Traversing Taste

Traversing Taste

On the Hummus Route takes readers on a thoughtful journey through regional fare. 

Areen Abu Hmid Kurdi

Every morning, Areen Abu Hmid Kurdi sets a large saucepan on the stove in her restaurant by the lighthouse in the old city of Acre. She fills it with chickpeas, covers them with plenty of water, bringing the pot to a boil, gently simmering the golden legumes for several hours until they are smooth as silk, soft as butter, and ready to serve.

“Hummus is the base point,” Areen says, “all the rest comes after”. Unlike the smooth hummus served in Acre’s famous hummus joints, Areen sets her hummus apart by insisting on preserving her family’s traditional recipe, “even at the cost of losing customers”. Hers is ground to a coarser texture, with tahini added as seasoning and not so much as a main ingredient, like in most other hummus establishments.

“They told me I was crazy to open a hummus joint in Acre, filled to the brim with so many others that have gained near mythological status. But, I knew what I had to do and what the right path was for me. When you believe in your dream, god is with you. It wasn’t an easy road, but it is the one that gives me joy, pleasure and satisfaction.”

Areen was born and raised in Acre and as the youngest daughter of five she grew up in the ancient city’s narrow alleyways, dividing her time between her mother’s souvenir shop and her father’s restaurant ‘Migdal Or’, named after the adjacent lighthouse tower. Opened in the 1950’s, the restaurant, one of the first in the area, specialized in grilled meat skewers served alongside a wide array of salads. Every day after school Areen would go straight to the restaurant, her second home.

Upon graduation she decided to follow her passion, to help Acre’s broken families and struggling youth, and she went on to study criminology, sociology, and advanced facilitation, wanting little to do with the restaurant. In 2000, after five successful decades, Abu Hmid’s poor health forced the family to close the restaurant’s doors, barely making ends meet from her mother’s souvenir shop.

After 12 years of social work and having witnessed firsthand the hardship of the city’s broken youth, Areen found herself worn out, depleted, and in desperate need of a change. In 2015, several months after her father’s passing, Areen opened her very own hummus eatery near the sea and by the same lighthouse, which she named ‘El Abed Abu Hmid’ in memory of her father.

Areen’s decision to re-enter the kitchen stemmed from a positive space which needed to be filled with creativity, optimism, pleasure, and comfort. She decided to prepare Acre’s traditional recipes, indigenous dishes that have been prepared the same way throughout the city’s Arab kitchens, yet are rarely known to the outside world. Dishes like tridi; made up of grilled pita, cooked chickpeas, yogurt, garlic, toasted almonds, and samneh (clarified fermented butter), passed down in her father’s family for 300 years.

Areen’s eatery is a one woman show. Everyday she gathers all the ingredients for the day, buying fresh fish from Acre’s fishermen at the harbor and vegetables from the market. The spices and blends are sourced from her husband’s spice shop and the olive oil is produced by a friend in the nearby town of Rameh. At four in the afternoon, after cooking, serving, and clearing up she hangs up her apron and calls it a day. “Food is life,” she says, “but life is also too short to be working all day every day.’’

About On the Hummus Route

On the Hummus Route is the ambitious brainchild of three creative individuals: they call Ariel Rosenthal, The Magician (HaKosem), but his is not the rabbit-out-of-a-hat kind of magic, but rather the magic of a wizard concocting alchemy from the most basic of ingredients. Take his eggplants, fried to crispy golden perfection or the shawarma, roasting on a spit with just the right meat-to-fat ratio. But it’s the chickpeas, or rather their transformation into creamy hummus and crisp falafel balls, for which people flock to his corner, from the far reaches of the world.

Rosenthal wanted to share his passion for the chickpea and so a dream was born – to tell the world the story of hummus. Once he got together with food writer and chef Orly Peli Bronshtein and creative director, Dan Alexander, it was only a matter of time until that dream, an ode to the local legume, was realized.

In the Levant, hummus is mostly considered masculine territory and a hummus restaurant run by a woman is rare. Traditionally and to this day, a bowl of nutritious  and hearty hummus is the region’s breakfast of choice, providing a person the energy required for a hard day’s work. Yet, in the ancient harbor town of Acre in the north of Israel, two women have broken the glass ceiling hanging above all hummus eateries.

The book traces the lineage of a golden legume in what is essentially a perpetually disputed part of the world, along a Levantine route stretching from the bustling streets of Cairo through the narrow alleyways of Gaza, to Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Acre, Beirut, and Damascus. It is a collection of recipes, stories, memories, essays, odes, drawing, painting and street photography, contributed by a diverse list of chefs, cooks, food writers, photographers, researchers, philosophers, historians, and scientists from a plethora of nationalities, faiths, and backgrounds, all keen to share the impact and importance of hummus on the local food cultures, history, traditions, politics, nostalgia and nationalism.

To say this was no easy task would be an understatement as the charged chickpea is a notorious culinary landmine, if ever there was one, equipped with the rare ability to evoke strong emotions that reach far beyond the dining table and into political disputes, cultural appropriation, and ownership. But, the end result delivers a love story of an ancient bean that managed to capture hearts, imagination, and rumbling bellies all across the region against all odds and regardless of nationality, age, faith, gender, or political opinion.

Souheila

Born in Acre in 1957, Souheila dreamt of becoming a teacher. Her father opened Abu Sohil Hummus in the 60’s and following his death in the early 80’s, her mother and two brothers took over the family business. Following the loss of a sibling and an injury her mother sustained in the kitchen, Souheila stepped in and took charge of the kitchen in 1993.

“It wasn’t my plan,” she stresses, “but it had to be done as the eatery was providing for the family and someone had to make sure it kept going”. She never thought she’d be running a hummus eatery, let alone one of the finest of its kind.

As a young man, Souheila’s father worked at Abu Brahim Hummus, where he learned the secrets to making good hummus. That exact recipe has remained unchanged ever since. Every morning at around five, Souheila cooks 25 kilograms of chickpeas, adding nothing but water, until they are velvety soft, and creamy. Along with her sister and nephews, she prepares the hummus in small batches throughout the day, ensuring every customer is served a freshly whipped bowl of warm hummus. She sources all of the ingredients from nearby Haifa and uses only high quality, rich and flavorful tahini produced in Nazareth by Al Arz Tahini, yet another successful local culinary enterprise led by women.

With the first customers walking through the door at around eight in the morning, and some even earlier, there is often a line outside leading to the eatery. In addition to hummus, the menu offers all the dishes that compliment it so well: tahini, shakshuka, kibbeh, falafel balls and an assortment of salads. Souheila prepares all the food right on the spot, in front of the hungry customers’ eyes and rumbling stomachs of Arabs and Jews, locals and tourists, men, women, and children. Everyone lines up for the prized paste, and by five in the afternoon, all the food is gone and another day has passed.

When I asked Souheila how her hummus compares to others, she confided in me that she never eats out and enjoys cooking traditional Arabic cuisine including: maqluba, stuffed vegetables, fatayer and yes, hummus.

Crowned ‘Acre’s King (and not the queen) of hummus’ in 2003, Souheila hasn maintained her father’s legacy for several decades with an underlying passion for making people happy through good hummus.

If nothing else, this is the power of hummus and the part it plays in making the world a better place.

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Northern Respite

Northern Respite

A gourmand’s refuge, Rutenberg restaurant brings new meaning to the concept “farm-to-table”.

Turning East from the Jezreel Valley, the reddish Terra Rossa soil and cultivated green landscapes quickly changed to gold; fields of dried bush shined bright under the sun. We were heading down route 90 — a highway from Metula, near Lebanon, in the north, all the way down to Eilat in the southern tip of the country, which runs right beside the Jordanian border the whole way. A mere 80 km from the sea front to where we were in the northern Jordanian Rift, summer felt different; the salty humid Mediterranean air became hot and heavy, carrying a desert like flair, and dust danced off the marlstone soil. 

We turned off the highway and onto a dirt road leading to the restaurant. To our right was a massive concrete structure standing silently; wild vegetation climbed in and out of its wide windows and firearm shots scarred its every wall. The abandoned fort was built by the British during the mandate and served as a police headquarters in the 1930’s revolts. And about 200 meters from us you could see the border; a wire fence marking where Israel’s eastern border ends and Jordanian soil begins. 

