There were two vegetables I absolutely never wanted near me as a child: okra and eggplant. I have gotten over my distaste for okra. You can find my Palestinian okra stew recipe here. I have also lately been trying to perfect my fried okra recipe. It is easy, quick, and delicious, and I will add that recipe soon as well.

Eggplant, however, is another story. When I studies abroad in France, I tasted eggplant once and fell in love! How did they cook it? Why did it taste so different? I have yet to figure out the French culinary secret to delicious eggplant: is it their variety of eggplant? Or is it the way that they cook eggplant? I have been told that I need only to cover eggplant in salt to suck the bitter out. I haven’t tried it yet, and I’m still working on it. But in the meantime, as a lover of food I really dislike the idea of not liking a vegetable! So I have been cooking eggplant, trying new things with it. I have two recipes below that turned out to be quite delicious! And I made them both up with whatever I had in the refrigerator.

1. Eggplant Dip

I will not call it baba ghannouj, because my father would have a fit. I had eggplant in the fridge, and my neighbor was having a party to which I wanted to contribute something.

Ingredients

1 large whole eggplant

3 tomatoes, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

Salt & pepper to taste

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the eggplant in half and lay both halves face down on an oven tray, and bake until it is cooked. I’m not good with keeping time, but I would say about 30-40 minutes should do it. You want the roasted eggplant to be soft enough to mash with a fork. While it is in the oven, roast or fry your diced tomatoes with the minced garlic. When I cooked this, I fried the tomatoes because the oven was being used by others and because I wanted to finish the dish in time to come out with the rest of the food. I would suggest (and at some point I will try) roasting the tomatoes and the garlic cloves whole. When everything is roasted or fried, put them all in a bowl together and mash them up. I served the dip with flour tortilla that I had which I baked and turned into tortilla chips. It was absolutely delicious, healthy, and very easy!

eggplant

Eggplant dip.

 

2. Roasted eggplant with couscous (or any other grain)

As an Arab, I do not consider a meal to be dinner without a grain: rice, couscous, bulgher wheat, etc. I am going out of town and do not want to get groceries until I come back. I had eggplant, broccoli, and tomatoes in my fridge, and I had couscous in the pantry. So I made two vegetable dishes to go with my couscous. Again, I invented these with what I found in my kitchen, and they turned out delicious! My neighbor/adopted mother and harsh critic Mina joined me for dinner, and she had nothing but good things to say about dinner. Another win with the eggplant!

Eggplant dish:

1 eggplant

balsamic vinegar

olive oil

salt & pepper to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 430 degrees. I sliced the eggplant vertically into several slices and laid them on a baking sheet, this time with the skins facing down. Then in a bowl I mixed together the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Basically I thought of the Mediterranean flavors that I thought might go well on the eggplant, so you can come up with your own variation. I poured this vinaigrette over the eggplant and popped the eggplant into the oven. I took Chiquita for a walk and we visited Mina and invited her to come over for dinner. I would say I roasted the eggplant for about 40 minutes. I simply kept checking up on it by poking it or tasting it. I will come up with a better method one day!

When I felt that they were cooked through, I pulled each slice out of the oven, diced it up into chunky pieces, and tossed them in a bowl. That was it! I served it with a side of couscous alongside those other roasted veggies (recipe coming soon!) and it was absolutely delicious. Again, very healthy!

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Roasted eggplant with cous cous and roasted broccoli and tomatoes.

Eggplant

Beets!

My newest ongoing challenge involves cooking vegetables that I have either never heard of or never cooked before. This has been particularly fun because I have recently become a co-op member, and our produce section weekly involves at least one unique vegetable, sometimes two or three.

Beets are not unique. But they fit my category perfectly for a fun challenge because until I bought them from the co-op I had never cooked beets before! I searched online for a while before I settled on what I thought would be the best way to cook them. But first, a beet travel story!

In Cordoba over Christmas 2010, I decided to splurge on a more expensive meal than the ones I had been eating before. This meal was something of a “chef’s special,” and among the delicious treats on the menu was pureed beets. I can say with all confidence and ease that that may have been the single most delicious dish that I have ever eaten. I think about it often, and now that I have a good recipe for preparing beets I will try to recreate it at some point… if I can remember the subtle flavors from three years ago!

Anyway, back to the beets. I researched the best method of cooking them and came across one that I really like. Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees, and find a deep pyrex bowl or tray. Submerge the beets in water in the oven-safe tray and put them in the oven. Leave it for a good half hour to 45 minute, long enough for the beets to get very soft. Once you think they are finished, peel them and cut them into cubes.

