Geographic borders have been defined
and redefined through the centuries, but many of the roots of Middle
Eastern cooking can be found in the area that became the country of Israel . Today's Israel is located
in the South West corner of the Asian continent and at the South Eastern
shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Geographically it is at the crossroads
of Europe, Asia and Africa. Bordered by Lebanon to the North,
Syria to the North East, Jordan to the East and Egypt to the South West, Israel's cooking is most heavily influenced by its Arab foundations, though its Western shoreline is on the Mediterranean Sea. The history of the area is a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish - Muslim and Christian Arabs, Bedouin,
and Druze, a true melting pot.
The name Arab was originally applied
to the Semitic peoples of the Arabian peninsula. Arabs are divided into
the settled fellahin (villagers) and the nomadic Bedouin.
Many anthropologists feel that the
original Arabs were the Bedouin since they show the best adaptation
of human life to desert conditions. The Bedouin still lives, as his
forebears did, in tents of goats' or camels' hair, and still grazes
his sheep and goats on the same ancient pastures. Sheep and-camel raising,
and to a lesser degree horse breeding, hunting and raiding, are his
regular occupations, and are to his mind the only occupations worthy
of a man. It is his conviction that agriculture, as well as all varieties
of trade and craft, are beneath his dignity. And indeed there is not
much tillable land. There is little wheat. Bread, to the Arabian, is
There are a few trees, the date-palm,
the shrub from which comes the famous coffee of South Arabia, grape
vines, and in the oases, numerous fruits as well as almonds, sugar cane
Bedouin cooking is influenced by
the rules of hospitality. Mansaf, would normally only be a festival
or major family event dish for the Bedouin, while the main meal was
usually taken at the end of the day, after the evening milking. Bread,
'abud,' which was a staple, would be the simple mixing of flour with
precious water from the waterskin (girbeh) to prepare dough to be cooked
in the embers of the fire for wandering herdsmen.
Apart from stock and their milk
products the staple items were dates, wheat and rice, flour and samneh
(clarified butter, also called ghee). Dates were of prime importance
to survival in the desert. They were an ideal food: they were relatively
cheap, easy to transport, and provided excellent nutrition as a balance
to the other main dietary constituents. For a few months of the year
during the date harvest, fresh dates from the oases provided a welcome
alternative to the the usual fare of dried dates. Yogurt, or leban,
was drained and salted to make a sun-dried food for storage.
At traditional meals, nearly all
food is eaten with the fingers. With the exception of couscous and other
grain dishes, one should use only three fingers. It is, of course, proper
to eat with only the right hand.
Bedouin tribes in Israel, scattered
throughout the Negev and Sinai deserts, have undergone radical changes
in recent years as they move from a nomadic to a modern lifestyle. These
changes are expressed in the material culture, such as sources of income,
types of housing style of dress, and more. Therefore some traditional
Bedouin culture has diminished. Nomadic life is often no longer viable
as people settle into cities and villages, but their origins are evidenced
in their cooking.
Bedouin Cooking, or 'Tent Cooking,'
is the root of Egyptian cuisine. Dressed in traditional Bedouin garments,
guests start their journey back in time. In Ein Hudra, they begin their
Bedouin cooking classes in a Bedouin camp. Bedouin women show guests
how they bake "Khobz and Fateer" - Bedouin bread and cookies.
They share with "their guests" secret recipes that are handed
down by mother to daughter and from father to son. As
with many Middle Eastern dishes, Jordanian food stems from traditional
The Druze make up an independent Middle
Eastern religious community which has been in existence since the beginning
of the eleventh century. The Druze, some 106,000 Arabic-speakers living
in 22 villages in northern Israel, constitute a separate cultural, social
and religious community. Their culture is Arab and their language Arabic,
but they opted against mainstream Arab nationalism in 1948 and have since
served (first as volunteers, later within the draft system) in the Israel
Defense Forces and the Border Police.
Druze women's rights are almost
identical to those of men; actually, Druze women are preferred over
men in joining the uqqal, because they are considered to be more "spiritually
prepared". Their traditions include generous
hospitality toward others and modesty in both dress and behavior. Particular
joy is derived from perhaps the most significant of all life-cycle events,
a wedding. A traditional Druze wedding includes the entire village,
other Druze, and a handful of invited "outsiders." As many
as five hundred people might join the celebration. Preparations begin
days beforehand, and many of the villagers help in creating large quantities
of special delicacies. Of all the ethnic and religious
groups within Israel, there is a good chance that none dine better and
more festively than the Druze. Even a casual visit to any of the eighteen
Druze villages in the Carmel Hills and the Galilee is enough to make
even a casual visitor aware that in addition to being concerned with
the quality of what they eat, the Druze also have a highly developed
social code that centers about food and dining - a code inherent from
their origins, and still seen in their cooking.Pomegranate seeds are often served
with salads and the juice of the pomegranate is used in preparing many
sauces. Orange blossom water is added not only to stews but to Turkish
coffee, and sumac, a sourish, dark brown-red seed is ground to a powder
and used to flavor kebabs or to sprinkle on fish or salads. Druze pitas are paper thin and can
be as much as fifty centimeters in diameter and whether eaten plain,
spread with clarified butter and dried herbs
There are hundreds of versions of
kibbeh (also known as kubbeh) but one of the most popular versions in
Druze villages is made by pounding a mixture of cracked wheat or burghul,
grated onion and minced lamb into a paste. Eaten raw this dish is known
as "kibbeh nayeh", but the dish can also be fried or grilled.
