Pumpkin Sweets, Spices and Freekeh: A Christmas Jaunt to the Israeli Arab Village of Shfaram

In Shfaram, a few devoted artisan cooks still preserve the traditional recipes of yesteryear.

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Maisun making moghrabiyeh at the Al-Salim mill. It takes four hours to make 10 kilograms.
Maisun making moghrabiyeh at the Al-Salim mill. It takes four hours to make 10 kilograms.Credit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

The doors of the old market in Shfaram, painted in Mediterranean turquoise, are mostly padlocked. Walking down the main street of what was once a bustling regional market is a trip down a bittersweet memory lane. “This used to be a small grocery where the owner also sold folk medicines,” says local social activist Laila Najar Amouri, pointing to one of the shuttered shops. “And here was a shop that repaired primus stoves.” Hundreds of tiny nails are still stuck into the beautifully carved door frame, each one symbolizing the successful return of a repaired primus to its owner.

Daoud Jamil, a shoemaker from a family of shoemakers, is the last of the many craftsmen who once populated the small workshops in the market. More than 60 years since he first started working alongside his father, he says the work isn’t what it was. “I used to make sandals and shoes. Now people only bring in shoes for minor repairs. It’s hard to make a living this way, and the children don’t want to carry on in the trade,” says the tall, white-haired shoemaker.

We continue down the road. Part of the market is fenced off, sewage pipes have been exposed, and signs proclaim renovation work. But there are no workers in sight. The restoration and renovation of the old market got underway more than a year ago, say the locals, but then the contractors started arguing, the city did nothing, and the work – which was proceeding at a snail’s pace to begin with – has been completely stopped for months.

We pass the Zahir al-Umar fort, built in the 18th century on the site of an ancient Crusader fortress, and wind our way down a steep alley toward the Druze neighborhood. In the ancient center of the village that grew into a city of 40,000 people, you can easily discern the original features – stone buildings with many rooms that housed large, extended families; balconies shaded by grape vines, and lemon and olive trees in the yards. In some of the kitchens here, the older women still make their own bread and cheese for the family table. “Don’t make us look too modern,” laughs a young man, who offers us a taste of a delicious traditional cheese made by his two elderly aunts from the milk of their own cows.

Kingdom of women

The entrance to the Al-Salim flour mill is located around another curve in the steep streets of the old Druze neighborhood. There is no sign to direct you to the mill store, but the women of the city – Druze, Christian and Muslim – have been easily finding their way here for two decades. “I come here and I don’t want to leave,” says Najar Amouri. “I buy all kinds of things I don’t need just so I can stay a little longer.”

Daylight enters the spacious cellar only through the opening near the street, and the glare of neon lighting doesn’t detract from the vitality and charm exuded by workers and shoppers alike. An older woman who is a long-time customer, and one of the few who still bakes her own bread, buys flour for the coming months. Two other women are buying fresh pitas. Every morning, the women at the mill bake fresh pitas, both white and whole wheat. Then they sit down in a corner of the store to chat while eating pita dipped in olive oil and za’atar. Others linger by brimming sacks to examine the sumac, the bunches of dried chamomile or the wonderful freekeh, toasted green wheat. The women say the freekeh is toasted by a resident of Shfaram who exports most of his production to Dubai, except for a small amount he leaves for the women at the mill; they grind both coarse and fine versions of it.

Fatma al-Salim opened this all-female family business 20 years ago, and she and her sister now employ five other women. They specialize in the kinds of tasks that have by now disappeared, even from the most traditional households. Fatma, hardworking and hopeful, sifts fine bulgur in an enormous sieve. “The fine bulgur is used to make kubbeh and tabbouleh salad. The coarse bulgur is used for cooking things like majadara,” she says. Later, she grinds aromatic dried za’atar (hyssop) and adds toasted sesame (“from Egypt; the local stuff is too expensive”).

Christmas pumpkin sweets.Credit: Dan Peretz

Maisun, another employee, sits on a tiny stool, hard at work preparing the moghrabiyeh, also known as Lebanese couscous. She gradually adds wheat flour to bulgur that has been soaked for three hours; the repetitive movement starts from the palms of her hands but involves all her arm muscles. Then she works it into perfect little round pellets that are nearly uniform in shape. Watching this strenuous and mesmerizing work – It takes four hours to make 10 kilograms of moghrabiyeh – it’s easy to understand why most women now prefer to buy the commercially produced product, even if the quality is inferior.

Festive sugared pumpkin

Hala Amouri’s house is in one of the Christian neighborhoods, a five-minute drive from the center of town. Family members of various generations live on different storeys.

On a table in the yard stand giant pumpkins that will be used for making traditional pumpkin jam and pumpkin sweets dipped in sugar syrup for the Christmas season.

“When I was a little girl, sugar was expensive and sugared sweets would only be made once a year, for the week between Christmas and New Year,” says Hala. Now sugar is easily available all year round, but only a few people still make the traditional sweets. The basic procedure: Soak the peeled, sliced pumpkin for at least two days in limewater, a diluted solution of calcium hydroxide. (Lime prevents fruits and vegetables from softening.) Change the water, rinse well, then boil for hours with lemon and sugar until the flesh of the pumpkin becomes translucent, solid and sweet.

Pistachio ice cream at the Zeitoun family ice cream shop.Credit: Dan Peretz

Hala, a retired teacher, likes to make foods at home that most people buy in the supermarket. In late summer she makes tomato paste for the whole year, and in the fall she pickles the olives harvested from the family’s grove. On her kitchen counter sit jars of homemade cheese, preserved in olive oil. She also makes the two types of flatbread used in a local Palestinian delicacy consisting of roast chicken, fried onion and sumac.

“As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, and her love for the land and for the traditional rural crafts had a big influence on my life,” says Hala. She is one of those people who somehow make the most labor-intensive and Sisyphean household tasks look like a piece of cake.

Hala and her friend Laila are both active in a local women’s group dedicated to trying to improve the quality of life in the city and to encouraging local community initiatives. Laila is also a tour guide for the Sikkuy Foundation and the Lev Hagalil tourism group, and the Christmas season is naturally the busiest time. This year the women in the group are considering offering tours of the city that would end with a festive, homemade holiday meal. Well aware of Hala’s culinary talents, the women have been trying to convince her to host such meals. In all my years of culinary journalism, I have never tasted anything like Hala’s roast chicken, freekeh soup and Christmas cake with dried fruit. If only she would agree. “Would people be willing to pay the added cost for a meal?” the women wonder, trying to calculate how to make their tempting idea a reality.

Al-Salim Mill, Shfaram 054-225-3747

To reserve a guided tour of Shfaram for Christmas and throughout the year: http://www.galilee-trail.org.il or call Noam 052-621-9621.



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