A Trip to the Galilee to Set the Record Straight on a Middle Eastern Delicacy

As opposed to conventional wisdom, siniyeh is not simply a meat-and-tehina delicacy: It’s also a type of cooking dish.

Siniyeh, agree all those sitting in the room, is a casserole dish used for both cooking and serving. The round dish with the low sides is what lent its name to a variety of dishes that are cooked in it, whether they are baked in an oven or cooked on the stove.

Nawal Darwashe, a resident of Arabeh and a cook who has made a name for herself in the village, begins to enumerate the endless list of siniyeh variations: siniyeh batata is a baked dish featuring potatoes, and prepared with or without chicken or lamb; siniyeh batinjan is baked eggplant; siniyeh macaroni is a sort of noodle pudding; sumac lends siniyeh mahmar its reddish color; and siniyeh kebab or siniyeh kufta, which among Jews is identified almost exclusively with the word “siniyeh,” is made of ground beef or lamb, and baked with tehina or tomatoes.

While Darwashe continues to conjure up the names of dishes and childhood memories ‏(“Once we would prepare siniyeh in the tabun ‏(clay oven‏); today there are maybe two tabuns in the entire village”‏), her audience drools and dreams of all kinds of tantalizing siniyeh dishes. Each village has its characteristic recipes: In Acre, for example, they prepare fish siniyeh with tehina, and each family has created dozens of variations on that theme.

There are differences of opinion regarding the origin of the name siniyeh in Arabic. The iyeh suffix is a common possessive form added to feminine nouns, which appears in the names of many foods and cooking vessels ‏(mishmeshiyeh is a dish of apricots; romaniyeh is a pomegranate dish, and there any number of others; incidentally, in Gazan cuisine the mortar and pestle used to crush the spices during preparation of such dishes‏). A large proportion of these can be found among Arab recipes dating back to medieval times, although we couldn’t find the exact name siniyeh.

“Siniyeh comes from the word ‘sin’ [“China,” in Hebrew],” says Habib Daoud, of the Azba restaurant in the village of Kafr Rama, providing a folk explanation that is commonly accepted among Galileans, but which appears only in some of the professional literature. “They used to prepare the traditional cooking dish from clay, then they switched to copper and tin, from there to aluminum, and when cheap ceramic dishes were imported from the Far East, they started naming them after the country of origin.”

When exactly the name siniyeh was first used Daoud didn’t know, but he decided to call and consult his 86-year-old mother, who was born in the village of Ikrit. She says that when she was a child she knew the cooking dish by the name kasniyeh, which according to the dictionary is a glazed ceramic vessel, and that the best of these were brought from Rashaya al-Foukhar, a village in South Lebanon that was famous for centuries for the quality of the ceramics produced by its craftsmen.

Delft of the Galilee

Our trip north in search of siniyeh took place on a summer morning a few weeks ago. One could say a typical summer morning, but the serenity of the Galilean villages and communities is frequently violated by the roar of fighter planes demonstrating their presence near the Syrian and Lebanese borders. A day before, the president of the United States had announced his intention of attacking the chemical weapons stores of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and local radios and televisions − which were turned on in almost all the homes and restaurants we visited − gave confused reports about a missile that was identified by the Russians and launched from the Mediterranean Sea.

On second thought − maybe it was indeed a typical summer day in the Middle East, where nobody dares to believe any longer that delicacies such as siniyeh, once common among all the inhabitants of the Greater Syria area, will ever be able to bridge the profound differences between its inhabitants.

The first stop is the second floor of the Al Rowad center for at-risk teens in Arabeh. In one room a small group of teens is busy making siniyeh casserole dishes. They pour liquid clay into molds of various diameters, polish the sides of the round dishes after the clay hardens, glaze them in earth tones or in blue-green Mediterranean hues, and put them into the kiln. The final result − decorated with arabesque prints − is reminiscent of ancient ceramic ware that was painted by the finest Islamic artists in places such as Andalusia and Baghdad.

