A stew for the soul

Hebron old souq

A stall in Hebron’s old souk. Lots of lovely wares, but few shoppers.

For the three months I was in Al Khalil -or Hebron- in a team of five Ecumenical Accompaniers, our daily walk through the old souk or new market was the bright side of our morning ritual, as we accompanied children to school in safety or stood at military checkpoints through which people had to pass to go to the mosque. The juice-sellers between the mosque checkpoint and the old souk greeted us with a mixture of resignation and hope. To say that footfall was light there would be an understatement; the once-thriving stalls of this 13/14th-century souk are almost ornamental; years of Israeli occupation and an upsurge in violence in 2015 have turned away many outside visitors to the mosque, who fear harsh treatment – or worse – at checkpoints. The juice-seller there would squeeze fresh pomegranate and orange juice using a metal juicer like the one I remember my granny using. I can still see her standing on its long handle to get the last drops out of oranges or apples, and I’m sorry we didn’t hang on to this precious heirloom so that for today’s recipe I could, without the souk juice-sellers nearby, draw the delicious sweet-sour juice from pomegranates myself.

Hebron market

Hebron’s fruit and vegetable market

In contrast to the old souk, the new fruit and vegetable market situated in Palestinian Authority-controlled Al Khalil is a more bustling affair, and the stalls upon stalls piled-high with orange persimmons, yellow, red and green peppers, and ruby pomegranates are a sight for the weary eye. One of our regular stops was at the shop in which we bought our labneh, where the owner often stood outside in a less-than-white apron, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. As I remember, it was there that I learnt the Arabic word for walnut – jawz. It is similar to the words for husband – jawaz – and wife – jawza, because of the intimate union of two halves, I imagine, flourishing under the protection of a hard outer shell. In the right conditions, the walnut is a consummate nut. It took a while for it to woo me because it can be too bitter, but those sold in Al Khalil convinced me how good a walnut can be when its sweetness wins out over its bitter undertones.

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Shades of walnut

All of this is by way of introduction to a recipe that is not Palestinian but Persian, in which the bitter sweetness of the walnut and the sweet tartness of the pomegranate lure the meat and vegetables into their complex depths. It is a stew called Fesenjan or Fesenjoon, which Iranians usually eat on the winter solstice, a tradition that dates back to Zoroastrian times. The pomegranate in the stew is said to herald the coming dawn.

Claudia Roden has remarked on the similarity between opposing tastes in Persian cooking and the Zoroastrian belief system, in which creation ex nihilo spawned a force of resistance, locking the cosmos into a struggle of good against evil until final judgement. Pomegranate molasses becomes the battleground, where sweet and sour sharpen their swords. The fruit has other life and death connotations too: while widely considered a symbol of fertility and new beginnings, in Greece its seeds are often added to a kind of porridge served at funerals, thus closing the circle.

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The pomegranate strikes back

It seems fitting to prepare this dish, with its contrasting tastes and simultaneous life and death drives, on the last night of the year. As we eat, we reflect on the highs and lows the year has served us with, and look forward in trepidation and hope.

Recipe
This recipe was yet again a shot in the dark for me. After giving myself a headache researching lots of recipes for Fesenjan, I decided to go with something between this Thomasina Miers’ one and Greg and Lucy Malouf’s because they were essentially the same, although one is with vegetables and the other with duck. Many recipes suggest sweetening according to taste, and if you are using unsweetened pomegranate molasses, you may need to add more sweetener than indicated, which in most cases is sugar. I opted for Miers’ version of honey rather than sugar, but ended up adding more than the recipe called for, and a little orange juice (a tip gleaned from a recipe commenter) especially after I added the meat, to achieve what in my mind was the perfect sweet-sour balance. No doubt you will have your own idea of what that is, and perhaps a better one than mine if you are well acquainted with Fesenjan.

A note too on the walnuts: a lot of recipes boil the walnuts on their own in water before adding other ingredients. I couldn’t get to the bottom of why this is the case, and with the method below they still cooked and released their trademark oil after the designated time.

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Light and shadow: stew for the soul.

Ingredients
500g chicken thighs, ideally skinless and boneless
200g shelled walnuts
4 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground turmeric or 1/4 tsp of saffron threads diluted in 2 tbsp water
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp tomato paste
1-2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (preferably unsweetened)
300 ml pomegranate juice (freshly squeezed if available)
2 tbsp honey, or more to taste.
1 bay leaf
400ml oz good-quality chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp salt, or to taste.
Juice of lemon
Juice of half an orange (optional)

Preheat the oven to 190C. Roast the walnuts on a baking tray for 5-15 minutes until a deep golden-brown (check and mix every 5 minutes or so to ensure they don’t burn). Tip the nuts into a tea towel and rub well to remove as much skin as possible, then set aside to cool. Pulse the cooled nuts in a food processor, either until they are coarsely ground, or finer, if you prefer less texture.

Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan over a low heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and fry gently until soft and translucent. Stir in the spices and tomato paste and fry for another couple of minutes. Add the walnuts to the pan with the pomegranate molasses and juice, the honey, bay leaf and stock. Bring to a boil, then add the salt, lower the heat and simmer gently for 1 hour, stirring regularly, until rich, thick and a little oily. Add a little more stock if it is too thick.

Meanwhile, sear the chicken in 2 tbsp oil until it is lightly golden brown on each side, but not cooked through. Add it to the sauce above and simmer in the sauce for another half an hour to one hour.

At the end, add the lemon juice and adjust seasoning as you see fit. You can add some fresh orange juice to taste if more sweetness is required.

If you want to make this vegetarian, omit the chicken step and roast some vegetables in thyme and oil while the sauce is cooking. Serve on top of the thick sauce, as Miers suggests.

Serve with naan bread, such as this delicious recipe, and basmati rice. I intend to attempt the perfect tah-dig. Watch this space.

 

 

How do you du-kka?

In his account of the early years of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation, F. Robert Hunter reports how people in Gaza, under siege at that time, were surviving on bread and something called dukka. They wryly referred to it as ‘eating dust’, because of its finely ground consistency. I would rather think of it as gunpowder, since dukka is no ordinary spice mix: it is fortified with protein-rich ingredients and, in the case of the Gazan version, has a hot pepper kick.

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Better known as an Egyptian recipe, dukka is usually a mix of roasted nuts (hazelnuts being the most common), sesame, coriander and cumin seeds. There are many variations, some of which may replace hazelnut with another nut, or add other seeds or spices. The ingredients are pounded down (dukka derives from the Arabic for ‘to pound’) to varying levels of fineness, according to preference – I prefer mine coarse enough so you can still taste the individual elements. Dukka is traditionally eaten with olive oil and bread, as a meze or for breakfast. But as many culinary adventurers have already discovered, it is also delicious on anything from avocado to egg to beetroot and burrata salad.

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The Gazan version of dukka is made with roasted wheat berries, and often dried lentils or chickpeas, instead of nuts. It is flavoured with additional spices such as sumac, hot chilli and dill seed, these latter two giving it its characteristically Gazan edge. The present-day Gaza strip is said to have a unique spice repertoire because the former Gaza region was once a prominent stop on the spice route. Then a symbol of movement and exchange, it is now referred to as “the world’s largest open-air prison”. The now 10-year-old Israeli military land, sea and air blockade, and the closure of borders with Egypt, mean that what enters and exits the Gaza strip is strictly controlled, and 80% of Gazans are dependent on food aid. In spite of the lack of access to most of their traditional ingredients, they take pride in their cuisine, if this informative feature is anything to go by. I hope to try out some more dishes from there in the future.

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Gazan dukka, with a Tabbouleh twist

Below are three recipes for dukka, including the Gazan version. After making it, I discovered that I don’t yet have a firm grip on the contents of my spice cabinet: I had added in juniper berries masquerading as dill seeds (yes, the two do look and taste totally different). They were in a box of Scandinavian appearance clearly marked dill seed, and boasting that dill seed was good for much more than sauerkraut. I observed the unusual colour and shape, inhaled the fruity aroma, and thought perhaps that dill seed was completely unrelated to the lovely fresh herb I am used to. I was wrong. This accidental Tabbouleh Diaries innovation deprives the dukka of aniseed-y undertones but replaces them with an added fruitiness that goes well with the sumac. If you want to give that a try, just substitute juniper berries for the dill seed in the recipe below – some lucky people have already received the Tabbouleh Diaries version for Christmas.

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Unsuspecting gift receivers will be surprised by a new kind of dill seed.

Otherwise, feel free to do your own dukka with whatever is known or unknown to you in your own spice cabinet. The roasting of the nuts and spices –if in seed form- is key. Store in sterilised jars or airtight containers.

Hazelnut dukka, from Palestine on a Plate

Sweet crunchy nuts, warm and fruity spices, with mild bitter-sweet fennel undertones.

