Palestinian Cooking 101

On one Friday in April, I arrived at the Al Jaabari home amid a flurry of activity. The weather had warmed and spring was in bloom. I was ushered left, not right, through the dining room. Family was gathering outdoors in the square courtyard, a space perhaps twenty-five feet square. High concrete walls on all sides created a private area for gardening and family gathering. 

I was ushered to a chair at the outdoor table. Tea was offered. I accepted and sipped the sweetness as I settled into the pleasant sunny warmth of a spring day in Fawwar. The bustle around me was unusual and noteable. The young women of the family were attending to me. This had not been typical during my previous Holy Day visits.

By this time, I had learned the names. Suhana and Tahira were the daughters of Farouk’s sister Miriam. Their cousin Noor always joined family gatherings, while her mother Farrah made brief and infrequent visits. The three women were all of similar ages in their early twenties.

Suhana provided me with an explanation for this day’s departure from routine. “Mr. Ric, you have commented several times how much you enjoy the stuffed grape leaves. Last week we heard you comment that you wished you could learn how to make them. Today, you will help us to make a platter of waraqa dawali.”

With Suhana’s declaration, the three women brought trays of ingredients and placed them on the table. Two large ceramic bowls were filled with an aromatic meat-rice mixture. My mouth was watering. The women had anticipated. Smaller bowls of fresh dates and almonds were offered. “Please, Mr. Ric. Eat these now as we work.”

A large flat platter of young grape leaves was placed in the center of the table. Stacks of young leaves had been blanched. Muted green in color, the leaves were supple and pliable for folding. Stems had been removed.

Smaller empty plates were placed near each person’s chair. Two larger flat trays were set down empty. As everyone began, Suhana sat adjacent to me and demonstrated. She carefully lifted one grape leaf from the hefty stack and placed it on the plate in front of her. With a tablespoon, she scooped up a generous spoonful of rice-meat and spread it near the base of the grape leaf. Like wrapping a gift, Suhana folded the end forward and then tucked each side toward the middle. Rolling the mound forward, she carefully wrapped the leaf into an oblong cube shape. When the leaf was wrapped, she set it onto the large empty platter. Care was taken to position the end of the leaf down so that it would not unwrap during steaming.

I watched and learned. It looked easy enough. It wasn’t. Getting the perfect amount of rice mixture, folding and tucking the grape leaf, avoiding tears in the leaf, accomplishing an appetizing morsel–all of these took patience and practice. After a few practice leaves and one or two discards, I got the swing of it.

Laughter and conversation accompanied our work. Sometimes in Arabic, more often in English for my benefit. Within the hour, we had two platters of beautifully folded delicacies. These would go onto the stove for steaming. Although they weren’t ready for that day’s meal, I was sent off in the evening with a plate full of stuffed grape leaves to take home to my apartment. Lunches that following week had an added delicacy.

Published by Ric d. Stark

New to a post-retirement commitment to literary non-fiction, Ric d. Stark will focus memories on gay life, Hawaiʻi life and Hawaiian quilting.

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