Flour, olive oil, carob syrup and sesame seeds. Those are the four ingredients of bsisa, a simple food that was one of the rare sweets served by inhabitants of Eretz Israel before cane sugar became a cheap, mass-produced product. The ingredients are kneaded and rolled into balls. That’s the essence of the preparation, and the essence of the taste of the tiny treat.
“It’s not certain that these recipes have a right to exist in the modern world, and it’s no wonder that they’ve almost disappeared,” says Ghada (pronounced Rada) Bouls, thinking aloud while serving the simple cookie to guests in her Nazareth shop. “Today there’s chocolate, sweets made with sugar and elegant types of baklava, but what did the fellah [farmer] have at the time? A little flour, a little oil, sesame he grew in a field near the house and fruit syrup he prepared himself.”
The name bsisa comes from the root bas in Arabic, which means to blend dough with fat (the word basbousa – a semolina cake – is of similar origin). Among the Jews of Tunisia, Djerba and Libya it is still customary to prepare bsisa – ground wheat or barley mixed with oil and various spices – on the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan (the ancient Jewish new year, in the spring), or on other festive occasions that mark a new beginning. Jewish tradition links the custom to the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem; whatever the case, this basic, popular sweet was common to all inhabitants of the region.
In the Bedouin encampments of unrecognized villages in the south of Israel and in cuisines that preserve ancient traditions in the absence of other foods, I encountered bsisa made from flour roasted over an open fire. It had a strong smoky fragrance, olive oil and sugar. In other places, partly due to the modern culture of abundance, bsisa has almost been forgotten.
But it can be found, along with other simple cookies, in Ghada Bouls’ kitchen. Her desire to recreate traditional recipes that are becoming extinct arose from her interest in sesame, a crop that has almost disappeared from local fields.
Ghada was born in the French Hospital in Nazareth in 1973, and lived in the city until she was 27. “I began in the department of Land of Israel studies and biblical archaeology at the university. Not because of Zionism,” she laughs, “but because it was a department that accepted people with low grades on the psychometric exam [which most institutions of higher learning require for admission]. I moved to Haifa and began working in a shelter for battered women.” She completed another degree, in theology, and for the past 18 years has been working as a tour guide specializing in Israel, Armenia and Istanbul.
“During Operation Protective Edge [the 2014 Gaza War] I had almost no work,” Ghada says. “Ninety percent of my clients are Jews. Because there were demonstrations, Jews stopped coming here. Jerusalem was emptied of tourists, and I was left with almost no work and with time for study, research and doing whatever I wanted. I’ve always dreamed of studying anthropology and combining my love for art and folklore with my great love for food.”
Cookies and handicrafts
Last October she opened a small shop in the Nazareth market area, not far from the Fauzi Azar Inn and other guest houses that have opened there in recent years. At first glance, the crowded shop, located beneath stone arches built in the golden age of Nazareth in the 19th century, looks like an ordinary souvenir shop. Only a closer look – and if you’re lucky, a learned explanation from the owner – will reveal the interesting items: coffee urns handcrafted by one of the last copper artisans remaining in the region; lovely ceramic ware and tiles painted by the talented monastic sisters of Deir Rafat, near Beit Shemesh; cutting boards and wooden spoons created by a cooperative from the Bethlehem area; items crafted by the lace makers from the Druze village of Hurfeish; and various ancient vessels – sifters, pitchers and bowls – which are sold alongside other crafts produced by Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian artisans.
In the back of the store Ghada has a tiny kitchenette and a single table under a turquoise-colored wall. She serves cookies and traditional sweets prepared by her or her mother, Lila, to the guests who sit down for a cup of tea or coffee. “It started with a song we usually sing at weddings, whose words include ‘The green sesame filled the walls, they told the merchants to open the stores.’ I never understood the meaning of the words because I belong to the generation that wasn’t familiar with sesame. But when I had time on my hands I started to read about the subject and accompanied the last of the sesame growers.
“Even today, the farmers uproot the plants by hand and leave the green plants to dry in the open air, or as the song puts it – near the walls of the houses. When the sesame pods open, you can hear the sound of the grains spilling out of them, a signal to the merchants to open their shops; the uncooperative pods are beaten with sticks.”
When she opened the shop, Ghada looked for traditional recipes for baked goods she could serve there, within the limitations of the available space and the modest kitchenette.
“I looked for unfamiliar things that are rarely prepared. Ancient but popular, accessible and cheap food like bsisa, which because of the natural sugar keeps for a long time. Even Mother didn’t know how to prepare bsisa; even in her generation they no longer prepared it, and we did the first experiments together.”
Mother and daughter also make other simple sweets, such as melatit cookies – from the Arabic word lat, which means to knead. Ghada’s work in the shop has priority over the café, but if plans work out, she will enlarge the space and the kitchen. Then she will be able to serve more complex foods and hot dishes as well. Anyone lucky enough to get a spontaneous invitation to lunch with mother and daughter – which might include mulukhiyah, a vegetable stew with chicken, or rummanyeh, a stew of lentils with pomegranate sauce – can attest to their cooking skills.
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup roasted sesame seeds
5 tbsp. fine olive oil
3/4 cup carob syrup
Heat a deep Teflon skillet over a medium flame. Add the flour and stir continuously so the flour won’t get scorched or stick to the skillet. Dry the flour over the flame for 4-5 minutes until there is a pleasant smell in the air and the flour becomes slightly crystalline (the flour shouldn’t change color).
Add the roasted sesame seeds and stir. Add the oil and stir until the oil is absorbed uniformly into the mixture (you can remove from the heat for a moment to stir, and put it back).
Add the carob syrup and stir until the paste becomes a single mass. Remove from heat and let cool. When the mixture has cooled, scoop small pieces from it, roll them into balls the size of ping-pong balls, and serve in baking cups.