Foraging with Friends

It’s spring – my favorite time of year in Sinai! Especially after a particularly wet winter since that means our desert plants are thriving and the goats and sheep have plenty to graze. Recently, we met Freyj, one of Bedouin History’s drivers and guides, at his daughter’s springtime camp in the desert. We were welcomed with smiles and a light lunch of fresh bread and goat milk. It didn’t take long for the children to wander over to see their grandfather and his foreign friends. Freyj knows well my passion for plants and photography and knew I would be eager to explore the surrounding desert. Recalling our failed attempts last year to locate one of the edible plants, Zeinab, one of Freyj’s young granddaughters, eagerly offered to get her digging tools and lead our exploration. So we set off with Zeinab, Farah, Mohamed, and Omar to forage for tummayr (تِمِّير), the Bedouin name for Erodium crassifolium.

Zeinab with her digging tool.
Zeinab with her digging tool.

Known in English as Desert Storks-bill or Hoary-leaved Heron’s-bill, this plant has an edible tuber that grows deep in the ground. But there are eight different Erodium species growing in Sinai so finding the right one involves a knowledge of what tummayr leaves look like and where they grow. All Erodiums have fruit that look like long bird beaks, hence their common English name, but each species has distinct leaves. 

Erodium fruit
Erodium fruit

Zeinab and the other children are a wealth of information about the local plants, especially the edible ones, as foraging for these are a favorite past time of the Bedouin children who live in the desert for a few months of the year.

Erodium crassifolium, (tummayr)
Erodium crassifolium, (tummayr)

I followed Zeinab through the wadi, trying to keep up with her quick steps and even quicker digging abilities. I try to figure out which Storks-bills are the ones we are looking for and was cheered on by Zeinab when I correctly point out a large tummayr plant. 

Zeinab digging for tubers.
Zeinab digging for tubers.

Zeinab dug quickly, scanning the area to check on the progress of the boys, who are leading their own expedition with my husband. It seems that this had turned into a contest to see which “team” can find the most. But we are all successful and end up with handfuls of edible tubers! The children remove the skins with their fingernails and hand them to us to eat. The small potato-like tubers are sweet and crunchy. 

Foraging with friends
Foraging with friends

Along the way, the children have also spotted sweet desert onions. They are so quick to dig these up that I never see what the plant looks like when it is still rooted in the earth. The onions, possibly an Allium species, are sweeter and juicier than the tummayr. And easier to reach as they are not buried so deep in the rocky ground.

Handful of collected onions and tubers.
Handful of collected onions and tubers.

We returned to camp to share our foraged goodies with the other adults at camp, but they showed little interest in eating our treats. It seems foraging with friends is a childhood habit, something to entertain them during the long days in the desert. How lucky I am to have such amazing young friends!

Flowers of Erodium crassifolium.
Flowers of Erodium crassifolium.


Read more about how the Bedouin live during the spring:


Searching for Sinai Seeds


Three years ago, driven by childhood memories of sweet, juicy tomatoes and a desire for organic vegetables, Eid began a search for seeds. He didn’t want just any seeds and he definitely did not want the seeds available on the market, expensive ones sold by multinational companies. So he started asking around, inquiring with Bedouin in Sinai to see if anyone had seeds saved from their past crops. Eid had no difficulty collecting melon, wheat, and barley seeds that have been growing in Sinai for years, but he could not find anyone who had tomato or cucumber seeds. Determined to find a source of seeds for the plants that once grew in Sinai, Eid set out on a mission. With his knowledge of the geography of Sinai, he began searching for the old campsites, where 40 – 50 years ago, Bedouin would spend the winter months. Eid confirmed that the campsites were old and often-used by looking at the fire pits. By digging beneath the sand, he determined which pits had deep layers of sand melted by the fires. The more layers, the older and more-used the fire was. Eid believed that these traditional campsites would have the seeds he was looking for because families would have left or thrown out seeds as they cooked their daily meals, leaving the area scattered with dried seeds. He decided he would irrigate a few of these places and see what would happen. In one of his chosen areas, Haduda, he regularly watered a patch of earth and waited patiently for something to grow. And something did – a few tomato plants have sprouted, flowered, and even fruited! Eid believes these are not your average tomato plants for the fruits do not look like any of the other tomatoes being grown locally. He believes this is the same variety of tomatoes that may have grown in Sinai years ago. Eid is determined to research this further, wanting to know exactly what type of tomato he is growing. His greatest desire is to have local seeds that have not been tampered with genetically or chemically so that the Bedouin can cultivate local organic vegetables. For now, he awaits the ripening of his tomatoes.