Until the legendary peace treaty signed in 1994 — one of Izhak Rabin’s well known legacies — this place, Old Kibbutz Gesher, knew fierce battles. Both Jordanian troops and Iraqi invaders attacked here more than once, following which the Kibbutz moved to its current safer location about 7 minutes away, a place a bit further from the border, and a bit higher up on the hill. Where we were now became the old Gesher, a landscape with little more than what was around us: a few out of sight structures, the old abandoned headquarters, and right ahead of us, in the midst of the ivory plateau a few meters in front of the fence was the small, beautifully preserved, 1919 quarantine structure: Rutenberg Restaurant. 

Inside it was a small restaurant that could seat about 30 people and each table had a window next to it, looking over the old bridge that gave the settlement its name. Light generously poured in from its green wooden windows and on each frame rested some of the best cookbooks and guides from both Israel and the world: Noma’s guide to fermentation; Faviken; Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail; Things to eat here, by Israeli food historian Dr. Uri Mayer-Chissick, and many more, all bearing their share of tears and drippings. Outside the window I could see the Jordan river, and the ancient arched stone bridge – Gesher in Hebrew – that gave the kibbutz its name. Unlike panoramas that sometimes feel they could be many places, the view was singular.

“Here are a few samples of the new tasting menu I was telling you about”  — owner and wine expert, Hila Sa’ar began filling the table with small plates of her husband’s doing — thin slices of cured meat made in house with fermented egg yolk shavings and hard cheese; beetroot, folded like ravioli, filled with a delicate semi salted white Arabic cheese called Jibna; a piece of lamb liver and half a fig both seared in olive oil and served together; soft aged goat cheese with a piece of honeycomb and fresh Syrian oregano. The table was bursting with color. 

Rutenberg Restaurant opened in 2012. Once declared for preservation by the national council for the conservation of heritage sites, the old quarantine hut that used to house animals at the border crossing, was destined to its new life. Back then co-owner and chef Izhar Saar was a line cook on a payroll, Hila was still at her previous job as a quality wine buyer for a big importer, and Rutenberg was serving chicken in cream sauce and lasagna.  “A very good lasagna” Izhar laughs “but nevertheless, lasagna. Here!” 

It wasn’t until two years in as partner, when one of the leading food PR experts in the country came to visit, that the realization came. “I grew up here, I knew the local wildlife, I worked on farms and cultivated almost every vegetable there is. Why the hell was I using canned pineapple and imported cheese? Suddenly I freaked”.

New Local Cuisine

“Izhar and I first met on a peace delegation to Jordan,” says Dr. Uri Mayer-Chissick, whose books about wild foraging, local ingredients, and nutritional history, grace Rutenberg’s windowsill. “But I was so sick on that trip I barely made it out of bed in the mornings, so we didn’t really make much conversation. After a few days we were back in Israel and we each went our own way”. Little did he know that Hila and Izhar would be knocking on his door only a couple of months later. “They said they wanted to do something different, and asked for my help”. Over the next few months Dr. Chissick – today, their dear friend Uri – encouraged them to look for local producers and taught Hila how to forage. He opened his library to them, and threw ancient recipes their way, once even a made up recipe that kept Izhar challenged and the doctor amused.  

A morning forage walk in the restaurant vicinity slowly became routine. Hila started to notice the riches around her: prickly lettuce, wild mustard, carrots and garlic in winter, spinach and beetroots later in the season, then replaced by mallow, goosefoot, and a wild like arugula in early spring. 

 “Every day Hila comes into the kitchen with a basket full of plants she has gathered and Izhar just has to learn how to deal with them. He experiments, explores and finds a way to use whatever she brings in” Dr. Chissick adds. Nowadays there are even some plants they have learnt to use entirely making use of every piece from leaf, flower, fruit and stem, depending on their time and the season. “Finding the plants was the easier task”, Izhar admits; finding the producers that make up Rutenberg’s network today – that was the ambitious part. 

The Neighbor 

On our way to Kfar Kanna, about 30 minutes north, Hila’s hair dances in the wind as she goes over her short mental shopping list; fresh flour, freekeh (a smoked wheat), and some sumac. Maybe some cinnamon bark shavings as well. “Finding local flour was probably one of the biggest challenges” she confided in me, “but then we found Tawfik”. Tawfik Hamaisi’s mill sources some of the very little locally grown organic wheat found in Israel. Hila read about Tawfik in an article a few years ago and had to drive up and down the entire village several times before she found the small shop hidden down the driveway. 

 Hila and Izhar both grew up in a kibbutz: An Israeli type of village founded by a collective of people, based upon socialist ideas that set a very communal lifestyle: The labor is equally divided, land and money are mutually owned, and children are raised together. This unique form of settlement was crucial to Israel’s establishment and agricultural industry. And people that grew up in a kibbutz have an integral sense of what we call in Hebrew ‘arvut hadadit’, a mutual accountability between one person to another. “We grew up with the idea that it’s always better for me to make a couple bucks less rather than have significantly more than my neighbor”.

 As we entered Tawfik’s shop the smiling, well dressed man, was vigorously moving 20 kg flour bags from here to there and offering us coffee. “He is 82!” she whispers to me. 

He’s had his shop for almost 30 years and always worked small scale. Growers and gatherers from the surrounding villages bring him bundles of Syrian oregano and sumac flowers and once Tawfik has three or four bundles to make a batch, it goes into the mill. He sells his products to private buyers and several eateries in the area, of those Rutenberg is the only one that isn’t a fast eating, home cooking diner style place. They are also the only Jewish place he works with. “Only Rutenberg” he says, and pinches Hila’s cheeks with a smile. 

Tawfik knows Rutenberg well. Not only has he eaten there several times but he was also one of the workers that laid the telephone lines over the bridge for the security ministry back in 1978. “I’m much better at making freekeh” he laughs. And though I never saw him lay a telephone line, his freekeh is one of the best I have had. Under Izhar’s hand it received a touch of green leaves, goat yogurt, a salted cherry tapenade and a drizzle of olive oil on top. There are no hard husks, small dirt or overwhelming smoky flavors in the grain. It was perfect. 

 “My friend got married and he bought my freekeh for the dinner party,” Tawfik starts to share his story with me. “All the women finished their food. My friend was so delighted. Then his neighbor said he also wanted to have the women eat as they did at his wedding, So for his daughter’s wedding he also bought freekeh. But the women barely finished it. Why didn’t they finish the freekeh, the neighbor asked my friend. I will tell you why!” he looks at me, “because there is freekeh, and there is freekeh!” he said finally with a serious tone, only to burst into laughter and have his smile reappear bigger than before.

From Tawfik, we drove up to Yochai Schnieder’s herd. The open plains of the southern Golan heights seemed infinite. His cows were peacefully grazing in the hot and dry fields. As we drove by he watched them with a sharp eye. “You see that one walking around slowly in the back over there? She’s one of our oldest cows. She’s 17” said the second-generation cowboy. Yochai is also one of the best fair trade pasture meat growers in the country. He is the main provider for Hai Bari – an independent sustainable meat certification – and the founder of a co-op for good growers in the Golan. Izhar found him through an old friend and Yochai quickly became not only their supplier, but their go-to source for the many questions that arose during the process.  

 Learning how to use meat differently is a dramatic change for a restaurant. Suddenly, instead of getting cuts by the number, you’re getting a quarter of a cow. This means a change in space, logistics, and service, but mostly it requires a lot of learning. “You cannot imagine how many parts of a cow a cook doesn’t know how to use” Izhar explained. Today he makes his own cold cuts, sausages, aged meats and pâté, and he uses as much as he can from all those odd bits that still scare off the best cooks. A salad of  his own cured rump, grilled apricots and arugula was destined to make my day. 

As we got back to the restaurant an evening breeze broke out and the sun turned softer. Hila set a table for us under the big olive tree outside by the restaurant terrace; She brought out some cheeses from Barkanit, a nearby cheese farm whose owners she has known for over 20 years and whose products they use in the restaurant. Izhar came out with a cheese wheel he got earlier that week and the cured meat salad. The cheese form was left somewhere a year ago in Barkanit’s cave and turned out to have this amazing nutty flavor and beautifully crusted mold. “That’s one of the rewards when you work closely with producers rather than suppliers” Izhar goes on, after telling me the story of the forgotten cheese, “you suddenly get access to these weird wonderful things that happen sometimes – a forgotten cheese wheel, a small batch of some amazing vegetables that appeared naturally, a piece of meat they didn’t expect to age as beautifully as it did – things you could never have access to otherwise and that I think are gifts in one’s process of growth. I mean Israeli cuisine has so much already but it’s also a very young culture in the making!” 

