Smells like the desert

‘What is this? It smells and tastes like the desert’, one of my guests remarked at my marathon Palestinian meal served close to two weeks ago (and whose recipes I still haven’t fully revealed). We all turned to him inquisitively: ‘what does the desert taste like?’ a couple of voices chimed in unison. He went on to explain that it took him back to where he had grown up, in a desert state of the Southern US.

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Looks like the desert. Actually a beautiful landscape near Sebastiya, in the northern West Bank

The French novelist Marcel Proust famously wrote about the power of smell in triggering emotional memory. In my own life, I can testify that one of my most enduring smell-triggered memories is the combined odour of overheating tyres and petrol fumes, which has the unlikely effect of bringing me back to romantic memories of the sun setting on the Arno river in Florence, with sunglasses- and leather jacket-attired Italians screeching by on their mopeds.

For all its toxicity, London produces the occasional pleasant scent. In early January, the scent of pine wafted through certain streets as people admitted that Christmas was over and put their trees out. And just last weekend, I was running with a friend by the lovely canal boats in East London, when on a short inhale of breath, we caught a whisp of that desert scent again.

By now, you are saying to yourself: ‘Dang! Will she just tell us what it is that smells like the desert already’. Well, you are only saying it like that if you are American, which according to my blog stats, is not likely (according to my blog stats, you are most likely to be my parents). I’ll put you out of your misery: that desert scent emanates from none other than that much loved and lauded za’atar mix of wild thyme, sumac and sesame seeds.

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Manakish with za’atar, eaten at my table

After nearly one and a half hours of running, that za’atar smell (which may have been smoldering wood-fire embers, for all we knew) provoked some serious hunger pangs, and an idea formed in my famished brain. I was going to make Palestinian taboon (stone oven) bread covered with za’atar, to recreate the delicious manakish eaten for breakfast in Jerusalem’s old city.

With the dough requiring at least one hour’s rising time, this was no instant hunger fix. But the anticipation and the joy of working with dough kept me going. As I mentioned before, I love kneading. But I struggle with pressing the dough into the required thin, flat, circles. I remember being mildly distressed at a cookery class some friends and I took with Noor Women’s Empowerment Group at the Aida refugee camp in Bethelem, as the dough for some pastries we made kept springing back into its original shape. On this most recent attempt though, I learnt something: you have to be intentional with the dough. Let it know where you are telling it to go. It manifests in just a mild change of force and direction. But it did the trick. Two hours later: delicious fresh flatbread covered with za’atar and olive oil, and eaten with labneh, hummus, or whatever you like.

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Me being intentional with the dough

I made more the next day when some of my Greek family came to brunch, and in a hot dry pan rather than the oven, and it was even better.

Taboon bread

Thanks largely to Amira’s pantry and Pop Palestine

2 cups of all purpose white flour

½ cup of wholewheat flour

2 tbsp of dry yeast

1 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp salt

70 mls of olive oil

1-1.5 cups of warm water

  1. Mix the dry ingredients together
  2. Add the olive oil, and then slowly add the water, kneading until you have a sticky dough (I probably didn’t leave mine sticky enough)

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    How my dough looked. A bit sad at this point.
  3. Line a bowl with olive oil and leave dough to rise, covered by a cloth, for at least an hour. It should double in size
  4. Divide the dough up into 3-5 balls, depending on how big you want your bread. Press each ball into a small, flat, but quite fat, circle with the palm of your hand, and then work this outwards with your fingers until you have a thin circle (as thin as you like, depending on whether you prefer Naan or pita-style thickness). Reach for the rolling pin if it’s getting too frustrating.
  5. Heat a frying pan over a medium-high heat. When it is hot, put the bread in. Cook until brown on each side (about 3 minutes).
  6. Hey presto! Serve covered with za’atar mixed with olive oil. Or whatever you like.

Now, this being the beginning of the Lent season, it seems appropriate to talk about deserts. And intentions. As I embark on it, I am reminded that we cannot live on bread alone. So after this feast of Taboon, I may be going into the wilderness for a while.

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Looking out into the wilderness, near Yanoun in the northern West Bank
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