Cultural flavors of the Galilee

Hebrew-language cookbooks that offer recipes from Galilee minorities exist, but there’s none in English to compare with this one.

The Galilean Kitchen: Cultural Flavors (photo credit: NEIL MERCER)
The Galilean Kitchen: Cultural Flavors
(photo credit: NEIL MERCER)
Hebrew-language cookbooks that offer recipes from Galilee minorities exist, but there’s none in English to compare with this one. With 95 recipes and photographs on every page, The Galilean Kitchen: Cultural Flavors is not only a cookbook but also a window into the landscape and cultures of the Galilee’s Druse, Arab and Beduin women.
Author Ruth Nieman spent a year with eight housewives of those communities, cooking with them and painstakingly translating their measure-by-eye methods into cupfuls and spoonfuls, to create the book’s recipes.
Her teachers concoct the most delicious food, but don’t think in terms of recipes.
“They don’t have cookbooks,” said Nieman in a telephone interview. “Not one has a recipe out of a magazine.They cook as their mothers taught them, without measuring anything. I had to stand next to the cook with my measuring cups and spoons and measure each ingredient before she stirred it into the dish, then write it down quickly.”
Essays on ingredients considered essential staples, such as olive oil and bulgur, bring the patriarchal village atmosphere to life on the page. With a touch of humor, Nieman writes about pressing the olive harvest: “Debate rages among the Druse producers as to the quality of the oil that is pressed using the old stone press versus using modern machines. Undoubtedly, modern methods yield more oil, but a stronger flavor is definitely produced by the stone press. The argument over the quality has yet to be resolved and may well continue for centuries to come, over a strongly brewed coffee.”
Many village families maintain vegetable gardens where they harvest their own tomatoes, peppers and other ingredients. In late winter and spring, some of the older women still forage wild greens in nearby fields. A section on springtime greens illustrates some of the wild edibles that good cooks have known how to use to feed their families for generations. Incidentally, this is the time of year when mallows, purslane and other wild greens noted in this book pop up all over Israel. They will vanish when summer sets in, so this is the time to go foraging.
“They don’t shop often, like we do,” Nieman noted.
“They have big quantities of freekeh, burgul, olives and olive oil stored away, and they use what they’ve got. All the produce is very fresh, very healthy. And their kitchens are so modest. No array of electrical appliances, just the simplest stoves, uncrowded work spaces, old pots and pans. One woman’s oven is 25 years old – still working, so why change it?” Foodways reflect culture, and the traditional foods of the Galilee revolve around agriculture. Wheat is ground and dried as long-lasting bulgur – not as flour, which spoils relatively quickly. Another important wheat product is freekeh, wheat harvested while still green and roasted briefly in a bonfire. It stays fresh for at least a year and is a staple in every traditional household.
Separating part of the wheat crop to roast ensures that even if the mature wheat is ruined by rain out of season or other mishap, at least there will be freekeh.
And so for home-preserved olives harvested from their own groves, and olive oil.
Baharat, a favorite spice blend, may be picked up at the supermarket in little cellophane packages, but one Galilean cook takes her own mix of baharat spices to the mill and has them blend it for her. And yes, there’s a recipe for baharat. It yields five kilos. The recipe is there to show how it’s traditionally done.
The curious cook will probably be relieved to know baharat’s for sale in the more convenient packages in the local Middle Eastern shop. In Israel, every grocery store sells it.
NIEMAN’S BOOK wasn’t written for the inexperienced cook. The dishes have a rustic character, but they emerge from centuries of sophisticated culinary methods. Some of the dishes, such as stuffed vine leaves or tabbouleh, may already be familiar.
But others will be excitingly unfamiliar, such as beef sinyah – beef patties cooked in tehina sauce – and fatayer, savory pies stuffed with foraged greens.
The recipes are sturdily authentic, refreshingly un-bedizened with trendy garnishes or adapted to fit in with the newest culinary trend. For this writer, that’s what makes them seductive.
Plenty of patience is required to cook through this book. To make “Amira’s Stuffed Vegetables” the cook must be prepared to grate fresh tomatoes into rice and seasonings, make a separate sauce, fill zucchini and bell peppers by hand, and simmer the composite for 30-40 minutes, keeping an eye on the pot to make sure the sauce doesn’t dry out.
