After three years of living in Israel, my husband and I are moving back to New York in just a few days. Everyone thought we were crazy to move here, giving up our comfortable lives to venture off to a place we’d never even visited. But I knew it was the chance of a lifetime, and while there have certainly been challenges overall it’s been an amazing experience. The final item on my bucket list of things to do here was to visit the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem and attend a cooking class through an amazing organization called Noor Women Empowerment Group. I finally had the opportunity last weekend, and it was one of the most worthwhile, inspiring experiences in my time here.
Established in 1950, Aida is one of three refugee camps in the West Bank city of Bethlehem (yes, as in “Oh little town of Bethlehem”) and is home to some 5,000 Palestinian refugees living in a space smaller than one square kilometer. Noor began in 2010 as a support group for mothers of disabled children in the camp. They soon began offering traditional Palestinian cooking classes as a way to raise money to help offset the costs of caring for a disabled or handicapped child.
We went to the home of Islam and her husband Ahmad, who were the most hospitable, kind hosts one could ask for. They have six children (two boys and four girls) and one of their sons, Mohammad, has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. The money raised from the cooking classes helps them to send him to a special school, and also to arrange the occasional outing for him and other handicapped children in the community.
After sitting and chatting over coffee in their living room, we got cooking. We started by chopping onions for mujadara, one of my favorite dishes. Although I’ve made mujadara – rice and lentil pilaf with caramelized onions – their rendition was absolute perfection. The rice is soaked in warm water for 30 minutes while the lentils simmer on the stove in plenty of water. Then the lentils and rice are drained and mixed together and the lentil water is added back in. It all cooks until tender, and is topped with caramelized onions and fresh herbs.
But I was most excited for the musakhan. When I’ve eaten musakhan before (most notably in Nazareth), it’s been a whole spatchcocked chicken roasted atop flatbread and caramelized onions with plenty of sumac. This version featured the same ingredients, but prepared in a slightly different manner. Onions are sliced and sauteed with sumac and spices, then bite-sized pieces of chicken are added and cooked. This mixture is then rolled in very thin flatbread (to look almost like an egg roll) and quickly baked. Oh man. I could eat this all day every day!
We also made two salads – one with shredded cabbage and a lemon-tahini dressing, and a chopped tomato and cucumber salad. In addition, Islam had homemade yogurt to go with everything. It was amazing.
For the finale, although we were stuffed to the brim, Islam presented us with a gorgeous cake called helba. It’s a semolina yeast cake with a very unexpected ingredient: fenugreek. The cake is served warm with cool simple syrup, or cold with hot simple syrup. It was the perfect ending to the meal, with perfectly balanced flavors and not overly sweet.
- ½ kg fine semolina
- 40g fenugreek seeds
- 1 cup olive oil
- 50g unsweetened coconut flakes
- ½ teaspoon dry yeast
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- Nigella or sesame seeds (optional)
- Boil the fenugreek seeds in water for 5 minutes. Let cool and strain, reserving the liquid.
- Mix the semolina, coconut flakes, sugar, yeast, and boiled fenugreek seeds together. Add the olive oil and mix well.
- Add some of the fenugreek cooking liquid and mix well with your hands. Continue to add liquid, a little bit at a time, until the dough is smooth but still very thick (you may not use all of the liquid).
- Let it rise for 1 hour in a warm place.
- Pre-heat the oven at medium heat.
- Use a little vegetable oil to grease a baking tray (big enough to fit the dough in a quite thin layer) and spread the dough evenly with your hands. Using a small knife score the dough to form diamonds.
- Bake until the cake is golden on top. While the cake bakes make the syrup.
- Mix the sugar with the water and boil for 5 minutes, until the sugar is fully dissolved. Cool.
- When the cake is done, pour the cold syrup over the hot cake. Sprinkle with nigella or sesame seeds, if using, and allow to cool slightly before serving.
The recipe can easily be doubled.