Dishes for Special Occasions
By Samia Khoury
In most parts of the world, food seems to be at the centre of any formal or social gathering. This article highlights the various Palestinian dishes that are served on specific occasions. Some of the occasions are secular, while others are related to religious feasts or traditions. Since I was just blessed with a new grandchild, the first dish that would occur to me is mughli. It is a special pudding served when a new baby is born. The basic ingredients are ground rice, sugar and a mixture of spices, and it is garnished with almonds, pine nuts and walnuts. It is supposed to help the flow of the nursing mother’s milk, and at the same time it is served to the guests who come to visit on that occasion. Celebrating the baby’s first tooth, a special dessert, snounieh, is prepared from wheat, deriving its name from the Arabic word for tooth (“sin"). When the baby is circumcised dry sweets such as Baklawa and Burma are served, and small packets of candy are prepared to give away. Related to a religious season, katayef is a sweet served only during the month of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Katayef are similar to pancakes but are cooked on one side only, then filled with either unsalted white cheese or walnuts, baked and then dipped in syrup. To list all the kinds of dishes and desserts served during Ramadan, however, would require a whole article in itself. For Eid Al-Adha (the feast of sacrifice), lamb is the traditional dish, dating back to the time of Abraham. The Christian Orthodox community usually has either stuffed lamb or stuffed ribs for Easter. Stuffed kubbeh is another traditional dish during Easter, symbolizing the spear.
Zalabieh, known as zungul or awwammeh is a special sweet prepared for Epiphany. It consists of small, crunchy balls deep fried in oil then dipped in syrup. The batter is made of flour, yeast and water, very similar to that of another sweet called mushabbak which has a flat net shape (hence the name) and is prepared for Al-Mawled El-Nabawi (the prophet’s birthday). ‘Assabi’ Zeinab (macaroons) are also served during Epiphany. Ka’ek wa Ma’moul are the traditional Easter cookies made from semolina and butter and filled with dates (for the ka’ek) and walnuts (for the ma’moul). Many people do the ka’ek year round, using flour instead of semolina. The cookies keep well and are very handy to serve with a cup of coffee. For the Muslim feasts, ka’ek and ma’moul have become the tradition as well. For Ascension Day, the traditional muhalabieh is served for dessert. It is a white pudding made from milk that is thickened with starch and flavoured with rose water and gum Arabica. Rice is a stable food in the Palestinian kitchen. Whether for a festive celebration where a large number of guests is involved or for a funeral, mansaf and qidreh, based on rice and meat, are the most common dishes. Rice and chicken are also an option for such occasions. Mansaf is served with flat thin bread and cooked yogurt on the side. The famous Nabulsi knafeh or another sweet known as buqaj or khdoud el-sit are usually served for dessert. Knafeh is also the traditional dessert for the New Year. Some families create their own tradition whereby they always start the new year with a dish that has a white gravy or sauce, such as cooked yogurt. When a family is in mourning, bitter Arabic coffee is served. Muslim families generally serve dates with the coffee, while Christians serve a special bun known as rahmeh. Rahmeh refers to the food eaten in memory of a dead person and as a gesture of blessing the deceased person’s soul. In the Greek Orthodox Church a special tray piled with cooked wheat and covered with sugar and silver candy is served after a memorial service.
Burbarah is another wheat dish prepared for the feast day of St. Barbara, the legendry saint. It is thought that because she was a prisoner she could only eat wheat. Another version of the legend is that she used to feed the poor with wheat. Hilbeh is a sweet prepared for the feast of the Virgin Mary in August. It is based on semolina mixed with hilbeh (fenugreek) seeds. For the feast of the Cross (Eid El-Saleeb) a dish of lentils, eggplant and pomegranate is prepared, and special cookies with anis seeds are served for the occasion. On Transfiguration and Annunciation days, as well as on Palm Sunday many Greek Orthodox families maintain fish as the traditional dish. Smat is a special lentil dish with pasta prepared when people make special vows. While by no means comprehensive, the above gives an idea of the variety of dishes in the Palestinian kitchen and their social and cultural associations.
Photo by Andre Serna