The Safdi women make Ghraybeh cookies. Dan Peretz

A Year in Nazareth: Capturing a Galilean Dynasty’s Culinary Tradition

The 18 months Michal Waxman spent in the kitchen of the Safdi clan – one of whose members is the chef of Nazareth's famed Diana Restaurant – yielded 'Baladi,' cookbook of Arab cuisine.



The building that’s home to the Safdi family, tucked away in a hidden alleyway in Nazareth’s busy downtown area, has three floors. On the ground floor, where Umm Duhul (Siham Safdi) lives, there’s a terrace filled with flowering plants, abutting a tiny fruit-and-vegetable garden tended by one of her cousins. The first floor is home to two of her late husband’s brothers, Al-Nasham and Tafam, and the top floor is where two of her sons live – one of these sons is Duhul Safdi, the owner and chef of Nazareth’s famous Diana Restaurant – with their families. “This is the Safdi family columbarium,” laughs Manal Safdi, Duhul Safdi’s wife, gesturing with her hands to show that everyone is constantly crossing paths. “We’re all on top of one another all the time, like pigeons.”

The windows of Manal and Duhul Safdi’s spacious apartment offer a lovely view of the city’s hilltops, densely covered with houses with red-tiled roofs. The Safdi clan – one of the biggest and most powerful families of the golden age of Nazareth over a century ago, along with others like the Fahum, Anallah, Kawar and Zidani families – once lived next to the Church of the Annunciation, in the building that now houses a Christian visitors’ center dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

This small branch of the Safdi family (“The entire tribe could fill a couple of wedding halls – there are something like 600 to 700 people who still carry the name Safdi, not including women who married and changed their name. If you count them, too, you’d need to add another hall,” says Duhul) moved to the present location in 1958.

The women of the Safdi household – Umm Duhul, Manal, Aunt Jamila, Aunt Awatef and Aunt Ansaf – are making malfouf: They line the bottom of a huge pan with slices of fatty lamb that were roasted in the oven, and skillfully roll the big, local baladi cabbage leaves, stuffed with beef and rice, into tight cylinders. Duhul Safdi prepares the kibbeh nayeh: He grinds fresh lamb, mixes it with fine bulgur and seasons it with Baharat, cinnamon and hot peppers. Umm Duhul takes a pinch of her son’s spice mixture and tastes it. Silence descends upon the room. Everyone there, including one of Israel’s most talented chefs, awaits the verdict of the matriarch of this family dynasty (and its greatest cook). She grimaces ever so slightly, such that it’s nearly imperceptible. But the meaning is clear. “It’s missing something,” she says, and her chastened son hastens to correct the flavorings and set the universe right again.

Dan Peretz

“He has golden hands, but he still needs supervision,” Aunt Awatef whispers sadly. “I fight with them all day long, and ask their forgiveness all day long,” Safdi says later, only partly joking about the beloved women in his life.

‘Profound passion’

Michal Waxman, who writes a Hebrew blog called Bo’u Le’ekhol (“Come Eat”) and is also the author of best-selling cookbooks, takes her place at the Safdis’ kitchen table, rolling cabbage leaves and shaping ghraybeh cookie dough, like a member of the family. Over the past 18 months, she and her team – photographer Danya Weiner and designer Dekel Bobrov – spent many hours with Duhul Safdi and his relatives documenting the Galilean family’s culinary culture.

The result is the recently published “Baladi” (Yedioth Ahronoth Press, in Hebrew), an unusual and fascinating cookbook. As part of the project, Waxman and her colleagues accompanied the family throughout the seasons of the year, and through all the holidays. The beautiful 320-page volume contains more than 100 recipes, each one carefully tested and retested by Waxman in her home kitchen.

Dan Peretz

“The whole thing began almost by chance,” Waxman says in an interview. “I was sitting with a friend, Efrat Tzur, and we were talking about the wonderful food at Diana in Nazareth. I told her I’d like to meet Duhul, and she – having known him for years – suggested we go there together. The next week, she introduced me to Duhul. While we sat there enjoying the incredible food and arak, without any prior planning, I suddenly said that I’d love to do a book on him. That I was ready to work for nothing and for as long as it would take for the privilege of entering his kitchen and learning from him. He looked at me a bit askance, but said that in two weeks they would be celebrating Id al-Adha – this was about two years ago – and that if I wanted to understand his cuisine, I had to taste the food that his mother, his wife and the other women in the family make. Two weeks later, we just showed up at their house.”