Springtime Goodness

springtime yummies (2)

It’s springtime in Sinai! And thanks to winter rains the desert wadis and mountains are bursting with fresh green plants.

springtime yummies (3)

So we stop several times on our way to camp to collect these fragrant desert herbs. Here, Freyj collects “sheeh” (Artemisia herba-alba), a wormwood used by the Bedouin both for medicinal and culinary purposes.


For two to three months in the spring, many Bedouin return to a more traditional life in the desert. One of the main reasons being so that their herds of sheep and goats can graze on the nutritious desert plants. Each evening the women collect milk from the goats. Most of this milk is consumed fresh, without any “processing”. Bedouin call this milk “haleeb”. In the morning, the haleeb is mixed with sugar and sheeh, heated by the fire, and enjoyed – on its own or with tea – by both adults and children. Even the youngest of children drink warm goat’s milk from their bottle. Chunks of fresh hot bread are also dunked into the warm milk and eaten as a small morning meal.

springtime yummies (6)

springtime yummies (1)

If the women collect the milk for several days, they have enough to work into “samen sheehi” and cheese. To do this, the women pour the milk into a specially-prepared sac, add a pinch of salt, and shake the sac until the milk thickens. The thick curds are scooped out with a spoon and mixed with sheeh and other herbs to make samen sheehi, an herb ghee or butter. The liquid that is left is called “leban”, or simply milk, but it has fermented some and is now a bit sour, like buttermilk, and is consumed by the glass or used in savory dishes.

springtime yummies (4)

“Liba” or “ti-baana” is the name of the thick bread, baked beneath hot coals, which is an essential element of Bedouin meals. Prepared by either the men or women of a family, this afternoon Freyj and his daughter care for the baking of the bread together.

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But it is Freyj’s daughter who has prepared the main meal, a simple dish of rice and vegetables over which we poured some of the sour leban – a feast full of springtime goodness!

Happy Sinai Liberation Day!

April 25 marks the anniversary of the final withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Sinai peninsula in 1982.

Salt Tree Fruit ~ A Tasty Seaside Snack

It’s that time of year again – HOT – which means afternoon trips to the lagoona for a much-needed splash in the sea. And on the way there, we stop of at one of the dozens of Salt Trees in the area.  The bright red fruits of the Salt Tree (Nitraria retusa) are edible and make a tasty seaside snack. My young Bedouin girlfriends collected a bunch – enough to take home to mom and ask her to prepare some juice. Eid confirms the fruit is mashed, strained, and mixed with sugar and water, more like a flavoring for water than a thick juice. But the fruits are tasty on their own, too. So if you’re by the sea this month, keep an eye out for these snack-providing bushes!

Remembering Spring: Herb Butter and Hard Cheese

In a previous post I wrote about the rainy season, which starts in October, and how Bedouin wait for the precious precipitation and why it is so important to their desert life. But when spring moves in, the Bedouin do more than just plant seeds.

Although today most Bedouin have settled into towns and cities around Sinai, there are still many who return to the desert and their nomadic way of life, if only for a few short months each year. Beginning in March, Bedouin move to the green wadis and plains of south Sinai. They pack their pick-ups (more convenient than their camels!) with blankets, dishes and utensils, water, and other supplies. Of course, they won’t forget the goats and sheep. And they head to the mountains, where the women erect tents to protect them from the wind and sun. Their tents are made of blankets and sheets of scrap plastic and material. The tents used to be made of goat hair, but today the families are not able to raise enough goats to get the wool  needed tents. Sometimes several families will camp in close vicinity, forming a small temporary village in the desert.

When the Bedouin are participating in these spring activities, they say they are “na-ja-een“, which translates loosely as “pasturing”. And this past April, Eid took us on a safari to Zaranik to na-ja-een and so that I could learn how the Bedouin women make butter and cheese from their goats’ milk.

