Yasemen Kaner-White takes you on a tour of evocative places such as Sebastia, Nablus, Jericho, Bethlehem, Hebron and Jerusalem, and savours the vegan culinary treats just waiting to be discovered in this handy vegan guide to Palestine...
From Ben Gurion Airport I headed to The West Bank, to a village called Sebastia, where I stayed in Al Kayed Guest House. It’s an impressive Ottoman building, largely untouched with a wonderful women’s initiative set up by the UN, just underneath.
First thing in the morning, I visited the ladies making breads to sell; with a kind welcome they gave me warm za’atar spice topped breads, dripping in exceptional local olive oil. I enjoyed them with a fragrant cup of cardamom-infused coffee, surrounded by lush green views and kumquat trees; a great way to start the day.
Sebastia was a regional capital during the second Iron Age and a notable urban centre during the Hellenistic-Roman period. Sights include the place where St John Baptist’s body rests, an archaeological museum with artefacts from the Iron Age, Roman, Byzantine and Bronze Age, a Roman cemetery and theatre.
There is a 330km 10-year-old walking trail to take in the serene scenery; lemon trees, cactus plants, almond blossom, ancient olive groves, bright red poppies, 2,000-year-old Roman columns and you can even spot the odd mosaic peaking through the mud.
A visit to Jericho helps bring biblical locations to life
The nearby Holy Land Sun Restaurant is the place to grab some lunch – opt for a vegan ‘mussakhan’ (translating to browned during additional cooking).
Essentially a flatbread with lots of unctuous olive oil, fragrantly spiced onions, sumac and fresh lemon juice, traditionally served with chicken, but owner Hafez Kayed insists the real taste derives from olive oil, sumac and onions, with plates of seasonal fruit to follow. Be sure to visit the souvenir shop where you’ll be greeted with delicious crisp barazeq; sesame seed biscuits.
The next day I visited Nablus, where the slow food movement is strong and a women’s centre offers cooking lessons for tourists. Nablus is famous not only for more than 50 kinds of sweets, but also the delectable sesame paste – tahini.
I visited Al Aloul, the oldest tahini factory in Nablus, dating back to the Ottoman Empire, originally an army camp that has since been running as a tahini and soap factory.
The superior nutty, thick, creamy consistency and flavour of the tahini is said to be due to the traditional way of making it. They use pure sesame, nothing else, made in batches using old machines that rely on steam not fire, dating to 1936.
This precious paste takes 6 hours to make, with 1 ton of raw sesame producing 850kg of tahini. Local restaurants buying from Al Aloul serve incredible houmous as a result.
Making traditional flatbreads in Hebron. Photo credit: Frits Meyst-Masar Ibrahim.
As I left the factory, with a container of tahini under my arm, I meandered through the souk where many a vegan treat lay waiting. Of all the dried spices to buy here, za’atar is my favourite, with varying combinations, it’s usually a medley of dried thyme, cumin, oregano, coriander, toasted sesame seeds, sumac and salt. It is often mixed with tahini and spooned on vegetables, pulses and stews or mixed with olive oil and spread on breads.
Fresh za’atar, which grows in the hills around Jerusalem, is essentially wild Middle-Eastern oregano and can be used fresh in salads or as the starring role in ‘fatayer fallahi’ translated as ‘villagers pie’. This typical Palestinian pastry is found mainly in spring, when fresh leaves are picked.
The flatbreads are flavoursome, oily yet crunchy; dough filled to the brim with wild za’atar leaves, onions and sumac. Another essential, often served as part of a mezze and found in the souk are mini-piquant pickled aubergines stuffed with walnuts, a perfect addition to any dish.
If you have a sweet tooth, be sure to buy some halva, the array of flavours is overwhelming and look out for ‘hairy halva’, which tastes and looks like a cross between candy floss and traditional halva. If you’re lucky and it’s open, pop into the sweet factory tucked in the souk to see hairy halva being made, as well as sugared chickpeas.
A feast laid out at the Alyasmeen hotel in Nablus. Photo credit: Frits Meyst-Masar Ibrahim.
Our Nablus guide, Majdi Shilleh, caved into my culinary fascination, pointing out unusual plants in the market. As I went in February, he showed me a Palestinian favourite; akoub, which is only around for 3 weeks in season and often preserved or frozen to enjoy throughout the year.
This type of thistle can be enjoyed fried, with lemon juice and tahini. It was also strawberry season and my party and I concurred we’d never seen strawberries so perfectly formed, large or red. In fact, all the fruit and veg seemed amplified somehow, with cauliflowers being sold on the roadside, each looking as though they could enter a county fair competition, no doubt due to the fertile soil.
