I last went home to Palestine.

I remember a time when I promised myself that I would never go years and years and years without going home.  I remember that my aunts and uncles and cousins who lived in America would come and visit my family in Jerusalem, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, spending long weeks with us, making hummus in our kitchen, making the coffee and pistachio rounds with the relatives.  They would count the years of absence on all of their fingers, and the years of absence dazed me. How could you go that long, I wondered?  How could the strings of time stretch that long?  How could you stay away from home for year after year?

And yet.

It has been ten long years since I stepped off an airplane onto my homeland, an exile of another sort.   I have grown up and learned the lesson that my aunts and uncles never said: that it is not always easy to come back home.

This month, we go home.  A trip home has been gifted to us, and quite truthfully, I have never been so grateful for a gift in all of my life.

This trip is for me, to find my way home.

This trip is for my children, to let them walk in the footsteps of their own people.

This trip is for my parents, to let them hold their grandchildren in their own land.

This trip is for my whole family, to write another story together.

What We Gain, What We Lose

People keep saying to me, Oh, how wonderful!  Your children will learn so much!

And I say, Yes. They will learn so much.  They will have their first taste of real Arabic bread, fresh olives, tomatoes.  They will get to pick wildflowers in the West Bank. They will get to see Jerusalem, Bethlehem.  They will get to stay in their grandparents' house for the first time, meet cousins, aunts and uncles that they have never met, meet my dear friends, see the streets that I grew up in, visit the school that I called home.

But also, I know that they will learn other things.  They will learn about checkpoints.  They will learn about walls.  They will see many different people, many different faiths; and they will ask me the questions that all children ask - who are we?  Who are they?  Why are we different?  

A few months ago, I was sitting in my son's martial arts class, and my son announced loudly in class that we were going to Israel soon.  I winced slightly, to hear the loud proclamation in class.  Another parent sitting next to me turned to me quickly.  Are you Israeli, she asked, with a huge smile on her face.   Well, I said, Yes, but I am an Arab. I waited for the usual confusion or disinterest.  Instead, her smile grew wider.

Turns out, this mother I was sitting next to was actually a grad school professor, an expert on Jewish studies who teaches a comparative literature class on Palestinian and Jewish literature.  Next thing I knew, we were elbow deep in conversation, as we watched our white-robed boys dash around of the mat and practice their kicks.  It was one of those rare moments, when you find someone who already understands, no explanations necessary.

One day I asked her:  Have you ever taken your children to visit Israel?

No, she said, looking over at the mat.  She paused.  It is far. Our family is here.  We have no reason to visit.  And . . . you know, I don't want them to be exposed to all of that.  I don't want them to see things, hear things.  

I nodded.  I understood.  We sat elbow to elbow, Arab and Jew,  and we watched our brown-haired, white-robed boys sparing on the mat.

I know I am not taking my children to Disney World.  But we still go home, because, after all, isn't that what all of us need to do anyway?

There, we will find the world there, as it is here, broken and beautiful.  I have learned in this life is that beauty always grows in the cracks, that to turn away from the hard things is to also turn away from the magical things that grow in the cracks: grace, mercy and sometimes even forgiveness.

Join Me for the Journey

What will we gain from this trip?  My prediction:  ten pounds!

I have given everyone in my family fair warning:  I will be eating my body weight in kanafe.  And then I will take the rest home and eat it for breakfast.  I will be eating ka'ak from carts outside of the Old City, and shawarma from stands, and Mom, please make sure there is falafel and hummus and labaneh and cucumbers and tomatoes and za'atar for breakfast every day, thank you very much.  Also, bring on the pots of grape leaves, and stuffed everything.  I know my toddler will be fed by hand by every auntie and Teta as he roams around the house,  and my children will learn that their plates will never be empty, no matter how much they eat.  And my husband, who quite possibly loves Arabic food even more than I do, is going to be spoiled on all of the good food.

I hope you will follow me here and also on Instagram.  I plan to write some travel posts when I return, and bring you along on the journey.