You can make all kinds of things with these cubed beets, over several days. One day I made this beet and salmon tartar: Salmon beets

Very simple! Let the salmon marinate in lemon juice with onions in the fridge, then add thyme, jalapenos, salt, and pepper, and add the salmon to a bed of salmon. It is absolutely delicious!

The following day for lunch I made a beet and walnut salad, very easy to throw together when you’re running out of the house for work (balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper; notice my work desk!):

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And finally, that evening for dinner I made a beet and palm heart salad (lemon juice, salt, pepper, olive oil, thyme) over couscous: IMG_3598

My only warning when it comes to beets is that they will dye your hands, and do not be alarmed when your bathroom breaks turn the toilet water pink. It all comes with the territory!

Palestinian Okra Stew

I once cooked this in the Dominican Republic for friends because I realized that they ate okra stew. They loved it and insisted that it was Dominican, or at least that Palestinian food and Dominican food must be the same. Of course there is a history of interaction between Levantine Arabs and the DR. I discovered on my trip there that “kippi” is in fact the ubiquitous, and delicious Arabic kibbi! I’m not sure what the connection is between our okra stew and Dominican okra stew, but they are both delicious!

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Pot of okra stew I cooked in the DR. Preferably okra should be smaller.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 3 hours for meat, one hour for chicken or vegetarian

Ingredients:

1/2 onion, diced

4 garlic cloves, minced

olive oil

1 tablespoon allspice

salt

bay leaves

2 cinnamon sticks

6 cardamom pods

cubes of beef

okra (fresh or frozen, a substantial amount is good; typically Arab-style are smaller)

2 fresh tomatoes, diced

2 tablespoons tomato paste (preferably not from a can)

fresh cilantro

Instructions:

We will first cook the meat. I like the meat to be very tender, and the only way to do this is to give it between 2-3 hours to cook on low heat. This can be the foundation to a great many stews.  Another option is to replace the beef with chicken, and cook it less than 3 hours. If you prefer it meatless you can simply start with a veggie stock base, but I still recommend sauteing onion and garlic in olive oil first (see below).

Put a pot on medium-high heat and add some olive oil. Throw in the diced onion and saute until translucent, then add half of the minced garlic. Be careful not to burn. After about a minute throw in the beef just long enough to brown all sides, and finally add enough water to submerge all the beef under about an inch of water. Add the bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, cardamom and allspice before the water boils, then when it boils turn the heat down to low. Cover and allow the meat to cook in water and spices for 2-3 hours (you will know its finished when the meat falls apart easily with a fork). Make sure meat is submerged at all times. Add more water if necessary.

Once the meat is done remove the cardamom, bay leaves, and cinnamon from the water and add the okra, diced tomatoes, and tomato paste. Stir and salt as desired and throw in the rest of the minced garlic and fresh cilantro. Leave it over heat for about 30 more minutes or until okra is cooked. Enjoy!

Recipes Coming Soon!

As a child I watched my grandmother spend every waking hour making food. By the time I woke up every morning she would already have a bowl of dough that she was fashioning into bread or stuffed mini-pies. In a single day my grandmother would produce breakfast, lunch, dinner, in-between snacks, goodies to share with friends, dishes to send to the neighbors, desserts, on-the-go cookies, juices, teas, etc.

It was so delicious, and she may be the reason I love to eat so much and can immediately detect the flavor in anything. It may also be the reason why I’ve hated cooking for so long. Feared it really…

I always had the idea that cooking is a day-long endeavor that consumes every waking hour, as it did my grandmother. Of course I am learning that she was special and did very special things for us because of her endless love. That was one way that she expressed it to us, and for that I am forever grateful (RIP grandma, you’re always on my mind). I am also grateful because I did spend all my time smelling, tasting, poking, and watching. So now that I try to cook I generally know something is done by its taste, color, or smell.

I am using this space to share my recipes with you all, who also think cooking is daunting or impossible. I’m shocked to hear myself say that IT’S NOT! Let me know when you try any of these and send me your feedback/photos.

Thanks again grandma! This is for you.

La Republica Dominicana

The day I landed in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, David, his uncle, and his aunt picked me up from the airport and we went directly East to Bayahibe (as we made our way to Punta Cana to visit Deborah). I would return to Santo Domingo later. My first impression: breathtaking. I had come from the winter of Washington, DC to the tropics. And the first thing we did was have a fish dinner IN the Caribbean Ocean (that’s right, we moved our table and chairs into the water), watched people dance bachata, and swam. We took a walk and found this graveyard on the beach.

The next day we made our way closer to Punta Cana, heading North and stopping at Higuey along the way. A major city on the Eastern side of the island (the capital of the Altagracia province), and home of the Basilica of Our Lady of Altagracia, pictured above.

As we continued northward from Higuey to Punta Cana we found wide open spaces, lots of fields and smaller towns. We stopped by this fruteria, beautiful in its glorious fruit display. Across the street I found the sculpture below: baseball, the national sport of the Dominican Republic. We wanted to see a baseball game while I was there (being a major Phillies fan myself), but we did not have the chance. The batter and catcher (pictured below) were set up several feet from the pitcher.

I had never met Deborah before, and was very excited to get to know her. When we reached Punta Cana, a resort town on the Eastern edge of the island, she had been out on a dive. Deborah was planting coral in the sea and monitoring the growing process. I may have this completely wrong, but that is how I understood it. I had never been in a resort before, but since she volunteered there we were given access to the resort as well!

Resorts are not my thing. Neither were they David or Deborah’s. But why not enjoy it if we have the access? We sat on the beach playing dominoes, went out with some of Deborah’s co-workers. My favorite part, however, was swimming in the ojas indigenas– very blue water holes.

After a few days in Punta Cana we took Deborah back to Monte Plata with us. Monte Plata is basically in the center of the country; David and Deborah lived there. They had amazing friends in the city with whom we spent a lot of time (family photos further down). At some point David needed to go to Santo Domingo for some work, so Deborah and I went along. Santo Domingo turned into a place where I reflected a lot. For me, a major part of the travel experience is to connect with the history of the country and understand it. Of course as a person from the Western Hemisphere, this place carries a lot of meaning for me. Above is a plaza where I sat for a while, staring at the statue of Christopher Columbus in the center. This was the place that it all began: where the Spanish (and by extension the Europeans) landed and never left. I needed to reflect on that– and I did. I glanced at the shoreline and then darted my eyes back to the plaza. I grieved and got lost in thought at this physical place and the repercussions of that landing some six hundred years back when Europeans became aware of the presence of the Americas. It held a lot of meaning for me as a Palestinian, an indigenous person who was also displaced by colonizers from the sea, and whose entire society was erased and replaced with another society. All of this as I sat in this plaza thinking about this country and its past. Santo Domingo was important to me on another level as well.

Architecture like this in the Caribbean, or in Latin America in general, reminds me of the smallness of the world. Every time. The architecture above is a typical example of evolved Arabic architecture, which today is known as Spanish architecture. Just before Ferdinand and Isabella funded the voyage of Columbus, the Spanish had conquered Spain (mostly the South) from the Arab empire and purged the Muslims. This was the time they set up the inquisitions. In fact without the wealth and navigation knowledge of the libraries of Andalusia, the voyage itself could not have been possible. In the Spanish colonies (even in the American South and southern Midwest) there is a distinct type of architecture. It is all Arabic-inspired architecture that the Spaniards brought with them from Andalusia. The world was once a much more porous space. Nationalism, a very modern concept, created the rigid border divisions that we have today. We believe that communication is now expanding and globalization is making the world smaller. In fact, we divided ourselves and are just now slowly moving away from the rigid divisions we only created recently.

The Dominican Republic is a very Catholic country. However, as in other Caribbean cultures, there is a fair amount West African religious influence. As we walked around the city we discovered this cathedral that also had a beautiful courtyard; and in the middle this statue. An anti-abortion sculpture, the inscription translates into:

“Human life is sacred and not to be violated, in every moment of its existence, including its initial moments that precede birth…” Joh Paul II.

As Deborah and I walked through Santo Domingo, we found a small shop where this man was rolling cigars. They’re not Cuban, but it was cool to watch. He welcomed us in and showed us how he rolled the cigar, then asked me to photograph him. I loved the way the colors came out in the photo.

My friends and amazing hosts, David and Deborah. On a trip that David made to DC for a few interviews, he stayed with us and invited me to visit them in the DR. Naturally I booked my ticket as he was inviting me! I am so glad that I did. This was the first time that I met his partner Deborah. This photo was taken just outside of their house in Monte Plata. To the left, not pictured, was their house, and specifically the window to the room I stayed in. Every morning the water truck drove past, selling potable water. Being from the Arab World myself I was used to obnoxious noises coming from gasoline, water, and vegetable sellers butt early in the morning. But the water truck in the Dominican Republic was different. This truck played a salsa song about agua. It was a fun song to wake up to, and unlike when the trucks that sell things in the Middle East come around, I was not unhappy to be awakened at 5am! I would even sing the agua song throughout the day.