Nowadays, almost all of the ingredients at Rutenberg come from a 30 km radius surrounding the restaurant. No more lasagna and no more Parmesan. Food lovers from all over the country drive up here for a feeling of terroir: a day in nature, with Hebrew songs in the background and flavors from here. They have successfully created the community they wished for: Once a year they have a day where they invite all of the producers, friends and colleagues that have been a part of Rutenberg’s making to come spend a day eating, drinking and hanging out on the patio. So all of their producers have been to the restaurant more than once, and many of them know each other. “Of course we still have a very long process ahead of us” Hila says, reminding herself, as if she weren’t humble enough, “but I think we both feel there is a strong network of people walking with us, and that makes the way ahead way easier and much more exciting”. 

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Zucchini, Dill, and Feta Shakshuka

Zucchini, Dill, and Feta Shakshuka

Believed to be translated from the Tunisian word for “shaken up,” shakshuka started out as a breakfast dish for laborers, who would scoop up the saucy eggs, their yolks cooked all the way through, into pitas for a handheld breakfast. You can still find this kind of steam-table fare at some old-school joints and hotel breakfast buffets, but somewhere along the way restaurants and home cooks alike realized they had a winner on their hands: Freshly prepared tomato sauce is a willing canvas for whatever its maker chooses to add to it. Now there’s hardly a restaurant in Israel that doesn’t have it on the menu, or a home cook without a highly personal version. Everyone thinks their version of shakshuka is the undisputed best, and I would argue that each one is; shakshuka is a dish designed to make a cook look good. There’s a forgiving, hard-to-mess-up sauce and a single-skillet presentation that’s festive yet overridingly casual. In our house, we often have a skillet of “shak” sauce cooked and ready to rumble. That way, when friends come over (or Jay wakes up), we rewarm the sauce and crack in the eggs, and breakfast is practically ready. People generally leave the yolks a little runny, but do as you wish; by making shakshuka, you’ve already won breakfast—or, sometimes, lunch or dinner.

 

Serves 4

Active Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

 

 

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1 medium zucchini, thinly sliced into rounds

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 medium onion, finely diced

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon ground coriander

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste

6 medium very ripe fresh tomatoes, finely chopped by hand, or pureed in the bowl of a food processor if you like smoother shakshuka

One 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 small, fresh, finely diced red jalapeño, plus more to taste and for serving

¼ cup chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish

6 large eggs

1 cup (4 ounces) crumbled feta cheese

Pita or other bread, for serving

Set a rack in the top third of the oven. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. Add the zucchini, season in the pan with some salt and black pepper, and cook, not stirring too much, until the zucchini has released its water and is golden and slightly charred around the edges, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the skillet, then add the onion and bell pepper and cook, stirring, until the onion is lightly golden and softened but not too dark, 9 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 more minute. Add the tomato paste, cumin, paprika, coriander, and cayenne and cook, stirring, until the mixture is fragrant and the tomato paste is slightly caramelized, 2 minutes. Add the fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes, and jalapeño. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the sauce has darkened and thickened slightly, 20 to 25 minutes; season with additional salt and black pepper to taste.

Preheat the broiler during the last 5 minutes of cooking.

Stir in the dill and return the zucchini to the pan, stirring gently. Use a spoon to form 6 wells in the sauce, then crack an egg into each well. Sprinkle the feta around the skillet and cook for 3 minutes. Transfer the shakshuka to the oven and broil until the top of the sauce is slightly caramelized and the whites of the eggs are just opaque but the yolks are still runny, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the oven (use an oven mitt since the handle will be hot), top with fresh chopped dill and more jalapeño, and serve immediately, or cool to room temperature and serve, sandwich-style, stuffed into pitas or piled on top of bread.

Variations:

Cook 4 ounces of sliced merguez sausage along with the onions and peppers (omit the feta cheese if you’re kosher).

In place of the dill, add ½ cup chopped mixed fresh herbs of your choice (basil, parsley, cilantro, etc.).

Drizzle tahini all over the top of the shakshuka.

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Desert Spirit

Desert Spirit

Inspired by a Tuscan mentality, Midbar winery masters the art of simplicity.

In 2012, Itzhik and Shelley Wolf did the unexpected. They veered away from the verdant Judean Hills, the lush Galilee, and the Golan Heights, regions which are known for wine making in Israel. The husband and wife duo took to the south of the country and made the unlikely decision to make wine in the Negev desert.

What made you decide on the Negev?                                                                             Itzhik Wolf: There are so many wineries in the Golan Heights region. We wanted to do something different. Despite not being from the desert or living there, we chose to have our vineyards there. We could’ve picked anywhere, even Tuscany! We spend some of our time living there. Making wine is more than just a business, especially when you choose to do it somewhere that looks like the end of the world, the middle of the Negev desert. We connected to the location and felt like we should try to make wine there.

In 2016, we proved we were right. Midbar was the first Israeli winery to win a gold medal for a white wine at Decanter World Wine Awards London. The moment we won, I understood that we’d chosen well. That what seems right, actually is right.

Where do people typically choose to make wine?                                                             IW: There are two geographical wine-making bands in both hemispheres, the northern and the southern one. For example, wine wasn’t traditionally made in England. But, because of global warming, it has become viable. In Israel, we are at the southernmost edge of the northern band. Where we get our grapes, Mitzpe Ramon, is actually slightly outside the band. The terroir is extreme. Many people told us it’s impossible to make wine in the desert. Then they conceded and said that maybe it is possible. But, it wouldn’t be of good quality. This is what we wanted to prove wrong. Everyone should remember what Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion said. He told everyone that the Negev is the place to be. The Negev makes up half of the country, maybe even more.

What made you decide to open a winery to begin with?                                                  IW: It’s something Shelley and I dreamed of doing for many years. In 2009, my heart stopped functioning. We left Israel for the United States for a heart transplant and stayed there for two years. When we came back in 2011, we decided it was time to do what we had always wanted to do.

We have spent a lot of time in Tuscany at our second home there. Our closest friends and neighbors are winemakers or butchers. Spending significant time in Italy instilled in us that good wine and food are among the main things that matter there.

Do you find there’s a big difference between wine produced in the Golan vs in the Negev?                                                                                                                                            IW: Absolutely. In general, I think wine is made by the sun. The real winemaker is the sun. We believe that the terroir is more significant than the winemaking itself. Terroir refers to the ground and the weather. If we taste chardonnay from the Negev, it will always be different from the chardonnay from the Golan Heights. It doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. They’re just different.

You can really only learn about wine by drinking it. Everyone prefers something different. Of course there are winemakers and wineries that believe that the winemaker is what makes the wine good and where the grapes come from doesn’t matter.

How many bottles does a typical winery produce?                                                           IW: We produce 60,000 bottles a year. Up to 10,000 bottles is called a garage winery. Up to 100,000 bottles is a boutique winery. There are about 300 wineries in Israel.

If you’re not drinking Midbar, what do you drink?                                                            IW: We mostly drink Midbar. Shelley and I drink a bottle of wine a day, at lunch and dinner. She drinks most of it though, not me. But, we taste wine by other wineries as often as we can.

Tell me about the wine making.                                                                                               IW: The water we use in the vineyards is desalinated water from the Mediterranean Sea, mixed with local water. This gives us everything required to make wine in the desert. The sun, water, and the land. Having to irrigate our vines has its benefits. We don’t have to pray for rain or just the right amount of it. All we have to do is open the tap. I think it’ll take us 50 years to learn how to open the tap just the right amount and how much water we need and when. The amount of water and the timing of its supply to the vineyards has a great influence on the grapes.

We try to make our wines as simple and pure as possible. There are about 200 additives that are allowed to be added to wine for color, aroma, and things of that sort. The only additives we use are to prevent the wine from oxidizing. Aside from that, we add nothing. We approach everything personally. All of the grapes are picked by hand and we hand select the best ones to use.

If I could afford it, I would make a different wine from each row of vines. Each row would yield a different wine based on how the sun hits, the wind, and the flow of water. What we are able to do is to blend our early harvest rows with our late harvest rows to make the optimal blend of a single varietal from a single vineyard. We found that white grapes grow best in the desert.

How do you decide when to harvest the grapes?                                                              IW: Trial and error. This is how the process works and it takes time. We have one harvest a year, between July and September. If we make a mistake, we need to wait until the following year and then it takes another year to make the wine. By the time we see the results, it’s already time for the next harvest.

What do you think makes desert wine special?                                                                  IW: In order to understand our wines, you need to first understand the desert itself. The main thing is how dry it is. The aridity is all encompassing and total. If you don’t bring water from somewhere else, nothing will grow on its own. Ten days a year, the desert gets a very small amount of rain. 20 millimeters would be considered a good year. The sand itself is so fine and tightly packed that water doesn’t seep into the ground. Normally, in conditions like that, almost nothing could grow, from bacteria to living organisms. In the Bible, the desert was considered a clean place. Throughout biblical history, people would go to the desert to cleanse themselves. The minimalist terrain is something I relate to a lot.

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Oblivious to the power pulsing through their long legs, soft curves, swollen lips, teenagers in the desert tilt their heads toward the sun, until their bodies radiate the heat of the terrain.

Sunny Sustenance

Sunny Sustenance

One with her cookbook, Adeena Sussman’s Sababa is a way of life.

Light floods into Adeena’s living room. A palette of cool tones, accented by, of course, produce from Tel Aviv’s nearby Carmel Market, otherwise known as Shuk HaCarmel, or more casually, the Shuk. A seafoam colored ceramic bowl rests at the edge of her white countertop overflowing with cherry tomatoes of varying shades of red, which according to Adeena, are especially sweet right now. Her coffee table is artfully strewn with lifestyle and culinary magazines alike. Tucked amidst the stacks of low piles are flashes of yellow, the spine of her own Sababa cookbook. At the center of it all, is a flat woven platter of citrus fruits. Oranges, clementines, grapefruits, and a few rogue avocados bask in the morning sun filtering in through the sliding deck doors. By this time, it’s around 10 o’ clock in the morning and the Mediterranean Sea sparkles in the distance. 

Earlier that day, a Wednesday morning in February, as we strode up and down the unusually clear alleyways of the Shuk, a few common words were heard. “Adeena, Adeena! It’s been a while! Did your book come out? How was Florida?” Adeena has just come back from a week in Miami at SOBEWFF (South Beach Wine and Food Festival). Everyone in the market felt her absence. 

 We pass the butcher shop owned by M25, the culinary new kid on the block drawing visitors through the unique nature of choosing your own cut of meat. A concerned butcher emerges from beyond the counter, meets us in the street, and asks if all worked out last weekend. Adeena thanks him profusely for providing two last minute steaks for her husband moments before the restaurant was closing for Shabbat. I don’t know who looked more relieved by Jay’s fortuitously timely arrival at the shop, Adeena or the butcher.

What does a typical day for you look like? 
Adeena Sussman: I wake up early. My husband, Jay, is usually still asleep and I sneak out of the room. I tend to check instagram right away, sometimes while I’m still in bed. I’ll then go upstairs and make coffee. In the summer, I like to wake up and go straight to the pool. I’m a huge electric scooter fan. I’m Wind obsessed. I’m going to buy myself a scooter this year. If I don’t go to the pool right away, I’ll make myself a french press coffee. That’s coffee number one of the day. I like to do work early in the morning. Morning is the best time for me to write. I don’t really read the paper, I read it online. My brain doesn’t work at night. I’m not the kind of person who can cram from 11 pm to 2 am.

 

I usually go to the Shuk afterwards. Depending on what project I’m working on, I’ll either be buying ingredients or meeting someone to show them around the market. I spend a lot of time in the Shuk, shopping and schmoozing with the vendors. Once I’m done there, I’ll come home and either be in a cooking or writing phase for a project. If I’m cooking, I’ll be in the kitchen taking notes. 

 

Taking notes, as in creating new recipes? 
AS: During the day, if I’m cooking, it’s always for work. That’s why I really never make myself lunch. And when I say ‘working’, I mean on a new project. I just got a new contract for a book post Sababa, all about Shabbat foods. So, I’m researching and reading a lot about how Israelis cook on weekends, Shabbat plus a peek into the Friday brunch craze.

So, are you making your own recipes for the upcoming book?
AS: Yes! So on Fridays, I now go and cook with someone who makes food for Shabbat.
Since Sababa came out, I’ve been fielding a lot of requests for interviews and collaborations. I’m trying to figure out how to manage all of that. Then, I’ll break for lunch. I prefer going out for lunch rather than dinner. I think restaurants are more chill during lunchtime. 

What do you like to have for lunch?
AS: I like to keep things veggie centric for lunch. I will often snack on falafel. For breakfast I usually have eggs with roasted cherry tomatoes, avocado, and feta with toast and a coffee. Or I’ll have my cold brew and almond milk. I like savory breakfasts. I’m not a very sweet tooth person in general. Around mid-day, I’ll go to Caffe Tamati for the best hafuch (cappuccino) in the Shuk. Miki named his coffee shop Tamati, which means my little dove, after his wife. Catching up with Miki everyday keeps me grounded. I work alone and from home, so being able to have a set time to go and chat with someone is important. I’ll often have lunch with someone who is visiting from abroad or local people from the food community here. The days go by very quickly for me. I’m not super regimented about a schedule. But, I do have my daily to-do lists with food infused throughout. 

 

How do you find the social environment in Tel Aviv?
AS: In New York City as a freelance writer, I felt a real pressure to show up at things and go to events. But, I don’t feel that here as much. I’m also not as entrenched in the local food scene in Tel Aviv like I was in NYC.  I don’t get invited to so many things and I really enjoy that. I have kind of gotten used to the style of spontaneity Israeli socializing is known for. In NYC, everything was so planned and scheduled. Being spontaneous was scheduled two weeks in advance. In Tel Aviv, there’s a social contract of spontaneity. As a result, life happens and flows more easily. You wind up leaving time for things. This new sense of freedom when it comes to plans has unwound decades of anxiety that I didn’t even know I had been experiencing. 

 

Does this mentality bleed into your hosting style?
AS: It absolutely informs the way I cook and the kind of things I like to make. Sababa is designed for spontaneous gatherings. The fact that you can make something and then call people and just say, ‘I made a huge pot of whatever, come over’ and people will show up is a very Tel Avivian mentality. That wouldn’t happen in NYC.  That’s a really special facet of Israeli life that’s woven into the social fabric here that I enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that people don’t have plans here, it’s just that they’re more open. There isn’t an LA style flakiness. But, if you don’t want to do something you can just say, no thanks I’m going to relax today, and people get it.

What are some of your early memories having to do with food? 
AS: I grew up Modern Orthodox in Palo Alto, California, where there weren’t many other Jews, so my mother cooked a lot and we hosted often. She baked challah every Friday. Even though it was California in the 1970s and 1980s, we weren’t like Alice Waters going to the farmer’s market every week. My mom made tuna casseroles and we had hot dogs for dinner once a week. Her real focus was getting creative for our Shabbat meals. She didn’t grow up religious and food was not a focus in her home. Once she met my father, she learned how to cook and how to cook kosher at the same time. Her two bibles were the New York Times cookbook and the Chabad Spice and Spirit cookbook.

 

I enjoyed the fact that we always had people around and it wasn’t a big deal. I learned how to have people in my space without feeling suffocated or like my space was being invaded. Understanding how to take space when you need it. When you entertain you don’t always have to be talking to everyone. Making people feel at home is oftentimes giving them space as well. These are values that my sister and I learned very early. 

 

I think there is a continuum between Californian and Israeli food. Like for example, the seasonality of things, the freshness of produce, and the types of things you can find in sunny cultures. When I moved to Israel, there was already something that felt very familiar. 

 

Tell me about Sababa. How long did the process take you? 
AS: It’s interesting, as I work on my second book, I realize what a disadvantage I’m at now. Sababa is a compendium of my whole life of cooking. It’s my first solo cookbook. It’s all the things I make all the time, all the tips and tricks I use everyday. I’d say it took about a year of hardcore cooking and many tests and retests. I made certain things 20 or 30 times to make sure the recipes were right. Also, everything was intended for the United States so all my recipes had to be cooked there. The flour and sugar are different. So we had to use local products and make sure the recipes came out the same. It’s called cross testing. But, it was worth it because people are really cooking. I don’t repost all that I’m tagged in on Instagram. But, seeing all the things people are making from Sababa is amazing. That’s the most fun part of the whole process. The book really is a reflection of having lived in two countries. 

Let’s talk about the power of food, beyond taste and eating. 
AS: For me personally, I am someone who is a very nurturing type. So in that sense, giving, in any capacity is something I connect with. Also, food can satisfy people in a way that words often cannot. I can just put out food and don’t need to say anything. Cooking is both a pleasure and a sickness. You want so badly for people to like what you’re making. 