Lunch at Alyasmeen Hotel overlooking An-Naser Square was a feast. We ate Turkish salad; tomato sauce with onion and chilli, pickled gherkins, chillies, purple turnips, olives, freekeh topped with almonds, rice, fresh seasonal salads, maklube; (meaning upside down) rice topped with vegetables, mujaddara; a rice dish laced with lentils, cumin and caramelised onions, accompanied by a fresh lemon and mint leaf lemonade.
From there, we went by foot to explore a 600 year old soap factory, tempted on the way by street food vendors offering sweetcorn, ful (beans) and falafel, including particularly huge falafels stuffed with mushrooms and onions.
Fruits and vegetables in the market in Nablus
Nablus is known for its handmade cotton mattresses, ancient Ottoman coffee shops and 200-year-old annual poet festival and, of course, Jacob’s Well as mentioned in the bible. You can do as the locals do and visit a Turkish bath open until midnight; pack a picnic, drink coffee and smoke a shisha.
That evening we headed to Duma village to eat with a local family. As we ate homemade lentil soup together it was a great insight into local life. We spent the night in Taybeh Golden Hotel, the first ‘green’ hotel in Palestine and home to a micro beer and boutique wine outfit. You can peruse the work of local artists on the walls as you sip on rather good wine from the boutique.
Jericho and Bethlehem
The next day, we drove to Jericho, very close to the Dead Sea and claimed to be the oldest city in the world, past the Jordan Rift Valley which stretches from Turkey to Tanzania, Bedouin camps, hikers and donkeys. Biblical references came to life as we saw the Valley of the Shadow of Death and Mount of Temptation. A visit to Hisham’s Palace from the Umayyad dynasty to see the outstanding Tree Of Life mosaic is unmissable.
Strawberry season is Nablus
Bedouin camps, hikers and donkeys. Biblical references came to life as we saw the Valley of the Shadow of Death and Mount of Temptation. A visit to Hisham’s Palace from the Umayyad dynasty to see the outstanding Tree Of Life mosaic is unmissable.
Enjoy a mezze meal at Holy Valley Restaurant for lunch, including delectable cold mashed potato with olive oil, clear vegetable broth, salads galore and freekeh soup, which can be made without chicken stock if requested.
To work it off, go on an E-Bike tour of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus and stop off at Banksy’s ‘The Walled Off Hotel’, offering an easily digestible view of the plight of the Palestinians via videos and artworks.
Our dinner at Nai Restaurant featured tomato, lemon and tahini salad, aubergine salads, roasted cauliflower salad, fresh beetroot, shredded red cabbage, sweetcorn and mushroom salads, zingy fresh thyme salad and the list goes on, all served with wholewheat pitta and houmous.
Chargrilled vegetables on a bed of rice was the main, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice to a backdrop of a traditional Dabkah Show to feast our eyes on.
The Jerusalem hotel serves up these tasty cabbage leaves
Hebron and Jerusalem
The next day we visited Hebron, home to an agricultural market street brimming with fruits and vegetables. Hebron is the economic hub of Palestine, with 80% Palestinians and 20% Israelis. It is famous for glass blowing and pottery. Dishes made with grapes are plentiful, such as stuffed vine leaves, a dip of grape molasses and tahini and grape jam.
The next stop was Jerusalem. We headed straight to the beautifully decorated central Jerusalem Hotel for a gorgeous lunch consisting of homemade courgette fritters, stuffed cabbage leaves and rice spiked with roasted almonds.
As the owner Raed is vegetarian, the vegetarian and vegan options are varied, such as spinach stew, pea stew, green and white bean stews, vegetable stuffed bulgur wheat kibbeh – you can even have a vegan shawarma made with mushrooms, fava beans and potatoes. He makes his muhallebi (milky rose scented pudding) with soya milk.
Yasemen enjoying an onion falafel during her visit to Nablus
Jerusalem is a bustling place, with religious sites such as the magnificent mosque above the much-visited Western Wall, The Garden Tomb, Mount Of Olives, Solomon’s Cave, Via Dolorosa (path of pain) – the path to Jesus’s crucifixion – but also home to more fabulous food.
There is even a courtyard’s name translating to ‘lentil quarter’ where nuns provide food for the needy; namely lentil soup. It is possible to book culinary tours, and events are run by Chefs For Peace, set up in Jerusalem in 2001 by Jewish, Christian and Muslim chefs, committed to explore cultural identity through food.
As traditional Palestinian farming and cooking is seasonal, relying on vegetables and grains, with meat traditionally only served for special occasions, vegans will feel very much at home. The fusion of Greek, Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian flavours combine, creating a sublime cuisine and one well worth travelling for as you can see from this vegan guide to Palestine.
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