Two chefs from the A-Tur neighborhood in Jerusalem prepare dishes that most people no longer have the patience to cook.
A rainy winter day in the A-Tur neighborhood on the Mount of Olives. In the darkness of the octagonal building of the Dome of the Ascension, Provoslavic monks - bearded and dressed in black robes, lookalikes of the fearsome Rasputin - are waiting for a group of Russian Orthodox visitors. The Christian pilgrims pay an entry fee to a Muslim family that has turned the holy site into a source of income, and enter the chapel in order to kneel and kiss the stone on which Jesus was said to have stood before he ascended to heaven.
In the alley adjacent to the courtyard, chef Ramzi Abu al-Hawa passes by on his way to afternoon prayer in the local mosque named after Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab. Four years ago he began to be more religious. Today he devoutly observes the commandment of Muslim prayer: Five times a day he goes to the modern building that last year replaced a mosque with collapsing stone walls which is hundreds of years old, to kneel and pray to his God.
|Carrots stuffed with rice and lamb, prepared by Ramzi Abu al-Hawa.|
At the conclusion of the prayer the young man makes his way to his home. To reach the small stone house where he and his six siblings were born, one must descend steep steps from the narrow road that leads to a cemetery for Yemenite Jews. Beneath the concrete balcony of the house is a slope with green grass and silvery olive trees, the place of residence of dozens of cats and chickens, which overlooks the densely populated slopes of the Mount of Olives and the Nahal Kidron ravine. The high vantage point lends the sight a soft and blurry aura. From above, the landscapes look lovely and life looks simple - even in villages that have become hardscrabble neighborhoods, and even in a city as demanding and complex as Jerusalem.
Inside the house there are two and a half rooms - a master bedroom, a children's room, which during the day turns into a living room, and a tiny foyer crowded with heavy brown armchairs. The walls are decorated with verses from the Koran and colored SpongeBob stickers. Seated on the computer chair is the youngest of Ramzi's four children, 3-year-old Ramzi, who is playing "Medal of Honor," a computer game based on World War II battles. His older siblings are sitting next to him patiently awaiting their turn, but in vain. The youngster refuses to vacate his place and stubbornly rules over the residents of the house from the height of his computerized command table.
The pleas of Ramzi's wife Khalida, a pastry chef, are totally ignored. The scoldings of Ramzi himself fall on deaf ears, and when they try to pull the young tyrant out of his seat-fortress to take a family portrait, he kicks, cries pitifully and is returned to his place.
"He's addicted to computer games," sighs his father, with a mixture of concern and pride. "Sometimes I get up at 1 A.M. and find him at the computer, playing Angry Birds."
On the stove stand pots filled with the father's favorite childhood dishes. One contains grape leaves stuffed with rice and ground lamb, along with lamb ribs and fresh tomatoes that enrich their flavor. During the short spring season, Ramzi adds green almonds to the pot; in winter they are replaced by yellow lemon sections, which lend the dish a heady sourish taste. We have known, eaten and appreciated many stuffed grape leaves, but one could eat from this pot forever, as though the lovely miniature cylinders were addictive sunflower seeds.
A second pot contains carrots stuffed with rice and lamb - sometimes Ramzi adds stuffed turnip heads and cucumbers - and in a third pot a sweet-and-sour date sauce is bubbling, for seasoning the stuffed carrots.
|Sfiha, small pies filled with mutton and fried onions.|
Chef Ramzi Abu al-Hawa, a member of a large hamula (extended family ), many of whose members still live nearby, was born in A-Tur 34 years ago. When he was 12, he left school and began working with his uncle Ahmed, a chef who studied in France, in the kitchen of a popular restaurant in the west of the city.
Says Ramzi today, "My father, who was a car mechanic, lost his sight in 1977 from the blow of a Border Policeman's rifle, when he was attacked during a random search. When the first intifada began, Father was afraid that I would get into trouble if I stayed in school and in the village, and sent me to work with my uncle. I worked alongside him for five years, and from him I learned the basics of cooking."
At an early age Ramzi married Khalida, and over the years he has worked in the kitchens of hotels in Acre and Jerusalem as well as in Jerusalem restaurants such as Eldad Vezehu and Zuni. During the past three years he has been working as a sous-chef at the Colony restaurant.
In honor of the sixth anniversary celebrations at the Colony, which is owned by a group of Jerusalem restaurateurs who also own the Adom and Lavan restaurants, they are preparing special meals that offer a platform and a free hand to young chefs and sous-chefs. This nice project was initiated by Michael Katz, the group's head chef, and in recent months has been featuring young talents from such Tel Aviv restaurants as Messa and Bertie.
Soon it will be the turn of Ramzi al-Hawa, the sous-chef of the host restaurant. He has decided to serve a traditional Arab meal that is typical of his village. The menu will include those same wonderful grape leaves and stuffed vegetables, as well as fresh chestnut soup; felafel stuffed with sumac and onion; calf brains fried in olive oil and seasoned with lemon and za'atar (hyssop ); leg of lamb with root vegetables; homemade knafeh and baklava; and carob juice, like that sold in the alleys of Jerusalem's Old City by the few remaining peddlers who carry the copper urns on their backs.
Al-Hawa's meal will be served on February 13 at the Colony restaurant in Jerusalem. Price per diner: NIS 240. For details: 02-6729955
|Henkh is a traditional dish of sheep's head, cooked for several hours over low heat.|
Even today, many of the village's young people study cooking and hotel administration in courses at the Seven Arches Hotel atop the Mount of Olives, but as in other communities with a tradition of fine homemade cooking - which in recent decades have been suffering from instability due to the fragile security and political situation - it is hard to find many restaurants in A-Tur itself.
The Zeita restaurant of chef Kareem Hawas, who like his friend Ramzi acquired his professional experience in the kitchens of famous restaurants in West Jerusalem, opened less than two months ago. The open kitchen in the long and narrow entrance, which displays an assortment of wood-burning ovens for baking, as well as charcoal grills and gas and electric stoves, is also used as a kitchen for the restaurant's catering service, from which one can order entire sheep, stuffed and roasted. On the changing daily menu you can find roast chicken with potatoes, a ragout of beef and tomatoes, good hummus that is ground by hand the moment you order it, and a selection of fresh salads.
However, the crowning glory are the popular Arab dishes which are gradually disappearing from the modern kitchens of the village residents: sfiha - small pies made of dough filled with mutton and fried onions or spinach leaves; mas'chan, roast chicken with onions and sumac, served on dough that absorbs fatty juices; maqlouba, an upside-down dish of beef, vegetables and rice; or traditional dishes of internal organs that require a great deal of time and effort.
Henkh is a dish featuring traditional sheep's head, from the gums to the neck, which is cooked for hours on a low heat in a stock of beef and dried sheep yogurt; the bones are removed and it is served with pieces of dough marinated in the same rich-tasting liquid and seasoned with hot shata pepper. Not all diners will like it, mainly because of its texture and appearance; unperturbed diners will discover a wonderful richness of flavors and textures in every bite. The head meat is rich in gelatin and cartilage, the neck meat is rich in flavors and is usually used to prepare meatballs and kebab, and between the two are the tongue and the jaw, with an array of flavors of their own.
On Mondays and Thursdays, the days when dishes comprised of internal organs are served in the restaurant, you can sometimes also enjoy kirsha (stomach ) or sheep intestines stuffed with rice and beef.
Zeita restaurant and catering, main street of A-Tur, Jerusalem, 02-6274011