Pass the Weed - No, the Other One

Some people - even chefs in the Startup Nation - find ingredients growing right outside.

Gil Eliahu

Hussam Abbas is navigating his jeep through the fields off the main highway that cuts through Israel’s northern Carmel mountain range when he spots just what he’s after.

“That’s wild asparagus over there,” he says, pointing at the nearby shrubbery. Slamming on the brakes, he jumps out of the jeep and heads toward an otherwise indistinguishable-looking bush.

He proceeds to break off a branch of something vaguely resembling cultivated asparagus. “Try it,” he says after taking a bite. “You’ll recognize the taste immediately.” He pulls off another few branches and dumps them in the vehicle.

The next stop on this foraging expedition is a big mound of damp earth covered by what looks to the untrained eye like a pile of overgrown weeds. Not to the discerning eye, though. For Abbas, here lie some of the key ingredients that will go into his lunchtime specialties at the nearby El Babor restaurant in Yokne’am, a city that overlooks the Jezreel Valley about 13 miles from Haifa.

“Fortunately, we’ve had a bit of rain lately, so they’re sprouting once again,” he remarks.

Abbas then pulls out some wild endive that will later be sautéed in olive oil and combined with sliced onion for a warm salad. The pointed green mallow leaves, also known as hubeza, will be thrown into a salad or combined with other ingredients to form fried vegetable patties. The wild fennel leaves will be used to jazz up his hearty lentil soup, and the wild asparagus will be cut into chunks and folded into omelets.

The stems of the wild mustard greens will be chopped and combined with labneh to give the strained yogurt a bit of a kick. And because there’s such a bounty of mustard greens this time of year, what he can’t use now will be pickled and served in the summer.

“When I was a kid, this is how we lived,” he recalls. “We’d pull out anything we could from the ground. We’d bring an empty pita from the house and just stuff it with whatever we found growing outside.”

60 types of plants

It has been an unusually dry winter in Israel, but recent rains have turned the north into bold shades of green, much of it edible. Like Abbas, an increasing number of Arab-owned restaurants in the north have taken to serving up dishes that take advantage of this bounty.

A salad at the Magdalena restaurant overlooking Lake Kinneret. Mixing weeds and haute cuisine. Gil Eliahu

Generations ago, these wild plants were foraged for survival purposes; these days, they’re taking the spotlight as part of a new culinary trend. It’s not mere coincidence, then, that weeds have been showing up as a staple in many specialty dishes at these restaurants.

“With us Palestinians, it’s a tradition that dates back hundreds of years,” says Abbas, who opened his latest restaurant in Yokne’am’s high-tech hub about five years ago. Also, for the past 20 years, he and his family have been running a popular restaurant by the same name in Arab town of Umm al-Fahm.

Bunches of greens just picked in the fields now decorate bowls set out on the main counter. Unable to resist the temptation, Abbas stuffs a few into his mouth. “There’s absolutely nothing that has a taste like this,” he says. “You can try to cultivate this stuff, but it just doesn’t have the same taste as when it grows wild.”

Abbas says he can easily identify about 60 types of plants indigenous to the area that sprout in the winter and spring, though he only uses about a dozen in his dishes. Some of them, he cautions, require experienced hands.

“There’s one leaf we use for stuffing that has a poisonous stem running through it,” he notes. “You can make delicious things with it, but you need to know exactly how to remove that stem beforehand.”

Labneh in a salad at Magdalena. Upgrading traditional dishes. Gil Eliahu

About a 45-minute drive away, overlooking Lake Kinneret, is the recently opened Magdalena restaurant. Despite its glitzy appearance, here too weeds play a dominant role in the seasonal dishes. Right near the site of the ancient city of Magdala, the new restaurant is the latest to be opened by celebrity chef Yousef Hanna, who enjoys a huge following among Israeli foodies.

On the lunch menu this particular day are a salad based on wild watercress, tossed together with baby peas, apples and radishes, a salad of mustard greens mixed with red onion and sumac, and cheese breadsticks spiced with wild hyssop, also commonly known as za’ater.

Among the specialty main courses is a dish based on akub or tumble thistle – a thorny white-veined leaf whose pealed stem has the taste and texture of an artichoke heart. The stem is carefully removed, chopped and simmered with veal and an assortment of spices to create a pungent stew.

“What we do here is take traditional dishes and upgrade them both in terms of presentation and texture,” says Hamodi Okala, the 25-year-old sous-chef at Magdalena.

After delivering orders in the kitchen, Okala steps out to an enclosed porch to check on his parents, who are both seated on low stools and busy cutting away thorns, stems and anything else deemed inedible. Then the huge piles of greens head to the kitchen sinks for a thorough washing.

Keeping it simple

If Magdalena is the ultimate in Arabic haute cuisine, Sharabiq in the Arab town of Rameh in the Galilee represents the epitome of Arabic home-style cooking. Yet the two eateries rely heavily on many of the same ingredients in their signature dishes.

Endives at Magdalena. They're among the ingredients popular both with haute cuisine and home-style cooking. Gil Eliahu

Yacoub Khayat, the proprietor, opened the restaurant about two years ago, after he retired from his longtime position as director of the social work department at Rebecca Sieff Hospital in Safed. “I’ve always been interested in food and in nature, so this was a natural move for me,” he says. “Simplicity is my motto. I love the challenge of taking just a few ingredients, maybe four or five, and turning them into something special.”

Khayat goes out foraging once a week, and depending on the time of year and what he’s after, he can be found anywhere in the large expanse between Tiberias and Rosh Hanikra on Israel’s northern border, usually on his own. “I’m like a kid in a toy store when I’m out foraging,” he confesses. “Some plants I recognize by sight, some by taste, some by smell and some by touch.”

His tiny restaurant barely accommodates six small tables, and the menu, which changes daily, is handwritten in Hebrew and Arabic on a whiteboard. Today’s “weed” specialties include endives sautéed with onion and a seasonal salad made with wild endive, watercress, peppermint and hyssop. Khayat offers a visitor a peek into his tiny refrigerator where he stashes away all the bounty he collects during his weekly foraging expeditions.

“You see this here,” he says opening one of the bags. “That’s cilantro. Most people have no idea that cilantro also grows out in the wild. But I only use it when I cook at home because some people really don’t like it.” Another bag contains leaves from indigenous oak trees now in bloom, which he uses for garnish.

Khayat was born in the town of Iqrit, a Christian-Arab village whose residents were expelled during the War of Independence. “There was a plot of land in Iqrit called Sharabiq that nobody liked because it was full of thorns,” he says. “I guess it appealed to me, so that’s why I took that name for my restaurant.”