You Say Bassal; I Say Batzal

What happens when an Israeli chef and a Palestinian chef share a kitchen.

Michael Abulhawa and Vered Guttman
Michael Abulhawa and Vered Guttman

Courtesy Vered Guttman.

One day as we were prepping for a party, I told Michael that while I was roasting peppers, he should start chopping the Israeli salad. He stopped working and gave me the look.

“Excuse me?”

“The Israeli salad …”

“Well, not only did you take our land,” he said, “you had to steal our recipes, too? This is an Arab salad, not Israeli.”

I’m an Israeli caterer working in Washington, D.C., and for the past four years, I have been working shoulder to shoulder, cutting board to cutting board, with a Palestinian co-chef. The result is strange: an alliance where food is at once political and unifying, and where politics is always in the kitchen too.

Michael was born 52 years ago as Mahmud Abulhawa on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, where his family still lives. He learned the business at a young age, working in Israeli restaurants with Jewish chefs, who called him Menachem. He moved to the United States about 30 years ago, and everyone here knows him as Mike.

I was born in Israel 43 years ago, after the Six Day War, in which Israel captured the Mount of Olives. My uncle was killed in that war in Jerusalem. His name was Menachem too.

Though Michael has worked with many Israelis, he is the first Palestinian I’ve ever really known. We share a kitchen, we share recipes, and we share culinary memories from our homelands, where people, despite endless conflicts, still crave the same dishes.

I had to admit to Michael that he was right about the salad. Although both my grandmother and mother made Israeli salad all the time, its origin was Arab. In fact, “Israeli salad” got its name in America. We don’t call it an Israeli salad in Israel, we simply call it a vegetable salad. Or an Arab salad.

As an Israeli food writer specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine, I am always stumbling into this kind of food war. I recently wrote in my blog, which runs in an Israeli newspaper, about freekeh, a smoked green wheat that’s been used by Arabs for centuries. All the comments posted by readers were along the same lines. Didn’t you, Israelis, already take our land? And the falafel? Now you’re taking the freekeh too?

On most names of dishes, Michael and I usually agree, and we get excited time and again when we learn that the Arabic and Hebrew names of so many ingredients are the same. Olives, which are zaytun or zayt. Onions are bassal in Arabic and batzal in Hebrew. And more: dates, pomegranates, cardamom, lentils, Swiss chard, garlic, pepper.

But this is not a story of food overcoming conflict. There is no Middle East peace breaking out in our small hot kitchen. We fight about everything. He thinks he knows better than me how to make latkes for Hanukkah, and I’m sure my maqluba is better than his. He thinks I make my hummus wrong—that I should add sour salt, but I won’t hear of it. I did agree, however, to add a tomato to the parsley and tahini sauce, which made it tastier and smoother as he promised.

Our favorite quick meal while working is a thin pita bread we put in the oven for a couple of minutes. We then crumble some feta on it, sprinkle sumac, top with thinly sliced red onion, and drizzle all with a strong flavored olive oil, fold, and eat. There’s nothing better than that.

“You know what they say about Jews” he told me one day, laughing. “You can eat with them but you cannot sleep with them, because they’ll stab you in the back.”

Hmmm, I thought, I’ve heard that one before. … Oh, right, we used to say the same thing about Arabs.

Michael’s menu is mainstream American, but he loves to talk about his mother’s home cooking, the real food he remembers from his country. (He cooks for my business some of the time, and for his own business some of the time.) He blanches frozen vegetables and prepares mac-n-cheese lollipops for his American clients, even as he describes how his mother used to make cheese by covering yogurt under blankets, or stuffed carrots with lamb and rice and cooked them in tamarind sauce, or prepared stuffed zucchini in yogurt sauce. It’s the kind of time-consuming cooking he cannot afford to do as a caterer.

Michael misses the green beans in tomatoes and the stuffed potatoes with beef, the same dishes I ask my mother to make every time we visit Israel. In fact, I’m the one preparing more Arab dishes here. Somehow my Jewish clients are more open to them. And I was lucky to learn from him how to make them better. Add sumac from Jerusalem and olive oil to the kebab, add hot pepper to the Israeli, or Arab, salad.

There’s a relaxed and easy way about our relationship, and so it was from the first day. Maybe it’s because we come from the same region, and we share the same humor, the same Mediterranean informality, the same accent.

But we still come from very different societies, as we’re often reminded. About four years ago a Palestinian man ran over pedestrians and cars in Jerusalem while driving a bulldozer, killing three people and wounding three dozen. The terrorist was shot and killed by an Israeli police officer. I read about it online, and as always checked to see if I recognized, God forbid, any of the victims. Did they give the names yet? is what any Israeli would ask first when hearing of a terrible act like that. I was upset going to work that morning and told Michael of what happened. Did they give the name of the guy who was driving the tractor?, Michael asked. At first I didn’t even understand what he meant. Who cares what his name was? But someone obviously does, although it’s hard for me to accept.

We share the same tastes, but peace takes much more than an Israeli and a Palestinian sharing their pita with feta, sumac, and onion. Pita, jibneh, sumac, bassal.