A Druze experience in Israel

Pinina, the wonderful lady who hosted us for tea on a charming rainy afternoon up in the hills of Galilee in Northern Israel. In the background is Paul Nirens, who runs Galil Eat and organizes fantastic culinary experiences in the region in the homes of Israel's religious minorities. 

Pinina, the wonderful lady who hosted us for tea on a charming rainy afternoon up in the hills of Galilee in Northern Israel. In the background is Paul Nirens, who runs Galil Eat and organizes fantastic culinary experiences in the region in the homes of Israel's religious minorities. 

I have a wanderlust. In some previous life, I am positive I must have been a gypsy... a nomad... a traveling person.. an oddity who is not of one place. Ok, I am getting carried away. But, the real truth is I love meeting people different from me. I love understanding different cultures. I have a fascination for people. And, aside from talking to a lot of people (which, I am very apt to do), I find food is an incredible source of insight into history, culture and tradition.

So, unsurprisingly, the high point of my recent trip to Israel was an evening spent in a Druze home, sipping tea, learning about their life and beliefs and of course, delighting in some amazing home made delicacies.

The few from Pinina's home overlooking the hills of Galilee. The region has people of all religions living in small communities dotted across the hills.

The few from Pinina's home overlooking the hills of Galilee. The region has people of all religions living in small communities dotted across the hills.

Arranged through Galil Eat, our guide was Paul himself, who runs a supper club of sorts. Paul arranges up close and personal experiences in Israeli homes in the Galilee region, where one can be immersed into the hosts' culture through food and conversation. You get a lot of information about their life while enjoying a wonderful at-home culinary experience. Talking to Paul I realized there are several religious and ethnic minority groups that live and love Israel. He arranged for an evening with the Druze community and cuisine in the home of Pinina (and her daughter Rana).

The fact is, this was not my first experience with Druze. One of my favorite and oft frequented lunch spots in NYC is Gazala Place, which, as it happens serves Druze cuisine. Not that I had noticed the tiny print stating that on their menus. The spark of connection was ignited during the tea when we were served their distinctive 'pita'. But more on that later....

Yogurt is used extensively across Israel and all cultures. Labneh, the ever present strained yogurt cheese of the Middle East is something that is eaten in all meals and served to all visitors. Galilee is an olive growing region and many make their livelihood during the olive season from the trees. Preserved olives is not surprisingly one of the many starters often served.

Yogurt is used extensively across Israel and all cultures. Labneh, the ever present strained yogurt cheese of the Middle East is something that is eaten in all meals and served to all visitors. Galilee is an olive growing region and many make their livelihood during the olive season from the trees. Preserved olives is not surprisingly one of the many starters often served.

Since we were coming from a rather big lunch at Uri Buri in Akko (more on that divine lunch in another post), we settled for a simple tea. Except, in keeping with the hospitality of a Druze home, it was rather elaborate and I happily obliged in indulging as the food was spectacular.

Even though Pinina, the mother, spoke no English, there was no mistaking the warmth and welcome exuding from her. As much as this was a business transaction, it simply felt like we had been in invited to tea at a friend's place. Aided by her daughter, Rana and, her husband, who both spoke fluent English, I learnt a great deal about this curious breakaway sect of Islam who are extremely loyal to their country, Israel.

The Katai'f before being fried and soaked in scented syrup. This is a great make ahead dessert that can be made in bulk. At this stage, it can be frozen and thawed back for the final frying.

The Katai'f before being fried and soaked in scented syrup. This is a great make ahead dessert that can be made in bulk. At this stage, it can be frozen and thawed back for the final frying.

There are are three million Druze residing in the Middle East, mostly in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan; About 120K in Israel. And, possibly several more in other parts of the world and even go by other names.

Although originally hailing from Islam they do not consider themselves as muslims.They do not believe in Allah as being the only God, believe in reincarnation, do not observe the Koran or Ramadan, although, they do observe Eid. Most muslims in the middle-East do view them as being of the lower class for this breach of beliefs.

