Take Me to the (West Bank) Casbah

The wonderful sweet traditions of the Arab Middle East are still going strong in Nablus.

On one of the marble walls in the pastry shop, against which are piled Styrofoam boxes of ma’amoul ‏(shortbread cookies filled with dates and nuts‏) is a black-and-white photograph of the grandfather who founded the pastry dynasty. Grandpa Arafat ‏(no relation to the late Palestinian leader‏) roamed the streets of Nablus, in the West Bank, with a horse and cart, selling ma'amoul and arisa ‏(semolina‏) cakes. Even when his offspring opened a posh pastry shop in the 1990s on the heights of the affluent Rafadiyeh neighborhood, he declined to give up his wandering ways for a sedentary commercial life. He went on cruising the streets and offering homemade baked goods door to door.

His children and grandchildren expanded the areas of expertise, along with the selection of sweets. Clients at the Arafat Pastry shop today relax over coffee and cake on a balcony overlooking the street, while inside, in a space dominated by marble and mirrors, the pastries are exhibited on trays.

In the second-story kitchen, opposite a window looking out on the city’s densely populated hills, a baker prepares a tray of knafeh naama ‏(a sweet pastry from fine semolina dough‏). The crumbs of fragrant yellow dough - made of soft, white, uncooked knafeh noodles that have been roasted with samna ‏(clarified butter‏) and a little turmeric, and then cooled and finely ground - are flattened in a large metal tray. More samna is poured over this compressed base, on which jibneh ‏(salty sheep’s milk cheese‏) is spread before the tray is placed over a gas flame.

The taste of knafeh naama recalls that of the more familiar knafeh - a pastry made of thin, crisp noodles, melted salty cheese and sugar syrup - but the texture, as the name suggests, is smoother and melts easily in the mouth. The special dough, which is made by the family in a nearby workshop and sold to other pastry shops in the city, is also used to prepare medlueh, a dish in which muhallabieh ‏(a sweet rice pudding‏) and pistachio puree are poured onto the yellow dough base. This is yet another delightful dish characteristic of the local kitchen and one I knew nothing about until I visited the Arafat Pastry Shop in Nablus.

Alternative routes

Two Israeli Arabs and two Israeli Jews get into a car and travel to the West Bank in search of good food. This is not the opening of a joke, but the start of a journey that turns out to be quite complex. The passengers are the chef Dohol Safedi, from Diana Restaurant in Nazareth; his wife Manal ‏(a descendant of the renowned Fahoum family, whose history is deeply interwoven with that of this Galilee city and with the chronicles of the Middle East‏); and this column’s photographer and author.

The original plan was to try to observe features of kitchens from different classes in West Bank cities - from the carts of baladi ‏(“native”‏) vegetables in the Jenin refugee camp to shops in the Nablus casbah and fancy restaurants in Ramallah. The underlying idea was to find traditions and dishes that have disappeared from the urban and village kitchens of Arabs who live inside the Green Line.

But reality intervened. Jews are not allowed to cross some checkpoints; security forces at others restrict the movement of Israeli Arabs. We spent much of the day trying to find alternative routes and different points of entry to our destinations.

Buckets filled with late-summer dates and grapes line the plaza which leads into the Nablus market. We buy a za’atar ‏(wild hyssop‏) mixture and bags of leaves of fresh molokhia ‏(a bitter leafy vegetable‏). At Al-Saraya, a luxury restaurant housed in an Ottoman-era structure adorned with arches, diners smoke a narghileh and partake of futot ‏(see recipe‏) and various kinds of traditional pastries.

We are at Barkawi’s kebab place, at the entrance to yet another alley in the market. The modest-looking room houses a home kitchen, a fine coal grill, a chimney and a manual meat grinder in which the meat for the kebabs is prepared.

The period when the owner worked in the kitchen of a Tel Aviv restaurant seems more distant than ever, and the Israeli Jews who have come to the market in Nablus probably look like strange visitors from another planet.
We point to the meat we covet - quarters of lamb garnished with herbs hang on iron hooks in the refrigerator in the display window - and are soon eating skewers of lamb with sheep’s milk yogurt, tomatoes and grilled onions. The ancient market of Nablus does not yet cater to the sensitivities of vegetarians and vegans.

The bloody meat “sculptures” in the show windows are adorned with miniature Lego figurines of goats, cows and pastoral-looking farmhouses. Cages containing live pigeons and chickens, ready for slaughter, stand in front of the booths. Butchers cut the animals apart on thick wooden blocks in full view of everyone. Despite this, or maybe because of it, nothing makes you feel more alive than walking through the market’s covered streets and watching the bustling life around you.

Dohol is worried about the meat. “You used to be able to find plenty of fresh baladi meat here, but now there is a lot more frozen meat,” he says, trying to come up with more signs of the spirit of the time and the economic situation. In times when optimism reigned he frequented the markets of the West Bank, but these days he stays away for reasons understandable to lovers of food: Israeli law prohibits import ing meat, fruits, vegetables and other raw ingredients to the restaurant inside the Green Line, inherited from his father. It’s wrenching to see the quality of the meat, the vegetables and the seasonings he cannot bring in. If you see a gorgeous cutlet, lined with white fat, or a cluster of innards, but cannot bring them to your professional kitchen, it’s better to forgo the trip altogether and stay home. However, Dohol’s wife often goes with girlfriends and relatives to West Bank markets.

