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.
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]
In Part I of this story, I wrote that Eid need not worry about pests on his fruit crops growing in Zaranik. I should have been more specific. He was not worried enough about pests to spray chemicals or pesticides. His was to be an organic garden, as are all traditional Bedouin gardens. So, some caterpillars had a wee munch on the young plants but not enough to destroy the crop. Then along came some larger pests who were not deterred by the wire fencing. The camels! They had a BIG munch on the growing watermelons so Eid’s harvest was disappointingly small. Next year, Eid plans on spending more time in Zaranik so that he can keep a better eye on his crops!
Despite the small harvest, Eid delivered on his promise of baby watermelon fettah (sometimes spelled fata, fatta or fattah). Fettah, in this sense, basically means “small bits of broken bread.” It is a popular dish in many Arab and Middle Eastern countries – Morocco, Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and others – each with their own unique variation. But Eid’s watermelon fettah just may be my favorite! The taste was delicious – smoky and full of garlic – and the texture perfect, chewy with a little bit of crunch from some of the more toasted bits of bread.
Although the Bedouin make several types of fettah, the baby watermelon fettah is a special dish that is not made very often. In fact, these days, it is unknown to many Bedouin, especially those living along the coast. In the past, when there was more rain and hence more gardens, this fettah was prepared more often. Many, many thanks to Eid for sharing this delicious tradition with me!
Fettah 3ajar requires only a short list of simple ingredients: young watermelons, chili peppers, garlic, olive oil, and salt. Tomatoes are optional (and in my opinion, a tasty addition). And of course, flour, water, and salt are needed to make the tab-banna, the Bedouin bread baked under hot coals.
The first step, after getting your fire started, is to roast the baby watermelons. If you are using tomatoes, they won’t need as long to cook so don’t put them on the fire quite yet.
As the melons grill, prepare the dough for the tab-banna by mixing flour, water, and a bit of salt. Leave the dough to set as you wait for the veggies to grill.
Place the dough beneath the coals.
Chop the garlic and chili peppers. By now, the grilled melons should be cool enough to handle. Remove the charred skin and rinse with water. Put the melon, tomatoes, garlic, salt, and chili peppers into a bowl and mash together with a fork.
At this point, stop to check on the tab-banna. It will need to be flipped over and covered again in the hot coals. Continue baking, checking often until the bread is ready.
Once it is baked and the sand dusted off, it is ready to become fettah! Eid placed the tab-banna on an empty flour sack and began pounding the bread with a heavy stone. Once the bread has had a good beating, it will be easier to break up into small bits, which is the next step.
When all the bread has been broken into bits, mix the pieces into the bowl with the mashed roasted fruit. Add some olive oil and stir together thoroughly. Empty the fettah onto a large serving platter. Give everyone a spoon and dig in!