Until then, my friends, God be with you.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Bomb Scares, and a Recipe for Fear and Absurdity

Last week, an unattended box caused fear and panic at a gas station in Marshalls Creek, PA, according to this account and this account.

With the New York and New Jersey bombings still fresh, and the tri-state area recently on high alert, someone spotted an unattended box with Arabic print at a Gulf gas station and called the police. 

The police were called. The bomb squad came. The area was shut down. Until they realized that this unattended Arabic box was a box of cookies.  

Not just any cookies, but ma'amool cookies. They are a delicate, crumbly semolina and butter cookie, stuffed with spiced dates or nuts, and then either formed by hand or pressed in a mold, and sprinkled with powdered sugar when cooled. They are the quintessential Middle Eastern holiday cookie, used by both Muslims and Christians to celebrate their high feasts. Before Easter, and Eid, women gather in kitchens to turn out hundreds of these cookies, which are sealed into containers and served with coffee throughout the holiday season.

But on that day, in that box, those cookies struck terror.

Living with Bomb Scares

To me, this story is new, and yet also familiar. In Jerusalem, we were trained to always keep an eye out for any suspicious, unattended packages in public spaces. Bus stops, buses, benches, trash cans, everyone was always on high alert. If you stepped away from your things for a moment, someone would ask, loudly, Is that yours? If no one claimed the item immediately, the bomb squad would be called, and then, it would be blown up.  

So, yeah, this happened a lot.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fried Curried Eggplant with Pomegranate Molasses

Summer is slipping into fall around here, and I couldn't let it slip quite away before I shared with you a simple-as-summer recipe.  I keep finding myself standing in front of my stove, frying up cubes of eggplant, because as often as I make it,  I never seem to get enough of it.

My blog has been quiet, as it usually is over the summer months, because my home has been full of toddlers and children (some of whom belonging to me) running in and out the front door, trips to the pools (with requisite snacks), and a generous handful of trips to visit family, see new places, try new food.

Of special note, was a trip to Pittsburgh's Conflict Kitchen, were my husband and I enjoyed a delicious Iranian lunch.  The Conflict Kitchen is a take-out restaurant with a walk up counter, that serves a rotating menu from countries with which the United States is in conflict.  This month, they serve a beautiful selection of Iranian dishes.  About a year ago, in a controversial move, they rotated their menu to cover dishes from Palestine.  If you are ever in Pittsburgh, do try to find it.

Back in my hot and humid Virginia, my kitchen is overflowing with luscious summer vegetables - zucchini, tomatoes, corn, eggplant.  The summer months, though, bring more ambitious cooking projects to a halt.  I crave simple, light meals, salads and simple cuts of protein, meals that keep me out of the kitchen and at the pool.  On this particular day, I had several eggplants that needed some love, but I was far too hot to fire up the grill for eggplant dip, and far to lazy to contemplate a batch of eggplant bake, or menezali, so I found myself creating this simple eggplant dish.

One spoonful, and I was hooked.  I've always loved eggplant, especially fried eggplant cubes, with its lovely velvety and luxuriant richness.  This time, I added a drizzle of pomegranate molasses to cut through the richness and brightens and sweetens the dish. Add a sprinkle of toasted nuts, and suddenly this plate of vegetables, for me, becomes utterly crave-able.

I've served this over a bed of basmati rice, for a simple, meatless main dish, or as a warm side dish, with grilled chicken.  Either way, you are in for a treat.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Baked Apricots with Honey and Orange Blossom Water, and a Language Lesson.

Aywa, aywa, fil mishmish, I would hear the adults say, with a grin and a shrug, when discussing a time frame for when the city would fix the road, when the plumber would fix the toilet, when peace would come to Jerusalem.  

Yes, yes, in the apricot?  I could translate the phrase literally.  I knew what the word mishmish meant: apricots.  It was an Arabic word that my English tongue found playful and satisfying to say. What do apricots have to do with the road?  With the toilet?  With the peace process?  I never knew, and I never asked, because really, how many times a week, a day, an hour, can you ask your mother, but what do you mean? before you both grow weary of the question.

