From my notebook:
During my trip to Palestine last spring, I stayed with my great aunt, Imm Tayseer, and her husband in Khalil, my family’s city of origin. I took the opportunity to ask her husband, Hajj Misbah, about what Palestine was like back when he was young. Sitting next to the window on his porch overlooking the neighborhood, hands clasped on his lap, his head wrapped in a traditional black and white hattah, 88-year old Hajj Misbah described how families used to hold weddings when he was young, inviting the entire town or village. Although serving meat to guests is considered the prime symbol of hospitality, not all families could afford to provide meat for their wedding guests. If that were the case, he explained, they would instead serve huge platters of steaming hot rice, seasoned with salt and drizzled with delicious, melted samneh baladiyyeh (clarified butter/ghee).
“The guests would come to the wedding, celebrate, eat. The women’s side of the wedding would always have many more people than the men’s, because each lady would bring all of her children with her. A lot of people were hungry back in those days, so a wedding was a chance for people to have a satisfying meal,” he recalled. “The guests would dig their fists hungrily into the hot, buttery rice. It was an excellent meal, that warmed you through, and curbed your hunger.”
(Apologies for the length of this post!)
It’s kind of silly of me to not have posted a recipe for rice yet. Rice and bread are the two staples of Palestinian cuisine, and no meal can be eaten without one of the two.
Although rice is always deemed the easiest thing one can possibly make, my experiences have proven quite the opposite. It took me many failed attempts, and eventually combining a bunch of different techniques, before I finally figured out the best way to make it.
And true to real Arab cooking style, this recipe has no quantities. Sorry!
The most common variety of rice we eat is a type that resembles American medium-grain. The second most popular variety is Egyptian rice, which is similar to a short-grain Spanish variety, like Arborio or Baldo. Egyptian rice is stickier than American medium-grain, and is absolutely delicious eaten just plain!
Basmati rice, although popular in the Gulf states, is not really commonly found in Palestinian cuisine. We use it to make Kabsa, and other Gulf-inspired dishes, but that’s about it, generally.
I have used the recipe below to make Egyptian, American short, medium, and long-grain, and Basmati rice.
You can do a lot with rice. You can make it plain, or add a variety of noodles, vegetables, meats, or spices to jazz it up, but:
The Basic Concept Behind Most Rice Recipes is:
i. Saute Ingredients
ii. Add Water
Plain White Rice:
Prep: Wash desired quantity of rice, then drain. Add fresh water to cover rice completely, and let soak for 15 minutes, then drain. (If using Egyptian rice or another short-grain rice like Arborio, you do not need to soak after washing.)
In a pot, melt several tablespoons of butter, vegetable oil, or samneh. The more fat, the better, although your arteries might beg to differ.
Saute the rice in the fat for a few minutes. Add salt to taste.
Pour in enough hot water to cover the surface of the rice by about half an inch. Bring to a boil, then cover and turn the heat down to medium-low.
Check the rice after ten minutes or so. There should be little holes all over the surface, and most of the water should be absorbed. Using a fork, pick at some grains, and test to see if they are tender. If so, leave the rice on the fire, uncovered, just enough to boil off any excess water.
If the rice is still tough, add a few more tablespoons of water, cover the pot, and let cook, checking back on it again after another 5-10 mins.
Basically you want to just keep coming back and checking the rice, adding small amounts of water and leaving to cook, until the rice is as soft as you like. Using small amounts of water and checking it constantly allows you to really control the process; much safer than putting in too much water and getting soggy mush, or using too little and getting burnt or brittle rice :(
When your rice is cooked and the moisture absorbed, fluff the rice with a fork before serving. Don’t use a spoon, otherwise it will get all mushy.
Rice with Vermicelli
Very popular and delicious, best made with Egyptian rice:
Wash and soak rice (don’t soak after washing if using Egyptian rice).
Use about 3/4 cup of vermicelli noodles for every two cups of rice.
Fry the noodles in hot oil, stirring constantly, until golden. Drain off the rice, then add to the pot, and fry with the noodles for about a minute. Add salt to taste.
Pour hot water into pot to cover rice by about half an inch. Allow to come to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium, and cover.
Let cook, checking constantly to see if it needs more water.
Fluff with a fork just before serving.
I had mentioned the various yakhani, or stews, that Palestinians like to make. One easy yekhen is made using potatoes and parsley. It’s very simple and tastes delicious. My aunts usually don’t make it as a meal alone; they like to serve it next to something like stuffed chicken, but I think it’s perfectly fine served as a main course. I think it does the potatoes justice, since there are no heavy spices to cover up the light flavor of the potato. This is my aunt Hanan’s recipe for yekhen batata.
Potatoes, peeled and cubed
Vegetable oil for frying
Good quality chicken stock
Chicken bouillon cube, for extra flavor
salt&pepper to taste
Parsley, washed and chopped
Vegetable oil for ‘ad7ah
Heat oil for frying in a pot. When hot, put in the cubed potatoes and let them get golden brown.