He or she may have to bring home a cutting of edible rose-scented geranium, or forage for purslane greens, to reproduce a dish the most authentic way.
But no fear: every recipe includes a sidebar with notes and tips for local substitutes. Rosewater, for example, stands in for the rose geranium. Photo essays guide the reader in the art of rolling vine leaves into “cigars,” roasting Arabic coffee, and shaping dumplings.
A few concessions to industrially manufactured ingredients appear in The Galilean Kitchen: soup powder and tomato paste are used in some recipes. But if tomato paste from scratch intrigues you, there’s a recipe. It requires 10 kilos of ripe tomatoes, cooked for 12 hours.
Several such huge recipes are scattered throughout the book – “for interest,” Nieman said. They certainly evoke images of women in modestly long dresses and head kerchiefs stirring vast pots with long wooden spoons. Yet while most of the women profiled live within traditional norms, some are modern and emancipated.
One is a naturopath and another a teacher and activist for women’s rights.
NIEMAN VEERS from the straight culinary path occasionally and drops hints about women’s rights, or dearth of rights, in traditional Arab and Druse societies.
She optimistically claims that cooking gives mothers and wives freedom of expression: “Through the eyes and palates of Arabic women and across the diversity of culinary influences gleaned from Druse, Muslim, Christian and Beduin communities, we capture and reveal a unique insight into the Arabic woman’s inherent love of cooking traditional dishes.
Arabic women memorize recipes from a tender age, developing individual styles of homely cooking which is undoubtedly heavily influenced by that patriarchal and devout society. Their unique culinary knowledge gives these women a voice, as they express themselves through the neutral platform of food.”
In a profile of one of her culinary teachers, Nieman continues, “Saada [mother of four and director of Sakhnin’s community college] is passionate about influencing cultural changes for Muslim women living in the traditional Arab society, having spent 10 years in Texas as a young woman in the 1980s. She escaped the wrath of her father as she broke away from an arranged engagement and his word to another man. She was the first Muslim girl to leave Sakhnin for any other reason than marriage, and to get on a plane and leave the family home was considered to be unconventional and defiant, but not being in love with the man intended for her was too much for Saada to bear.... In a traditional, old-fashioned, male dominated society, Saada stands proud for what she believes in.”
About the author Nieman is an English food writer who has traveled back and forth to Israel since her youth and has sometimes lived here.
“I have two passions: food and Israel,” she said.
She graduated from Leiths Culinary School, London, and operated a catering company for 15 years. After an accident that left her unable to run her company, Nieman turned to food writing. She writes a blog, Israel Good Food Guide.
Nieman credits Australian chef Paul Nirens for inspiring and encouraging her to write The Galilean Kitchen. Nirens introduced her to the traditional cooks of the Galilee via Galileat, his culinary workshop organization.
“In 2016, I was in Israel for the olive season, and heard of Galileat. I attended one workshop and decided to write this book.”
The chapters are laid out by ingredient categories: coffee; flour and dough; cereals, grains, pulses and rice; meat and poultry; olives and olive oil; baladi (heritage) vegetables; winter greens and foraging, and spices. Photographs enrich each page and are especially useful in showing traditional techniques.
Sadly, these traditional foods are flickering out of the culture. The recipes live on while the grandmothers are still cooking, but few younger women are willing to spend time making labor-intensive food. It seems to this writer that, later in life, the younger generation will lament not having spent more time with their mothers in the kitchen.
The Galilean Kitchen is doubly valuable: once for the fabulous authentic recipes, and once for preserving – in English (with a British tone) – traditional foodways of the four Galilean minorities.
This is Nieman’s first book. It’s self-published, and could have used more skillful editing. With that, it’s still an exciting, information-packed guide for the adventurous cook.
Nieman’s intention was to convey the flavors and atmosphere of Druse, Muslim, Christian and Beduin communities of the Galilee. She has succeeded.
The Galilean Kitchen By Ruth Nieman
Flavored Books
207 pages; $30
For sale via Facebook,, or Nieman’s blog: