I don’t know precisely when Google Maps gave up, but it was some time after leaving the decrepit bus station opposite Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, and after sailing through a series of guarded checkpoints without stopping (nobody cares who leaves central Jerusalem; only who enters). We were passing through the hills east of the city, a muted landscape of brown peppered with dark scraggly plants and the occasional small town.
I was on my way for a festive Friday lunch at the family home of Amir, an American-born Palestinian doctor who had once stayed with my aunt in Philadelphia. (Names in this story have been changed to protect people’s identities.) Yesterday, I’d been enjoying Israeli-brewed craft beers and local cheeses studded with truffles in Jerusalem’s modern city center. Now, a 45-minute bus journey away, just five miles as the crow flies, I felt like I’d come to the other side of the Earth. I was standing alone, in the heat and the dust of a town that was silent and closed for the Muslim holy day, waiting for my ride to come pick me up. It seemed like little had moved here in years.
Finally stepping into Amir’s family home felt a bit like Dorothy arriving in Oz, where the world shifts into Technicolor. The beige silence gave way to a warm welcome, even though I didn’t know anyone. Strangers opened the door wide and greeted me, ushering me through the living room and into the kitchen with smiles and inquiries about my journey. I’d been nervous on the way here, but as a food writer, entering the kitchen put me immediately back in my comfort zone.
Amir was still at Friday prayers. His mother, Nadia, wearing a knee-length purple sweatshirt, pulled out a chair for me, while his sister, Lila, her fuchsia headscarf infusing the room with cheeriness, handed me a dark green grape leaf to help prepare for lunch. Later, she would remove the headscarf, and for the rest of the afternoon I watched as the women dove for coverings each time the doorbell rang. They would usually just pull on a casual garment that draped over their head and had holes for their hands: a temporary solution until the caller proved to be either female or family. But in the kitchen, everyone was uncovered, all of us matching with our dark hair pulled back in ponytails.
We knew the same flavors, even though we had different mother tongues.
Some culinary terms defied Nadia and Lila’s otherwise excellent English. With help from our phones, we deduced the word for an ingredient—allspice—and mixed it, along with bright yellow turmeric and vibrant green parsley, into a stuffing for hand pies. We knew the same flavors, even though we had different mother tongues. And wrapping meat in bread—for little pies like these, or empanadas, or dumplings—is a universal skill.
When we ran out of meat, we stopped making triangles and switched to long cigars of squeaky fresh cheese studded with nigella seed. And when we ran out of that, Lila smiled the same guilty smile of sneak-eaters around the world before folding in canned corn, ketchup, and shredded cheese. “It’s sort of like pizza, my favorite food,” she said, embarrassed. “But without mozzarella.” At the mention of the perfectly melty cheese, both she and her mom cocked their heads sideways and looked wistful. “We can’t get mozzarella here,” Lila explained.
Mozzarella, along with practically anything else you might want, is widely sold in the main part of Jerusalem. But Palestinians need a special permit to travel there, which can be difficult to get. Women are exempted once they are 50 years old, and Nadia was just a year away from that. The two women shared a look that said, “Soon!” while I thought about my own trip to the market in Jerusalem the previous day: tasting wasabi-flavored gelato, laughing at a poop emoji–shaped pillow, and looking over imported European delicacies.
As the pies baked in an oven by the door—the one in the kitchen seemed to function as storage, tied shut with a shoelace—we turned our attention to the couscous. “I bought it yesterday, it’s handmade,” Nadia told me, proud of its freshness. “In the U.S. they call it ‘Israeli couscous.’ Here, it’s just couscous.” While the shared culinary roots of dishes across the Middle East are widely acknowledged, the details matter: Couscous originated in North Africa and has been eaten across the Maghreb and Middle East for hundreds of years. In fact, the only dish of the nine we made whose name included a nationality was the “American salad”: a rather ordinary dish of chopped tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, and cucumbers.
The food we laid out on the table was made of familiar ingredients put together in a new way. From afar, it looked different, but up close, it was the same beef and peas I knew from home, but here cooked in clarified butter over rice. We had chicken baked in a bag with roasted green wheat, and chicken poached in tomato sauce over couscous. Our sides included the stuffed grape leaves and meat pies we had made, a purple cabbage salad, and tabbouleh verdant with parsley. The feast, in honor of the holy day, sprang from the table in rainbow shades.
Each family member grabbed a dish, heaping my plate with a quarter-chicken here, a softball-sized pile of rice there, tabbouleh mounded up in the middle. I had enough of each dish to be a meal on its own, and after each bite, another scoop of couscous or cabbage or freekeh appeared. Building on their initial welcome and their encouraging smiles over my messy grape leaves, Amir’s family showed their hospitality in mountains of food—just like at feast tables across the world. I ate until even my practiced food-writer stomach was stretched to its limits, and even still, I snuck in a few more bites of meat pie.
As the meal wound down, the parents got ready for a wedding a few towns over, and Amir offered me a tour of the yard. I expected to step back into the monochrome landscape I remembered from my arrival, but instead of gazing out over the rolling, sand-colored hills that had dominated my journey here, I looked down at the family’s pet turtle, meandering among the shaded herbs at the front of the house. We walked around the side and I saw the yellow trees whose fruit had been squeezed for my mint-spiked lemonade earlier in the day. Underneath the house, the black-and-white goats bleated a greeting, and I thanked them for their milk and the yogurt and butter we’d used in the cooking.
We met the bunnies, passed by pots of pink flowers, and wandered into a lush garden on the far side of the house. Amir handed me a light orange loquat, something I had never tried before. As I bit into the apricot-like fruit and the juice dripped into my hand, on the horizon I saw a faint glimmer of gold shining from the Dome of the Rock in central Jerusalem. Looking back from here, it seemed like the only bit of color in an otherwise beige cityscape, and I realized just how deceiving a covering of dust can be.
>>Next: Across the Middle East, This One Taste Is Universal
Naomi Tomky Naomi Tomky’s award-winning food and travel writing has been published by the New York Times, Food & Wine, and Travel + Leisure. She is the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Book.