In the dish known as "kibbeh bil sanieh", a layer of minced
meat filling is inserted into two layers of kibbeh and baked in the
oven. Stuffed kibbeh are hollow oval or torpedo shaped shells filled
with minced meat or mushrooms.
The Samaritans won renown for kindness
in the time of Jesus. The ancient sect, which was celebrated in the
Christian world through the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke's
gospel, now numbers only 600, divided between two communities - one
near Tel Aviv in Israel and the other near Nablus in the West Bank.
Samaritans speak an Arabic language
in their daily life, while they use the old Hebrew during their prayers.
Their religion is akin to Judaism, although it does not contain modifications
that Jews added over the past 3,000 years, such as the festivals of
Purim and Hanukkah. The main difference is that the Samaritans never
left the holy lands. They remain strictly neutral and carry both Palestinian
and Israeli identity cards. Israeli Samaritans have no better
times in the course of the year than the days preceding Passover and
the day of the Passover sacrifice. Their practice of the Passover continues
much as it was in its origins millennia ago. According to Moses, the
Passover lamb was to be brought home on the 10th of Nisan and slain
on the 14th. Children would have been witness to the observance.
The service starts close to sunset.
The Samaritan men are dressed in white garments, the leaders wear red
hats, and the priests are dressed in a distinctive turquoise garb. The
Samaritans chant and pray until the the signal is given, and the head
of each household reaches for his knife to slice the throat of his familys
lamb. As soon as the lamb is slain, the Samaritans celebrate. About
thirty-five sheep are killed in the modern observance, about one for
each larger family unit. Then the sheep are skinned and put on a skewer
and carried over to one of the 2-3 meter deep roasting pits to be cooked
for most of the night. This is traditional cooking.
The Circassians, another Middle
Eastern group of peoples, are comprised of some 3,000 people. Concentrated
in two northern villages, they are Sunni Muslims, although they share
neither the Arab origin nor the cultural background of the larger Islamic
community. While maintaining a distinct ethnic identity, they participate
in Israel's economic and national affairs without assimilating either
into Jewish society or into the Muslim community, remaining true to
their origins. Among the foods in their cooking are sweet omelets, corn
soup and psihalivas. We offer those recipes to you on an informal basis.
Sweet Omelet: Mix eggs and sugar
together to get a thick foam. Add 1 table spoon of flour and a pinch
of salt. Finished mass is poured into oiled hot frying pan and baked
in the oven. This dish is usually cooked for supper.
Corn Soup: Remove the husk from
shelled corn seeds, rinse and poor them into heated water. Add a small
quantity of beans. Cook for a few hours. Before switching the fire off
add some milk, salt and sour cream. One can also have meat in the soup.
By the time the soup is ready heat a frying pan. Pour a few spoons of
oil in it. Mince 1 onion and fry it on the low fire. Add a few spoons
of pepper and steer till the onions become brownish. Pour a few spoons
of it on the top of soup in each plate. Note: Keep beans in the water
for a few hours before cooking.
Psihalivas are pieces of meet wrapped
in a dough and boiled in the water. Mix ground mutton or beef with minced
onion. Add a few spoons of warm salted water (2-3 spoons of salt should
be dissolved) and pepper by taste. To make the dough mix 1 egg and some
flour. Add some hot water and keep mixing (by hands) to get a steep
dough. The dough should not be sticking to the borders of the plate
or hands. Roll out the dough on the table so that the dough was really
thin (1-2 millimeters). Use a glass or a cup to cut round forms from
the dough. Put 1 teaspoon of meet in the middle of each piece and stick
the corners so that psihaliva had D form. Start boiling
water in a big souse pan before making psihalivas. When the water is
boiling, lower the fire and throw about 15-20 psihaliva into the water.
Increase the fire and steer psihaliva to avoid sticking to each other.
When the water with psihaliva starts boiling again, lower the fire and
leave psihalive cooking for 8-10 minutes more. Meanwhile make new portion
of psihalivas to put them when the first portion is ready to be removed
form the souse pan. To avoid cooked psihaliva sticking to each other
put a few spoons of butter into the plate with psihaliva, cover it and
shake a few times.
Date Sweets, ma'amoul & the
famous baklava are sweets whose origins are shared and are made all
over the Middle East.