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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
Read more about how the Bedouin live during the spring:
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.
It’s springtime in Sinai! And thanks to winter rains the desert wadis and mountains are bursting with fresh green plants.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Organic olive oil from Ras Sudr, Sinai is now available for sale at the Bio Shop in Ma’adi! Also available are organic onions. Look for other organic produce and desert herbs after the hot summer months.
27 Road 231 – in front of Aadam Market
Tel: 02 2521 2103
Mob: 0122 399 9182
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!