 

How would you define the Israeli cuisine of today?
AS: I think Israeli food is still trying to find its own identity. The cuisine is both a combination of ethnic influences that landed in Israel, and Arab and Palestinian flavors. But, what defines the food here is how modern Israel has put a unique twist on traditional foods. It can be as simple as when Eyal Shani substitutes chickpeas for lima beans in his masabacha dish. Today, you can get a pita with ceviche topped with a beet relish in the Shuk. The Israeli touch is putting an unexpected twist on classic dishes. It’s not about culinary bells and whistles. But rather, combining flavors that make sense together. The DNA of Israeli cooking is to acknowledge and be aware of ethnic origins of a dish. But, to not be bound to stick to them.

 

Why do you think people are drawn to Israeli food? 
AS: It’s healthy, plant based, and not generally meat focused. The flavors used to make things spicy are green chili, garlic, and cilantro; ingredients that we’ve all had before. A lot of the recipes from Sababa look familiar but taste exotic. That’s what modern Israeli cuisine is all about, taking something you recognize and then surprising you. 

Like a kind friend, Sababa guides you through each recipe with a sense of confidence that is simultaneously comforting and motivational. Promising that your very best attempt is absolutely good enough. With one hand on your handlebars, Adeena is a guiding light in and out of the kitchen. With a smile on your face and the warm Mediterranean breeze in your hair, you slowly realize that Adeena has already let go and you’ve been riding on your own.

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Rare Poise

A modern label is draped in the elegance of yesteryear.

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Donning robe like fashions of undulating folds and layers, the photos are a study in thoughtful concealment.

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Fresh Bites

Fresh Bites

In celebration of Egyptian street food, Zooba takes center stage. 

In 2012 when casual dining and street food culture began to take off around the world, Chris Khalifa, the founder of Zooba, knew that his hometown of Cairo had something special to offer. “We wanted to export our Egyptian culture, “ explains Khalifa. Zooba, an endearing nickname in Arabic, and the name of the elevated Egyptian street food chain of  locales, operates under the direction of professionally trained chefs. The first branch opened in the Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo with Executive Chef Mustafa El Refaey, an Egyptian native and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, at the helm. With seven locations in Cairo and as of September 2019, one location in New York City’s NoLita neighborhood, Khalifa found and filled a gap in the market. 

“The culture surrounding Egyptian street food runs deep. The food is delicious but there was kind of an unspoken rule that recipes shouldn’t be changed.” As trends surrounding modern street food began to reveal themselves around the world, Khalifa knew he had something to work with. Khalifa and his creative director and childhood friend, Adam Mourad, did what nobody in Egypt had done before: adapted what was deemed ‘untouchable’. “We elevated the ‘people’s food’ and built a fresh brand around it. We used better quality ingredients to make classic dishes healthier and began to experiment with Egyptian recipes. That’s when Zooba was born.” In comparison to other countries around the world, according to Khalifa, Egypt was really not on the map. 

In 2017, with dreams of expanding the brand beyond Cairo, Khalifa understood that the brand identity needed an upgrade. Khalifa and Mourad brought in Jessica Walsh, an NYC-based designer and an Egyptian architect, Ahmed ElHusseiny, to begin mapping out what a brick and mortar space in New York City would look like. Walsh spearhead the rebranding for Zooba’s first international location, which will ultimately result in refreshing the Cairo branches as well. 

“There were lines out the door at the opening. We couldn’t believe what was happening,” recalls Khalifa. Opening in New York City was always a dream for the childhood friends. Chef Omar Hegazi is the culinary force behind Zooba NYC serving interpretations of traditional cuisine including: Cheese Taameya, a sandwich made of fresh baladi bread with Egyptian roumy cheese, arugula, tomato-onion relish, and classic tahina; Harissa Cauliflower, oven roasted cauliflower, harissa raisin sauce, and parsley; and a mouthwatering selection of dips such as the Olive Labneh, strained yogurt with a chunky kalamata olive blend and Zooba Bessara, braised fava bean puree with a cherry tomato, kalamata olive confit. 

Zooba Art Director: Omar Mobarek.

Photos by Joe Lingeman.

Producer: Amelia Katz.

Food Stylist: Pearl Jones.

Prop Stylist: Beatrice Chastka.

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On Knives & Desire

On Knives & Desire

Eyal Shani on wet dreams, tomatoes, and the Mediterranean kitchen.

On the business and pleasure of the industry, Eyal Shani reveals the layered mechanisms of his life’s work.

Eyal, how are you? What’s new in your world?

Eyal Shani: I have a lot of reflection on what is happening in cuisines around the world. Two things: I look at the world and I see that global warming is affecting how we engage with resources. I suspect that in 20 years we won’t be able to grow anything in soil, because of the heat, dryness, and radiation. Natural crops will cease to be. Second, the best food was always enclosed in three-star Michelin restaurants, it was reserved for older people in suits. Over the last few years it has expanded and connected to varying situations. Food has become an experience, thus creating a whole new audience.

What makes a dish be considered good food?

ES: Good food comes from local ingredients, unity of time, place and plot. All four are necessary for this to happen. In France, the damn macaron destroyed the world of French pastries. At a time, you could see tarts with beautiful burnt crusts, families of pastries, styles and flavors. Then the colorful confection came along and diminished all of the cooking fundamentals the French kitchen was based. In both Japan and New York, the hype around food is bigger than the cuisine itself.

There’s an interesting debate today about the relationship between form and taste. Do you think food should be beautiful?

ES: Dressed up food is not bound to its internal mechanisms. Beauty does not come from decoration but from being true to self. Even if you created a false reality in food, but within it, is a true, self supporting, and  coherent structure, great beauty will be found by those who consume it. If your intentions are to create an attractive dish you are flattening the food. Today, leaves are grown like chickens using Ultraviolet light. When I first saw them, even I thought they were beautiful, and then I immediately become annoyed with myself that I did not see that they have no inner structure.

What’s the difference between seeming beautiful and being truly beautiful?

ES: If there is beauty that is external and manipulatively altered it will be interpreted as beautiful. I wouldn’t necessarily consider it good food. Knowledge degenerates aesthetics. What today is called extroverted aesthetics, degenerates the knowledge that exists in food. Throughout history, cuisines have created new dishes. Today the search for new dishes has stopped. This may be because these are creations of food’s interior. I don’t think the world creates food anymore. There are distant places where new food is still being made, perhaps in the Nordic kitchen. From there, a great cry arises because the cooks themselves grow from seed to plate, clinging desperately to the few solitary beams scattered sparsely in the large sea of food’s outer layers.

What is Mediterranean cuisine based on? I try to differentiate between the geographical locale and Israel as a State.

ES: We can look at Israeli society in order to understand its food. Israelis have no roots. We had roots, but they’ve been deliberately cut. With the hopes to create an Israeli figure, they severed their Sephardi and Ashkenazi roots. Israel existed for years without a regional cuisine. They had a borrowed menu, until Ruth Sirkis arrived and made food mutations like walnut rolled balls. Then the hotels decided to make kosher variations of French cuisine, an impossible feat because French cuisine is the most non-kosher cuisine in the world. At a point, I realized that in order for a nation to continue to exist, they had to have their own cuisine. Italians had Italian cuisine, South Americans, French, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, all had a Cuisine. But all new places like America and Israel simply didn’t have one.

And today? What are the cornerstones of Israeli cuisine?

ES: Israeli cuisine is a Viennese schnitzel wrapped in Japanese seaweed and called sushi. It’s a cuisine in which nothing is sacred. It absorbs everything that happens outside and is influenced by it. In most cases very embarrassing things happen as a result. But, in the end, the fast and flexible environment created a spectacular cuisine, one of the best in the world, in my opinion. If you find yourself in an Israeli restaurant in the middle of the night, you’ll recognize the place through the plate. There was no option to adopt a European or American cuisine and it was embarrassing to be called Mediterranean. We didn’t want to be associated with Greece or Turkey. Ultimately, Israelis had no choice but to assemble around Mediterranean cuisine because of its immediate proximity.

Is It possible that we finally found pride in our cuisine?

ES: Exactly, today there is pride in this process. After we acknowledged that it is impossible to import a cuisine, I denoted a new local kitchen that has pride in what our region provides. The Mediterranean is known for its brutal and clear foundations of fast cooking processes. There is a clear reference to fire, quick frying, salt, fresh herbs, less spice, and an emphasis on cleanliness. There are no aged sauces here. French cuisine has demi-glace, bones, vegetables and wines that have been slow cooked for sometimes two days at a time. Then they take fresh food and place prepared food on it. We use natural sauces like tahini, yogurt, tomato seeds, and olive oil.

They either carry the taste of the fields or the sun. To me, this is characteristic of Israeli food.

Where did tahini come from?

ES: Tahini came from Turkey.

When did it become Israeli?

