Plums and Hummus..Middle East Memories

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Two of the first countries I visited were not France or Spain as so many people did, being so near, but Israel and Greece. I had many Jewish friends at college in Manchester and I became fascinated with their way of life, so much so that in 1978 I signed up in a heady hedonistic haze to join a kibbutz. It was a mind-boggling experience and opened my eyes to so many things, not least the differing lifestyles of the Arabs and the Israelis. I got to travel quite a bit, spending time in the Sinai desert, sleeping at the foot of Mount Sinai before climbing it at 5am in the morning while it was still cool enough, visiting Bethlehem, sleeping on the beach and waking up to watch the sharks feeding off the fishermen’s unwanted catch, snorkelling at Ras Muhammad right at the foot of the Sinai Desert. I stayed in Jerusalem for a week with an Armenian family and back on the kibbutz showered with a scorpion, and slept with a lizard…..I hasted to add, we did not share the same bed…she slept under my wardrobe….probably my after shave! We used to get a bag of fruit each week as part of our pay. They like fruit there. Israelis consume an average of nearly 160 kilograms (350 lb) of fruit per person a year. On the trip to the desert, we virtually lived off plums. I have never eaten so much fruit since. I’m certainly a long way off 160 kilos a year! In Jerusalem people walked round eating grapefruits like we eat oranges – but they were a lot sweeter. Everywhere you went there was a water melon seller. Lots of avocados and aubergines too. They made a really tasty salad with pureed aubergines. A large variety of salads and dips there are made with roasted aubergines. Baba Ghanoush, was one of my favourites. It is made with tahini (sesame paste – the cornerstone of hummus) and other seasonings such as garlic, lemon juice, onions, herbs and spices.

The aubergine is sometimes grilled over an open flame so that the pulp has a smoky taste. A particularly Israeli variation of the salad is made with mayo. Aubergine salads are also made with yoghurt, or with feta cheese, chopped onion and tomato, or in the style of Romanian Jews, with roasted red pepper. In the streets of Jerusalem one of the tastiest dishes I came across was at the falafel stands that are everywhere. Falafel is a deep-fried ball or patty made from ground chickpeas and / or fava beans. It is usually served in a pitta which acts as a pocket, or wrapped in a flatbread known as lafa. The falafel balls are usually topped with salads, pickles, hot sauce and drizzled with tahini based sauces. On the kibbutz we ate a lot, and I mean a lot, of chicken ( so much so I thought I was going to sprout wings at one point ) usually with some form of sauce, usually a chillied one, and it was normally served with rice or couscous. That was also the first time I came across harissa. Harissa is a hot chilli paste that is commonly found in North African cooking, mainly Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian cuisine. It is added to couscous, soups, pastas and other recipes. It can also be bought in Middle Eastern stores in a can, and is available in tubes in some supermarkets. Here is a recipe for a home made version – experiment with different strength chillies.

HARISSA Ingredients: 10-12 dried red chili peppers 3 cloves garlic, minced 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 teaspoon ground coriander 1 teaspoon ground caraway seeds 1/2 teaspoon cumin

Soak the dried chilies in hot water for 30 minutes. Drain. Remove stems and seeds. In a food processor combine chili peppers, garlic, salt, and olive oil. Blend. Add remaining spices and blend to form a smooth paste. Store in airtight container. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil on top to keep fresh. Will keep for a month in the refrigerator.

They did also use the traditional sauce, skhug, on the kibbutz. Skhug is a middle eastern hot sauce apparently brought to Israel by Yemenite Jews. The condiment is now a staple of Israeli cuisine. It’s made from fresh hot peppers seasoned with coriander and garlic and various spices. Skhug adom (red skhug) is made with red peppers and skhug yarok (green skhug) from green peppers. It is sometimes referred to by the more generic term kharif and is a popular condiment at the falafel street stands, and served with hummus. Wherever you went there was hummus. Hummus is a cornerstone of Israeli cuisine, and consumption in Israel has been compared by food critic Elena Ferretti to “peanut butter in America, Nutella in Europe or Vegemite in Australia”. I have loved it ever since. There are so many varieties on offer in supermarkets now. I love the lemon and coriander variety. But you can always jazz up a basic pot of hummus very simply. Turn the pot out on to a plate. Make a little well in the centre with a spoon. Pour in a little olive oil into the well, then squeeze in some fresh lemon juice and a pinch of paprika. Use small triangles of pitta bread, lightly toasted, to dip in to the mix. Gorgeous!

Or make your own Hummus ! 1x 400g tin chickpeas 2. tbsp lemon juice 1 clove garlic, finely chopped 1tbsp tahini 70ml extra virgin olive oil 1tsp cayenne pepper Salt and pepper. In a bowl mix all the ingredients together except the seasoning then blitz to a puree in a food processor. Tip back into the mixing bowl, stir well and season. Spoon into a suitable hummus receptacle and serve with a good shot of extra virgin, an extra sprinkling of cayenne and floppy, warm flatbread. If you can’t get hold of tahini – substitute peanut butter.

Israeli eating customs tend to conform to the wider Mediterranean region, with lunch, rather than dinner, being the focal meal of a regular workday. “Kibbutz foods” have been adopted by many Israelis for their light evening meals as well as breakfasts, and they often consist of various types of cheeses, both soft and hard, yogurt and sour cream, vegetables and salads, olives, hard-boiled eggs or omelettes, pickled and smoked herring, a variety of breads, and fresh orange juice and coffee. Israel was the first place I tasted honey mixed into fresh yoghurt. One of my Jewish friends at college always gave me a plate of sweet pickled herring with and matzos. It was so moreish and out in Israel it was even better. She bought the pickled herring, chopped it up and mixed it with finely chopped red onion, a little brown sugar and some finely diced apple. It is a very satisfying snack. It all seems a long, long time ago now, but the sights, smells and sounds still come back to me easily. I worked for a while in the fields protecting young date palms from the birds, climbing high amongst the leaves via a cherry picker and reaching out precariously to pop nets over the young dates. Out in the field it was very warm work and we were supposed to drink 11 pints of water during each shift. We worked from 5 until 8 and then stopped for breakfast. Then from 9 until mid day. That was it then as the temperatures soared towards 50 degrees celsius and more some days. Siesta time then lunch then more siesta. Then we swam from about 4 pm onwards until 6. Supper was followed by a visit to the bar cum disco then I collapsed into bed for about 5 or 6 hours before we started all over again. The flavours of the food and the sights and sounds of the markets in Jerusalem confirmed for me how exciting food can be and made me realise how much I wanted to learn as much as I could about cooking and preparation. I enjoyed some wonderful experiences; some quite surreal, not least spending one evening in a cellar cafe, drinking ridiculously strong coffee, watching ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ dubbed into Arabic. The coffee was served in small cups and most of it was a mud brown thick sludge which you could not drink. I looked around wondering what I had paid for, when I noticed the local Arabs, eyes glued on Mrs Bridges, scooping out the thick coffee residue with their thumb and sucking it off! I gave it a go, but it was messy! What a caffeine kick though! I think I flew home afterwards. When I stayed with an Armenian family in one of the old quarters of Jerusalem, I experienced a curious never to be repeated early morning ablution – the shower was right over the toilet so you had to sit on it to have a shower. It certainly was practical in terms of time saving! And, it overlooked the courtyard, with no door, and the family would just wave at me, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I overcame my natural English conservatism rather quickly!

As the popular t-shirt on sale, at the time I was in Jerusalem, read, ‘ISRAEL IS REAL.’ It was a great start to my foodie education.

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