HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) - For a people struggling to establish their own state, traditional food is an important part of the national heritage, and for Palestinians in the West Bank that goes well beyond the standard hummus (chickpea paste).
In Hebron, a biblical town in the Israeli-occupied territory, Eyad Abu Seena runs his family’s qedra shop, where potted meat bakes over rice in an open oven in the wall. For many, Hebron has the best food in the West Bank.
“The qedra is part of the heritage of the people of Hebron,” Abu Senena says. “People come from all over – from Amman, from Jerusalem, from (West Bank towns in) the north like Jenin and Tulkarm. They come especially to Hebron to eat the qedra.”
In the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, captured by Israel along with the West Bank in a 1967 war, Yasser Taha presides over the famed Abu Shukri hummus and falafel (fried chickpeas) restaurant. The 70-year-old owner inherited the recipes from his father and will pass them on to his son.
“Everyone who comes to Jerusalem must eat at Abu Shukri,” he said.
Palestinian cuisine isn’t just about hummus or falafel. There are other beloved traditions, like vine leaves and mashed vegetables stuffed with rice and minced meat.
Another favorite is maqlouba, made from layers of meat, rice, and fried vegetables such as cauliflower, eggplant, potatoes, and carrots. It is cooked in a large pot, then turned over – maqlouba means “upside down” in Arabic – and topped with fried nuts or fresh herbs.
“Everyone has their own way of making it,” said Raida Salhout, who lives in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber and often cooks a big vat for her family’s lunch.
Usually made at home, maqlouba is an economically flexible dish: when prices rise or money is tight, Palestinians opt for chicken or more potatoes instead of meats like beef and lamb.
In the West Bank city of Qalqilya, Ahmed Ighbary expertly lowers a rack of spiced chicken, vegetables and rice into an oven dug into the ground. Then he covers it with dirt and blankets. After several hours, the result – called zarb – is a hearty meat and rice dish that is particularly popular during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and other festivities.
He learned the art of zarb from his father, who cooked it for fun. A few years ago, he decided to open a restaurant with a wedding hall and special zarb oven to keep the tradition going.
Passion for keeping culinary heritage alive is what makes the knafa of Nablus so renowned, said Basil al-Shantir.
The West Bank city is known for its sweets, and particularly Knafa Nablusiya, a super sweet semolina and cheese pastry topped with more syrup. For more than 70 years, Shantir’s family has been dishing out the signature dessert at the Aqsa shop nestled inside Nablus’s historic covered market. Some people even make a knafa sandwich with pita bread.
Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich