Take Your Pick

11 Mar 2009

As I forage for wild asparagus, hubeisa (mallow), wild beet leaves and other edible plants in the fields and meadows of Galilee, it is easy to imagine the hunters and gatherers who roamed these parts in pre-history, partaking of a similar bounty. At my feet, peeking out of the undergrowth, grape and olive presses hewn into the limestone boulders attest to others who lived here thousands of years later, at the cusp of the Common Era, who undoubtedly savored the same flavorful leaves and stalks that spring up in such abundance after the winter rains.

I learned to identify edible wild plants from Bedouins living in the villages neighboring my home in lower Galilee. Every winter I would observe Bedouin men and women bent over in the fields, filling sacks with their pickings. And when I finally approached a group of foraging women, they graciously helped me learn the different plants, invited me to their homes to cook with them, and opened my eyes to a way of life that is slipping away just as I am beginning to grasp it.

For the various Arab communities living in Galilee – whether Bedouin or Falahin, Muslim, Christian or Druze – the deep connection with the land, its topography and cycles of vegetation has effectively been severed as traditional agricultural lifestyles are eclipsed by a labor economy. As the younger women enter the workforce or rely on processed foods which are quick to prepare, the traditional, labor-intensive activities like baking pita bread, hand-rolling the little dumplings known as shishbarash, and foraging for wild plants are increasingly left to the older generations.

A portly woman in her 70s, Bahia Sabtan has a taste for hubeisa which must be satisfied. Even though her legs are swollen and painful, on clear winter days her daughter Nadya will drive her and a back seat full of grandchildren to an open field where the finest hubeisa grows. I love to join them on these outings, chatting with Nadya as we bend over the sea of green leaves, running my hands over the stalks as she taught me to find the smooth ones which are best for cooking.

Sometimes we pick for quantity, to get enough to stock the deep freezer so that Bahia can enjoy her hubeisa long after the season is past. Other times foraging becomes the occasion for a festive family picnic. The various daughters and daughters-in-law fan out to pick while Bahia lights a small fire. On a portable wooden cutting board, she chops the hubeisa – leaves and stalks – into a fine green pile. Sautéed along with chopped onion in a generous pool of olive oil, the deep green mixture is served around on fresh pita bread. Smoky, earthy and indescribably delicious, this is the essence of winter in the Galilee.

On my outings, I often meet other Bedouins who are also out gathering. At first they are puzzled to see me, a Jewish woman, with my sack of leaves. But as we begin to talk, they quickly understand that I share their deep pleasure in being outdoors, partaking of what the land so generously provides for our sustenance.

Abbie Rosner is a member of the Upper Galilee Slow Food Convivium. She writes about the multicultural culinary landscape of Galilee and has recently launched Culinary Tours of Galilee.

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