Nine years after Majda opened in Ein Rafa in the Jerusalem hills, the garden surrounding the restaurant has become a wondrous paradise. During the early years, proprietors Michal Baranes and Yakub Barhum still needed to use all kinds of awnings and tarps to provide shade for their diners. Today the thick green curtain of tree leaves, bushes and climbing plants that have been planted at different levels among the rocks, separates the heat of the sun from the clientele.
As in other really fine gardens – the ones that create their own microclimate – in Majda’s garden the temperature is always lower than in the world outside. This is not only because the restaurant is perched at the top of one of the hills in this mountainous region, but because such verdant refuges generally make life in the hot Middle East more comfortable.
“The truth is that I have to prune and thin out a little more but I just don’t have time,” says Baranes, gazing with concern at one part of the garden, where the wild branches of a tree with a thick trunk are threatening to strangle the silvery arms of an olive tree and to steal oxygen from a sabra (prickly pear) cactus.
The story of Majda’s garden attests to the history of the people who have cultivated it. Among the vegetation are Mediterranean forest plants that grew at the site before people made their home there; other varieties, including the fig, pomegranate and carob trees, were planted by Barhum’s ancestors. But most of the wild, decorative and edible plants – of which there are hundreds, each of them deserving of a paragraph of its own because of its beauty or uniqueness – were planted by the couple.
The moment you mention food or botany, Baranes’ eyes begin to sparkle. The tone of her voice also changes to excited murmurings of affection. Aficionados always have a passion for collecting, and the gardeners among them are no exception. Each of the plants surrounding Majda is an entire world of visual delight, textures and flavors; each provides the grower with moments of pleasure, wonder and excitement in different seasons and different periods of its growth cycle.
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“We started to plant 20 years ago, when I first moved to Ein Rafa, and since then we haven’t stopped. We plant all the time,” Baranes explains. “It’s a full-time job, and just watering by hand alone, twice a week and excluding the places in the garden where there are proper irrigation systems, takes an hour and a half.”
Baranes, born in 1974, grew up in a Jewish family in Netanya, with a father of Tripolitan descent and a mother of Moroccan descent. She met Yakub Barhum, the son of a Muslim family from the village of Ein Rafa, when they were both working at the hotel in nearby Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim.
“Most of the staff was from the village,” says Baranes. “We met one evening and that was that. I fell in love. Ein Rafa has been my home for 20 years, and my children were born here.”
In 2010 the couple opened the restaurant, which is situated in front of their house. Majda’s kitchen – where friends and relatives work – still looks today like a natural continuation of their own home kitchen. In recent years, and mainly after the couple began to star on international TV shows dealing with local cuisine, the restaurant has become a pilgrimage site for delegations of chefs and global culinary tourists alike.
“We’re something of a fig leaf for the subject of coexistence,” says Baranes quietly.
“But there really is a story of coexistence here,” protests Barhum.
“Ever the eternal optimist,” says Baranes, nodding her head affectionately. “We’re the exception that proves the rule. People still constantly ask me in amazement whether I’m not afraid to live in an Arab village. Fear and ignorance are the source of racism, and the perception of Arabs as enemies is part of the narrative on which we all grew up.”
There aren’t many restaurants in Israel that survive the problems of the first years; most local eateries don’t last long. But a restaurant that enters its 10th year, like Majda, can bask in feelings of security, relaxation and professionalism gained through cumulative knowledge and experience.
“You accept the fact that not everyone will like you, although everyone’s natural inclination is to try to please everyone,” says Barhum.
Majda is now open only two days a week, on Saturday (from noon until 10 P.M.), and Sunday (from 11:30 A.M. to 4 P.M.), and features its own changing, seasonal menu. In the early years the offerings were mainly dishes that Baranes learned to prepare from her husband’s family, which originate in local cuisine – whether we call it Arab, Palestinian, Levantine or the cuisine of Greater Syria.
But over the years there has been a growing presence at the restaurant of the North African Jewish cooking that Baranes grew up on. If there’s a genuine Israeli fusion – which combines local influences with traditions brought by various Jewish communities throughout the world – it’s here and worth looking for at Majda.
Michal Baranes’ Rosh Hashanah recipes
“Sardine patties are an ‘inheritance’ from the Moroccan side of the family, from my mother and her sister, Aunt Mimi. Sardines – because who had money for other fish? These traditional patties were served with a dish of chickpeas and dried peppers, and the sardine patties that I make I serve with labneh [a soft, sour Middle Eastern cheese] and chopped eggplant, influenced by Ein Rafa. I call it the Arabs’ ikra [a spread made of fish roe].”