50g hazelnuts, skins off

3 tbsp coriander seed

2 tbsp cumin seed

1 tbsp fennel seed

2 tbsp hulled sesame seed

1 tsp paprika

1 tsp dried marjoram

1 tsp sea salt

Roast the hazelnuts in a 180 degree oven until lightly golden (5-10 minutes, but check and stir hazelnuts in the baking tray once or twice). Fry the coriander, cumin and fennel seed together in a medium-hot dry frying pan until aromatic (about 2 minutes), stirring regularly. Fry the sesame seeds, separately, in the same pan over a medium-low heat, until golden brown, stirring often so they roast as evenly as possible.

Either pound the coriander, cumin and fennel in a mortar, or blend them in food processor, to a coarse powder. Mix with the paprika, marjoram and salt, followed by the roasted sesame seeds. Pound or chop the hazelnuts into small pieces and add to the mix.

Gazan dukka, from the Palestinian Table

This adds wheat berries (whole wheat kernels) instead of nuts, and is ground more finely (important because otherwise you would break your teeth on wheat berries). Other Gazan recipes, such as this this one, also include lentils for a protein punch. The sumac adds a citrus note, and the chilli some spicy heat.

1 ½ cups (180g) unhulled sesame seeds

1 cup (160g) whole wheat berries

2 tbsp coriander seeds

2 tbsp cumin seeds

2 tbsp dill seeds

2 tbsp sumac

2 tsp salt

1 tsp (or less or more, to taste) hot chilli powder

Dry roast the sesame seeds in a frying pan over a medium-low heat, for 7-10 minutes, or until dark golden. Set aside, and place the whole wheat berries in the same pan. Roast for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown, stirring regularly. Remove and set aside, then place the cumin, coriander and dill seeds in the same pan and roast until fragrant (about 3 minutes), again stirring regularly. Add to the roasted wheat and leave to cool.

Once cooled, mix 1/3 of the sesame seeds with the wheat and spices, and add the sumac, chilli and salt. Grind in a nut or spice grinder to a powder. Add the remaining sesame seeds and mix well.

Egyptian dukka, from A Book of Middle Eastern Food

This is apparently the first dukka recipe to have been published outside Egypt, in Claudia Roden’s 1968 classic credited with introducing the UK to middle eastern cuisine. This version is simple and heavy on sesame seeds. A good base from which to innovate.

500g sesame seeds

250g coriander seeds

120g hazelnuts

120g ground cumin

Salt and pepper

Put the seeds and nuts on separate trays and roast them in a preheated 250C gas 8 oven for 5 – 10 minutes or until they begin to colour and release an aroma. Put them together in the food processor with salt and pepper and grind them until they are finely crushed but not pulverised. Be careful not to over blend or the oil from the too finely ground seeds and nuts will form a paste. Dukkah should be a dry crushed mixture, not a paste.

Days of rage and reckoning

The theme running through the last week is a type of descent into chaos. The shy and retiring president of that obscure North American country seems intent on stoking the fires of Armageddon wherever he can. He challenged Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby on his knowledge of biblical truths when the latter published a letter from heads of churches in Jerusalem denouncing the potty Potus’ unilateral move to declare the city the capital of Israel. Seems the orange superhero does not consider the ones about ‘loving your neighbour’ and ‘welcoming the stranger’ that significant. The move sparked global outrage and ‘Days of Rage’ in protest, already resulting in the needless deaths of at least two Palestinians, and sending the region spiralling further downward.

Protesters are seen near the U.S. embassy in Awkar, in Beirut

Protesters outside the US embassy in Beirut. Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Azaki

We are living in an age of rage, according to Indian writer Panjak Mishra. Inequality, unfairness and unmet expectations have created a breeding ground of resentment and anger that is manifesting in protest of all kinds, including, sadly, the kind that got yer man over there elected. And the future does not look peachy..

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Example of small, thoughtful acts.

What can we do when the reality in front of us is not the one we want? Psychologists highlight the importance of taking some action, no matter how small, rather than repeatedly asking yourself ‘How the f*&# has this happened?’ and plotting assassination attempts. Personally, I decided to delve into chaos and confusion on a minor scale, by tackling a favourite family dish of my cherished half-Lebanese flatmate, for her birthday celebration, with her siblings present and ready to judge. Maybe not the kind of political protest that will satisfy a dyed-in-the-wool activist, but as my friend the craftivist says, small and thoughtful acts matter.

The dish in question is called Molokhiya, and it is popular also in Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Morocco, but each place has its own particular way of cooking it. Hopefully it is not casually racist to say that the name Molokhiya, if you don’t speak Arabic, does evoke a sense of murkiness and mystery, not unlike the feeling of cooking it for the first time, nor its appearance once cooked. Yes, the whole experience resembled being lost in a swamp, but don’t let that put you off: you are going to end up craving this thing.

