Fasting and Fast-food: 30 Days and 30 Bites of Ramadan

With Israel’s Muslim community currently celebrating Ramadan, it’s the perfect time to discover delicious fast food with a difference.

Dan Peretz

Nadia Barhumi’s modest apartment lies within the mighty stone seawall right by the old port in Acre. One of the kitchen windows facing the sea is an opening that once used to hold a cannon. From another kitchen window, small fishing boats can be seen rocking gently on the turquoise waters. “If we had this kind of view while frying up an omelet, we’d be better cooks, and better people,” the guests think to themselves enviously, as they compliment their cheerful and gracious hostess for “a kitchen fit for a queen.”

Delighted with the cries of admiration, our intrepid hostess leans the upper part of her body out towards the waters. “On stormy winter days, the water comes up higher than the windows,” says her younger sister, Nabila Bana. Their nephew, Osama Dalal, meanwhile, tells of how their grandchildren, nieces and nephews used to fish through the window, using a string with some sort of bait attached, and how they used to lick the salty walls of the house to see what the sea tastes like.

Now it’s time to cook. Crisp browned pieces of fried pitas are placed in the bottom of a bowl. Then cooked baladi chickpeas are added, and these two first layers are topped with a tart, cool yogurt that’s been seasoned with garlic. And now comes the best part: Hot clarified butter, samna, is poured on top and the wonderful bubbling sounds that ensue quickly draw a crowd, all eager to dip their spoons in. The luscious sight – the hot liquid pooling into golden bubbles upon the white “clouds” – precedes the pleasure of eating. Thiridi, as the people of Acre call it, is the simplest of dishes, but the combination of flavors, textures and temperatures makes it extraordinary. Add to that the fact that it’s prepared just once a year – during the 30 days of Ramadan – and you have a recipe for an unforgettable dish.

The Prophet’s favorite food

“You won’t find any Ramadan table that doesn’t have these three things: dates, fattoush salad and thiridi,” says Osama, and Nadia and Nabila nod in agreement. But this family unity soon gives way to passionate argument over the original and best thiridi recipe. Wherever there are two women, you’ll find at least three versions of the same recipe. And wherever you have two splendid women cooks, one male cook and more family and friends, you’re sure to find dozens of different versions. Osama Dalal, who’s in his early twenties, bows to the wisdom of the women, who between them have more than 100 years’ experience in the kitchen – although he still tries to sprinkle a little cinnamon on top of the bubbling thiridi.

The hosts and guests here tonight are also in disagreement over the origins of the dish. All agree that Acre’s thiridi is similar to the Lebanese fatteh – from a family of foods based on a bed of torn bread pieces saturated with the cooking liquids of legumes (usually chickpeas, sometimes lentils) or beef stock. The festive-religious nature attached to the food also indicates a possible connection with an ancient dish, dating from the first century C.E., known as tharid, or tharida.

In her fascinating book “Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World” (University of California Press), historian Lilia Zaouali writes that tharida was a symbol of Arab identity in the early years of Islam – practically a national Arab food, in modern terms. The Prophet Mohammed declared it the best of all foods, likening it to his most beloved wife, Aisha, despite its simplicity – just bits of bread moistened with meat broth.

Over the years, it developed into a dish that spread over a vast cultural and geographical area, spawning hundreds of recipes and variations, but the name tharid stuck to the action of tearing bread into pieces and dipping them in cooking juices. Cookbooks written from the 10th-13th centuries in Baghdad, Syria, Egypt and Andalusia feature a variety of recipes for tharid, and the ingredients and preparation methods described in some of them are quite similar to traditional recipes that are still around today.

Old new world

The holy trinity – dates, fattoush salad and thiridi – will be appearing over the next month not only on the table of this Acre family, but also on the menu of Dalal Tapas Bar, along with other classic Ramadan foods like qatayef (a type of pancake filled with nuts or cheese and then fried) or awama (fried dough balls dipped in sugar syrup). Osama opened his small bar-restaurant – in the covered section of the Turkish Bazaar – just four months ago. Most of the people who work there, in the kitchen and behind the bar, are young Acre natives about his age. Some are his relatives. Although without much professional kitchen experience, Osama derives most of the inspiration for his cooking from the women in his family, though he uses more modern techniques and presentation.

The Dalal family is one of a small number of remaining Palestinian families – about 20, say the locals – who also lived in Acre prior to 1948. Many families fled the city, and refugees from other towns and villages moved into their houses. “A lot of our family now lives in Syria and Jordan,” says Hala Daher, another relative of Osama’s, showing us a family tree drawn up by a cousin from the Jordanian part of the family. The names of the family don’t appear on this tree, except for the legendary great-great-grandmother who is considered the founder of the modern family dynasty.

“We’re sure that the family lived in the city before 1831, too,” says Hala. “But that’s the year she returned to Acre with her baby son and went back to using her maiden name. She was called Dalal Dalal. ‘Dalal’ means ‘delightful things.’ When she married a rich man from Egypt, she took the surname Randur. Then when her husband died and she feared that his relatives might harm her over inheritance disputes, she left and came back to Acre.”

There was once a Dalal shoe factory in the city; also a Dalal soap factory, founded in the 1950s in the city’s Khan al-Umdan. Today, the name is attached to Osama’s new small business. You sit at the bar under the arched ceilings, or at one of the few tables set out on the pathway once trodden by traders and buyers from all over the vast cosmopolitan empire.

The best dishes on the continually changing menu – in accordance with the daily local catch and seasonal produce – are those based on traditional knowledge, given an updated design as tempting meze: Tartur, also known as tajin, is a dish of small sea fish baked in a brass skillet with onion, tehina and lemon; sayadiyeh, the classic fisherman’s dish here, is made with rice, fish and seafood.
 
The refreshing and creative selection of salads may include a carrot salad that is cut in thin strands and seasoned with hot pepper, garlic and fresh hyssop; and a squash and radish salad with mint and black caraway seeds. You may also find a wonderful selection of pickled fruits and vegetables, including some less familiar ones like unripe grapes preserved in salt water.

Some of the attempts to combine old and new – like an interesting pine nut dish based on a traditional recipe, raw fish and jasmine oil to please the sense of smell, or dishes with numerous ingredients and molecular cooking pretensions – are less pleasing, in my view, but they are part of the process of experimenting, of trial and error and learning, by young talented people with a great love for the field, paired with a desire to tread the traditional path while making bold innovations.

The dining experience here may not always be as smooth and polished as at some of the other new places in town – a number of interesting new eateries have opened in Acre over the past year, headed by other young locals – but this place is another important step in creating a new language of the local cuisine.

Dalal Tapas Bar, Turkish Bazaar, 1 Weitzman Street, Acre, (04) 639-7345; 052-430-6976

Dan Peretz
Dan Peretz