Ingredients (serves 8-10)
For the patties:
1 kilo fresh sardines, cleaned, headless and boned
200 grams gray mullet (bouri) filets, cleaned and skinless
1/2 bunch coriander
4 peeled garlic cloves
1 pickled lemon, seeded
1/4 hot green pepper
1/2 cup panko crumbs (or breadcrumbs)
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
Roasted eggplant in labneh:
1 roasted eggplant, cleaned and peeled
250 grams goat’s milk labneh
1/4 cup za’atar (wild hyssop) leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
The patties: Grind the fish in a meat grinder. Use a food processor to finely chop the coriander, garlic, pickled lemon and hot pepper (make sure not to turn it into a puree).
Mix the ground fish, chopped herbs, bread crumbs and cardamom into a uniform mixture. Season with salt and black pepper. Let the mixture cool in the refrigerator for an hour.
Prepare flat patties. Heat the olive oil in a skillet and fry the patties until they are brown on both sides. Transfer to a plate lined with absorbent paper.
Labneh, eggplant and za’atar: Heat olive oil in a skillet and saute the za’atar leaves. Let cool.
Chop the flesh of the roasted eggplant with a knife, add the labneh, oil and za’atar and mix well.
To serve: Spread the eggplant and labneh mixture in a serving platter and arrange the fish patties on top.
“The tart and not overly sweet taste of pomegranate jam goes wonderfully with tahini and meat dishes, such as kibbeh saniyeh [a chopped meat delicacy], but it’s also great to use when preparing various baked goods and sweet dishes.”
1/4 cup pomegranate concentrate
1 cup water
Cut the pomegranates in half, width-wise. Hold each half above a bowl with the cut side facing down, and it hit hard with a wooden spoon to release the seeds. Get rid of the white rind and skin inside; place the contents of the bowl into a pot.
Add the concentrate and the water, and cook over a low heat until the jam thickens (about half an hour).
Kibbeh saniyeh with almonds and pomegranate jam
“I love the sweetness of dough made from bulgur, and it can be used with both sweet and savory fillings.”
Use a round, 28-cm. saniyeh baking pan
For the dough:
1 kilo finely ground bulgur
(not medium or coarse)
2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups flour
1.5-2 liters boiling water
a pinch of ground nutmeg
For the meat filling:
1 kilo ground lamb
(neck, breast or loin)
6 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup olive oil
a cinnamon stick
About 30 almonds, peeled but not roasted
Dough: Boil the water, add the bulgur and allow it to absorb the liquid; combine with the other dough ingredients.
Meat filling: Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot, add the onions and the cinnamon stick, and saute over a low heat, stirring occasionally until the onion browns and develops a jam-like consistency.
Meanwhile, heat a clean skillet over a high flame; add the ground meat and cook, stirring and crumbling the meat until the liquids evaporate.
Add the meat to the onions, add the seasonings, cover and cook for about an hour over a low flame, stirring occasionally.
Final stage: With moist hands divide the dough into two balls. Roll out one, creating a thin round circle, and place in the baking pan. Spread the meat over it in a uniform layer. Roll the other ball of dough out into a circle, place over the layer of meat and tamp down gently with your fingers.
Use a sharp knife to score and cut into the saniyeh, creating diamond-shaped pieces. Insert an almond into each diamond.
Bake in an oven preheated to 180 degrees Celsius for about half an hour until the saniyeh browns. Garnish or serve with pomegranate jam.
Pistachio and almond cake
“The source of inspiration for this recipe, which is written on the glass wall of the restaurant and has been served there for almost a decade, is in one of the books of ‘The River Café.’ I’ve never visited the restaurants opened by the pair of Englishwomen, but their books have become my bible. Reading them changed the way I think about the raw ingredients, and this specific recipe could have been made for our cuisine. My mother, when she first tasted it, thought that it was one of the typical almond cakes of Tripolitan-Jewish cuisine.”
Use an English cake pan
120 grams pistachios
100 grams ground almonds
40 grams flour
seeds from 1 vanilla stick
zest from 1 lemon
250 grams soft butter, at room temperature
250 grams sugar
100 grams peeled pistachios
4 tablespoons sugar
zest and juice from 1 lemon
Grind the pistachios in a food processor in order to get a crumbly mixture (make sure they don’t turn into a paste). In a bowl, combine the ground pistachios, ground almonds, flour, lemon zest and vanilla seeds.
Place the soft butter and sugar in the bowl of a mixer; beat into a uniform mixture at high speed. Add the eggs one at a time while mixing, until you get a puffy dough (about 15 minutes).
Turn off the mixer, add the dry ingredients and fold them in gently until you get a uniform mixture. Transfer to a lightly oiled cake pan.
Bake for 60 minutes in an oven preheated to 160 degrees. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the cake to cool.
For the decoration: Place pistachios, lemon juice, lemon zest and sugar in a skillet. Heat over a low flame, while shaking, until the sugar dissolves and caramelizes, and coats the pistachios. Scatter the sugared pistachios over the cake.