ES: When I started cooking. I’m the first Israeli Jew to start using tahini not in an Arab restaurant.

Say, what can you answer to the voices claiming that Israeli cuisine today is based on Arab cuisine?

ES: They are right. But a cuisine in its essence is an evolutionary thing. The way to preserve it is by adapting. Very much like art, cuisine is an evolutionary form of creation. In order to survive, it needs to go through changes. As in art, each tier is supported by the tier below. I consider HaSalon, one of my restaurants in Israel, the best Palestinian restaurant in the world. Although I am not Palestinian. I can still make Palestinian food.  When I started to put together the basics of the cuisine I wanted to build, the only places to seek inspiration in Israel were from the Arabs in the Old City of Jerusalem, between Nablus Gate, and the hummus in Simtat HaBadim alley. There lies a repository with all the information needed to create a new Mediterranean cuisine. In my cooking today I bridge the gap between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. Did we start from them? Yes. They had tahini, lamb, olive oil, and winter greens like wild spinach, anchusa, and rigla. Without a doubt, we looked at them, were inspired by them, and revolutionized the whole region. A Palestinian cook today cannot make a new type of makluba, say. If he does, he is changing his mother’s recipe. But, we can because we are a rootless people.

Are you a chef? A cook?

ES: I have no degrees. In the United States, they tell me I’m a chef. It bothers me, it detaches me from the people. I connect with people through food by way of their palate. I cook towards the horizon. On that horizon there are four billion women I hope will fall in love with me. Along the way I have people’s addresses in the form of eyes that watch me while I’m cooking. I will never cook in a place with no people. I think food without someone to address can’t hold on to form. I also don’t believe in recipes because the eyes of the person you’re cooking for are a very important component to the recipe. The type of energy they transmit is not something that can be written down. Most recipes are misleading because they lack the viewer’s raw energy.

What instruments do you use to make food?

ES: I use a knife. My knife is not a utensil, but a continuation of my soul. With my soul inside food I can only do two things: deliver the food to the fire or cut it into a new form. The fire belongs to God and great forces of nature, and the knife belongs to my desires. My kitchen lives Between the intensity of the knife and the fire’s flame. I agreed with Paul Bocuse who said, “All a chef has is fire, a knife, and a work space.” There’s nothing you can’t do with these three elements.

Why do you cook? What is your motivation?

ES: When you cook consistently, your  results lead to thought that changes your movement. When you’re present in your cooking, you may experience small revelations. If you’re consistent about it, you are likely to have large revelations in the food, an almost transformative experience. The desire for a revelation, receiving a glimpse into the flow of the universe can happen through prayer, meditation, or through food. Even if you experience this revelation once, you will continue to strive for it your whole life. This is what will bury you in the kitchen and make you do the least sensible thing – cook for others. If it’s your life calling, you’ll be totally at its mercy. I can’t afford to live a normal life, I work very late, and I travel all over the world. I cook from my insides. People come to eat your insides, not your food. They consume your energy.

At the end of your service, you often times light a fire at your workstation. What else does the fire burn? It sounds to me like you operate between the two extremes of a wet dream and a nightmare. 

ES: That’s exactly it, between a nightmare and a wet dream. You defined it. Between dream and despair. The nightmare, in its driest form, is the business management of taste. Taste is such a fragile, mysterious thing and is reliant on kindness and the alignment of stars. You attempt to master it and it’s thankless work. Everything happens in real time and the challenge is to make delicious food. To create it and transfer it to the person’s mouth and from there to their body where the food will settle enjoyably. I know that the people I cook for every evening, will go home and my energy will continue to flow trough them. My energy, my intention, my success, and my failure will remain with them. My real passion is to connect with people. It’s a very clear male sublimation of planting your seed in as many places as possible.

As for the tomato, what is its anatomy and what does it represent?

ES: The tomato represents the sun. It is a vessel that stores the sun. If you put it in the refrigerator it will die a terrible death within itself. The botanical definition of a tomato is a tree fruit. The tomato geneticists call it a vegetable. It is the exact midpoint between fruit and vegetable. A good tomato is sweeter than a persimmon and more sour than a lemon. If a lemon’s acidity is 6.5, a tomato is 6.3, it has two opposite intensities of sour and sweet, which is the first flavor you taste as an infant. Similar to the taste of breast milk, a tomato represents a return in experiencing a primal taste. It produces a new essence which we call tomato flavor. When you want to give food form you can use vinegar, lemon, or tomato. Vinegar tastes like vinegar, lemon will taste like lemon but only tomatoes have the ability to completely blend with the taste of the food.

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Sherbet, Sorbet and Sorbetto

Sherbet, Sorbet and Sorbetto

The cool and refreshing history of an age-old palate cleanser and dessert.

Come spring time, come the time for cool and refreshing sweets, in the Levant this namely means sherbet.

Sherbet, from the Arabic word sharab derived from the verb ‘to drink’, began its meaning as a drink made up of water sweetened with a sugar syrup, much like the syrup that is used to drench many of the Levant’s desserts since the days of way back when.

All things sweet begin with sugar yet, despite the fact that sugar had been produced in the Indian subcontinent since ancient times, it made its first appearance in the Middle East only after the fall of the Roman empire, perfectly coinciding with the rise of Arab Islam that would sweep central Asia, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, spreading the cultivation of sugarcane with it wherever it went.

Sherbet is first mentioned in Persian medical encyclopedias in the 11th & 12th centuries. As Persia was ruled for a time by a Turkish dynasty, they adopted the sweet drink and spread it throughout the middle east and the Indian subcontinent.

Much like almonds, rose water and candied fruit, sherbet too was imported to India from the Middle East during the Delhi Sultanate. Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan scholar and seasoned traveler, wrote of his trip to Delhi in the mid 13th century and mentions an event in which large basins were filled with a rosewater flavored sweetened drink known by the name of sherbet that was poured into gold, silver and glass cups and served before the meal.

By the time the Mughal empire rose to power, in the 16th century (and would go on to rule the Indian subcontinent for the next 300 hundred years), sherbet was often served chilled, entailing extensive effort into the procurement of ice and snow and transporting those all the way from the Himalayas, a distance of some 500 miles. It was during this time that the potential of potassium nitrate (aka saltpeter) to freeze water was discovered, transforming the wonderful world of frozen desserts forever.

During the Ottoman empire Istanbul was a bubbling hub of various food cultures and in the 17th century Topkapi palace housed several kitchens dedicated to confectionaries alone, the şerbet amongst them. It was a luxury treat served all throughout the dinner service, paving the way to the custom of serving sorbet as a palate-cleanser in between courses, a tradition practiced to this day.

Confectioners created essences from seasonal ingredients which were then diluted to make the sherbet, served at room temperature, chilled or frozen. However, before rose water and fruit flavors became the popular choice, violets, amber and musk were the most common Ottoman şherbet flavors.

In medieval times perfumes were considered to have medicinal properties important for health and hygiene and for that reason they were incorporated into foodstuff. The fact they were also rare and expensive added to their allure. Sherbets were often flavored with spices, flower petals, leaves, roots and grains such as tamarind, licorice, saffron, cloves, cardamom, honey, sage and ginger, all under the control of pharmacists and doctors. Similarly, to this day, Indian sherbets are flavored with highly aromatic spices like sandalwood, vetiver and kewra. With the changing times, so did the choice of flavors, and gradually the heavier scents were substituted with lighter aromas and flavors.

It should also be noted that as sherbet spread throughout the world it began to mean different things in different food cultures. Ottoman immigrants had arrived in Europe during the 17th century, bringing their beloved sherbet with them. It was during that same time the first Italian recipe for a frozen sorbetto appears. Under the Arab rule, the concept of mixing flavored syrups with snow was also introduced in Sicily, known on the island as granita: Snow from Mount Etna was mixed with lemon juice or the pressed juice of locally grown almonds, pistachios and other fruit grown on Sicily’s fertile soil.

During that same period, in France, the sorbet was still considered a sweet refreshing drink sold at limonadiers, lemonade stands that specialized in the production and sale of refreshing soft and alcoholic drinks. It would not be long before these same limonadiers would introduce their clientele to yet another Turkish specialty, the coffee, and gradually evolve into the first Parisian coffee houses.

Towards the end of the 18th century European scientists discovered that mixing bicarbonate of soda with tartaric acid and sugar created a pleasant fizz when added to water. They named this invention Sherbet, hoping to conjure the allure of the exotic Levantine dessert. The fizzy sweet powder is a popular candy in the UK to this day.

