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The Flavors of Summer in Palestine

By Hani Elfar

Summer in Palestine is loaded with flavors that exemplify and remind us of the beautiful times we spend with family and friends. Summer is the time for engagement celebrations, weddings, and graduation parties – and all these occasions come with amazing food. So if you visit Palestine in the summer, enjoy these festivities! But don’t forget to taste and explore as well the seasonal bounty that is sold on the streets by the farmers who grew it. If you go out, look for restaurants or kitchens that prepare authentic local dishes.

Farmers selling fresh vegetables in Jerusalem.

In Palestine, food has cultural meaning, as it is associated with songs, proverbs, and stories that we keep alive and pass on from generation to generation. These tales are at the core of our identity and deeply connected with our land and our seasonal traditions. Every fruit or vegetable thrives at a special time of the year, and special tastes and non-commercial products that you cannot find all year long characterize each season. Because indigenous, baladi vegetables and grains are an essential part of our culinary culture, it is thus very important that we keep growing them. Indeed, baladi food products are precious and in increasing demand among both local customers and diaspora Palestinians. These crops are prepared, preserved, and stored in various ways, and we enjoy greatly serving them on festive occasions and at family gatherings.

In my research about these products, which I call Palestinian gourmet food, I have found that a special relationship exists between the farmers who cultivate  these crops for us and the market demand. Many farmers whose families have grown these products from generation to generation are aware of their importance and plant, for example, Palestinian original wheat. This grain has been cultivated in our land for thousands of years; it is well adapted to our climate and can perfectly resist diseases and pests (for example, with the help of ladybirds). In Palestinian cuisine, it is roasted and prepared as freekeh (cracked wheat), which is an essential ingredient in traditional soups, stews, and salads or served as a side dish.

Our nutrition is deeply connected with our land and the seasons, and Palestinian culture has deep roots in baladi (literally country, meaning indigenous) crops. But even though they are treasures in our culinary heritage, the seeds of our native baladi wheat and vegetables are rare these days. We must raise awareness of the special types that exist and grow them more often to preserve them.

When I host my Tastes of Palestine tables, I find it rather challenging to decide on what foods to present. I tend to choose a few dishes with special ingredients from different areas in Palestine because I wish to raise awareness of them. Traditional dishes carry meaning beyond the recipes and their ingredients. They evoke cherished memories of happy times we have spent with our families and friends and remind us of the places where we used to gather. Each time I cook such seasonal food, I myself experience many happy emotions. I hope that by cooking these dishes for and with my family and friends, I can share the emotions and experiences that I associate with them. I want to let them participate in a journey of tastes of Palestine and expose them to the rich stories and savory flavors, creating happiness.

So today, I would love to host you with a starter of smoky baladi zucchini motabbal. It consists of charred zucchini that are finely chopped; then mixed with garlic and lemon; spiced with salt, chili, and black pepper; garnished with fresh mint leaves; and topped with a generous drizzle of olive oil. This dish is served with freshly baked taboun (clay oven) bread that is made of original Palestinian wheat.

A recipe using baladi ingredients.

Next, enjoy a freekeh salad made of Palestinian baladi wheat that has been roasted over wood and natesh (dry thorns). The cooked freekeh are mixed with fresh baladi lettuce, baladi cucumbers, tomatoes, and green onions and a dressing made of lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. Add salt and black pepper to taste. The smoky flavor of Palestinian freekeh is a must-try!

Harvesting wheat.

Faqous baladi (native Cucumis melo or snake cucumber) mah’shi (lit. stuffed, generally with rice and meat and served with sauces that can be made of tomatoes, yogurt, or tamarind) is another traditional dish. The village of Deir Ballut is famous for its faqous and each June holds a festival to celebrate its harvest. This dish is particularly popular in Jerusalem, where most families enjoy it in the summer during their gatherings. Faqous are raised by the women of Deir Ballut who are considered the queens of the plain, and rightfully so because faqous are at the core of the village’s economy. The villagers grow and sell it – but surprisingly, they don’t  serve it mah’shi (stuffed).

A culinary workshop by Tastes of Palestine in Nazareth.

Molokhia borani is a typical summer dish from Jericho that consists of molokhia (jute mallow). In this vegan recipe, onions are sautéed and caramelized in olive oil before the molokhoia leaves are added along with coriander, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, salt and black pepper to taste, and chili flakes if you like an extra kick; add plenty of roasted garlic, and serve it with rice or hot pita bread.

Maqloubeh wa batinjan (eggplant) Battiri (from Battir village) is a traditional dish served to celebrate Fridays. Battir is a village near Bethlehem that is famous for its unique eggplant (in addition to being honored as a cultural landscape site on the UNESCO World Heritage List). Indeed, its eggplants saved the village from being depopulated and annexed by Israel back in 1948. It is an interesting story about Hasan Mustafa, who studied at Cairo University in the 1940s and whose colleagues from neighboring Arab countries had used to visit him in his village and fallen in love with the amazing flavor of the Battiri eggplant. When during the Nakba most villagers along the new border fled, Hasan began to fight in his own way to save his village. He called his colleagues who had become important officials in their governments and succeeded in changing the border’s path in the 1949 Armistice Agreement that was signed in Rhodes, Greece. This tall purple eggplant with a green crown is loved for its unique sweet taste; it is used in many recipes that are popular in kitchens in in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron. Maqloubeh (lit. upside down) wa batinjan is a dish that consists of layers of fried eggplant slices and rice; its name, upside down, stems from the custom of turning the pot over once it is cooked. The better the food keeps the shape of the pot, the prouder the cook. Serve it with yogurt or a salad.

Warak ‘inab (rolled-up vine leaves stuffed with rice and spices) from Khalil (Hebron) are a true delicacy. They are in season in spring and summer and tend to be the main celebratory dish served to visitors. Waraq ‘inab gather everyone from the laborious preparation to the joyful celebration of its tangy yummy taste. Whereas preparing a large pot of thinly rolled vine leaves, filled with a mixture of rice, meat, and spices, can take hours, they tend to be consumed in much less time. Frequently, they are cooked and served together with kussa baladi mah’shi (stuffed zucchini baladi) and batinjan Battiri mah’shi (eggplant from Battir).

I am very proud of our Palestinian baladi food and very grateful to the falaheen (farmers) who continue to grow these crops and maintain our cultural and food heritage.

As a dessert nothing is more popular that batikh wa jibneh baida (water melon with white cheese). It tastes best if you serve sweet watermelons from Jenin with local goat cheese that can be sweet or salty. This desert is a must-have every summer evening as friends and families gather in Palestinian homes and gardens. Moreover, the watermelon has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance because with the occupation, the Israeli secret services forbade Palestinian artists to use the colors of the Palestinian flag and told them that they were not even allowed to draw a watermelon.

A very important element of the Palestinian culinary experience and the ingredient that will make your food most delicious is nafas, which means soul. If you wish to cook delicious food, you must be sure to include it, and the best way to do this is by cooking with a group of people you love. This way, your food will always be scrumptious because it reflects the many beautiful souls who participated in its preparation and enjoyment.

Thanks for joining me on my culinary tour of Palestinian summer bounties. I wish that one day we can cook together and tell each other the stories and narratives around Palestinian culinary treasures.

  • Holding a BA in business administration from Birzeit University, Hani Elfar is a passionate certified culinary teacher at Beit Hanina Culinary College and the founder of Tastes of Palestine. He is also a B Chef in Jerusalem, a special needs educator who teaches cooking to persons with disabilities as a form of therapy, and a researcher of Palestinian culinary heritage.

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