Born in Be’er Sheva in February 1967, Waxman grew up in Herzliya and lived in London for many years. She currently resides in Tel Aviv with her husband Shai and their two children. Safdi was also born in February 1967 – in Nazareth, where he has lived ever since. The two chefs have developed a close bond.

Waxman: “Very quickly – while spending whole days picking herbs, shopping in the Nazareth market, joining family celebrations and, especially, spending time together in the kitchen – I got very close with Duhul and, through him, with the extended family. Duhul has a very profound passion for food, for flavors, for feeding people. He is a warm and generous person who is sparing with words. His expresses himself through cooking and feeding others. It’s something that’s deeply rooted in his and his family’s culture, and to that you have to add his great talent. The whole family loves to cook, but not everyone is blessed with the kind of talent he has.

“In my Romanian-Jewish grandmother’s teeny-tiny kitchen, where I spent so many hours over the years, there were set rituals and dishes that were cooked every Friday. I always knew for sure that I’d find red beet soup with marrow bones [Borscht]; pot roast simmering in its juices; stewed gizzards; stuffed cabbage; chopped liver prepared with the manual meat grinder; and ikra [a delicacy made of fish roe] whipped with a fork. Depending on the season, you’d also find all kinds of other things, made of fresh and preserved ingredients that my grandmother picked from my grandfather’s big garden: There were stuffed grape leaves, served with tomato sauce; three different types of avocado dishes; quince compote; plum jam; grapes; pecans, which were toasted on the kerosene stove in the hall; and much more.

“This ritualistic, labor-intensive cooking tradition – which to me is associated with love and longing – did not get passed down to my mother’s kitchen. I think the encounter with the Safdi family’s kitchen took me back to that beloved and familiar place where food, tradition and customs come together to form a full family picture that exudes a sense of security and well-being.”

While working on the book, Waxman wondered about her place in it (she and Safdi are listed as coauthors; the general introduction and the lovely introductions to each chapter are told from her perspective). “It was hard for me to decide how my voice fit,” she says. “How to present things without any pretension of providing a comprehensive overview of Arab cuisine, and how to avoid the kind of entitled and colonialist tone that is so common around here. The personal relationship that developed prevented me from being just an outside observer. I hope that I succeeded in giving a personal account of a specific family’s cuisine, but one that also strongly reflects a wider local food culture.”

Waxman adds that she and Safdi hope also to publish an Arabic edition of the book: “From the start, that was the goal. We wanted it to come out simultaneously in Hebrew and Arabic, but it was harder than we expected, mainly due to a lack of familiarity with the publishing industry in the Arab sector. But there does seem to be a demand, and I really hope we’ll be able to do it.”

Family roots

“Baladi” is definitely not a book about a restaurant or a chef; it’s all about family, community and a regional culinary tradition. Still, knowledge of the story behind the Diana Restaurant is needed in order to understand the story of the Safdi family and local Arab food culture.

The family traces its roots to the Iraq region, from which it wandered to Safed and then to Arabeh in Lower Galilee, acquiring the name Safdi (“from Safed”) along the way. The elders don’t know exactly when their forebears arrived in Nazareth. They do know that one of them, six generations back, was Napoleon’s guide when he visited the city in 1799. The extended Safdi family zealously safeguards the sword of the revered great-grandfather, who was Napoleon’s guide and later paid a state visit to France, receiving a royal welcome. The close relations with the French are also the source of local jokes about the Safdis’ blue eyes and golden hair.

The family belonged to the 19th-century Nazareth “aristocracy.” This was an era in which Ottoman rule slackened and local Muslim and Christian families that acquired capital and land rose to influence (although later, particularly after 1948, they became impoverished).

In the early 20th century, Duhul’s grandfather moved to Tiberias and made a living by selling benzene in jerricans. “He didn’t like the Nazareth weather,” his grandson relates. “My father was born in the Scots Hospital [in Tiberias]. My grandmother lived with Jewish-Moroccan neighbors who taught her how to make cholent [a traditional meat stew]. In 1947, when relations between Jews and Arabs soured, my grandfather left the jerricans behind, took the arak and returned to Nazareth with his seven children.”