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Molokhiya is a leaf also known as Jew’s or Jute Mallow that grows and is eaten across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Not long ago it was heralded as the next superfood, since it packs a stronger protein and iron punch than kale. Suspiciously, that news didn’t go viral. It dates back, in culinary history, to the ancient Egyptians, and apparently also has the name Jew’s Mallow because it was once central to Jewish cuisine. Apart from the fact that I was cooking Molokhiya for the first time for people who grew up eating it, I was apprehensive – or terrified- because it is also known as ‘bush okra’ due to its gooey texture. As the English name suggests, it is a member of the mallow family, a distant ancestor of present-day marshmallows. When, during my ‘sabbatical’, I spent a weekend with a couple near Sgarta in North Lebanon to learn their cooking ways, the only thing I noted about Molokhiya was the addition of plenty of lemon juice to reduce the slime factor.

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To the right, fresh molokhia leaves on sale on Bethnal Green road.

I carry my own baggage that heightens my fear of goo: I remember my father taking hours to carefully prepare okra (or bamies, in Greek), cutting the tips in such a way as to not let the goo escape. So when it came to this Molokhiya dish, I took several precautions that would make my father proud. I avoided the fresh molokhiya leaves, which I had been excited to find at my local street market on Bethnal Green road, because I was advised that this would be gooeyer. I instead opted for the dried leaves, procured all the way from Phoenicia. I then decided to religiously follow aunty Amal’s steps for slime reduction: first soaking the leaves in hot water for 10 minutes, then soaking them again in hot water and lemon juice, and diligently squeezing the liquid out.  The resulting dish was entirely goo-free, but to the point of being a little too dry. It survived the Lebanese family reckoning unscathed, but when I decided to experiment a couple of days later with fresh leaves, just adding lemon juice to them while cooking, the texture was more coherent and it tasted better, in my opinion. The lesson: don’t let fear rule.

It follows that what I have written below is a loose recipe, adaptable to taste. The addition of oven-toasted flatbread, layered under rice, chicken, molokhiya and topped with chopped onions in vinegar is a particularly yummy Lebanese version. In the Palestinian Table, tomato paste is used instead of lemon juice to reduce the slime. Some recipes add no slime-reducer, but if nothing else, I think lemon enhances the flavour. The herbs and spices also vary, depending on where this is being cooked, but fresh or dried coriander seems to be a constant. Expect a wild herby leaf taste and a simultaneous soupy and chewy texture that you will grow to obsess over. I have made so much of the stuff now that we have a twice-daily fortifying dose. Watch out, Trumpster, your freedom fries and KFC-based-diet is no match for ours.

Lebanese-style Molokhiya (serves 6-8)

Ingredients

For the chicken and stock

1 whole chicken (at least 1.5 kilos)

1 stick of cinnamon

3 small onions or 1 large onion halved

3 bay leaves

For the Molokhiya*

400g dried or 600g fresh molokhiya leaves

3-4 lemons

2 heads of garlic (or less or more to taste)

2 bunches of fresh coriander, stalks removed, leaves finely chopped

3 (or more, to taste) teaspoons of Lebanese seven spice or Palestinian nice spice (Baharat)

3 teaspoons of cinnamon

Salt, to taste

Olive oil, for frying

Chicken stock, homemade, and extra cubes if extra water is needed

To serve

A few flatbreads (Lebanese or Palestininan khobz)

1-2 red onions

1 cup red wine vinegar

Rice (you can try vermicelli rice, which is more traditional, but I just made basmati)

Method

IMG_3036Begin by making the stock. Wash the chicken and place in a large pot with water covering it by at least two inches. Bring to the boil and skim the scum off the surface with a spoon. Add the onions, cinnamon and bay leaves, and simmer for around 1 hr 15 minutes. Once ready remove the chicken, reserving the stock, and allow to rest. Once rested, remove the chicken meat from the bones and keep covered so it doesn’t dry out.

 

 

IMG_3037Wash the molokhiya leaves. If using dried, soak in warm water for 10 minutes and squeeze out. If using fresh, wash as normal.

When your stock is ready, you can begin cooking the molokhiya. Finely chop half the garlic and fry in a large casserole pot/saucepan with a couple of tbsp of olive oil, until fragrant but not burnt. Add the dry spices and fry for another couple of minutes, followed by half the fresh coriander for a couple minutes more. Add the molokhiya leaves, and stir well so they mix with the garlic and spices. Fry for 5-10 minutes (until the leaves wilt if using fresh leaves).

