I Am an Arab Woman: The Traditional Cuisine of Umm Bilal

At celebrations, in times of mourning and on ordinary weekdays, Umm Bilal’s cooked dishes and pastries are an integral part of her northern Israeli village

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Manakish with olive oil and za’atar.
Manakish with olive oil and za’atar.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Umm Bilal’s daily routine begins at 3 A.M. The streets of the hilly Galilean village are still dark and empty, but in three hours preschoolers and schoolchildren will begin to stream into the produce stand and bakery she runs with her husband, Khaled Qadri, and she has to start in on the different types of dough for the various pastries.

By 6, when the first pupils leave their homes, the tiny shop is heady with the warm, sweet fragrance of fresh pastries: wonderful golden-brown pita, white and whole-wheat; taboun bread (also called lafa, Iraqi pita or eish tanur) studded with wild spinach; and a selection of manakish. Umm Bilal offers the traditional flatbread that she bakes in a taboun with olive oil and za’atar, with a puree of sweet and spicy peppers, with grated goat cheese, or, to the delight of both adults and children, a “pizza” with homemade tomato sauce, cheese and olives.

It’s the last day of school before spring vacation, and a nearby preschool has ordered five trays of Nabulsi kibbe and cheese sambouseks to mark the occasion. Umm Bilal, a charming women who works tirelessly and efficiently, fries meat for the sambousek filling, prepares the bulgur and meat mixture for the kibbe shells and kneads dough for the sambousek.

Umm Bilal.Credit: Dan Perez

“People say I’m crazy to work alone,” the gifted cook says with a smile, “but I can’t work with another person. It drives me crazy, and no one can keep up with my pace.” At 10, when the trays of kibbe and sambousek are festively decorated with lemon slices, a local man hurries in to announce the unexpected death of one of the neighbors. He asks Umm Bilal (who shakes her head in sorrow, saying “she died too young”) to make tabikh — a general name for a stew, derived from the Arabic word for cooking (and a cognate for mitbah, Hebrew for kitchen) — for the dozens of people who will attend the funeral.

“We eat the same thing at weddings and at funerals,” Umm Bilal says as she gathers the ingredients that will soon fill the enormous funeral pot. Khaled, her husband and helpmate, is sent to the butcher for fresh beef. When the muezzin calls out the name of the deceased, announcing the time of the funeral and noting the names of her children and their families, the smell of pine nuts roasted in butter is already spreading through the kitchen. The skillet of pine nuts is replaced by a vat of goat’s milk yogurt and on another burner chunks of meat are simmering with bay leaves and cumin. In a third pot, thin noodles that will be served with the rice are frying.

The workday that began before dawn continues until the early evening, in accordance with customer orders, the daily habits and special events in the lives of the villagers. The urn of coffee — sour and stimulating sa’ada, unsweetened — is her closest ally. Six days a week, from the predawn hours until after sunset, Umm Bilal works in the bakery. Only on Fridays does she take care of her own household.

“And then too I mainly have to cook, organize and prepare food for my nuclear and extended family,” she says graciously and without complaint. “I like cooking for the family.” Two weeks earlier, when we came to visit her and buy some of her handiwork, she was preparing lunch on a volunteer basis for 150 toddlers with special needs. Her earnings may be modest, but nevertheless she shares them with those who are less fortunate.

Pickled turnip.Credit: Dan Perez

She was born in Nahf in 1967. “My father was a farmer,” she says, “and my mother died when I was 10. She was father’s second wife. He married her, as is our custom, when his first wife gave him only daughters. Mother also gave birth to four sons, but died young. Father’s first wife raised me like a daughter. We usually call the other wife ‘Auntie,’ but we called her ‘Grandma’ and we loved her very much. She taught me to cook.”

Umm Bilal's olives. Everything is homemade.Credit: Dan Perez

Bilal, the only son of Umm Bilal and Khaled and the apple of their eye, is studying veterinary medicine at the Hebrew University campus in Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv. For years Umm Bilal owned a small clothes shop, “but people in the village have no money,” she says simply. “They buy on credit and have difficulty paying. No one visits our village. It’s not like Beit Jann or other Arab communities where the highway passes through. But everyone needs to eat, and it’s easier to manage even if there aren’t any visitors from outside.”

Six years ago Umm Bilal and Khaled opened their small shop, which relies mainly on the talents of the cook and baker, in a drab commercial strip near the local health clinic. At the back are the home kitchen and the taboun oven, and the windows look out on the hills and olive groves of Beit Hakerem Valley. In the front of the shop are the vegetables and the baked goods and other products, most of which Umm Bilal makes herself.

Barazek, addictive salty-sweet cookies with sesame seeds and spices.Credit: Dan Perez

“I am an Arab woman,” she says with pride, meaning that she is capable of providing all her family’s needs with her own hands and making foods and local and seasonal dishes all year round. On one wall of the modest, well-organized shop are shelves filled with jars of pickles, including cracked suri olives seasoned with hot peppers (among the best we’ve ever tasted) and small stuffed eggplants, as well as a homemade za’atar spice blend.

On the shelves of a different wall are the various sweet pastries, including barazek (addictive salty-sweet cookies with sesame seeds and spices), date-filled ma’amoul and pastry bracelets filled with jam or nuts. A small freezer in the middle of the store contains shish barak (meat dumplings in yogurt sauce) and other homemade filled pastries. The best things, however, are made to order: round zucchini, filled with meat and cooked in yogurt; malfouf —- stuffed cabbage or grape leaves, vegetarian or with meat; mansaf, a festive dish of meat, rice and yogurt that is usually served at weddings and funerals, or kibbe, a must at every wedding; and katayef, sweet pancakes filled with nuts and dipped in sugar syrup, a traditional Ramadan dish — all prepared by the unusually talented Umm Bilal.

Umm Bilal, Nahf (near Clalit Health Services, which appears on Waze). Closed Friday. For details: 052-7564028

Umm Bilal's pita.Credit: Dan Perez

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