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Bedouin Food Culture

By Ruba Farawneh

Whenever I meet new non-Bedouin people, their address, “Greetings, Bedouin” is soon followed by the question: “When are you inviting us to eat mansaf (a lamb dish prepared with dried yogurt made of sheep and goat milk)?” Every time I hear such comments, I reply, “I remember mansaf only when you mention it.”

In olden times, the Bedouins used to follow their instincts in all things. They derived their food from what little they were able to forage or produce themselves through simple farming and by raising livestock, primarily sheep, goats, and camels.

Bedouin food was chemical- and preservative-free. Bread and dairy products they ate daily, and their dishes were influenced by the seasons. When lambs had been weaned, they dried yogurt either into a creamy, concentrated form that is called jibjib in the West Bank and jameed in Al-Naqab, or they dried it thoroughly until it could be stored like a rock, which is called jameed in the West Bank and al-‘feeq in Al-Naqab. In summer, they took advantage of the heat to dry whatever they could: tomatoes, peppers, and other produce.

Bread serves as the basis for many, if not most, Bedouin dishes. The dough is prepared using only ground wheat and water, without additives, and baked on al-saj (baking tin). Lazzagieh is a very thin bread baked on al-saj. Taboon bread is baked in a special oven built of clay and traditionally heated by a wood fire. Bedouins call fresh bread thareed and stale bread fatteh.

The Bedouin diet is primarily vegetarian, as it consists mostly of beans and vegetables that Bedouins grow in al-sidda (a location that is usually between two hills, in the open air, and watered by rainfall). They plant there because these locations tend to have few harmful weeds.

Most Bedouin vegetarian dishes contain fatt (pieces of bread) cooked in some sort of liquid, stew, or soup, even in milk: saj–baked bread is commonly cooked with pulses (lentils, beans) or jreesheh (crushed dried wheat) and vegetables, such as tomatoes, onions, or ‘ajr (small, unripe watermelons).

Dishes made from livestock tend to include a sauce made of yogurt and lemons, and fatt in addition to meat (mutton or chicken). Lamb mansaf is prepared with jameed and served on special occasions or when hosting a guest. Samna (ghee) was prepared from yogurt by placing it in al-sa’n (a sack that is made of goat skin) and shaking it vigorously, which separated the fat from the yogurt by way of enzymes that are contained in the goat skin. Samn was produced from the fat, and the yogurt was consumed as a drink and could even be made into cheese.

Bedouins enjoy a number of desserts: Bzeina, also known as rushtaya, is a linguini-like pasta that in the Naqab is cooked with milk and rice and in the West Bank with green lentils. Al-hatheema or al-liba is made of colostrum, the first milk that cows or sheep produce after giving birth, mixed with sugar and served as a delicacy. Qurs is made of dough that is buried in the embers of a fire until done, then taken out, cleaned off, and eaten warm. Khubz bsukkar u-samn (bread with sugar and ghee) is made of al-saj dough that is brushed with ghee and sugar, rolled up, and then baked. It can also be made of fresh, still hot saj bread that is brushed with samn and sugar and then rolled up. Al-mashluta is prepared from onions, ghee, marees (rehydrated jameed), and saj bread. Khamee’a is made with hot milk and bread. Bedouins prepare cereals for breakfast with rice, milk,  sugar, and butter.

It is important to mention the dishes that are associated with specific rituals and occasions, such as makhtum, a date paste mixed with olive oil that is served to women after giving birth, and al-hiqqa (meat wrapped in bread), which is prepared for weddings and taken home by mothers for their children. When there is a funeral, food is brought to the bereaved family by neighbors and acquaintances of the deceased during the three days of mourning. Rooster meat broth is given to people who are ill. Our grandmothers, who cure ailments with folk medicine, assert that the broth gives energy and mends bones.

Various types of food have been introduced into Bedouin cuisine: they include rice, khubbeizeh (diadem lady’s mantle), and molokhiyyeh (jute mallow). Unfortunately, the policies of the occupation authorities have put dramatic constraints on the Bedouin lifestyle. Israel has forced Bedouins to settle in villages and houses, imposing urbanization, and confiscating Bedouin agricultural land, which is why Bedouins have been confined to small spaces where they cannot breed livestock or grow crops. Today, Bedouins are no longer able to live their traditional lifestyle, let alone engage in farming. Whereas in the past, Bedouins produced their own food, today they have become consumers.

  • Ruba Farawneh was born in Shaqib al-Salam, in southern Palestine, in 1995. She has a BA in photography from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. She is the media coordinator for Bedouins Without Borders.

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