Sieve the home-made chicken stock into the molokhiya. If the liquid is not enough (think a liquid stew or dense soup), add more ready-made stock. Add the juice of 2 lemons and salt to taste.

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Delicious chicken-strewn swamp. I added the chicken to the stew at the end, as many recipes do, before knowing the Lebanese rules.

Bring to an gentle but energetic simmer and cook for about 30 minutes, until the leaves are dark and tender (though they may still retain a slight toughness -especially in the case of dried leaves- that softens after a day or two’s resting) . About 10 minutes before the end, add the other head of garlic, cloves crushed, and the rest of the coriander. Add the juice of 1-2 lemons depending on how lemony you want it.

 

 

 

 

The accompaniments:

Toasted flatbread: prepare the bread by cutting/tearing flatbreads into rough 2x2cm pieces. Before frying the molokhyia, preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Once the molokhiya has started to boil, put the bread on a baking tray and mix with about 1-2 tbsp oil, and mix to coat. Place in the oven until golden and crisp. This will take around 15-20 but check regularly and mix the bread around in the tray so it is evenly toasted.

Onions in vinegar: These really seal the deal, my friends, adding a sharp acidic element that, combined with the toasted bread below, significantly ups the yum factor. Finely dice the onions and put in a bowl with the vinegar.

Serving:

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Plate up in layers, starting with the toasted bread, followed by rice, chicken, molokhia (with a decent amount of liquid from the stew), and a couple of spoonfuls of vinegar-y onions. Enjoy, and repeat, for several days running.

 

 

 

*You can make this vegetarian by simply omitting the chicken and chicken stock, and using vegetable stock instead.

In the dark

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This blog is not about hummus, nor about bread. It is about another kind of bread and butter: being able to live in security. Without that, all of life’s other needs, rights, desires, and joys can never be fully realised.

In the occupied West Bank in Palestine, most people I met live under a shadow of fear and insecurity, unsure what awaits them at the checkpoints they must pass through to get to work, health centres or places of worship, whether their children will come home from school safe and well, or whether their homes will be standing the next day. This last fear is especially true for herder or nomadic communities, such as the Bedouin.

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Bedouin community of Dkaika, South Hebron Hills. Photo taken from eyewitness blogs

Many Bedouin communities were first displaced from the Negev desert in Israel during the 1948-49 war, and have faced repeated threats of displacement ever since. This is the case of Khan Al Ahmar, a community situated east of Jerusalem that I wrote about on an earlier blog post. The Israeli state has announced it is going to expel the community from their current location within months. More imminently, another Bedouin community of Jabal Al Baba is facing eviction, and a herder community in the South Hebron Hills, known as Susiya, whose members were evicted from their original village in 1986, are threatened with the destruction of one fifth of their property. The cruelty of these threats is even starker considering that they are due to be carried out in the middle of winter. Scores more villages are at risk of what amounts to forcible transfer of their populations, according to the United Nations.

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Photo of Susiya taken in 2016, with Israeli settlement in the background. Photo taken from eyewitness blogs.

The argument for these destructions and evictions is that the villages or properties are ‘unauthorised’ or do not have permits. This is despite repeated unsuccessful attempts by the community members or leadership to apply for construction permits, or submit village master plans for approval. The truth is that these villages sit on strategic land, near Israeli settlements that Israel wants to protect or expand. It is the steady creep of annexation, which has been increasing in pace and stealth as an ever more indifferent and/or impotent international community stands by.  Forcible transfer and the destruction of private property by an occupying power constitute war crimes according to international humanitarian law.

What can be done? Well, something, even if that is to start by shouting into the night sky. You can read more here about Susiya, and join a letter-writing campaign. And if you live in the U.K. you can urge your MP to attend this debate next Wednesday. You can also ask your MP, TD, or MEP what they can do about it. Or you can share this blog post or any of the contained links on Facebook so more people know about it.

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Twice demolished community centre in bedouin community of Um al-Khair. Photo taken from eyewitness blogs

 

More information:

https://www.ochaopt.org/content/demolition-and-seizure-service-infrastructure-palestinian-communities-area-c-exacerbates

The quiet violence of uncertainty and fear

“Susiya, it’s finished!”

https://theintercept.com/2017/11/29/in-unprecedented-move-ten-democratic-senators-write-to-israeli-leader-netanyahu-and-demand-he-halt-demolition-of-palestinian-village/

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/29/palestine-evictions-human-rights-susiya-bedouin-un-security-council