The story begins more than two years ago with the center’s involvement in the Business Entrepreneurship for Youth At Risk program of the Zionism 2000 project. “We wanted to start, together with young people, a business initiative that would encourage entrepreneurship and creativity, but we wanted it to include genuine content related to local tradition,” says the director of the center, Dr. Saleh Darwashe. Darwashe, who has a doctorate in biophysics from Tel Aviv University, did his post-doctorate in the United States, and when he returned to Israel he found it difficult to find employment in his field and decided to go into education. ‏(“It wasn’t easy there at first either,” he says. “There aren’t many school principals who are happy to hire a teacher with a doctorate. I did miss scientific research, in my free time I continue to do research and publish, and now I’m also involved in a fascinating study on science teaching in the schools and how to try to get young students to like it.”‏)

When it comes to the individual stories of the teenagers who receive help in the place, the children of hardscrabble, socioeconomically disadvantaged families − Darwashe and his staff are very practical. They are looking ahead, rather than at the past, and are attempting to bring these teens back into the school system or into other social frameworks.

Erez Mulay, a product designer who specializes in social design for weak populations, was enlisted to the mission. “We began a long process of getting to know the teens and trying to come up with ideas,” he says. “In the past there was a short and unsuccessful attempt here to make candles. We were looking for a product that would represent the teens’ cultural background, and not just an ordinary item of modern consumer culture.

“The first inkling we got,” continues Mulay, a graduate of the Ceramic and Glass Design Department at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, “came in the guise of kilns that were purchased for another purpose, which I found in one of the rooms on the top floor. Meetings with local cooks, who told me about seasonal cuisine using fresh ingredients, and a meeting with Habib Daoud of Azba, who taught me about the importance of the cooking vessel in local cuisine − these led to our decision.

“At first I went wild trying to design modern siniyeh cooking dishes with romantic inspiration. I wanted to create dishes inspired by the outlines of the traditional terraces, including an indentation for the sauce, which imitates the water channel. I drew square dishes inspired by the way family plots have been divided for generations, but long conversations with the locals taught me that they want to adhere to tradition. The intention was to create a product that would be sold to the local population and not only in upscale design stores. The production process was also adapted to suit the young manufacturers and their relatively short training period.”

A year and a half of weekly encounters with the teens at the center yielded a lovely series of dishes that includes a variety of siniyeh casseroles in various colors and sizes; each comes with a plate of the appropriate diameter which is used so that the server need not hold the hot dish in his hands. The lovely
dishes − the smallest ones can also be used for serving salad and mezes − are on sale in a variety of colors and prints. In addition to the traditional arabesques they also feature delicate landscape illustrations of Galilean villages ‏(“The idea was also to manufacture decorative dishes that can be hung up, like those manufactured in Delft. The illustrations exist, but for lack of funds we haven’t managed yet to transfer them to paper prints,” says Mulay‏). The profits from the sale of the dishes are given to the teenagers, who receive a salary for their work, as required by law.

The first to buy these local products were some of the restaurateurs in the area, not only as a gesture on behalf of social welfare, but because of the quality of the dishes themselves. For instance, in the Ayesh Umelakh ‏(Bread and Salt‏) restaurant, which opened three months ago on the lovely road leading from Arabeh to Rama, there are huge piles of the dishes on the kitchen shelves.

“I cook almost everything in them,” says the chef and owner Jamil Naama. “Stuffed grape leaves on the stove or lamb roasted in the oven.”

Minerva and Habib Daoud, who participated in the design process, cook and serve all the food in the famous Rama home-style restaurant − grilled eggplant in tehina, dumplings filled with yogurt sauce or okra in tomatoes − in dishes
produced by the teens.

“Siniyeh made of clay is one of the best cooking dishes,” says Daoud. “The heat spreads equally in the dish. The surface is wide and the food almost never burns or sticks to the sides.”

Jelil − traditional ceramics, Arabeh. For information, call 052-5959360; alva@zionut2000.org.il ‏(The prices range from NIS 30 to NIS 120, depending on the size‏)

Azba restaurant, Rama, 053-7105756

Ayesh Umelakh restaurant, Arabeh 04-6225320