SALAME, Western Galilee — Foraging wild greens for lunch isn’t for the faint of heart.
“See these leaves?” said Zada Soueid, pointing her white-handled kitchen paring knife at a cluster of elongated, prickly leaves that looked nearly identical to the bunch of she had just uprooted. “Those are wild lilies; if you eat those alone, they’re poisonous. If you cook it with rice, however, it neutralizes the poisons.”
Good to know.
It was a sunny Tuesday morning in February, and the ground was wet and muddy after two days of heavy rains that had only tapered off an hour earlier. Soueid was leading our small group of foragers along the banks of the Salame, a short river that fills each winter season, giving rise to clusters of wild mint, chicory and parsley at this time of year. There was less than usual this February after a relatively dry winter up north.
“Usually I go out with my sister-in-law to pick greens and the river is full, up to the riverbed,” said Soueid. “There’s much less this year.”
But there was enough to satisfy the visitors from the center and south.
Soueid grew up in these western Galilean hills, but she didn’t learn about picking winter greens from her own family. It was only when she, from an Arab family of farmers and laborers, married her Bedouin husband Zi’ad Soueid that she took on this winter ritual.
Each winter she picks bushels of mallow, called chubeza in Arabic, for use in fresh, earthy-tasting salads or sautéed. She also seeks out her daughter’s favorite, smamicha or Egyptian campion, plucking the clusters of tiny green leaves that look similar to thyme and sautéeing them with onions and a heavy dose of salt. (But don’t eat them once their pink and purple flowers appear.)
“She loves smamicha,” said Soueid. “For her, it’s a holiday when it’s in season.”
Soueid could pick mallow leaves from the crop that grows wild in her front yard, just behind a long row of spring onions. She could also pick up a giant bushel of the leaves at the Tuesday market in nearby Arrabeh. But there’s something enduring and meaningful about a foraging expedition, she said.
“I hear from all my hosts — I have three I do foraging with, Druze, Israeli Arab and Bedouin — and all three complain that the younger generation doesn’t know from foraging,” said Paul Nirens, who runs Galileat, a cooking and foraging workshop with a coexistence element. “The kids might like the food, but they’d sooner go to the supermarket in [the nearby town of] Carmiel.”
On this trip, hoping to teach her offspring some foraging tips, Soueid brought along her teenage daughter. She walked with the group, but spent most of the time checking her cellphone.
After scouring the riverbed for wild endive (check for a reddish tint on the inner edges of the elongated leaves), Soueid headed back to the car and directed our caravan of vehicles to a turnoff near her village, Salame, where a dirt road awash in brown puddles led to a verdant private orchard of budding olive trees.
Here the ground was covered with long, wet strands of weedy grass and giant beds of pale pink Egyptian campion that were lovely to behold but too far along to eat. Another spot yielded bulbs of wild garlic surrounding enormous beds of mallow, their rounded leaves bearing a strong similarity to geranium leaves.
“Don’t pull out the garlic by their bulbs,” warned Soueid, wanting to make sure she’d have more garlic next year.
The garlic was sharp and fresh when eaten raw and can be chopped up with the mallow and endive along with onion and served as a salad, or sautéed with onions for an alternative to spinach or Swiss chard.
Soueid picks huge bunches of mallow — it doesn’t matter if the leaves are small or large — and often chops off the stems and freezes the leaves until she has time to cook it all.
When she had gathered a large-enough bundle of mallow and garlic, we went back to Soueid’s house in Salame, where she and her husband often host groups of guests in a Bedouin-style tent outside their home fitted out with rugs, low-slung couches and a traditional sheepskin roof, the best material for keeping out rain.
In her outer kitchen, a large, simple space with a table in the center, Soueid placed a large bowl full of a yeast dough that had already risen, the pale tan mound slightly sticky and springy to a finger’s touch.
