As you cut through the flaky, golden-brown dough speckled with black nigella seeds, a steaming aroma of anise wafts up, and silver scales are revealed. There’s nothing like roasting fish in a coating of salt or of dough brushed with olive oil to make the white flesh especially tender. But ta’ashima isn’t merely a dish; it is first and foremost an ancient amulet against unsatisfied childhood desires that have turned into physical aches and pains.
“The root of the word ta’ashima refers to something you long for and don’t get,” explains chef Salah Kurdi, who grew up in Jaffa’s Ajami quarter. “I remember when I was a boy, my sister longed to eat a bunch of sweet purple grapes. She didn’t get it, and the next morning she woke up all swollen and itchy. My grandmother told my mother to take a big fish, season it with garlic, salt and pepper, wrap it in dough and put it in the taboun until the dough wrapping was seared. You break the ‘bread’ in front of the faj’an, the itchy child, the startling effect makes the rebellious desires vanish, and the body immediately heals.”
Ta’ashima, a dish with roots in traditional folk medicine, is served at the new restaurant Kurdi opened in the city of his birth just a few weeks ago. Yaffa al-Jamila – “Beautiful Jaffa” – is what people used to call the ancient Mediterranean port city, and Al-Jamila is the name Kurdi chose for his restaurant. The menu offers some familiar dishes along with others, hardly ever found outside home kitchens, that trace their origins to old Palestinian and local Jaffa culinary traditions.
Dumplings and grape leaves
Hajja Sofia and two of her daughters make the shush barak. The elderly mother uses a round finjan cup to cut circles of dough, places the meat filling in the center and folds them expertly into little dumplings. “She has almost 70 years’ experience,” says daughter Huneida. Hajja Sofia made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca when she was still in her mother’s womb, and so has been known by the religious title of Hajja since the day she was born in the 1930s. Her father, from the extended Siksak family, owned a large orchard, and the Shanir family, into which she married, is also a venerable Jaffa clan.
The two daughters arrange the dumplings in neat rows in pans, bake them for a few minutes until they are crisp and then boil them in a sauce of yogurt and dried mint. Hajja Sofia heads to the work table in the hall of the house on the edge of the Ajami neighborhood, where she fills and rolls grape leaves while telling stories about her childhood, the meat they ate on special occasions, and the shush barak dumplings her mother and grandmother would fill with omelets made from eggs laid by the chickens that were raised out in the yard. The door to the modest, one-story house remains open during all the hours of cooking. There are days when the table is taken outside to the stone porch, next to the lemon trees and date palms in the yard, and the good breeze – there is no air-conditioner – revives the women who are toiling over the cooking and the neighbors who come by to visit.
“She had two sons and four daughters, but she actually raised more than 40 children,” says chef Kurdi, whose late beloved mother was a dear friend and neighbor of Hajja Sofia. Kurdi tastes the marvelous stuffed grape leaves made by his neighbor and kisses her hands as a show of appreciation and respect. In the Jaffa of his childhood, a generation after that of Sofia and his mother, relations between neighbors were even more important than family connections. “Better a close neighbor than a distant brother,” goes the saying. This traditional outlook only changed in the late 20th century.
“I was born and raised in a large Arab house in Ajami,” says Kurdi. “My grandparents lived on one side, Jewish-Bulgarian neighbors lived in the middle and we lived in the third part. Everyone shared a single kitchen and a single bathroom and shower. I remember the line for the bathroom and cooking together in the kitchen and in the courtyard. All the neighbors, from our building and from the nearby buildings, would sit together and chat and peel vegetables and cook. When I think about it, I realize that it was because of them that I was already in the kitchen from age four.”
As a child, he says, “We used to run away from school, toss nets near the harbor and bring up [types of fish that] were still found in abundance then – to roast on the bumper of the car. Afterward I would wash off the salt water and every time I came home they would kiss me on the forehead to check if I’d been to the sea.” As a teenager, he worked on fishing boats and then in local restaurants. He started out in the kitchen of Babai, a well-known local restaurant, and later worked for years at the Benny Hadayag restaurant. In the past decade he also worked in Tel Aviv restaurants such as Meat Bar and Medzzo, and a year before realizing his dream of opening his own place, he studied the techniques of modern cooking at Yair Feinberg’s Studio Fein Cook. “I tried to convince local chefs that it’s easier to cook lamb neck in a vacuum, without much success,” he says.
“When I started thinking about my own restaurant, I knew that memories of the tastes and experiences from the communal cooking in the courtyards would be at the basis of the menu,” says Kurdi. “I’m not sure there’s such a thing as Jaffa cuisine – many of the dishes are common to the larger geographic region – but there are certainly unique ways of preparing things and certain dishes I’ve never come across anywhere else.”
Despite thousands of years of recorded history, the story of Jaffa cuisine is hard to trace. Port cities, which in certain periods served as economic and governmental centers and hubs for the exchange of ideas and goods, have always been known for their cuisine, too. But after 1948, only a few families that had been in this city for centuries still remained. Many of the city’s old-timers became refugees and scattered throughout the Middle East. The old houses, and new, hastily built ones, were taken over by Arab refugee families from other places and Jewish refugees who arrived after Israel’s founding. Rumaniya, for example, a dish made with lentils and pomegranate concentrate, is widely considered a Gaza specialty, but some say it really comes from Jaffa. Unlike the Galilean cuisine that has been rediscovered in recent years and become a subject of research, very little is known about Palestinian-Jaffan cuisine, or about the cuisine of any of the coastal Palestinian cities that were emptied of their original residents.
Kurdi collected recipes from friends of his mother, like other Arab chefs who have recently opened or are about to open restaurants that draw inspiration from the cuisines of their childhood. But he does not plan to cook them in exactly the same way or serve dishes that fit the standard image of Arab cuisine.
“People are already asking for hummus,” he says somewhat indignantly. “They don’t understand how an Arab restaurant in Jaffa would not have hummus. Hummus wasn’t commonly eaten in homes in Jaffa. Sometimes it was something you’d eat on the weekends, when the mothers took a break from cooking and one of the men was sent to bring a quick, cheap breakfast for the kids. I’m offering my interpretation of the dishes they used to cook in people’s homes, with much love and respect for the mothers’ legacy, but in an updated way.”
Samat, for instance, is a traditional dish of yellow lentils with rishtiya, homemade noodles that are usually served cold with sweet fried onion rings, spicy raw onion and parsley. “Lentils are the poor man’s meat,” says Kurdi. “The mothers would make this dish in large quantities and trade it among neighbors. When we got home from school, we were sent to give it out in the neighborhood. The first platter never reached its destination. We finished it off the minute we left the house and then we came back and said that the tray fell and it spilled. Somehow, that tray kept falling each time, but our mother always played along and the next trays made it to their destination and never came back empty. The neighbors always sent back some of their homemade dishes.”
In Kurdi’s kitchen, samat, along with black pasta, has become a side dish served with fish from the sea. The ta’ashima is served with almond tehina and yogurt, not exactly the way Grandma handed down the recipe, and the seafood kubbeh – which he learned from the Christian Umm Sami, gets a thoroughly modern presentation. The saidiya – a local fishermen’s classic – is roasted in the taboun under a thin coating of potato, and the shush barak and lamb ribs and grape leaves are all made in ways that differ from the traditional. Other dishes, like the mistika – malabi with sugared orange peel and pistachios, draw inspiration from Jaffa’s history as a citrus-growing center, even if these dishes weren’t traditionally made in local homes or restaurants.