This amazing girl, whose name I cannot remember right now, became Deborah and my instant friend. We met her at the clinic that David worked at when we accompanied him there for the day.We played with her for a bit, and then her mom took her away to where she needed to be. Moments later she strolled back to us by herself. She left her mom, who later showed up frantically looking for her, and walked around searching, until she found us. Her mom let her stay with us until we left. She was an endless source of entertainment, as most two-year-olds tend to be. She sang us songs and demanded that we applaud: UN APPLAUSO! Here Deborah showed off her glasses to our little friend, who also wore glasses.

The next few photos are family photos of Deborah and David, their friends Matilde and Moreno, and their children.

Finally, at the very end I returned to Santo Domingo. The city, and in fact the Dominican Republic, saw me off well. Here we randomly found a party at the central square. Live salsa music, hundreds of people dancing, fruit vendors. It was the perfect end to the vacation, topped off only by a bitter-sweet goodbye over coffee the next morning.

Qalandiya Checkpoint

As I said, the Qalandiya checkpoint deserves its own very special post. It is a special kind of oppression that has been mastered by Israel, and it really deserves some praise.

I spoke briefly before about the mechanisms of separation between Palestinians that Israel has devised. Palestinians in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, and in Israel proper all have different forms of identification. People in the West Bank have West Bank or “green” IDs. They can travel in areas “A” and “B” of the West Bank (Palestinian Authority controlled) but not in Areas “C” (Israeli controlled). For example, yesterday we had to cross a checkpoint to go to the Dead Sea, which is in area “C”. We were allowed in because two of us were carrying US passports, but they could have just as well turned us away. Then we saw signs for a fresh water spring and did not get as lucky at that checkpoint. We were turned away because two of us were carrying “green” IDs.

Palestinians in Jerusalem carry Jerusalem or “blue” IDs. They can travel in all of those territories. However, if it is proven that they live anywhere other than in Jerusalem, they get their Jerusalem IDs taken away and the state replaces them with “West Bank” IDs, effectively barring them from entering Jerusalem or “Israel proper”. The reason for this is the Judiaization of Jerusalem, which I wrote about before. By various means Israel is trying to decrease the number of Palestinians in Jerusalem and transferring them (yes, ethnic transfer) into the West Bank. By emptying Jerusalem Israel can unilaterally make it the capital of Israel and ban even more Palestinians from entering Jerusalem.

Palestinians who live in Israel proper carry Israeli citizenship but are not treated equal to Jewish Israeli citizens. After all, it is the Jewish State and if you’re not Jewish in a Jewish State you are not equal. There are few borders through which Palestinian citizens of Israel can cross into the West Bank where other Palestinians who share a culture and an identity are a majority. This matrix of separation and control has effectively created almost three divided Palestinian populations within the same territory, and that is not to mention the refugee status Palestinians of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon who cannot even dream of seeing Palestine. Jews in this country, however, all have Israeli citizenship, and they can come and go anywhere. No separation mechanisms are set up for them. They have separate roads to drive on and different color license plates so they can drive on them.

Qalandiya is the main and permanent checkpoint that separates Palestinians in the West Bank from Jerusalem and from Palestinians outside of the West Bank. Qalandiya is a monstrosity.

If you have a visitor’s visa or a Jerusalem ID or a permit to visit Jerusalem in your West Bank ID you can go to the bus station in Ramallah and catch a bus to the Qalandiya checkpoint. Then you have to get out of the bus and walk through the checkpoint. (Unless you have a foreign passport with a visa. In that case you can stay on the bus and the soldiers will check your passport on the bus. I always encourage foreign passport holders to walk through the checkpoint at least once). Walking through the checkpoint the separation and the dehumanization continues.

The checkpoint is a giant momentary prison. Meaning that in the few minutes while one walks through she is in an animal cage. To get to the soldiers there are a sequence of barriers and corridors. People have to wait at the whim of the soldiers. They usually allow three people in at a time, and between those three people they typically allow several minutes to pass before they let anyone in. Meanwhile Palestinians are left waiting in multiple lines in cages–literally long cages in corridors. Not only are there wire fences on your left and your right as you wait, basically the exact width of a human being. But the fenced wire also covers the top of the corridor. Literally, Palestinians pass through cages to get to Jerusalem.

Once as I crossed Qalandiya I heard a conversation between two men who did not knwo each other. Above the cage we stood in, a bird was flying. One man said to the other, “Look at that. Look at the freedom that bird has. It has more freedom than we do.” And the other man replied, “You’re wrong. That bird is also carrying Palestinian ID.”

