In late December, Jason and I were fortunate enough to travel to Palestine and Israel. We stayed in a small city called Ramallah in the West Bank—the city where Jason’s parents were born and raised, and where a branch of his extended family still lives.
I have always believed that food is the common denominator that brings people together and that it is the perfect way to truly get to know know a culture. Culture differences are all but forgotten when sharing a meal. It was not always the easiest journey being fully accepted into Jason’s close-knit Palestinian family. But I knew from the first time his mother’s face lit up when I tasted—and loved—her lovingly made stuffed squash that food would help us overcome relationship hurdles. Food was the first way I bonded with Jason’s mom. It was the topic of the first real, engaging conversation I had with his dad.
And food was, indeed, the way we bonded with our extended family halfway across the world. It was also, for us, a way to bond with the culture itself. Tasting things that are everyday foods—falafel, hummus, ka’ak (sesame bread), pickles, yogurt—infused at least a small understanding of the way of life there.
We ate some dishes that were familiar to us, such as hummus, baba ghanoush (eggplant dip), msakkhan, mini eggplants stuffed with hashweh (a mixture of rice, minced lamb and pine nuts or almonds), malfouf (cabbage rolls, again, stuffed with hashweh), knafeh (melted white cheese and shredded phyllo dough, soaked in sugar syrup) and simple roast chicken. And even though we’d had these dishes before, something about them was different there, and it was really exciting to taste.
But we also had plenty of things we’d either never had, or only tried once or twice before, like a dessert made from a sheet of hand-rolled phyllo folded over cheese or nuts and baked; arabic ice cream, which has gum paste in it, giving it a gooey, sticky texture (jury’s still out on whether that’s a good thing!); maftoul (hand-rolled couscous in rich stock and topped with lamb and chick peas); and a dish of blended hummus and bread.
We, of course, did more than eat on this trip…although the eating was among the most enjoyable parts. The ancient cities in Israel and Palestine are awe-inspiring and beautiful. And though many see that part of the world as contentious, we found it to be quite peaceful, engaging and hospitable.
I will certainly be exploring more Arabic, and specifically Palestinian, cuisine here going forward. One of my favorite Christmas gifts came from Jason’s parents—a cookbook called Sahtein, which was created by the American Ramallah Federation. It includes wonderful recipes that I now feel ever-so-slightly more equipped to attempt, having tasted many of the dishes on our trip.
In the meantime, I think I’ll go to the nearby Arabic grocery to grab a falafel sandwich. I miss them already.