Following her lead, each guest took a fist-sized ball of the dough and smoothed it out with a rolling pin on the oilcloth-covered table before placing a dollop of sautéed smamicha — cooked on the crowded stovetop — in the middle of the dough round and then firmly folded in the corners of the dough to form a closed triangle.
The dough pockets, called f’tir or sambusak, were lightly fried on the oiled top of an electric pita maker, and then baked inside the pita pot, becoming light, puffy samosas.
That was just the appetizer, along with pita rounds liberally dusted with za’atar and salt that were gobbled down accompanied by small cups of Turkish coffee.
While her guests rolled tight, cigarette-shaped stuffed grape leaves, Soueid took the mallow leaves and chopped a large bunch for a fresh salad. She had prepared another half a dozen or so dishes before heading out to forage.
Within the hour, we were sitting in the Bedouin tent, filling plates with the mallow salad, sautéed endive with onions, stuffed grape leaves and majadara made with brown lentils and bulgur wheat.
Soueid and Nirens readily shared the recipes with their fellow foragers, and aside from the sambusak, which requires a little more forethought, the other dishes are fairly easy to prepare and usually require little more than a chopped onion and some olive oil.
Foraging, however, is nearly at an end for this season due to the sharav, the hot winds that have been blowing in for the last few weeks.
Nirens said he usally forages until the end of March, but unless there’s a cold snap and some more rain, the greens will probably soon dry up and die.
“That’s part of the joy of it,” he said. “I would like to prolong it, but the fact that it’s not in our control and it’s vague and doesn’t have set dates is a nice thing about it.”
During the non-foraging months, Nirens’ Galileat offers cooking workshops at the homes of Arab hosts in the north.
It’s also possible to forage inside the city — there’s mallow growing on nearly every corner — but it can be good to get some guidance.
Hachava in Tel Aviv offers foraging workshops as as well as other nature walks and classes.
Ronit Peskin, who is based in Jerusalem, has foraging walks scheduled throughout March into April and around the country
There’s also the market in Arrabeh on Tuesdays and Saturdays, where great bunches of mallow, wild chicory, watercress, mint, and a winter speciality, thorny wild artichokes, are available for a mere pittance. The market is located in central Arrabeh, at the junction of Routes 805 and 804.
Chubeza (Common Mallow)
- 1 kilogram mallow leaves, rinsed and coarsely chopped
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 1 teaspoon baharat spice mixture
- Fry onion in a mixture of olive and regular oil, until transparent, but not caramelized, in a large pot, not a frying pan.
- Add mallow leaves to pot with a little water.
- Sauté 10-15 minutes until mallow is soft. Add salt and pepper and 1 teaspoon baharat. Serve warm or cold.
F’tir/Sambusak (stuffed pastry)
For the dough:
- 250 grams whole wheat flour
- 250 grams white flour
- 1 teaspoon dry yeast
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ cup olive oil
- ½ cup water
- Mix flours together and add yeast and sugar. Mix well.
- Add salt and oil and mix well. Add half of the water and knead well for 10 minutes, adding more water as needed until a soft, smooth dough is formed. Cover and keep in a warm place for 15-20 minutes. The dough doesn’t need a long time to rise.
- Divide dough into balls, a little smaller than fist size.
- 1 large onion, diced small
- 1 bunch Egyptian campion or any other finely chopped greens*
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon baharat
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons canned harissa – more or less, depending on desired degree of spiciness.
- I teaspoon salt
- Chop greens as small as possible. Add finely chopped onion and spices. Mix well and correct flavor.
- Roll out dough balls into a thin circle. Add filling to the center of circle and close over in a triangular formation – one edge over the other. It is important to close the pastry well so that nothing will leak out. Puncture the pastry with a fork in order to allow air to escape during cooking.
- Lay on a well-oiled oven tray and bake in a pre-heated 180⁰ oven.
*Instead of the campion, you can use fresh zaatar leaves (just the leaves, removed from the stems) or wild spinach. The flavor, is of course, totally different, but these are very common fillings.