I’m home from my adventure to the Middle East and my house will smell of cardamom and za’atar for an indefinite period of time. I’m trying out a lot of new recipes, techniques and spices, and in general, am experimenting with ideas born out of the incredible culinary diversity I witnessed while in Jerusalem (and Ramallah and Bethlehem). America is referred to as a melting pot, our cuisine reflecting many cultures. Well, if America is a melting pot, Jerusalem is a melting pressure cooker. I’m not really sure this metaphor delivers the punch I’m going for, but suffice it to say, Jerusalem has a lot going on food-wise due to the many cultures and nationalities represented—there’s something from nearly every continent and every dish has three names and may be prepared in a dozen or more slightly different ways, but it is all prepared with conviction. So, before I go delving into all of my experiments, I want to share a few of the treasures I discovered while there.
Breakfast, well, labneh to be specific
I stayed in the guesthouse of the Lutheran World Federation as it is on the campus of the hospital I was serving. Every morning, they put out a modest Mediterranean breakfast spread of sliced vegetables, usually tomatoes and cucumbers and sometimes bell peppers, hummus, pita, a sheep’s milk cheese, and a strained yogurt called labneh. I mixed my labneh with date syrup every morning and sometimes added in sliced bananas. Often, I’d come back for lunch and find breakfast still out. One day I toasted a pita and filled it the sheep’s milk cheese and bell peppers. So good.
What struck me about the breakfast was the consistency, quality and balance of it. It’s a very simple meal, but so smart. I imagine through trial and error this blend of staples found its way to tables everywhere throughout the region, every day. I believe in breakfast and I believe in protein for breakfast, but I am still usually famished by 10 a.m. Not so on the Mediterranean diet. The veggies and labneh carried me through very physically active mornings when lunch wasn’t until early afternoon. For such a light and simple array of foods, it was a rib-sticker.
Yes, this is a dairy-free blog, but y’all…this cheese. It’s a firm goat or sheep’s milk cheese (maybe of the same variety put out at breakfast) and I enjoyed it seared. I asked the question: “Is it always Halloumi? Or does it become Halloumi when seared?” Best I can tell it’s always Halloumi, but I only had it seared. It is served on salads and sandwiches and served a la carte everywhere. I couldn’t get enough of it.
As I stated in my one and only post from the trip – it carries an addictive quality. I brought a jar home and it’s already half gone. There’s not much to explain here as it is literally just syrup made from dates. I’m sure the sugar content is in the stratosphere, but mercifully the label is in Hebrew, so I’m going to play the ignorance card. As aforementioned, it’s wonderful mixed with the labneh and I’ve tried it with Greek yogurt since being home. It’s also great for marinating meats, which I did here. I can’t wait to use it with lamb chops as either a marinade/grilling sauce or finishing sauce.
This spiced thyme is EVERYWHERE. Throughout the Old City markets there are za’atar pyramids and I’d venture to say it is the most-used spice in the cuisine of the region, whether Israeli or Palestinian. It can be used on meats, vegetables and is especially tasty mixed with the labneh (I know, broken record).
I experienced much more while in Jerusalem, related and unrelated to food – more than I could ever fit in a blog post. The things mentioned above can be found in Mediterranean markets or maybe in the Jewish section of your grocery store. I’ve already gone exploring and have stocked up.
Below are a few more of the dishes (and a beer) I enjoyed while there: