Hard as it is to believe today, early in my career as a food writer, stories about food were often thought to be just that – simple, straightforward stories about food. Things like how to get dinner on the table fast, how to bake the perfect birthday cake for your child, which knife was best for chopping, which restaurant fits your budget and palate.

These days, it’s generally acknowledged that many stories about food are actually stories about history, culture, politics, environment, women’s issues, agriculture, racism and more. That point was brought sharply home to me recently when I wrote about locally produced sumac, a spice much used in Middle Eastern cooking, for our Green Plate Special column. I featured a recipe for fattoush, a dish I described as “a classic Middle Eastern salad.”

That description brought a rebuke on Twitter from reader and Yarmouth resident Allison Hodgkins (“@PGrodinsky loved seeing your piece about this staple of Lebanese and Palestinian soul food. But also sad my kids’ heritage was erased again”), who at the same time sent a link to a truly wonderful Facebook posting of men singing while making fattoush. Hodgkins grew up in Yarmouth, but her husband is Palestinian. Tell me more, I wrote her. Send me your recipe with sumac. We’re printing in full her vivid, eloquent response:

“Dear Peggy:

“First, my apologies to my delayed reply to your kind response to my twitter tirade. I am struggling with the usual slate of pandemic-related disruptions and am flakier than usual.  However, your lovely piece on sumac did touch a rather raw nerve. For me, spices like sumac or za’atar are so intrinsically Palestinian that giving them the generic ‘Middle Eastern’ moniker feels like an erasure. I am not suggesting that was your intent – on the contrary, I have no expectation that anyone in the United States who hasn’t had my deep immersion in Palestinian history and culture would have the slightest inkling of why something like your piece would set me off. Conversely, I am acutely aware of the perils of attempting to any correction or nuanced conversation on the origins of any of the cuisines tied up in the conflict.  I get it. The words ‘Palestine’ or ‘Palestinian’ are akin to ‘abortion’ – to use them is to provoke controversy. Normally, I just let it go. Occasionally, as I did with your piece, I snap, rant a bit and move on.

“But it still hurts. And as my children get older, and try to integrate into life in the United State, I am increasingly at a loss for how to explain why they must stay hushed about their heritage and the tragedy that continues to burden their people. When they ask me why everyone is outraged about George Floyd but not Eyad Hallaq, I am running out of explanations. Palestinians are less than invisible. It’s fine to bring them up as threats or foes, but acknowledge their humanity?

“Which brings me back to sumac. I first became aware of the tangy purple spice because of muskhan, which is the Palestinian ‘national’ dish. Like most Palestinian ‘cuisine,’ it’s humble, meant to nourish rather than impress. Also, like fattoush (which is most certainly Lebanese), it’s a marriage of leftovers with the environment. Stale bread can live again with a bit of oil, onions, and some spice pulled from the jar. With just a little bit, you can feed an army, which most Palestinian families are.

“In fact, one of my biggest struggles integrating into my new family when we married back in 2000 was portion control. My mother-in-law simply couldn’t cook for less than 15, but also couldn’t let anything go to waste. This was one thing when she made a pot of malfouf (stuffed cabbage leaves, soaked in olive oil, and layered with garlic and lemons), but another all together when it’s stuffed stomach or spleen (blech!). Her kitchen counters and tables were always overflowing with jars of white cheese, olives, pickled cauliflower, bread wrapped in layers of plastic, and a napkin-draped tray of Easter cookies (did I mention, my husband’s family is Christian? It shouldn’t be surprising to people given the location of Bethlehem, yet somehow it always is). The refrigerator was similarly stocked with pots of stew and trays of vegetables. Her modest house between Jerusalem and Ramallah is ringed with olive trees and lemon trees. When my husband was growing up, his family had goats. This, of course, is the essence of being Palestinian that is so painfully evident in their cuisine – rooted in place, prepared to survive.

“I digress. You asked for a recipe. And that’s the hardest part. I am not a foodie. Like Palestinian cuisine, my childhood food memories are wrapped up in survival of a different kind – two working parents trying to figure out how to make ends meet in the early 1970s: think Betty Crocker Hamburg Stroganoff and Chef-Boyardee box pizza! Food that is objectively gross but still tastes like home. Which is why I am sharing this dish with you: Melokhiya (say mel o-hhee-ya — with the “H like you are cleaning your glasses). This is my 15-year old’s favorite meal. Why? I have no idea. It has the consistency of snot, and no taste beyond the garlic, allspice and coriander you give it. (And, of course, the wonders of MSG courtesy of Maggi stock cubes!).  But it’s the one dish I learned to cook because it nourishes my children.

“There are many variations (and the dish is sometimes sprinkled with sumac), but the basic objective is to stew the beef with onions, garlic, salt and pepper, seven spices, and Maggi. Then when it’s really, really, really cooked, add in the melokyia leaves ( I pick up frozen ones from the Arab markets in Portland). Once the bright green is dulled, you dump the mixture over rice and lace with ‘tatbileh’ (garlic and lemon juice) and with a dollop of plain yogurt. You serve it in a bowl, with a spoon. In my own bit of cultural fusion, I only cook melokhyia in the old Revere Ware pot I inherited from my maternal grandmother. She was also a survivor, and so it feels appropriate.

“Thank you for listening.

“Allison Hodgkins”

——

A bowl of melokhiya, a favorite in Palestinian cuisine. Hodgkins serves it with a dollop of yogurt. Photo courtesy of Allison Hodgkins

Melokhyia

“This the recipe I mostly follow,” Hodgkins said. “It’s from a book called ‘Palestinian Cuisine’ by Christiane Dabdoub Nasser.” Melokhyia is the name of both the dish and the leaves themselves. Hodgkins said the flavor of the leaves is “very bland” and their texture is mucilaginous.

2 pounds and 4 ounces beef or lamb
¼ cup vegetable oil or butter
1 whole onion
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
¾ teaspoon allspice
1 small cinnamon stick
14 ounces melokhyia leaves
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
6-8 garlic cloves, peeled
1 medium-sized bunch cilantro
1 teaspoon dried coriander seeds, crushed
1 tablespoon butter

In a large pot, brown the meat with the onions in hot oil over high heat. Add the salt and spices and enough water to cover the meat. Cover the pot and bring to a boil and then let simmer on low heat for 60-70 minutes or until the meat is cooked to your liking. The amount of time can vary according to the type and cut of meat you use and to the way you like it done. Palestinians favor meat that is very well-cooked and tender.

While the meat is cooking, squeeze the lemons, and chop the cilantro and garlic together in the food processor.

As soon as the meat is done, remove the pieces and transfer to a serving plate and keep covered in a warm place until the melokhyia leaves are ready. Add water to the pot if you think it is not enough to cook the leaves; you need at least 1½ liters of liquid (6-7 cups). Add the lemon juice to the liquid in the pot, followed by the melokhyia leaves. Leave to cook, uncovered, 10 minutes with fresh leaves, more with frozen, of course.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small frying pan and fry the garlic, the cilantro and the coriander seeds while stirring. Add to the stew and cook for another 5 minutes.

Serve immediately accompanied by meat, plain rice, bread croutons and vinegar dressing. The croutons are made from plain grilled bread cubes. For the dressing, finely chop a medium-sized onion to which you add a dash of salt, the juice of 1 lemon and ½ cup of white vinegar. Serve the stew in soup plates. Start with the croutons, then the stew, then rice. Top with more stew and meat and sprinkle with vinegar dressing.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: