TEN YEARS had passed since the three of us had eaten a meal together. In the early days after the reunification of Jerusalem we had met frequently at Kashour's home. Mohammed Kashour was the Arab representative in charge of Arab East Jerusalem at the Jerusalem Municipality. Meron Benvenisti was deputy mayor and I was, at the time, Mayor Teddy Kollek's foreign press attache. The three of us came from vastly different backgrounds but we were all caught up in the excitement of trying to make a newly unified Jerusalem work.
Last June, on a hot summer's day, we gathered again at Kashour's hilltop home with its commanding view of the Old City of Jerusalem. Eighteen children were included in this gastronomic event, a few born since our last meeting. The Benvenisti and Kashour children, Jew and Moslem, had grown up comfortably with each other despite the political differences so obvious in this for-centuries-tortured city.
Kashour's house had expanded. In the old days it was basically a one-story hut. Electricity and running water had since been installed; a new paved road came up to Kashour's property.
When the 11 guests arrived, Kashour greeted us on his grapevine-filled veranda with a welcoming "Ahwan we Sahlan." Standing with him were his children, ages 8 to 24, one daughter-in-law and one daughter-in-law-to-be. Hands shaken, exclamations made in Arabic, Hebrew and English over the size of everyone's children, Kashour ushered us into the dining room.
In true Arab hospitality, a festive buffet of colorful dishes was spread out. Mousakhan, a spicy barbecued chicken seasoned with saute'ed onions, sumac and pine nuts, rested on huge loaves of olive oil-soaked pita bread baked that morning by Amiana, Kashour's wife. In the center of the table was an enormous platter of maklouba, an upside-down unmolded casserole usually made with lamb but this time made with veal, eggplant, yellow-colored rice and pine nuts.
On platters surrounding these central dishes were stuffed vegetables, the hallmark of Middle Eastern cookery: peppers stuffed with tomatoes and rice, grape leaves stuffed with hot meat or cold rice, stuffed eggplants, stuffed zucchini -- light green, not our dark green -- and stuffed Jerusalem -- yes Jerusalem -- artichokes, which grow profusely in local gardens. The buffet also displayed two chickens filled with pine nuts, onions and ground beef and, of course, large platters of diced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and fresh mint, and tahina (sesame seed paste) and parsley.
As we put fork to food, Kashour's wife entered to watch, not to eat. Dressed in a blouse and skirt, not the traditional black-embroidered dress I had known ten years ago, she smiled and spoke in Arabic. Despite the fact that she lives less than a half mile from Israelis, she has not learned any Hebrew or English, and we could still not really converse. "I have been cooking for five hours and am not hungry," her daughter-in-law-to-be, Betty, translated.
Kashour's sons brought in trays of cold drinks, Coca Cola and orange soda. No alcoholic beverages in this Moslem home.
For dessert, bowls of fresh fruit picked that morning from the garden were placed on the coffee table in the livingroom: peaches and apricots, figs, enormous blackberries and, to our surprise, long unpeeled cucumbers. To finish, Turkish coffee with cardamom (hel) stirred into it and a fragrant jasmine blossom for each guest to hold.
Meals like this have, with some variation, been served in Kashour's family for centuries. In his childhood village of Hebron, Kashour explained, everyone would have eaten from a communal tray, using only the right hand. Yogurt might have been served to help wash down the meat, especially if mansaf, a lamb and rice dish traditionally baked in an open pit, had been prepared. The mousakhan, one of the most delectable Palestinian dishes, would have been served on pitas made from flour and olive oil rather than water.
Amiana Kashour showed us the spices she used. The yellow coloring for the maklouba comes from the petals of dried marigolds, not, as I was told in Aswan, from saffron. The grape leaves came from Kashour's own vines, the vegetables from his garden, the chickens from his coop, ritually slaughtered that very morning.
As the sun began to set it was time to leave. We visited the garden, tasting the soon-to-ripen grapes. Photographs were taken of the three families, warm embraces exchanged, and promises made to have another reunion in less than ten years. MOUSAKHAN (CHICKEN WITH SPICES, ONIONS AND PINE NUTS) (6 to 8 servings)
2 medium chickens, quartered
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
6 coarsely chopped medium onions
1 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon saffron, marigold powder or turmeric
1 tablespoon ground sumac (available at Skendaris or Bethesda Avenue Coop)
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 cup water
8 small loaves pita bread
1/4 cup olive oil
Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Saute' onions and pine nuts in vegetable oil until onions are soft. Add cloves, saffron, sumac and paprika. Cover and simmer slowly 10 minutes. Place chicken in baking dish surrounded with onion mixture and water. Bake 1 hour, turning twice. Remove top crust from pita, leaving a 2-inch border. Then place the chicken and the onions on the pita bread, sprinkle the chicken with 1/4 cup olive oil. Place the chicken under the broiler for the last few minutes of cooking. Serve with a salad. MAKLOUBA (Upside-down meat-rice-eggplant casserole) (6 to 8 servings)
1 1/2 pounds veal stew meat, cut into 1/2- to 1-inch cubes
2 large diced onions
1/4 cup pine nuts
3/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon allspice
Pinch of paprika
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups water
1 large eggplant
1 cup uncooked rice
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
Pinch of saffron, marigold powder or turmeric
1/2 to 1 cup beef stock
Saute' the meat, onions and pine nuts in the cooking oil until the meat is browned on all sides. Stir in the nutmeg, allspice, paprika and black pepper. Add the water, cover and simmer until tender. Reserve the meat liquid. Slice the eggplant into long thin strips about 1/2-inch thick, sprinkle with salt, and saute' the slices in cooking oil until tender; drain on paper towels.
Cover the rice with boiling water, add the 1 teaspoon salt, let sit a few minutes, drain and then add the saffron or other coloring agent.
In a heavy saucepan with sloping sides arrange the meat, then the eggplant slices and finally the rice. Pour the reserved meat stock into a 2-cup measuring cup and add enough stock to make 1 1/2 cups of liquid. Pour carefully over the rice. Cover tightly and cook over medium heat for 8 minutes; reduce heat and simmer for a half hour.
To unmold the maklouba, wet a dish towel with cold water, wring it out and place it flat on a counter top. Set the saucepan on top, then scrape around the inside edge with a long knife. Invert a serving plate on top and turn out the contents. Serve with yogurt. TAHINA-PARSLEY DIP (Makes about 2 cups)
1 cup tahina
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice or to taste
4 cloves garlic, mashed
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup finely chopped mint
Combine the tahina and lemon juice. Mash the garlic cloves with the salt. Then add to the tahina mixture. Stir in parsley. Adjust seasoning, adding more lemon juice to taste. Garnish with chopped mint. ZUCCHINI-YOGURT-TAHINA DIP (Makes about 1 1/2 cups)
1 pound zucchini
2/3 cup yogurt
1 clove garlic, mashed
1/2 cup tahina (sesame seed paste)
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste
Roast the zucchini in 450-degree oven until soft, turning occasionally. It should take about 20 minutes. Cool, peel--if charred--and mash. Combine with the other ingredients, adjust seasonings. Use as a dip with pita bread or fresh vegetables.