Early each morning, the young women and girls will load their donkey, if they are lucky enough to have one, with their water, lunch, and supplies for the day. They will set off with their herds of goats, staying with them as they graze on the desert greens throughout the day. The girls will find a cool place in the shade or in a cave and will spend the days chatting, laughing, and making bracelets that they will sell later in the cities. Before the sun sets, the girls will lead the goats back to camp. There, the older women will give water to the animals and milk the nanny goats in preparation for making butter and cheese.

Some of the goats’ milk, along with a few pinches of salt, is poured into a specially-treated goat skin sac, tied off at the end with a piece of rope. A tripod-style contraption is put together out of branches and rope and the sac is placed on a cloth that is then tied to the tripod. The sac of goat’s milk hangs comfortably, as if enjoying a laze in a hammock. The woman then swings this hammock back-and-forth, back-and-forth. She will do this for about thirty minutes, taking short breaks to rest her tired arms. She has been doing this for many, many years. She knows instinctively when the milk is ready, feeling a change in the swinging of the sac as the milk thickens.

The sac of shaken milk is then removed from the tripod and is let to rest for 10 to 15 minutes. The woman then places the sac in front of her crossed legs, beats it softly, and then gently folds the sac, pushing the thickened milk fat to the top.

Carefully, she uses a metal spoon to scoop out the soft butter that have formed.

The butter will then be placed in a container and mixed with dried desert herbs that the women have collected. They call this herb butter “samen-shihhi” and it is used to cook and flavor certain meals.

The goat’s milk that is left in the sac is then poured into an old flour sac and hung in a corner of the tent. There it will sit for a day or two, the liquid slowly straining out as it forms what is basically a yogurt.

This thick yogurt will then be laid on trays and placed on the roof of the tent to dry in the sun, forming chunks of dry, hard cheese.

This hard cheese will last longer in the hot desert. It has a strong but pleasant, salty taste similar to Istanbouli cheese. It will be re-hydrated and used later in fettah dishes, which of course Eid promises to share with us soon!

Making Maglouba

Maglouba, as it is called here in south Sinai, is a very traditional Bedouin meal that is made with rice and either meat, chicken, fish, or vegetables. Maglouba means “upside down” and is called so because the meal is prepared in a single pot that is served after being turned upside down onto a plate. In north Sinai, this dish is called madfouna, meaning “buried”. Maglouba is one of Eid’s favorite meals to prepare and one he was eager for me to explain on the blog!

So here goes…

To start with, if you will be using meat (goat meat is traditional), you should boil it for 30 to 45 minutes so that it is not tough. Chop the meat into pieces. Save the stock as you will use it later to cook the rice.

Next, you will stir fry your meat or chicken and some chopped onion in a pot with olive oil. Fry the meat and onion for 20 – 25 minutes on a slow fire, stirring every 2 to 3 minutes. If you are making a vegetarian version, you should chop and stir fry your veggies with onion and olive oil.

After stir frying the meat, add a variety of chopped vegetables to the pot, using whatever is in season and on hand – potatoes, carrots, zucchini, eggplants, and tomatoes, for example. Then add whatever spices and herbs you would like to use. The three most important to this dish are salt, cardamom, and curry powder, but you can also use zatar, shih, or other local desert herbs. Stir together and heat for 5 minutes.

If you are using fish, this is the point when you would lay the fish on top of your veggie mix, without stirring so as not to break the fish apart.

Next, cover the meat and veggies with dry, uncooked rice. Traditionally, this would be Basmati rice. Gently add water (or the stock from your boiled meat) to the pot without disturbing the rice. Cover the pot and cook for 15 minutes.

When most of the water has been absorbed, lower the heat and cook for another 10 minutes on the slowest of fires until the rice is cooked.

You are now ready to turn this meal upside-down!

You will need a large serving plate, or seneeya. Take the lid off of the pot

and flip the pot quickly upside-down onto the plate.

Slowly lift and remove the pan.

Your veggies and meat are now on top of the rice

– and you are ready to enjoy your maglouba!

[Photos by Eid and Gunnar, Kite Surfing Bedouin Camp, Summer 2010]