Growing up in my half-Arab half-American home meant living on the shore of understanding, but never venturing into deep waters.  My Arabic was spotty.  I could understand words, phrases, simple sentences.  My exposure to the language began in earnest when I was nine, when we moved to the West Bank.  Even though Arabic was my mother's mother tongue, she did not pass it on to me, and our years in and out of America, in France, where I became fluent in French, and then in Cario, where I become fluent in a British accent (from British schools!), meant that I was nine before I had a serious encounter with my mother's mother tongue.  

I learned Arabic by listening to my mother speak on the phone, or to the taxi driver, to my aunt and cousins.  I learned it by sitting through family dinners that I could not fully understand, by listening to song lyrics that I couldn't follow, by listening to living room small talk, over pistachios and mint tea.  

My mother usually spoke to my sister and to me in English, or in partial English, enough so that we understood.  We were used to sentences that began in one language and ended in another, and when my grandmother lived with us, we became used to the musical layering of English into Arabic, switching halfway, switching with each breath.  

But there were some things that eluded translation:  insults, proverbs, food.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Sticky Pomegranate Drumsticks + Tahini-Lemon Brussels Sprouts

Yesterday's flavors, today's food.

That has been on my mind the last few months, as I've been pondering what to do next on this blog. Since I don't always have the time to cook traditional recipes, but my kitchen is always stocked with the basics of a Middle Eastern pantry, when it's time to cook dinner, I often find myself staring at cuts of meat, and a whole lot of blank slate.

That's when I throw open my pantry and reach for The Secret Weapon of Arabic Meat Dishes:  pomegranate molasses. And when I need to add more flavor to a roasted vegetable, I reach for one of the basic Arabic sauces - tahini and lemon.

It's really funny, if you think about it, because Arabs are dead against mixing sweet and savory, and yet, they use pomegranate molasses, a syrup made of cooked down pomegranate juice (recipe here). My mother tells of her tongue's culture shock when she first came to American and was served chicken cooked with pineapple, pork cooked with apples, lamb served with mint jelly.  Sweet, fruity with meat?  It just didn't make sense to her palate.

And yet:  pomegranate molasses. This remarkable tart-sweet syrup is a miracle worker in the meat department. Arabic cooks drizzle in a little into their meat stuffing, or over roasts or chickens.   Pomegranate has that tart acidity that the Arabic palate enjoys, and only a very slight sweetness, so I imagine that is what they enjoy.  In this recipe, though, I play up the pomegranate's slight sweetness, and bath the chicken in pomegranate molasses, to create a barbecue-like flavor that my more Western tongue enjoys.

(This marinade also makes a divine glaze for a pork roast.)

I paired this dish with a side of roast Brussels sprouts, a vegetable that my children enjoy immensely, and that I love, even though I never had it when I was growing up in the Middle East.  To make it feel a little more at home next to the tray of chicken, I added the tahini-lemon sauce, and a sprinkle of pine nuts on the sprouts.  And just like that, I think we have a new family favorite way to eat our Brussels sprouts.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

100th Post {!}: Reflection on the Journey

One hundred posts, three years of researching, writing, cooking, photographing, eating, remembering and learning, and I have gained so much.  I am stronger than ever before, both in my sense of cultural self and in my confidence in the kitchen.  I am so grateful.

Today, I am pausing to reflect on this blog, this little experiment of mine.  When I started this blog, as  a way of recording my journey into traditional Palestinian cuisine, I never really expected anyone to read or follow this blog.  After all, I laughed to myself, how many people are interested in traditional food, let alone Palestinian traditional food.

As it turns out, far more than I could have imagined.  What a curious world.

But for me, this return to Arabic cooking became more than a culinary experiment, or even a health experiment.  It quickly also became a meditation on my own criss-crossed cultural identity, and the emerging cultural identity of my own children.  I found myself re-asking all of the painful questions that I had avoided for most of my life:  Since I am both Arab and American, can I ever really be either?  Am I even Arab enough to engage in this experiment - can I ever be authentic enough to cook authentically?