Call it a şerbet, a sherbet, a sorbet or a sorbetto; think of it as a fizzy powder, a refreshing drink or a frozen dessert, this Levantine sweet is the perfect springtime palate cleanser between the seasons, just as it was a millennium ago. Some things simply don’t need to change.

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A focaccia bread made with grapes and regional herbs.

The journey to Majda begins long before the food arrives at the table. There are no road signs leading to the restaurant in the small village of Ein Rafa, several kilometers west of Jerusalem, and the best way to get to the blue house at the top of the hill is to follow the winding road while trusting your instincts. And make no mistake, this is intentional; situated well off the beaten track, open only on weekends and with a limited number of available tables, it is impossible to stumble upon it or simply pop by for a small bite. It is a destination one arrives at with clear intent.

In the Spring of 2011 Michal and Yakub turned the ground floor of their house into a restaurant they named Majda. Michal Baranes is Jewish of Moroccan and Tripolitan descent, originally from the seaside town of Netanya, and Yakub Barhom is Muslim, a member of the Barhom family that makes up the majority of the village’s population.  Since the opening day their daily routine revolves around the restaurant; Yakub built the house and the restaurant, they cultivated an herb garden and recently planted a vineyard next to the house with several varieties of long forgotten heirloom grape varieties from which Yakub intends to turn into wine. They do all the cooking as well as the gardening, gathering, sourcing of the ingredients and even the ironing.  Majda is the couple’s labor of love or their ‘very demanding lover’ as they refer to her fondly.

You opened Majda in 2011. What would you say is the most significant difference between year one and year eight?

Michal: When we started out I was the one doing all the cooking and Yakub was in charge of all things front of house, including building the restaurant. But in the last three years Yakub and I are in charge of all of the cooking together with the assistance of my aunt, who helps with the service preparations. We are the heart of Majda. It’s just us behind all the pots and pans. This also goes in hand with what the customers want, which is to see us cooking their food. We are constantly striving to create, cook and serve the best dishes we possibly can and that is the most important thing for us. It is also the best way for us to connect with our guests.  This evolution made so much sense; it’s as if though all the pieces in the puzzle of the last eight years fell into place and everything came together. It’s not easy but it’s worth it.

Yakub: The kitchen isn’t my natural habitat. I need to be outdoors, in nature and around people, not confined between four walls, so this is definitely a change for me. I am also discovering new kinds of aches and pains I didn’t know existed as a result.

Do you feel the current state of things is permanent?

Michal: This is what works best for us, for Majda and for our customers. We are not looking to expand and hire more staff and the only people we can imagine ever taking over the kitchen in place of us are our children. The day we decide to exit the kitchen would be the day Majda closes its doors.

Where do you draw the inspiration for the dishes on the menu?  

Michal: First and foremost, the traditional Arabic home cooking I learnt from Yakub’s mother and sisters. This is the food they cook on a daily basis as well as for special occasions. It is a cuisine that relies heavily on the seasons and the local terroir’s wild greens. I also draw inspiration from my mother and my Moroccan grandmother’s home cooking. The magic happens when we bring these two culinary worlds together – this is where things get interesting and creative for us. I am very traditional with my cooking but Yakub, a recent newbie in the kitchen, is free from any culinary chains so he can come up with crazy combinations I would never dare to think of. Its where tradition meets innovation.

Yakub: Our best recipes are all the result of happy accidents, like our poppy seed Knafeh.

Where do you source your ingredients from?

Michal: We try to source most of our vegetables from Kaima farm, a sustainable organic farm in the nearby village of Beit Zait that also operates as an educational center for teenagers coming from difficult backgrounds. We like to work with small independent producers and whenever possible we incorporate available seasonal produce grown in the village.

Yakub: We were the first to open a restaurant in the village but several more have opened since.

We are all working together with the farmers in the village, trying to encourage them to commit to farming all year round so that they can become our main suppliers. This way they will have an incentive to keep farming and preserve this tradition. Wherever possible we try to support our local community. Everyone wins this way: the produce is local, cheaper and tastes better and any surplus we can offer for sale outside the restaurant.

What is the story you are trying to tell through your food?  

Michal: Since day one my passion was to introduce people to both the village of Ein Rafa and to the brilliance of Arabic cuisine.

Yakub: Israeli Jews don’t encounter Israeli Arabs often and when they come here,  they get a chance to meet, talk and perhaps even let go of any prejudice or misconceptions.

Michal: It’s very important to me that our guests are respectful. People often forget that the minute they step out of their car they are in our home; this is my garden, these are my plants, and as guests in my house they are about to experience something new, encounter a culture different to theirs and so this should be a time to observe and absorb. It is usually the moment that the food arrives at the table that something clicks with the customers and they get it. Food has this power.

When did you realize that you had succeeded in creating the restaurant of your dreams?

Michal: The beginning was tough. Even after much coverage in the foreign press and with tourists from all over the world wowed by their experiences, it took a long time before we felt understood and accepted on our home turf. It’s only in the last year that I can wholeheartedly say that I am really happy with the way things are and that people are beginning to understand what we’re doing here. Majda has come of age, matured and is now in its prime. It took us eight years of constant and relentless fine-tuning but we now know what we need to do and how to do it best. And it works. Every year we cut the number of available tables in the restaurant. We want our food, the service and the total experience of coming here to be as distilled and precise as possible and that you cannot achieve on a large scale.

Do you have additional goals and aspirations for Majda?

Yakub: I recently started studying Oenology and I’m experimenting with winemaking. We planted a vineyard next to the restaurant so hopefully one day we will also be making our own wine in our very own winery. Michal is passionate about gardening and these days we also offer her potted plants for sale.

What accomplishment are you proud of the most?

Michal: Our wait staff are all from the village and they’ve been with us for seven years, almost since the beginning. We are so in tune that these days, during service, we understand each other just by looking at each other. When they started out they were insecure and challenging kids and today they are all in higher education. I really want to see them leave this place, live their best lives and succeed in their chosen professions. I know they will all do well. But this also means we’ll need to train a new generation of kids.

Yakub: It’s a very tightly run shop with a handful of staff and since we’re the only ones in the kitchen there are no days off. So we try not to bite off more than we can handle and we have to make sure we don’t burn out.

Michal: Another thing I’m very proud of is that by opening our doors and the restaurant eight years ago, we paved the way for others in the village, showing them that they can do it too.

Yakub: Until not long ago everyone had heard of Abu Gosh but no one knew of Ein Rafa. This is no longer the case.

Michal: We knew it was only a matter of time and now the village is well on the way to becoming a culinary destination. There is talk about opening more food locales as others in the village see the potential and want to take part. The current supply of restaurants isn’t meeting the demand and I’d say there’s room for at least five more restaurants in the village.

Yakub: We want to incorporate the entire village into the experience and are constantly thinking of different ways to transform it into a quaint travel destination.

 

The journey to Majda begins long before the food arrives at the table. There are no road signs leading to the restaurant in the small village of Ein Rafa, several kilometers west of Jerusalem, and the best way to get to the blue house at the top of the hill is to follow the winding road while trusting your instincts. And make no mistake, this is intentional; situated well off the beaten track, open only on weekends and with a limited number of available tables, it is impossible to stumble upon it or simply pop by for a small bite. It is a destination one arrives at with clear intent.

In the Spring of 2011 Michal and Yakub turned the ground floor of their house into a restaurant they named Majda. Michal Baranes is Jewish of Moroccan and Tripolitan descent, originally from the seaside town of Netanya, and Yakub Barhom is Muslim, a member of the Barhom family that makes up the majority of the village’s population.  Since the opening day their daily routine revolves around the restaurant; Yakub built the house and the restaurant, they cultivated an herb garden and recently planted a vineyard next to the house with several varieties of long forgotten heirloom grape varieties from which Yakub intends to turn into wine. They do all the cooking as well as the gardening, gathering, sourcing of the ingredients and even the ironing.  Majda is the couple’s labor of love or their ‘very demanding lover’ as they refer to her fondly.

You opened Majda in 2011. What would you say is the most significant difference between year one and year eight?

Michal: When we started out I was the one doing all the cooking and Yakub was in charge of all things front of house, including building the restaurant. But in the last three years Yakub and I are in charge of all of the cooking together with the assistance of my aunt, who helps with the service preparations. We are the heart of Majda. It’s just us behind all the pots and pans. This also goes in hand with what the customers want, which is to see us cooking their food. We are constantly striving to create, cook and serve the best dishes we possibly can and that is the most important thing for us. It is also the best way for us to connect with our guests.  This evolution made so much sense; it’s as if though all the pieces in the puzzle of the last eight years fell into place and everything came together. It’s not easy but it’s worth it.