The Apartheid Wall just outside the Qalandiya Checkpoint.

Reads "Long Live a Free Palestine"

Al-Quds (Jerusalem)

If I talked (or typed) for days I could not capture everything I have been thinking about Jerusalem. Of all the places to see in Palestine, Jerusalem is the most painful. When I first arrived in Palestine a friend from DC was in Jerusalem for work. I spent a few nights in Jerusalem with her, far from the old city, but constantly looking out in the distance hoping to get a glimpse of the Dome of the Rock– that sight which really solidified being in Palestine for me last year when I came for the first time. Mostly my friend and I hung out with folks in East Jerusalem’s bars, talking about Palestine. It was her first time witnessing Israeli Apartheid. And it was the beginning of my trip here– my eyes teared up a lot at the conversations we had.

A few weeks later I went back to Jerusalem with another friend. We traveled around the old city this time. East Jerusalem (occupied since 1967) is overflowing with video cameras and Israeli soldiers. This is a control mechanism, to keep watch over the Palestinians and to show them without a doubt that they are constantly being watched. Reading this cannot reveal how terrifying the reality is– you need to see it to believe it. In the West Bank anyone you mention Jerusalem to grows very sad at the thought of how close the city is yet how impossible it is to get there. Palestinians with West Bank IDs cannot enter Jerusalem, although the city means so much to Palestinians. Palestinians inside Jerusalem have Jerusalem IDs– they can go in and out of the occupied territories and the 1948 territories (“Israel proper”). This is apartheid– it is systemic separation and differentiation, not only between Palestinians and Israelis but between Palestinians as well.

While Jerusalem is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, at the same time it is the most depressing. There is a sadness over the city, and after I leave it that sadness manifests itself into a depression in me that lasts for several days. The second time we returned to Jerusalem we wandered around East Jerusalem, not in the Old City. By chance we stumbled into the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and into a protest there against the forced expulsion of the families from their homes (again!).

We hung around the demonstration for a while, speaking with the families. There were lots of Israeli Jews as well, and I realized that this was the peace movement– Israeli Jews who do not necessarily acknowledge things like the Right of Return for Palestinian Refugees, or who do not acknowledge that they are colonizers living on stolen land. It is also bizarre that when the protest is over they get into their buses and go back to their first world homes in West Jerusalem– land stolen in 1948 rather than in 1967.

While we were among the protesters Haneen and I found the families who were expelled from their homes and spoke with them. They were extremely sad, but somehow still hopeful. They are still fighting in the courts, knowing that they will probably fail to get their rights back in the colonizer’s legal system. Of course their neighbors from the neighborhood are also in danger of eviction.

I saw two things that day that I need to recount here. While we were speaking to the residents in the demonstration I noticed that there were three groups of Israeli enforcement authorities standing across the street: soldiers, police, and private security detail. The soldiers were sitting atop a small hill across the street carrying guns and video cameras! Nothing takes me aback more than those video cameras that are everywhere in East Jerusalem. Mind control– Big Brother is Always Watching!

Second incident, while Haneen and I were waiting for the bus going back to Ramallah we watched a young Jewish Israeli settler walk by us and turn into the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which is now closed by a checkpoint on Fridays because the Palestinians are “causing disturbances” (because apparently being kicked out of your home is not reason to be upset). At the checkpoint, the man who was dressed clearly like an Israeli Jewish settler because of his religious dress walked right through, waving at the soldiers on his way in. Minutes later a Palestinian man crossed the street to go to his home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, from which he will also be expelled soon, and was stopped by the soldiers and had to present his ID. Reader, please remember that the Jewish settler is now living in someone’s evicted home and at the same time is being protected by the state. The soldiers and the settlers illegally came to this Palestinian man’s neighborhood and now have the right to check his ID upon entering or leaving. In his own neighborhood.

If this is not apartheid, what is? The Judiaization of Jerusalem is a reality in Israel’s attempt to unilaterally make it the capital of the Jewish State and to ban Palestinians from the right to reach Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a microcosm of Palestine– it is being cantonized into Bantustans and slowly being confiscated but more rapidly than the whole of Palestine.

I will have a post only about the Qalandiya checkpoint next (main checkpoint separating West Bank and Jerusalem). It deserves its own section. Believe me.

Keys to pre-1948 Palestinian Homes

Store in Old City

Zaatar in a store in the Old City

Live Music at the Jerusalem Hotel in East Jerusalem

Old City of Jerusalem