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Mar 01, 2016 | Carol E. Barnwell

Mezze Reflects Rich Diversity in Holy Land

Nearly every meal during my pilgrimage to the Holy Land began with a generous “mezze” of olives, tomato and cucumber salad, cheese, salty pickles, hummus, tabbouleh and pita bread. More elaborate offerings included fuul (stewed fava beans), baba ghanouj, oval nuggets of fried ground lamb, tiny stuffed eggplants and the most delicious yogurt I’ve ever tasted.


Each meal reflected the seemingly infinite cultural variety of the Holy Land, which nurtures the roots of three Abrahamic religions. Within each population is yet another layer of ethnicities that helps to create a bountiful feast of flavors here. Israeli Jews come from nearly as many ethnicities as Americans themselves and—coupled with the Armenians, Bedouins, Druze and Arabs (both Muslim and Christian)—have added to the richness of cuisine. 


Kunafi, melted cheese wrapped in phyllo and drizzled with honey is a special treat. Photo: Carol E. Barnwell

Ashkenazi Jews descended from medieval Jewish communities in the Rhineland Valley. Sephardic Jews originated on the Iberian Peninsula and others came from Ethiopia and India. Each brought the tastes and influence of their native countries.


The broader theme of Arabic cuisine is rooted in tent cookery and nomadic tribes that used recipes as rough outlines rather than strict formulae. Caravans journeyed throughout the Middle East, adding new seasonings and vegetables to existing repertoire, depending on a particular tribe’s palate. This would account for many variations of the same dish throughout the region. 


Most of Israel’s 170,000 Bedouins have left their nomadic lifestyle but continue to hold a strong cultural identity. Their tribes originated in the Arabian Peninsula and were joined in their migration to Israel by Egyptian farmers and tribes-people from Sudan. This nomadic Bedouin influence was broadened further by cuisines from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, reflecting the highly diverse culture of the Holy Land, marked first and foremost by gracious hospitality. 


Arabs make up 20 percent of the population in Israel/Palestine, totaling more than one million people. A majority consider themselves Muslim and are overwhelmingly Sunni, because Sunni Ottoman Turks ruled the area for 200 years. Muslims make up 99 percent of the population on the West Bank and 75 percent of the population in Gaza, but only 16 percent of Israel’s population outside those areas.


It was in a restaurant in the West Bank that I finally found the recipe for the tomato and pepper dip that I had seen served in several variations. I asked the owner, with a bit of pantomime, to gather the ingredients together for her matbucha for a photo because neither my lack of Arabic nor her lack of English could help us share the recipe. 


Matbucha (pronounced mat–boo–ka) is the Middle Eastern answer to salsa. It means “cooked salad” and is made by roasting peppers and stewing them with tomatoes and garlic. Originally from northern Africa, matbucha is always included as part of the mezze. 


Once my fellow pilgrims had picked the plates clean from this feast of appetizers, there appeared large platters of shaved, grilled meat or delicately flavored chicken kabobs. And just when you thought you were finished, the “traditional Palestinian” meal would begin. It was positively excessive! And positively delicious. 


The best yogurt ever was at a Druze restaurant just five miles from the Syrian border, served by a majestically mustachioed proprietor with a huge grin and a white turban. He would not allow his photo to be taken. Druze, nearly 120,000 people (most in Galilee and the Golan Heights), combine the tenets of Islam with Greek and Hindu philosophy. They have not accepted converts since 1050 and observe no official liturgies or holy days. They believe in one God, truthfulness, protection of others and that every hour of every day is a time to reckon oneself before God. And did I mention they make the best yogurt ever?


Salted, then dried in a fine cotton cloth, it was served, thick and creamy with olive oil poured over it and a sprinkling of za’tar: dried thyme, ground and mixed with salt, sumac and roasted sesame seed. Mixed with olive oil, za’tar can be spread on large pita called manooshi, or added to eggs or meats, and, of course, mixed into the best yogurt ever.  


The best dessert we discovered was in a dusty Arab village at a roadside bakery. Several of my traveling companions and I crowded into the open kitchen and watched as three men laid out yards of kadayif—thin strands of shredded phyllo pastry—twisting it over crumbled white cheese, then baked it ‘til golden. Cut and drenched in honey, kunafi is manna from heaven. It can also be made flat and round, sliced and served like pizza, made with rose or orange water, but all are sprinkled with chopped pistachios. 


Our meals and our time in the Holy Land were marked by the abundant spirit of our many hosts, their warmth and hospitality. I’ll not forget the teenage boy (repeat—teenage boy) who offered to walk with me after putting a map to my destination from his phone onto mine! I had gotten hopelessly lost in a Hasidic neighborhood just before Shabbat and could not have found my way without his kind help. This same spirit was present throughout our pilgrimage, reflected by people from every religion, every ethnicity we encountered. An abundant feast indeed. 



Matbucha Recipe

Roast for 30 minutes at 350º 10 Roma tomatoes and 4 red bell peppers, hot peppers to taste (1 jalepeno usually does it for me) drizzled with a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper. Process to a paste and add 8 cloves of chopped garlic and ½ c olive oil. You can flavor with cayenne to taste. Some of the variations were more chunky than others, some included chopped onions. I put it on the pita with shaved lamb and yogurt sauce. It would be good as a spread for a cold roast beef sandwich, too.