Two pounds of ground meat had been mixed with grated onion, finely minced mint and parsley leaves, and a healthy slug of verdant green olive oil, before being sprinkled with several tablespoons of cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper. Nazira Madi then spread it out across the square oven pan, and taking her finger, divided the chopped meat into rough squares, before sticking it in the oven.
This was the sinye, the local version of kebab or koofteh, said Paul Nirens, the tour guide who brought us to Madi’s home to cook lunch on a Monday in February in the northern Galilee town of Arrabeh.
Sinye is the Arabic word for a baking pan, but it’s become the term used for this type of flat, chopped meat dish that is later drenched in raw tehina.
Nirens should know. As the founder of Galileat, a touring company that introduces people to the food and people of the Galilee region, he’s eaten a lot of sinye in the last year and a half.
Madi, a Moslem mother and grandmother, wasn’t the chatty type. She didn’t gossip about her children or the generations of fellow Arrabeh women who grow chubeza (mallow) and olesh (wild endive) in their gardens and cook it each winter, squeezing fresh lemons from their trees over the bowls of greens.
But she did talk about Afnan Al Galil, the women’s organization she founded with a friend in Arrabeh, where they teach other local women the art of Palestinian embroidery, selling it on Etsy and to tourist groups who visit the village.
Madi was at ease cooking with the Galileat visitors in the guest kitchen of her home, a common set-up in many Arab homes, where hosts would rather not have cooking smells taking over the formal living room.
Working on a simple, two-burner stovetop and with cutting boards set atop a plastic folding table, she soon had us hollowing zucchinis, eggplants and peppers, chopping mallow and watercress and stuffing the vegetables with uncooked rice mixed with raw tomato, olive oil and spices.
It’s all simple, fresh comfort food.
Knowing your watercress from arugula
The Galileat guests, a family from Melbourne, Australia, were happy to take on any of the cooking tasks, especially the mother, Shelley Cohney, a food historian by profession, who knows esoteric information about the seeds found in chubeza that used to be ground into a grain-like flour for bread in ancient times.
But in this home, it was Nirens who deftly answered questions — “it’s watercress, not arugula, that’s a common mistake” and “yes, that’s a spoonful of baking powder or baking soda that she just put in the pot” — of water cooking the mallow, where it helps break down the tough leaves and brightens the green.
Nirens, also originally Australian, lives in the Galilean town of Tuval and has always worked around the food industry. Yet it was during a trip to Umbria with friends that he came up with the idea of Galileat, and upon returning, began finding home cooks in the various Arab communities who would be interested in hosting tourists, both Israelis and from outside israel.
“It was harder than you think,” he said.
The first requirement was hosts who were good cooks, women who cooked often and for a crowd.
Madi is a comfortable home cook, spicing and pouring olive oil without any kind of measuring tool, merely tapping her generic tablespoon of cumin, cinnamon or black pepper into the bowls of food, or pouring generous amounts of olive oil without second-guessing herself.
She offered some suggestions during the workshop, such as using the zucchini innards left from hollowing the vegetables to make a vegetable pie or sticking to the best, most green olive oil that can be found.
But she sometimes forgot to let her guests act as her sous chefs, and would start grating a tomato or chopping an onion — no food processors or fancy knives used here — without first asking a guest to do it.
“Let them grate the tomatoes!” Nirens would yelp.
Just watching Madi’s movements and tasks offered some new ideas for the traditional dishes. She used a medium-grain rice for the stuffed vegetables, because it sticks together better than long grain but not too much. She also grated tomatoes and poured oil and pieces into the uncooked rice, which allows the olive oil to flavor the rice, explained Nirens.
Most of the workshops are kosher style, without any mixing of meat and milk, or sides of yogurt served with the sinye, winked Nirens. Only one of his workshops is strictly kosher, with rabbinate certification, in a Druze kitchen in Sajur.
Within an hour and a half, the meal was done — a feast of six dishes served in Madi’s dining room. The guests dug in, some scooping the sinye into halves of pita, but most opting to eat it alone, with the sides of mallow, sorrel and watercress.
The conversation revolved around appreciation for the food, and discussion about the origins of the Galilean greens. Nirens also offers a foraging tour, where guests pick their own mallow and wild endive before cooking it up in the kitchen.
“Not everyone in the Galilee cooks like this,” he said. “You have to know who does.”
Olesh (wild endive or chicory)
- 1 kilo (2 pounds) endive
- 1 large onion
- Olive oil
- Remove any dried or yellow leaves. Cut bunched plant roughly into approximately two-inch lengths.
- After cut, soak for a few minutes and rinse well, to remove dirt and grit.
- Place rinsed endive in lightly salted boiling water (water must be boiling). Bring back to boil and cook for 10 minutes. Remove cooked greens from water, rinse briefly in cold water to stop cooking, and place in strainer until fully cool. Do not add salt to water while cooking.
- Once cool, working in lots, gently squeeze remaining water out of wild endive. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, chop onion and fry in olive oil until golden.
- Add greens to pan with onions and oil and gently mix through. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- 1 kilo (2 pounds) chubeza, rinsed
- 1 large onion, thinly sliced
- Olive oil
- 1 lemon
- Slice the chubeza into small pieces.
- Place onions in a pot. Add ½ cup of olive oil, and place on high heat on the stove. When the onions are just starting to caramelize, add the cut chubeza. If the pot is not large enough to hold all the uncooked hubeza at once, add it in lots. It reduces quite quickly. Once all the chubeza is in the pot, add ¼ cup of water, cover and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and cook for 15 minutes, until soft.
- Add salt and pepper to taste. Squeeze juice of 1 lemon over chubeza just before serving. Usually served with lemon juice or quartered lemons as a condiment, on the side, for those that want more.
- 1 large bunch watercress, rinsed well
- 1 large onion, peeled
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (best possible quality)
- Juice from 1 lemon
- 2 teaspoons sumac
- Salt and pepper
- Remove the ends of the stalks of the watercress. Slice watercress into 1.5 inch slices. Place in a bowl.
- Chop onions and add to watercress. Sprinkle sumac over the vegetables and toss with the olive oil and lemon juice. Correct flavor with salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve immediately.
Recipes courtesy of Nazira Madi and Galileat