By tradition, they are a conservative community, drawing much of their everyday life from their Islamic origins, and, Pinina's dress and lifestyle evidences that. Women did not leave the house, were not educated, dress extremely conservatively, and, their duties would, in the modern world, be called sexist. But, living in Israel has given them the opportunity to think and be progressive. As a society, today, they have the choice to have less babies and more education. They dress in modern fashion. Rana, her daughter, accordingly does not wear the the black overdress or the head scarf. She dresses like a Westerner, is well educated and holds a full time job in a NGO.

The Druze pita, Malyouh.

The Druze pita, Malyouh.

Yet, the society has both seculars and traditionals and they co-exist in harmony in close communities wherever they reside. The one thing that is common across all Druze anywhere in the world is that they are extremely loyal to their country. Loyalty to once country is one of the postulations of their religion. And, so, unlike the resident Arabs in the region, they all serve the mandatory call in the Israeli army.

As we were learning all about the lifestyle, Pinina kept bringing us delicacies of their cuisine. The Islamic past and Israeli present pervades their cuisine in many ways. Israeli cuisine in itself is a fusion of its immigrants coming from several surrounding countries. It is remarkable ever more to see the reverse inflection.

For 'tea', we began on a variety of homemade preserves from cured olives to pumpkin candy to grapes in sesame syrup. Then came the traditional Druze bread called Malyouh served with labne. The Malyouh is a really long hand stretched dough that is cooked on a large semi-circular dome and served folded into a neat square packet. It is paper thin and a much lighter than substitute for the traditional Middle-Eastern pita.

Sumsumiya, the sesame and puffed rice halwa sweetened with tahini halwa.

Sumsumiya, the sesame and puffed rice halwa sweetened with tahini halwa.

Then, there were the sweets. Sumsumiya, a sesame seed (sumsum) cake/halwa that uses tahini halva for sweetening reminded me of sesame halwas from India but with a twist. My favorite was Katai'f (Katayef), fried pancakes stuffed with cheese or nuts. It is very easy to get confused in the region between sweets that sound similar but are very different, like Kadaif or kataifi that is a shredded wheat dessert stuffed with cheese or nuts. The Druze version, also similar to the Lebanese one, is typically used to break fast during Ramadan.

All this served with copious amounts of herbal tea and a coffee that I cannot describe. At the end of our visit, Rana packed me a jar of the preserved grapes that I carried through three more countries and now sits as a cherished jar on my breakfast table. Neither sweet not exactly savory or put another way, being a bit of both, it makes for a fantastic accompaniment with cheese. I actually tried it with oak smoked Southern Irish cheese and it was divine. Uniting cultures indeed! Ha! :)  

The fried Katai'f is an absolute delight. I personally preferred the version stuffed with nuts.

The fried Katai'f is an absolute delight. I personally preferred the version stuffed with nuts.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Pinina's home and thank her and her family for their amazing hospitality and sharing their lives with me. I would happily go back to spend more time with them and learn more! Especially, as it seems that my opportunity to do that in Syria or Lebanon is extremely slim, now, after this visit. 

If you are in Israel and looking for an unique experience, I cannot recommend Galil Eat enough. Paul is a venerable source of information. Jewish and from Australia originally, he has not only extensive knowledge of the culture but also a deep passion for both people and food. Of course, he has a charming Australian accent to go with it!

If any of you have had a Druze experience, I would love to hear of it. I am particularly curious about those living in Islamic nations and the Arabic world.


Druze Sumsumiya

{Sesame Seed Halwa}

The recipe here was generously shared with me by Pinina. As with as any home recipe that has been passed on, and, tested on trial by fire by generations, the amounts are to the best of knowledge and you would have to do some minor adjustments to get it right.

The texture you are looking for in the halwa is not pliable or crumbly yet not hard or solid. It is a curious mix of crunch and softness much like a rice crispy or a granola bar. Crisp on the outside and still softer on the inside.

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3 cups sesame seeds

2 cups puffed rice

20g butter

Some honey (adjust to taste)

1 cup grated sesame halwa

Dry Roast the sesame on low heat until gently browned.

Mix with the puffed rice and reserve.

Melt honey, halwa and butter in a deep pan.

Stir in the sesame and puffed rice mixture.

Pour the mixture into a buttered mold and let cool to become a cake.