Creating a Stir: Gems from the Galilee

Chef Hussan Abbas dishes up on using local ingredients and the best way to break the Ramadan fast.

Hussan Abbas (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hussan Abbas
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Chef Hussan Abbas embodies the philosophy of slow food. Growing up poor in the town of Kafr Kana, close to Nazareth, he learned at a young age to forage for seasonal vegetables and take what food the earth gave.
“There wasn’t much food in the house when I was little,” the imposing, bristly mustached chef says. “My mother would go out to the fields and collect all the edible winter greens, then take them home to cook. I’d help her gather the greens, then I’d stand next to her and watch her cooking whatever she gathered from the earth. Wild asparagus and fennel, mallows, chicory. At around age seven or eight, I started cooking, too.”
From those humble origins, Abbas, 55, has built a small empire of three wellknown restaurants in Acre, Yokne’am and Umm el-Fahm, all named El-Babour.
“My brothers all work with food and own restaurants, too. Altogether, we own nine restaurants,” he says. “We began in a small village home, but we now influence the whole Galilee.”
He also owns a shwarma stand and a butcher shop. He spends his day going from one business to another.
Asked if he still has time for his first love, cooking, he says, “Obviously, I don’t cook as much as I used to, but I’m never far from the kitchen. My whole life is food. I think about food all the time, day and night. I’m always fantasizing what the next dishes will be. I still cook, of course, but mostly when I’m educating my workers how to cook.”
Abbas has over 100 workers in his various enterprises.
Traditional Arab values of family, hard work and religion are the ground on which he stands. He still lives in Kafr Kana with his family, and he raised his now-adult children the old-fashioned way, with rewards and punishments. Rather than put his ailing, elderly mother in an old-age facility, he organized a roster of his siblings and their spouses to care for her at home.
His four daughters are schoolteachers, and his son works alongside him in the restaurants.
The food at El-Babour is all of a piece with these traditional values. A devout Muslim, Abbas allows no alcohol or pork at any of his eateries. In the winter months and early spring, his menus feature the wild greens that grow in the Galilean valleys and hillsides: chicory, mallows, akub (a thistle much like a tiny artichoke), wild spinach and mustard greens – the same wild greens he gathered with his mother in childhood.
Abbas is especially fond of heirloom vegetables, which grow only in the North and are called baladi in Arabic. These are vegetables sown in fall and cultivated but not watered, depending only on rainfall.
They appear in northern open-air markets in the summer and are considered prime.
Indeed, a squat, ridged baladi tomato with dark green stripes has a sweetness and flavor that no hothouse tomato can rival. Baladi eggplants are often very large, likewise ridged, and have a fan shape.
They are the essence of native food from the Galilean soil.
Asked what his culinary influences are, Abbas replies without hesitating: “I learned advanced techniques when I worked at Tel Aviv restaurants as a youngster, in the ’80s. But my cooking always reflects the Galilee. I cook foods that my people have been eating for centuries. My vegetables are grown from seeds that have likewise come down unchanged through hundreds of years.
The foods I like best are those that remind me of my childhood: zucchini stuffed with rice and meat, young okra, melochia soup.”
Melochia is a leaf related to mallows, often stewed with chicken and known to have been eaten in the Middle East since ancient times by commoner and royalty alike.
“Traditional Arab cooking fits in with the modern trend toward healthier, more natural food,” he adds. He is a member of the Israel Slow Food Movement, which has four branches throughout the country, though most of its members are located in the Galilee.
The Koran requires Muslims to fast from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan. This year, Ramadan began on July 9 and will finish on August 7, so observant Muslims are refraining from food during the day. Yet Ramadan is a month of intense cooking and feasting at night, and families and friends sit down to a festive meal every evening. To ease the daytime hours, a pre-fast meal is served before dawn. What does Abbas recommend for Iftar, the fast-breaking evening meal? “Dates,” he says. “We follow the tradition set by the Prophet Muhammad and break our fast on dates and water.
This is the healthiest way to break the fast.
After that, I recommend a soup, followed by the main dish after a little while. We serve rich dishes like stuffed lamb, stuffed chicken, stuffed grape leaves. Then come the sweets. In Ramadan, we eat many desserts, like baklawa, stuffed kataif pancakes, and knafeh [a pastry stuffed with sweet cheese].”
Abbas’s advice to aspiring cooks is tough and realistic.
“The first rule is, respect your kitchen and respect the raw ingredients you’re working with. Then, you must love your profession. Cooking professionally is very hard. It takes up all your time, day and night. Wives feel neglected, and there are no vacations, no friends outside the profession.”
He adds with a twist of humor, “It’s not a good idea to marry a chef.”
Further, he says, “authentic Israeli cuisine should originate in local foods, and chefs should be cooking foods they learned from their mothers. Last piece of advice: It doesn’t matter what you cook.
Cook what you personally like and find tasty, and others will like it, too.”
Hussan Abbas teaches cooking courses to groups at his Yokne’am restaurant. He may be reached at (04) 989-1619.ZUCCHINIS WITH YOGURT
The recipe features baladi zucchini, but any variety of zucchini will taste fine, too.
6 baladi zucchinis (courgettes), peeled and cubed 1 cup canola oil for frying 2 cups yogurt 2 tsp. labaneh cheese 2 garlic cloves, crushed ½ tsp. salt 2 sprigs fresh mint, chopped
Heat the oil in a skillet until it shimmers.
Fry the zucchini cubes in the hot oil, until golden, in batches. Drain on paper towels.
Mix the yogurt and labaneh in a bowl. Add the fried zucchini and mix gently.
Mix in the crushed garlic and salt.
Cover the bowl and refrigerate two hours.
Just before serving, sprinkle chopped mint over all.Makes 4-6 servings