The Best Arab Food You Never Tasted

Fancy challenging your taste buds to something different this month? A local initiative offers an appetizing introduction to Arab cuisine, including the seasonal green leaf vegetable Mulukhiyah.

Dan Peretz

“Everyone knows – in the territories, too – that Sandala’s mulukhiyah is the best in the country,” proudly declares Omari Nabil, a farmer from the Arab village in northern Israel. Nearly 70 percent of the local villagers earn their livelihood from agriculture, a high rate compared to the dwindling trend in other rural Israeli communities. And the mulukhiyah and cucumbers grown in the heavy soil at the foot of Mount Gilboa have gained a regional reputation. Earlier generations would plant the mulukhiyah – a summer crop that takes about a month to grow, and is also known by the names Egyptian spinach, Jute mallow and Jew’s mallow – in late spring, in the open fields. Nowadays, the growing and marketing season is expanded by planting in hothouses.

“Even in summer there isn’t much planting outside anymore,” says Nabil. Buyers prefer the shiny green leaves produced by the hothouse plants, and growers prefer the Egyptian mulukhiyah over the Syrian version (“The leaves of the Syrian variety are prettier, but the Egyptian type weighs more and is more economical for the grower who sells whole plants,” explains Nabil).

“We have a saying that you can tell a person’s religion by the mulukhiyah he eats,” says Arab microbiologist Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel. “If you’re Muslim, you eat chopped mulukhiyah in soup; if you’re Christian, you eat whole mulukhiyah leaves cooked with tomatoes and onion; if you’re Bedouin, you cook mulukhiyah in soup with dough drippings; and if you’re Druze, you don’t eat it at all, since it’s banned by your religion.”


Labaneh from the Ghanaim dairy. Photo by Dan Peretz

And what about the Jews, we want to know. “You haven’t been here long enough to be part of the story!” laughs Atamna-Ismaeel. In fact, Jews who came from Arab countries, including Egypt, cook mulukhiyah, as do Jews whose families lived for centuries in holy walled cities like Jerusalem, Tiberias and Hebron.

Time for Arab cuisine

Atamna-Ismaeel – winner of last year’s Israeli “Master Chef” show and a woman with a contagious passion for cooking, local Palestinian heritage and life itself, regardless of religion or nationality – recently joined forces with chefs Ran Shmueli and Eldad Shmueli of Claro restaurant in Tel Aviv. Their project has been dubbed “Local Arab Cuisine Month” (running until July 23), and the emphasis is on ingredients that come from small-scale producers in the Arab community: grape leaves from Fureidis; chicory and okra from Kafr Manda; lamb from Reineh, and more.

Small-scale producers struggle to survive in Israel, all the more so if they come from the Arab sector. Even in an age when traditional artisanal craftspeople and tillers of the land are lauded, it’s hard to find any from the Arab community who’ve become cultural or culinary heroes. For the most part, it’s hard to find their produce in the modern farmers’ markets and restaurants that, in recent years, have made it a point to only use fresh produce straight “from farm to table.”

We recently went on a food tour to familiarize ourselves with some of the producers supplying ingredients for the dishes being served at Claro.


Farmer Omari Nabil in his mulukhiyah hothouse. Photo by Dan Peretz

Near the mulukhiyah hothouses, Nabil set aside a small area for an organic vegetable garden and orchard for his family’s use. We taste the fresh chickpeas, small melons and tiny peaches from the young tree, and then sit down for a cup of coffee and a chat about mulukhiyah, about the seeds that come from Egypt (“They’ve been making it difficult lately at Ashdod port”), and the low price the crop has been realizing of late. “Write something nice about mulukhiyah, so Jewish readers will finally want to get to know it,” Nabil suggests.

Bakery with a difference

“This is the real smell of the Arab village,” says Hanan Abu Jameel, referring to the special aroma wafting from the traditional taboun oven dug in the ground and covered with an igloo-like stone structure to preserve the heat. “This smell – of baking dough, with a hint of straw, dung or olive waste used to heat the taboun – brings me back to my childhood. It also takes people back a century, to a time when every family had a taboun like this in the yard,” she says.

In one corner of Abu Jameel Ranch – the educational ecological farm in northern Israel that Hanan and her husband Ataf built – traditional tabouns are used for a fascinating baking workshop. Before it goes into the traditional taboun, the soft dough is called rakhau, and when it comes out – etched with the imprint of the tiles at the bottom – it is rarif.

Hanan and some women from the village who are employed here bake fattir (large pitas folded into four layers), and fattir with a wonderful za’atar (hyssop) mixture that’s also made at the farm. Atamna-Ismaeel can’t resist and joins the other women in making sweet fattir (“My grandmother had a taboun like this in her yard and would always make a special treat for her beloved granddaughter – fattir with olive oil and either honey or sugar. So delicious”).

Hanan and Ataf began building the farm on the edge of Baka al-Garbiyeh in 2007. It has grown into a sustainable agriculture paradise and sits on 30 dunams (about 7.5 acres) they inherited from their grandparents.

“There was nothing here except for olive trees,” says Ataf, an engineer and landscape planner by training. “I dreamt of building a social-educational project that was far from politics and the empty words of politicians. I hate hearing that phrase ‘coexistence.’ Now we have groups and classes coming here from both the Arab and Jewish communities to learn about traditional Palestinian life and to work side by side, even when we don’t share the same language.”

On this beautiful farm, they also grow herbs, keep bees for honey, press olive oil and offer marvelous seasonal workshops based on the lifecycle of a local farmer in the premodern age. For now, these activities are mostly reserved for prescheduled guided groups. But in the near future, they aim to open up the farm to individual visitors at weekends. The farm’s fine produce is only sold here. The honey and za’atar mixture are two of the ingredients on the Arab cuisine menu at Claro.

Homemade dairy

“I wanted to have something to do when I retire,” says Shar’a Ghanaim, a building contractor born and raised in Baka al-Garbiyeh. “Besides, I missed the taste of the cheeses my mother used to make, from the family sheep’s milk, and I wanted her and her friends to have employment. So I started a dairy out in the yard. One day, when the kids grow up and the big house empties out – you know how it goes in life – I’ll move into a small apartment over the dairy. I already devote most of my time to it as it is.”

The products of small- and medium-sized dairies like this one – making cheese like jibneh and labaneh, and yogurt – are barely found on store shelves outside the Arab community. Among the products of these numerous dairies, the simple but terrific cheeses from this family dairy are a real stand-out: There’s a sheep’s milk labaneh and goats’ milk labaneh with a wonderfully light texture (which will star in a special chicken dish at Claro); sheep’s milk yogurt (to be featured in the lamb dumplings); ayrin – a Balkan-style yogurt drink; and two types of jibneh.

The milk comes from Tnuva these days, but the traditional methods and quest for that old-fashioned flavor continue.

Local Arab Cuisine Month continues until July 23 at Claro, 23 Ha’arba’a Street, Tel Aviv (03) 601-7777. Abu Jameel Ranch is at the northern entrance to Baka al-Garbiyeh, five minutes from Kibbutz Mezer (www.abujameel.com). The Ghanaim Dairy at Baka al-Garbiyeh can be contacted on (04) 628-1499.