F is for Food
Familiar Middle Eastern staples like falafel, kebabs and hummus are joined by specialities like musakhan, spiced roast chicken on flatbread. Or maqlubah, a chicken and rice dish cooked in a cast-iron pan that my Jerusalem-raised Samarkandi grandmother used to cook and call it Bukharian plov (pilaf). In the same way, the ubiquitous chopped salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions is known as Arabiya salad in Palestine and Israeli salad in the 48. Desserts are intensely sweet, like knafeh, a mix of cheese, semolina-based pastry and rosewater that comes from Nablus.
It was the herb mix za'atar that came to evoke Palestine for me. It's offered in many circumstances: at breakfast, with labneh, oil and bread. On salads, yoghurt, or as a dip. Za'atar is called hyssop in English, which sounds impossibly medieval and turns out to be an Anglo-Saxon word, known as early as the 9th century CE, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The green herb is mixed with sumac and toasted sesame seeds to make za'atar. It's dusty, aromatic and savory with just a hint of sweetness. It evokes standing on a rocky hillside on a warm day. I bought some in the Old City of Nablus to take home with me and its scent is pervading my kitchen as I write. It's the kind of taste and smell that words struggle to capture, instantly nostalgic even if you have only just encountered it.
Even in these domestic matters, occupations past and present cannot be avoided. At Palestinian celebrations, like the many graduation parties at the time of our visit, a common gift is a box of the English candy called Quality Street, whose main feature is its lack of quality to my ex-pat English mind. English sweets can be bought in Jerusalem's Old City, like sherbets and chewies of all kinds, some shaped like fried eggs. The British Mandate persists in little treats, for all its historic violence. You could see that as ironic or you might see in it generosity and forgiveness.