Sweet history

Despite the price rises and the surging cost of living in the Palestinian Authority - which gave rise to waves of civil protest in the past few months - the markets across the Green Line are still a sought-after and relatively inexpensive destination for Arabs from Israel.

Thanks to the quality of its products, the pastry shop run by the Arafat family is a popular stop for tourists in search of good food and good shopping. It’s also a place where the visitor can still find a variety of traditional sweets and other delicacies that are no longer consumed by Israel’s Arab population.

You would willingly drown yourself in the round knafeh trays at the Arafat Pastry Shop. There is knafeh khishnah, made from thin noodle threads, and there is knafeh naama, as mentioned above, and both are wonderfully tasty. The Nablus city fathers, perhaps seeking to forge a national-cultural ethos, claim that knafeh originated in the ancient city that lies in the Samarian hills. They connect the circumstances of its origin to the tradition of the elite urban kitchen of the city’s wealthy class.

In 2009, to strengthen Nablus’ claim as the place where this Middle Eastern pastry originated, local bakers made a huge knafeh 75 meters long, which entered the “Guinness Book of Records.” But as is the case with other foods that spread across a large geographic and cultural expanse, the true historical source of this ultra-sweet food is hard to trace.

Two recipes for kunefeh ‏(as it was known there‏) appear in a book by the 13th-century Andalusian scholar Ibn Razin, who was also fond of the pleasures of the kitchen. The book was published in southern Spain. The recipes for Turkish and Greek kadayif recall those of the Middle Eastern knafeh/kunefeh.

What the early and the contemporary recipes have in common is the use of a flat frying pan over an open fire ‏(as contrasted with oven-baked cakes‏). Some recipes add nuts and others cheese to the dough, which is made from different flours and cut into a variety of shapes. Some call for sugar syrup to be poured on top, others serve the dessert with honey, but the common features remain. Indeed, pan-made cakes are among the earliest desserts in human history.

Knafeh naama is not the only local delicacy to have disappeared from the shelves of pastry shops inside the Green Line. We had never before tasted the marvelous medlueh ‏(from the word “to pour” in Arabic‏), and to the list of these delicacies we can also add hudud al aroos ‏(“to the life of the bride” in Arabic‏).

These are made of layers of thin phyllo dough - which are also used in the preparation of the various types of baklava - filled with clouds of muhallabieh, perfumed with rosewater and garnished with green pistachio sumac. The baklavas, including those named for parts of the human body, are also extraordinary in terms of taste. They are small, delicate, airy and without the coating of sugar syrup that characterizes similar semi-industrially made sweets. In short, they do not have a cloying sweetness.

Knafeh, the ancient frying-pan cake, is easily made in the domestic kitchen. But the various types of baklava, regardless of their historical origin, were always the preserve of masters who specialized in creating paper-thin phyllo sheets and filling them with various types of nuts and sweets. In the palace of the Ottoman sultan baklava were distributed to the Janissaries - the empire’s fierce warriors - on the 15th day of the month of Ramadan. The baklava procession became an inseparable part of the tradition of the Turkish capital and constituted a display of grandeur and wealth in the kitchens of the upper classes.

A description of the nights of Ramallah ‏(only on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul have we seen a sight comparable to the flood of humanity that inundates the city’s brightly lit restaurants and cafes‏) will await another column. As will a Lebanese-French arak that we discovered in Ramallah’s liquor stores.

Back to the kitchen of Diana Restaurant in Nazareth. Dohol Safedi easily makes knafeh according to the recipe, but only with the special dough brought from Nablus. A local baker who was asked to recreate the flavor of the special noodles failed, so we thought there was no point in printing the recipe, even though it is a seemingly simple frying-pan cake.

Manal Safedi, a gifted and very experienced baker in her own right, easily made the cheese and anise pastry below, using the recipe we received from the Nablus chef in charge of baked goods at the prestigious Al-Sarawa Restaurant.
“We make a similar anise pastry and serve it traditionally on the fifth day of the mourning period for someone deceased,” she said, going on to gently chide her husband, one of the best chefs in the country ‏(saying, “Why are you butting in - you don’t understand anything about dough?”‏), who tried to apply the seemingly logical rules of a professional chef to the preparation of a simple home recipe.

Futot - cheese and anise balls

Filled baked goods should be served as an addition to a table of mezes and arak, but they can also been enjoyed on their own. Makes 30-40 balls.

For the dough:

500 gm. white flour
200 gm. butter or margarine or 1/2 cup clarified butter
1 cup dry yeast
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
2 tbsp. anise seeds
2 tbsp. nigella seeds
2 tbsp. sesame seeds

For the filling:

200-300 gm. crumbled cheese ‏(jibneh, Canaan cheese or mozzarella‏)
Crush the coriander seeds and the nigella with a mortar and pestle to strengthen the flavors. Place all ingredients in a bowl and knead by hand until the dough is uniform. If necessary, depending on the consistency, add some flour or milk ‏(“My mother said that anyone who leaves the kneading bowl dirty on the sides is not a good baker,” says Manal. “Nothing is supposed to stick”‏).

Form small ping-pong size balls from the dough. Flatten each on your palm to create a bowl-shaped surface, fill with a little grated cheese, fold over the edges and roll into a ball once again.

Place the balls on a baking tray lined with baking paper. At this point you can also freeze the filled balls of dough ‏(“We usually double or triple the quantities - if you’re already starting to bake, then it’s worth making large quantities - and then to freeze them and bake when necessary,” says Manal‏). Bake in an oven preheated to 200-250 degrees Celsius.