For a geographically tiny country, Israel is remarkably diverse, especially when it comes to food. Beyond the well-known staples like hummus, sabich and falafel, you will find Libyan, Yemenite, Georgian and other far-flung cuisines in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, which attracts immigrants from all over. During a visit to Israel late last year, I got to learn a little about one unique cuisine in particular — the food of Druze Israelis living in the village of Maghar in the Galilee region, a rich land of green, rolling hills in the north of the country that is sometimes referred to as Israel’s Tuscany.
Druze (pronounced druse) are a minority religious group with roots in Islam whose 3 million practitioners worldwide are found primarily in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. To avoid persecution, Druze communities have traditionally kept to themselves, though in Israel they do serve in the army and engage in civic life in certain ways. Politics and religion aside, isolation can be good for food, and I was lucky enough to sample some things particular to Druze-Israeli cooking.
Our hostess Pnina, a widow with three children in their 20s, had drinks and snacks laid out in the sitting room of her two-story home when my group arrived. We found a pot of incredibly fragrant mint tea (Israel is strong on wild herbs), potent cinnamon coffee meant to be consumed from tiny cups and a couple of accompanying sweets whose ingredients we had fun (incorrectly) guessing. The orange and slightly crunchy substance was candied squash, while the other plate held preserved grapes sprinkled with sesame seeds. Next came a flat, round, extremely crunchy sesame cake (an extra-crisp variation on halvah), and then the best treat of all: hot, crescent-shaped fried dumplings known as kat’aif, one variety stuffed with a soft cheese and one with nuts. They had both been sprinkled with rosewater and inhabited some middle category between savory and sweet.
We took a recess then to scope out the promised views from Pnina’s back windows. Indeed, the entire Galilee seemed to be spread out below us, looking somehow charged with historical epicness: It was easy to imagine the Israelite tribe of Dan, and you know, Jesus, hanging out there back in Biblical times. Thanks to these layers of history and the ease of growing things in its fertile hills and valleys, Galilee’s diverse population includes Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouins. The organizer of our tour, Aussie-Israeli chef Paul Nirens, arranges cooking classes, home-cooked meals and educational workshops with members of all of these communities through his company Galileat. I’m tempted to spend a week doing nothing but cooking and eating with Nirens and local Galilee families the next time I’m in the country. As Nirens tells me, “It shows off a different Israel, a softer Israel.”
Back at Pnina’s table, our hostess brought out the biggest piece of flatbread I’ve ever seen. Known as Druze pita, it’s floppy and thin and easily foldable. It was served with lebne topped with olive oil and za’atar, plus home-brined green olives from the trees in the garden. Pnina’s daughter Rana arrived around then, accompanied by her husband. Because she speaks great English, I was able to ask some questions about typical Druze cuisine while she translated her mother’s answers.
Lebne, pita and olives are year-round staples, I learned, but overall, Druze cuisine is very seasonal since most of the ingredients come from the garden outside. In the spring, people eat stuffed grape leaves. In summer, it’s yogurt with everything: veggies cooked in yogurt, or meat-filled pastries in a yogurt sauce. Chicory is big in the fall, either in salads or cooked. And winter features a lot of bulgur, cooked with lentils or stuffed into vegetables.
Rana is part of a new generation that reflects the way Druze society, like many traditional societies, is changing. She considers herself secular, and she wears jeans and other contemporary garb rather than her mother’s typical black dress and white head scarf. Families have gotten smaller just over the last generation, according to Rana. While her grandmother had ten kids, all of her aunts and uncles have just two to four. For economic reasons, many young couples these days move to Tel Aviv or Haifa to work.
Still, Rana can cook all of her mother’s recipes, so those traditions are alive for now. On the way out, she showed us the bread oven downstairs, a wide, gas-fired dome where Pnina and other ladies might gather a few times to month to make a batch of Druze pita, which apparently keeps for ages in the freezer. “When two or three women make bread together,” she says, “it sounds like music.”
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