In the early dawn hours of reflections, here is what has come to me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Palestinian Rice Stuffing, or As My Mother Calls It . . .

It's been quite a journey that I have been on, these past few years.

I decided that I was going to become my mother's pupil, and learn how to cook all of the Palestinian dishes that my mother had prepared for our family when I was growing up in Jerusalem.  Though there were some places where I could find similar recipes, it was important to me that I learned how to make our particular foods, instead of dipping into the wider bowl of Middle Eastern cuisine.  I wanted to cook not just like an Arab, but like a Palestinian.  I was very intentional about finding the exact ingredients, the exact flavors that my Nazareth mother used to make her foods.  

I would call my mother every week, and talk food.  She would ask me how the kids were doing, and then eagerly, I would run through my list of questions:

What spices do you use for the kefta?
How do you make sure the yogurt sauce, for mansaf, doesn't break?
What is the stuffing recipe for the malfoof?  And what about the stuffing mixture for the wara' dawali?

Finally, she said, laughing over the line:  

Listen, honey.  

In every recipe, we use the same stuffing.

It's the same. damn. stuffing

Sometimes, we put it in cousa.  Sometimes, we put it cabbage.  Sometimes, we put it in peppers, or in grape leaves.  Sometimes, we stuff a chicken.   But every time, it's the SAME. DAMN. STUFFING.


How about that.

Same damn stuffing. 

Okay, then. That sure makes things easier. 

I stopped asking her for the recipe for the stuffing, or, as I like to now call it, SDS.

From then on, when I stirred up the rice and meat mixture, dusted it with a little allspice and cinnamon, and began to kneed it with my hands, I would wait to feel the waves of history break over me, to feel the presence of my grandmother and my great grandmother, cheering me on.

Instead, all I could hear is my mother's voice:  Same. Damn. Stuffing.  And this from a woman who's language is usually as squeaky clean as her kitchen.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Salad in Winter: Citrus Spinach Salad with Pomegranate Arils

The season of tomatoes is over.

I feel quite lost.

I miss our simple tomato-cucumber salads of the summer.  I grew up eating salads almost every night (my father was the salad and dressing maker), but they almost always had a little chopped tomato in them: cabbage salad with tomato, lettuce salad with tomato, cucumber, carrots, or a basic chopped tomato and cucumber salad.

When I first came to this country, I would still buy tomatoes year round because I just couldn't imagine my kitchen without fresh tomatoes.  Those piles of tomatoes in the grocery store in December, January, February - I didn't realize how far they had traveled and how little they tasted like real fruit.  I just bought them because I had never, ever, ever in my life lived in a house where there were no tomatoes.

A few years ago, I finally broke down and admitted:  I am not in Palestine anymore.

I am in Northern Virginia.  And here, the winter tomatoes are the worst.

Once I admitted that, I found I could stop buying them.  I walked right past the display case of mealy tomatoes.

Is there still salad after tomato season?  I was wandering in new territory here.  I tried apples and pears, cucumber and feta, cabbage and spinach, bacon crumbles, walnuts, sourdough croutons.   They were good, but they didn't taste quite like home.

A few weeks ago, I was pushing my cart through the grocery store, and my baby squealed with delight and said, "BALL."  He was pointing at a pomegranate.   That's not a ball, honey, I said.  It's a pomegranate.  He didn't believe me, and clutched it in the cart for the rest of the ride.

We brought the pomegranate home, and looked at it for a while, on the counter.  It was so pretty, in a bowl with the baby oranges and the pears and apples, that it seemed a shame to break it open.  I found a video tutorial by Martha Stewart on how to de-seed a pomegranate, and the older children and I followed her instructions and were soon rewarded with a beautiful mound of pomegranate seeds.  (It's not a very elegant video - but it was fun to follow!).

For breakfast, I sliced up oranges and sprinkled them with pomegranate arils.  The children picked up the pretty gems-like seeds, the baby ate them by the fistful, and my daughter studded the center of her orange rounds with the ruby red seeds.

And I suddenly saw my new winter salad: a bed of baby spinach leaves, sliced rounds of baby oranges, and a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds.