The family’s short Tiberias sojourn might account for its strong affection for fish – in particular, tilapia (aka St. Peter’s fish) from Lake Kinneret. It’s also fond of dishes such as lamb cutlets skewered on akoub (an edible thistle), a favorite among both Jews and Arabs in the area.

The following story, recounted by Duhul Safdi, reveals much about the attitude of respectable families of the time toward eating out. “One day, still in Tiberias, during the British Mandate period, my grandfather – from whom my father and I inherited a fondness for a good drink – entered one of the hangouts on the Tiberias boardwalk. The waiter told him that his son – my father, who was 7 or 8 at the time – had visited that day and eaten hummus. My grandfather said nothing, finished his drink and when he got home served his wayward son a hefty portion of kicks and curses. People who went to restaurants and shamed the family were known as nuri [homeless]: You ate only at home.”

In his youth, Mahmoud Safdi, Duhul’s father, worked as a laborer for Israel’s Solel Boneh construction company. To earn extra money, he worked in the evenings as an usher in Nazareth’s Diana Cinema. In 1965, he started to sell moviegoers “skewered meat taken off the stick with fresh pita and a little tahini,” his son says, nostalgically. “My grandmother, and afterward my mother, made him a large pot of husi – the innards, with plenty of olive oil and onions – and it became a hit. All the young people in the city came to see a movie and eat husi.”

The site of the makeshift grill is now occupied by a falafel-shawarma stand owned by the Safdi family. The food-loving father opened his restaurant, across the road, in the mid-1970s, “mostly for his own enjoyment,” relates Duhul. “At first the menu consisted mainly of fish and seafood – it was the first restaurant in Nazareth that served seafood. In 1976, the first local customer who dared to enter with his wife arrived.”

In the early 1990s, Duhul, who grew up in the kitchen of his female relatives and the kitchen presided over by his father, stepped into the latter’s shoes (his father died in 1997) and transformed Diana into a mecca and source of inspiration for the chefs who have created what’s known as the “new Israeli kitchen.”

In fact, the current menu tends more toward dishes prepared by the male side of the family – skewered meat, innards, fried and grilled fish, various appetizers – and less toward the side in which the family’s women are proficient (stews, stuffed vegetables, baked goods), even if Duhul is one of the few men who is versed in the secrets of their preparation.

Dan Peretz

Duhul’s hummus

Hummus will sink or swim depending on its chickpeas. The small yellow ones known as Bulgarian chickpeas are the best to use. It’s best to buy them and other legumes from shops that have a lot of traffic and turnover of merchandise, to avoid ending up with some that have spent too long sitting in sacks and acquired a flavor that is less than fresh. The quality of the tahini added to the hummus will also have a major influence on its taste. Using baking powder will help the chickpeas soften and open up while cooking – the effect is similar to that of baking soda, but more gentle and with less aftertaste.

The chickpeas can be ground into a paste using a mortar and pestle designed for that purpose, but you can also obtain a wonderful result using a food processor. The seasoning is minimal – salt and lemon juice. Good hummus that has been properly cooked and ground doesn’t need anything more than that.

Ingredients:

½ kilogram small yellow (“Bulgarian”) chickpeas (weighed prior to soaking)

1 packet baking powder

2 cups of good-quality, raw tahini

1 ½ tsp. salt

½-¾ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (to taste; I used a ½ cup)

1 cup tap water (add slowly as needed)

Soak the chickpeas overnight in a large bowl with lots of water. The next day, cook the chickpeas: Drain and rinse well several times, and transfer to a large pot. Add baking powder and enough water to cover the chickpeas by 5 centimeters, and stir. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over a strong flame. Skim off the foam that rises to the surface.

Lower the flame and cook for 3 hours at a moderate boil, until the chickpeas are very soft, stirring occasionally to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Add water occasionally as needed, to keep the chickpeas covered and prevent them from getting dried out.

Prepare the hummus: Drain the cooked chickpeas well and transfer to a food processor; process continuously for 2-3 minutes. Add the tahini, salt and lemon juice, and process for another 2 minutes. Gradually add a little water, and keep processing until you obtain the desired consistency. At this stage, when the hummus is still warm, it should be relatively thin – but still a paste and not liquid. It will become firmer as it cools.

Serve on a platter with a generous drizzle of olive oil, or fill soft fresh pita with it.