Yakub: The kitchen isn’t my natural habitat. I need to be outdoors, in nature and around people, not confined between four walls, so this is definitely a change for me. I am also discovering new kinds of aches and pains I didn’t know existed as a result.

Do you feel the current state of things is permanent?

Michal: This is what works best for us, for Majda and for our customers. We are not looking to expand and hire more staff and the only people we can imagine ever taking over the kitchen in place of us are our children. The day we decide to exit the kitchen would be the day Majda closes its doors.

Where do you draw the inspiration for the dishes on the menu?  

Michal: First and foremost, the traditional Arabic home cooking I learnt from Yakub’s mother and sisters. This is the food they cook on a daily basis as well as for special occasions. It is a cuisine that relies heavily on the seasons and the local terroir’s wild greens. I also draw inspiration from my mother and my Moroccan grandmother’s home cooking. The magic happens when we bring these two culinary worlds together – this is where things get interesting and creative for us. I am very traditional with my cooking but Yakub, a recent newbie in the kitchen, is free from any culinary chains so he can come up with crazy combinations I would never dare to think of. Its where tradition meets innovation.

Yakub: Our best recipes are all the result of happy accidents, like our poppy seed Knafeh.

Where do you source your ingredients from?

Michal: We try to source most of our vegetables from Kaima farm, a sustainable organic farm in the nearby village of Beit Zait that also operates as an educational center for teenagers coming from difficult backgrounds. We like to work with small independent producers and whenever possible we incorporate available seasonal produce grown in the village.

Yakub: We were the first to open a restaurant in the village but several more have opened since.

We are all working together with the farmers in the village, trying to encourage them to commit to farming all year round so that they can become our main suppliers. This way they will have an incentive to keep farming and preserve this tradition. Wherever possible we try to support our local community. Everyone wins this way: the produce is local, cheaper and tastes better and any surplus we can offer for sale outside the restaurant.

What is the story you are trying to tell through your food?  

Michal: Since day one my passion was to introduce people to both the village of Ein Rafa and to the brilliance of Arabic cuisine.

Yakub: Israeli Jews don’t encounter Israeli Arabs often and when they come here,  they get a chance to meet, talk and perhaps even let go of any prejudice or misconceptions.

Michal: It’s very important to me that our guests are respectful. People often forget that the minute they step out of their car they are in our home; this is my garden, these are my plants, and as guests in my house they are about to experience something new, encounter a culture different to theirs and so this should be a time to observe and absorb. It is usually the moment that the food arrives at the table that something clicks with the customers and they get it. Food has this power.

When did you realize that you had succeeded in creating the restaurant of your dreams?

Michal: The beginning was tough. Even after much coverage in the foreign press and with tourists from all over the world wowed by their experiences, it took a long time before we felt understood and accepted on our home turf. It’s only in the last year that I can wholeheartedly say that I am really happy with the way things are and that people are beginning to understand what we’re doing here. Majda has come of age, matured and is now in its prime. It took us eight years of constant and relentless fine-tuning but we now know what we need to do and how to do it best. And it works. Every year we cut the number of available tables in the restaurant. We want our food, the service and the total experience of coming here to be as distilled and precise as possible and that you cannot achieve on a large scale.

Do you have additional goals and aspirations for Majda?

Yakub: I recently started studying Oenology and I’m experimenting with winemaking. We planted a vineyard next to the restaurant so hopefully one day we will also be making our own wine in our very own winery. Michal is passionate about gardening and these days we also offer her potted plants for sale.

What accomplishment are you proud of the most?

Michal: Our wait staff are all from the village and they’ve been with us for seven years, almost since the beginning. We are so in tune that these days, during service, we understand each other just by looking at each other. When they started out they were insecure and challenging kids and today they are all in higher education. I really want to see them leave this place, live their best lives and succeed in their chosen professions. I know they will all do well. But this also means we’ll need to train a new generation of kids.

Yakub: It’s a very tightly run shop with a handful of staff and since we’re the only ones in the kitchen there are no days off. So we try not to bite off more than we can handle and we have to make sure we don’t burn out.

Michal: Another thing I’m very proud of is that by opening our doors and the restaurant eight years ago, we paved the way for others in the village, showing them that they can do it too.

Yakub: Until not long ago everyone had heard of Abu Gosh but no one knew of Ein Rafa. This is no longer the case.

Michal: We knew it was only a matter of time and now the village is well on the way to becoming a culinary destination. There is talk about opening more food locales as others in the village see the potential and want to take part. The current supply of restaurants isn’t meeting the demand and I’d say there’s room for at least five more restaurants in the village.

Yakub: We want to incorporate the entire village into the experience and are constantly thinking of different ways to transform it into a quaint travel destination.

 

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Flourishing in the Mediterranean sun, a cast of citrus fruits are woven into the culinary culture.

Think of a lemon. Close your eyes and imagine you’re sucking on a juicy lemon slice. Can you feel it, that slight pressure at the root of your tongue? Your mouth waters profusely as the sour acids take over.

Back in the day, before Tel Aviv rose from the dunes North of Jaffa, the port city was surrounded by orange groves, or Pardesim as they are called in Hebrew. The origins of the word traces back to pairi-daēza, the old Persian name for the walled gardens of the first Persian empire. Passing through the Greek parádeisos (meaning park or garden) and the Latin Paradisus, paradise entered modern day English to describe a place of exceptional happiness & delight while in Hebrew the word has come to refer to citrus groves of all kinds.

The etymology of the orange in the Middle East is just as telling of its ancient voyage. In Arabic, Turkish and Greek, oranges are Burtuqaliu, named after the Portuguese merchants who brought them over from China whereas in Danish, Finnish, Uzbek and Latvian (to name a few), oranges are appelsin, meaning ‘fruit from China’.

A versatile family are the citruses; the peel can be zested to impart the flavor and aroma of its essential oils, cold pressed into an oil, boiled in syrup to a marmalade or crystallized in sugar for a candied peel. The segments can be eaten with or without their outer skin and the pulp can be juiced for a refreshing beverage or as seasoning to a dish, adding that sharp acidity. The seeds can also be pressed into oil used to moisturize the skin while orange flower water is used to perfume many Levantine desserts.

The citron was the first member of the genus to make the journey west over a millennium ago. A native to the foothills of the eastern Himalaya, it had arrived in the Persian Gulf and spread to the Mediterranean basin, where it was rendered a rare and coveted possession, a status symbol and even a carrier of religious significance.

The rest of citrus family eventually caught up, flourishing in the Levantine sun and soils and where they would become the cornerstone in most, if not all, Mediterranean cuisines and food cultures.

Practically no Mediterranean dish is complete without a drizzle of good olive oil and the squeeze of a fresh lemon. Take the Avgolemono used in soups & sauces found in Greek, Turkish, Balkan, Spanioli and Italian cuisines or the dried black limes that add a sour flavor stews and soups in so many Persian dishes.

Each member of this distinguished family is renowned for its own unique flavor and aroma profile, size, color and texture and can be eaten or drunk, enjoyed raw or cooked, pickled or preserved. Sicily is a citrus paradise, cultivating some of the finest oranges and lemons in the world, the Amalfi coast is also renowned for its lemons introduced to the region by the Romans (as is the Limoncello liquor made from its zest) while bitter oranges are the emblem of the city of Seville, also known as Seville oranges.

The all famous Jaffa orange, aka the Shamouti, is deep orange in color, large oval in shape, thick skinned in texture and distinctive in flavor (the perfect balance of sweet and sour). It was developed in Jaffa by local Arab farmers in the mid 19th century and consequently cultivated and exported from Jaffa’s port to Europe. What began in a chimera, a naturally occurring mutation, of a random Palestinian orange tree of the Baladi variety, ultimately spurred into the ‘Jaffa oranges industry’, granting Tel Aviv- Yafo its nickname, The Big Orange.

Jaffa cakes were also a homage to the local citrus industry, created by biscuit makers McVitie & Price in 1927. The three-layered cookies consisted of a sponge base, orange jam and a chocolate coating and were named after the then-world-famous Jaffa oranges.

Few of the orange orchards survived the times in Tel Aviv & Jaffa, as sweet oranges were gradually replaced with housing, commercial and office spaces in an ever growing city. Shamouti heirloom oranges have now become a rarity but there are still gems to be found in the urban jungle with oranges, lemons, grapefruit, clementines, pomelo and cumquat trees scattered throughout, some even free for all to forage, the most famous being Laskov street, a bitter orange grove in disguise.

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