Oranges and spinach are a classic combination, but the tart little pomegranate seeds add crunch and a tart burst of juice into each bite.  I drizzled a homemade citrus dressing, with a little Dijon mustard and pomegranate molasses stirred in, to complement the salad.

Unforeseen result:  My salad is in the holiday spirit!  Wouldn't this be lovely to bring to a Christmas party?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bone Broth: My Two Secrets for Making Beautiful, Abundant and Affordable Bone Broth

So, in my last post, I confessed my bone broth craze.

I've put into baby's cups.  I make soups and stews with my homemade broths all winter long.  I cook it into my rices and my noodles, I cook it into rice porridge.  Bone broth is a staple in my kitchen.

Here in the United States, Thanksgiving is around the corner and everyone is  comparing notes on their turkeys, whether they are going to deep fry or roast them, and whether they are buying frozen or fresh, local or organic.  Whatever you choose to buy, I'm begging you:


Don't throw away those bones.

Nothing breaks my heart like the sight of bones in the trash.  It makes me cringe to think of all of the beautiful soups and broths that could. have. been. 

So, today, I'm going to give you a step-by-step plan so simple that it will take just a few minutes, and you will be rewarded with days of delicious brothy soups in December.  So do yourself a favor and put aside that turkey frame, and after the festivities have died down, and everyone has recovered from their pie-and-turkey coma, come back here and follow my steps to making easy and delicious bone broth.

Over the years of making broth, I have been able to save time and money using two simple broth "secrets." I have shared these tips with many of my friends and even my mother! Here is how I streamline this practice in my kitchen so that I have a steady and simple way to keep an abundant supply of beautiful bone broth.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bone Broth: Why I Turned My Kitchen into a Bone Broth Factory

I wanted to share with my readers something that I am passionate about.

It isn't beautiful.

It isn't a shows-stopper.

But it is a game-changer in the kitchen, and for your health.

I'm talking about broth.


Yes, broth.  Bone broth, that magical stuff, nourishment in a bowl, made from nothing but bones and water.  If you have never made your own broth, this kitchen routine might seem elementary, but really, it is the backbone of your kitchen.

See what I did there?

I promise to stop.  Maybe.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Twenty Years Later, I Remember: Rabin's Assassination

I don't have a recipe for you today.  I hope you don't mind.

Just a little story.

It's about a day that feels so far away.

It was twenty years ago, today.  Twenty years ago, I was a teenager, a high school senior, worried about things like SAT scores, college applications, friendships, boys, and whether my clothes were right.  

I also lived in Jerusalem.

I went to an international school, filled with people from all over the world, some staying in Jerusalem for a year, two years, ten years.  I went to school with a few other locals, Palestinians and Jews who were also connected to the foreign expat community in some way.  But I also went to school with children of traveling professors, and missionary kids, embassy brats, journalists' children, UN kids, and the list went on and on.

It was a richly layered place, this school, politically and culturally tangled, so that sometimes it seemed a million miles from the West Bank checkpoints, a serene island in the midst of war.  And other times, the pain pierced the stone walls of the school.

Some of us were, after all, the children of the first Intifada.  Some of us grew up in the first wave of uprising, breathed the air of burned tires and tear gas, ducked behind the strikes and the check points, the occasional rock smashing our car.  Our first inhalation of politics was on our own streets, as we ran from the army jeeps.  We came of age in the first Intifada.

But now, we were seniors.  High school was ending, and it felt like new things were happening in our world, too.  Our tenth grade year had brought the Oslo Accords, and, at fourteen, I wept in joy when I saw the Prime Minister Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands. And the accords were marching on. We breathed a little easier, walking a little freer, and I thought, we have overcome.

My eleventh grade attempt at the SAT had been a mild disaster, so I was gearing up nervously for my second round.  I was going to have to make the trip to Tel Aviv on my own, since my father was out of the country.  A new American friend kindly offered to let me travel with her and her mother; we would leave the night before, spend the night at an acquaintances' home, and take the exam early in the morning.