From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Salads a staple of Palestinian cuisine

Date 3 Feb 2003 15:13:51 -0500

Note #7583 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Salads a staple of Palestinian cuisine

Salads a staple of Palestinian cuisine

Most meals begin with a rich variety of vegetables and dips

by Alexa Smith

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -Ronnie Smeir dices and talks while he chops. Tomatoes. Cucumbers. Lemon. An onion. 

"The key to Palestinian cooking is vegetables and herbs," says the 24-year-old chef as Bethlehem's Star Hotel. "We use all kind of vegetables in food.  In our famous drinks, we mix herbs  for the Arabic, Turkish coffee." That's a concoction so potent that it is served in baby cups.

"Even in tea we use the Maramia," Smeir goes on, referring to a spice known in the West as sage, but using a local word that honors the Virgin Mary. "And mint. Both are good for the throat."

Still dicing, he adds: "We buy things in the open-air market, yes. It is better quality, and it is cheaper." 

Smeir is hard at work on the third floor of the Star, a huge facility run by his family. It's largely empty now, although Bethlehem is still in the middle of its Christmas season, when it celebrates Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox holidays in succession. The Armenian Christmas won't end until Jan. 19.

 From the windows of the Star you can see the little town below, and the Church of the Nativity marking the spot where Jesus is said to have been born. There are no Christmas lights or tourists, because of the Intifada and the Israeli army's brutal crackdown on the West Bank and in Gaza.

It's the dead of winter, but Smeir is fixing a fresh salad, a staple of
Palestinian cuisine.  Most meals begin with a selection of salads, sometimes
as many as 10. This is true in restaurants and in homes. Some salads are
served plain, like the Arabic Salad described below, and some are served with
a dip, like the Bakdounsieh.

Always, the salad course comes with fresh pita bread to be dipped into it.
Often big chunks of vegetables - onion, tomato, hot green peppers - are there
for dipping as well. 

Only rarely is lettuce included. 

A saucer of olive oil and a saucer of za'tar (known in the West as thyme) are
normally placed side-by-side on the table. Diners dip bread, first into the
oil, then into the herb.

"This is mezze," Smeir says, describing the assortment of dishes that will
serve as a meal-starter. "Here, we like to invite people to our houses; or,
we like to go to restaurants. I'll call up the neighbors. We'll drink coffee
and talk. If it is noon and you are at my house, I will not let you go. You'd
have to have lunch with us. Have coffee or tea, some sweets. It is our

Smeir isn't the cook here. He used to work as a chef in a top Jerusalem
hotel, but lost his job when the tourist industry went south. Although he
lives on the West Bank, he was born in Nazareth - so he's an Israeli citizen
and can pass through the military checkpoints with no trouble.

These days he has no reason to go.

Sometimes he whittles olive wood, carving wise men, angels and stars to sell
when the tourists come back.

Tonight he's a salad-preparation instructor, an ambassador for Palestinian
cuisine. He presents four variations on a theme:  

Arabic Salad 

1 lemon, squeezed
2 cucumbers
2 tomatoes
1 onion
< cup olive oil
salt to taste
fresh mint 

Dice cucumbers and put them in a serving bowl. Dice tomatoes and onion, add
them to the cucumbers, add olive oil and mix. Add enough lemon juice to
saturate ("Fresh lemon is better than bottled," Smeir says). Add salt.
Decorate with sprigs of mint or lemon slices.  

1 bunch parsley, trimmed
2 < tbs. Tahineh (a paste made of ground sesame seeds)
1 lemon
tsp. salt 
Dice washed parsley by hand (Smeir recommends  using a paring knife to get it
very fine), set aside in serving bowl. In another bowl, stir together Tahineh
and the juice of about < of the lemon, adding water until it becomes a smooth
paste. Stir in salt; add parsley. 

Turkish Salad 

1 tomato, diced
1 tbs. tomato paste
= onion, diced
1 Tbs. salsa
= Tbs. cumin
dry red pepper
olive oil
1 lemon, squeezed
parsley, diced 

Wash and dice the tomato and parsley. Place in a large serving bowl. Add the
onion and a small handful of parsley, diced. Mix in the other ingredients:
the salsa, tomato paste and cumin. Everything else is to taste, a pinch of
red pepper, a touch of salt, a squeeze of a lemon ("A little bit for taste,
you know," as Smeir puts it.) and a bit of oil.  

Avocado Salad 

1 avocado
2 tbs. fresh lemon juice
1 tbs. olive oil
1 clove crushed garlic
salt to taste 

Peel avocado and remove seed. Crush avocado with a fork on a saucer; add
lemon juice and olive oil; add garlic and salt. 

Cleaning up in the Star's Hotel's dead-quiet kitchen, Smeir says life here is
nothing like it used to be. The town is often under curfew, although Israeli
troops pulled back from Manger Square for Christmas and allowed residents to
move freely for a while. Since the troops swept back into Bethlehem the day
after Christmas, arresting suspected terrorists, the curfew has been imposed
and lifted on no regular schedule.

"People sit in their houses and watch television and eat," Smeir says. "There
is no work. Before, when we finished our jobs, we'd go to Tiberius or the
Dead Sea; now, the checkpoints don't let people move from here to there. It
is a jail, believe me.

"When there was peace - before these last two years - there were lots of
tourists, lots of work. Palestinian workers would pass through to Israel.
Jews came here shopping. It was a beautiful life here, believe me."


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