You Say Bassal; I Say Batzal
What happens when an Israeli chef and a Palestinian chef share a kitchen.
On most names of dishes, Michael and I usually agree, and we get excited time and again when we learn that the Arabic and Hebrew names of so many ingredients are the same. Olives, which are zaytun or zayt. Onions are bassal in Arabic and batzal in Hebrew. And more: dates, pomegranates, cardamom, lentils, Swiss chard, garlic, pepper.
But this is not a story of food overcoming conflict. There is no Middle East peace breaking out in our small hot kitchen. We fight about everything. He thinks he knows better than me how to make latkes for Hanukkah, and I’m sure my maqluba is better than his. He thinks I make my hummus wrong—that I should add sour salt, but I won’t hear of it. I did agree, however, to add a tomato to the parsley and tahini sauce, which made it tastier and smoother as he promised.
Our favorite quick meal while working is a thin pita bread we put in the oven for a couple of minutes. We then crumble some feta on it, sprinkle sumac, top with thinly sliced red onion, and drizzle all with a strong flavored olive oil, fold, and eat. There’s nothing better than that.
“You know what they say about Jews” he told me one day, laughing. “You can eat with them but you cannot sleep with them, because they’ll stab you in the back.”
Hmmm, I thought, I’ve heard that one before. ... Oh, right, we used to say the same thing about Arabs.
Michael’s menu is mainstream American, but he loves to talk about his mother’s home cooking, the real food he remembers from his country. (He cooks for my business some of the time, and for his own business some of the time.) He blanches frozen vegetables and prepares mac-n-cheese lollipops for his American clients, even as he describes how his mother used to make cheese by covering yogurt under blankets, or stuffed carrots with lamb and rice and cooked them in tamarind sauce, or prepared stuffed zucchini in yogurt sauce. It’s the kind of time-consuming cooking he cannot afford to do as a caterer.
Michael misses the green beans in tomatoes and the stuffed potatoes with beef, the same dishes I ask my mother to make every time we visit Israel. In fact, I’m the one preparing more Arab dishes here. Somehow my Jewish clients are more open to them. And I was lucky to learn from him how to make them better. Add sumac from Jerusalem and olive oil to the kebab, add hot pepper to the Israeli, or Arab, salad.
There’s a relaxed and easy way about our relationship, and so it was from the first day. Maybe it’s because we come from the same region, and we share the same humor, the same Mediterranean informality, the same accent.
But we still come from very different societies, as we’re often reminded. About four years ago a Palestinian man ran over pedestrians and cars in Jerusalem while driving a bulldozer, killing three people and wounding three dozen. The terrorist was shot and killed by an Israeli police officer. I read about it online, and as always checked to see if I recognized, God forbid, any of the victims. Did they give the names yet? is what any Israeli would ask first when hearing of a terrible act like that. I was upset going to work that morning and told Michael of what happened. Did they give the name of the guy who was driving the tractor?, Michael asked. At first I didn’t even understand what he meant. Who cares what his name was? But someone obviously does, although it’s hard for me to accept.
We share the same tastes, but peace takes much more than an Israeli and a Palestinian sharing their pita with feta, sumac, and onion. Pita, jibneh, sumac, bassal.
Vered Guttman, a caterer and food writer in Washington, D.C., writes the Modern Manna blog for Haaretz.