By an anonymous correspondent*
In every human society, the notion of food is embedded within a web of condensed and contested social meanings. Ideas of, and the social cooperation necessary for, the production, preparation and distribution of food evolve over time, and adapt to the complex socio-political and environmental nuances of the context in which it is being manipulated.
However, food itself is not simply a passive ingredient in daily life and inert object of human action. Food embodies an array of symbolic, ritualistic and organic biological social powers derived from the human interrelations it evokes, from the dirt to the dinner plate.
On a recent road-trip through Palestine, I had a wonderful opportunity to not only observe some of the intricate social nuances emanating from this region’s version of Arabic food, but to whole heartedly indulge in both the exquisite cuisine and stimulating conversation with locals on the social nature of Palestinian food. The following photos attempt to capture some of this experience and detail a bit of the wider social context. Enjoy!
From a very young age, the social importance of food enters the consciousness of Palestinian children. The plethora of spices on display in this market represent the foundations of the culture’s array of cuisines.
This pyramid of za’tar (crushed thyme) garnished with sesame seeds and sumac boldly displays the importance of aesthetic presentation of Palestinian food, from raw ingredients to the dinner table. Some of the other more common spices used in Palestine’s cuisine include nutmeg, cardamom, cumin, curry, and bhar, translated as “seven spice”, which also includes paprika, cinnamon, and cloves.
This picture represents the power of food to convert the marketplace into a shared, neutral public sphere, where several cross-cultural culinary discourses interact.
Because of the ideal climate, an overwhelming amount of produce is locally sourced and distributed. This intimate relationship between the geography of food production and its consumer base reinforces social cohesion in the supply chain, something largely unknown in the context of major Western grocery wholesalers.
Young children of Palestinian farmers often join in the activities of the marketplace. This young boy proudly displays his mother’s homegrown mint and aubergines. Palestinian farmers commonly showcase their produce at agrarian festivals, such as the annual lettuce festival in Artas.
From freshly squeezed juice to snuniyeh, a medley of mixed fruits and nuts used to celebrate the coming of a baby’s first tooth, pomegranates command significant social status in Palestinian culinary culture. Through the snuniyeh rite of passage, the family welcomes the full participation of another member into the community.
Mana’eesh is a pizza-like treat with a pita bread dough base spread with a za’tar and olive oil mixture baked in a wood-fired oven.
Typically eaten at breakfast, mana’eesh are served rolled alongside salted fresh tomatoes.
A common lunch time snack, sfeeha consists of minced beef or lamb, fried with chopped onions and various spices, combined with a tomato paste. The mixture is spread onto a thick pita dough and baked in a wood-fired oven.
Catering to meat-eaters and vegetarians alike, Palestinian cuisine includes falafel, a deep fried chickpea sandwich filling and kibbeh, which is a deep fried ground lamb, red pepper paste, and bulgur wheat concoction stuffed with fried onions, minced meat and spices often served with lemon.
Ka’ek bread, covered in sesame seed, is a lesser known Arabic bread commonly served at breakfast or in the street with za’tar sachets for added flavor.
Olives and pickled vegetables (cucumbers, cauliflower, beetroot, turnip, and aubergine) are of undeniable importance as a side dish to most cuisines. Outside of the market place, many Palestinian families pickle their own vegetables with vinegar and garlic, often using emptied soft-drink bottles.
Dried fruits and nuts are typically shared over coffee or tea after a meal or at informal social gatherings. Watermelon, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds, which can also be seen in this medley, often accompany families on evening neighborhood strolls.
Palestine is renowned for fresh, locally produced dates, which have been cultivated in the region for thousands of years and hold significant social meaning for the Muslim population. During Ramadan, many use dates to break the fast after sunset.
The western notion of the sweet tooth is certainly not lost on Palestinian food culture. Beyond the standard sweetness of baklawa (top left), aw’ameh is in a class of its own. Akin to the Timbit, aw’ameh is a deep fried dough ball soaked in syrup.
A cousin to aw’ameh, mshabak, meaning webbed in English, are creatively shaped while deep-fried, so that they will catch the eye of the younger clientele.
However, the typical array of Western sweets are also widely available.
Knafeh, which originated in the city of Nablus, is a baked cheese dessert, drenched in syrup, topped with semolina or a vermicelli noodle-like pastry, and crushed pistachios. This sweet delicacy is commonly shared over coffee or after a meal.
*Editor’s Note: Sometimes for political or personal reasons contributors to The Toronto Review may wish for anonymity. This is granted in situations where ties to an institution, or concern for friends and acquaintances, may prohibit a full and comprehensive airing of views.