Dan Peretz

Malfouf: Cabbage leaves stuffed with beef and rice

Malfouf is also the name of big, thick Arabic cabbage that is ideally suited for stuffing. In season, you can find it in the markets of Arab towns, and often at other big markets too. If you have no luck finding malfouf cabbage, regular cabbage may also be used.

Ingredients:

For the filling:

3 cups round or basmati rice

½ kilogram lamb, coarsely chopped with a knife or coarsely ground in a meat grinder

¼ cup olive oil

1 scant tbsp. Duhul’s Baharat seasoning (below)

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. salt

Duhul’s Baharat:

100 grams allspice

50 grams black pepper

1 whole nutmeg

For the malfouf:

1 large, very fresh cabbage, preferably malfoufRice and beef filling

Salt to taste

Juice of 2 freshly squeezed lemons

Enough water to cover the stuffed cabbage

1/3 cup olive oil

Prepare the Baharat: Grind the spices in a coffee grinder or spice grinder, or pound them with a mortar and pestle. Or you can ask the spice vendor to grind them for you.

Prepare the filling: Combine all the filling ingredients in a bowl and knead for several minutes to obtain a uniform mixture. The quantity is enough for a large pot of stuffed cabbage. If any filling is left over, it can be frozen and used at a later date.

Prepare the malfouf: There are two ways to separate the cabbage leaves without tearing them:

1. Freeze the cabbage. Remove from the freezer and let thaw slowly. When thawed, the leaves will be soft and easy to separate.

2. Bring a pot of water, large enough to hold the whole cabbage, to a boil. Use a knife to remove the thick stem. Place the whole cabbage in the boiling water and let cook for 5-10 minutes, until the leaves are soft and easily separate. If you’ve peeled a few layers of leaves and the next layers won’t separate easily, return the cabbage to the boiling water and let soften a few more minutes.

Once the leaves are all separated, spread each one out on the work surface. With a knife, trim away the hard white vein in the center of the leaf and set aside. Cut each leaf lengthwise into two sheets. Take a little bit of the filling, place it on a leaf and roll into a thin, long sausage shape, in the direction of the leaf’s fibers. Roll the leaf over to cover the filling, fold the ends in and gently pinch closed. Continue until all the leaves are stuffed.

Layer the bottom of the pot with the white parts of the leaves that were set aside earlier. Arrange the stuffed leaves on top so they are closely packed. Sprinkle salt and lemon juice over everything; add water to cover and drizzle with olive oil. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, then cook at a moderate boil for 2 hours. Remove from the heat and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Flip the contents of the pot onto a platter and serve.

Dan Peretz

Ghraybeh cookies with Turkish delight filling

Ghraybeh are wonderfully delicate and flaky cookies with just the right amount of sweetness – which comes from a filling of rosewater-scented Turkish delight (rahat lokum) that softens and melts slightly during baking. Contrary to what one might expect, this dough requires relatively lengthy and intensive kneading.

Much patience is required in making these cookies. The consistency of the dough makes it a bit challenging to work with, but the result is worth the effort. The Safdi women prepare them with awe-inspiring agility.

Within minutes, their skilled hands produce row upon row of thin, perfectly shaped cookies. Like question marks made of dough, they hold a piece of Turkish delight inside rolled into a thin strip. It is not imperative to create such uniform and perfect shapes with the dough. As long as they are baked properly, these delightful cookies will melt in your mouth.

Ingredients:

1 kilogram white flour

½ cup powdered sugar

1 tsp. baking powder

½ cup vegetable oil

200 grams softened butter

50 grams (6 tbsp.) sour cream

400 grams Turkish delight, for the filling

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius (medium-high heat).

Prepare the dough: In a bowl, combine the flour, powdered sugar and baking powder. Add the oil and massage it into the flour with your hands. Add the butter and knead well. Add the sour cream; knead for another 10 minutes until the dough is soft, smooth and very pliant.

Prepare the cookies: Tear off small pieces of dough and roll into balls. With your hands, press and shape each ball into a thin ellipse. Roll pieces of the Turkish delight into thin strips the length of the dough ellipses, placing a piece of Turkish delight in the center of each one. Fold the dough over pinch the ends shut, and then create an S-shaped cookie. Arrange the cookies, spaced apart, on a tin lined with baking paper.

Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, or until they start to brown very slightly. Let cool and keep in a tightly sealed tin.

You can also freeze the cookies before baking and then bake them whenever you choose. It is not necessary to defrost them beforehand.

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