Once fried, add them to a pot of hot chicken stock. Let the potatoes cook thoroughly in the stock until desired tenderness. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add a bouillon cube if you want to add extra flavor. Then, add the chopped parsley.
Stir the parsley in. In a separate frying pan, heat some vegetable oil for the ‘ad7ah (explained in the post titled Bamyeh: Palestinian Okra). Once very hot, add several cloves of mashed garlic to the oil and let it get golden brown. Then, pour all the oil+garlic into the pot of potatoes and chicken stock. Watch out! It will hiss and sizzle very loudly! Stir it in, then add salt&pepper to taste.
You’re done! Serve with fresh bread or rice (preferably Egyptian or American short grain), and a salad.
One thing I love about Palestinian cuisine is its wide variety of simple yakhani (“thick stews;” sing. yekhen) featuring seasonal vegetables. Many of these yakhani are cooked following a basic pattern: cook meat and obtain broth, add featured vegetable and tomato sauce, then let cook. I love these dishes because I can savor the freshness of the vegetables, and it makes me feel like I am connected to the earth in which they were grown. I always end up pushing the chunks of meat off to the side and eating all the vegetables! Some of my favorite yakhani are yakhnit green fava beans, yakhnit tomato with ground meat, yakhnit white beans, yakhnit okra, and yakhnit spinach. You can eat most of these yakhani with bread or rice (or both, like my Taita does!).
Today we made Palestinian bamyeh, or okra, and I was really happy at the chance to take pictures so I could post the recipe here. The okra that Palestinians know and like best is the small, short kind. I really do not know what variety this is called, but it’s not usually what I have seen sold back in Minnesota. Even in the frozen foods section, it’s easy enough to find chopped frozen okra or long, thin okra, but those don’t work very well for the Palestinian okra dish. I’ll explain why in a bit.
Two things about our bamyeh:
1) We’re going to be cheating a little bit in this recipe, by using frozen okra. If you have fresh okra, all the better, but frozen works just fine when you can’t get fresh.
2) There are several Palestinian dishes that taste even better the next day (actually, they seem to get better day after day :p). Bamyeh is the best example. If you can, I really suggest making this dish a day before you actually want to have it. I’m serious; sitting in your fridge overnight just enhances its flavor, somehow!
500 grams (aprox) of small cubes of beef or lamb
500 grams (aprox) of frozen okra – if using fresh, wash and cut off the stems
8 tbsp of vegetable oil
6 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 cube of chicken or beef bouillon
1 small green chili pepper, chopped (optional)
3 large ripe tomatoes, quartered
salt and pepper to taste
Wash the cubes of meat. Heat two tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a pot, then add the meat and brown it. Add enough water to cover the meat, then add 2 more cups of water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and leave it until the meat is just cooked.
Remove the just-cooked meat from the pot and set aside. Remove the broth from the pot and set aside. Keep the pot with the bits of meat for later use!
In a small bowl, empty your package of frozen okra and add 4 cloves of the chopped garlic, the chopped chili pepper, and the bouillon cube.
In the pot used to cook the meat earlier, heat two more tablespoons of the oil. When hot, add the okra (+ stuff), and brown it for a bit.
Now add the cooked meat…
Crush the tomatoes in a blender with about half a cup of water. If it’s still very thick, add some of the broth from the meat cooked earlier.
Pour the crushed tomatoes through a strainer into the pot of okra and meat. Add enough broth from the meat cooked earlier until you get the stew to your desired thickness. I like it a bit on the thicker side. (Use the rest of the broth for making soups!) Let the stew come to a boil, then taste and adjust salt if necessary. Let it gently simmer for about 10-15 more minutes, or until the okra is cooked.
The final step is the most fun part! In a small frying pan, heat the remaining 4 tablespoons of oil well. Add the remaining two cloves of chopped garlic, and fry the garlic until it is “sha’rah” (“blond,” or golden brown). Then quickly pour all of the oil with the fried garlic into the big pot of bamyeh and meat. It should make a sizzling sound as the hot oil hits the surface of the stew. Mix into the stew. This hot oil + garlic technique is called ” ‘ad7ah,” and is used to add a final layer of flavor to several different yakhani.
Serve your bamyeh with Egyptian or American short grain rice, or with fresh bread for dipping into it. Bamyeh is also commonly accompanied by a simple soup, and mlokhiyyeh, two great dishes for which I will be posting recipes soon insha’Allah :)
(Note on why chopped bamyeh doesn’t work well for this dish: Okra by nature has a “slimy” feel to it (in a good way!), and the “slime” is increased by cutting the vegetable open. If you use chopped okra, the stew itself will become very thick and slimier than it should be. )
Recipes coming soon for: