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About a month ago, while planning out what dishes I wanted to share in The Jewish Table, I remembered a recipe for hummus topped with spiced chicken and cauliflower I developed for Food & Wine last year. I love making an entire meal out of creamy hummus topped with a delicious mess of flavor and color, all scooped up with pita. So I decided to modify the recipe to be fully vegan - both for my vegan and vegetarian readers, and for anyone looking for a satisfying dinner without the meat.
What I didn’t anticipate while planning my newsletter schedule, was the debilitating ache that would be thrumming through my heart and stomach when it came time to post the recipe.
I, like everyone, have watched with absolute horror as the most recent escalation of violence has ripped through the region. I have spent sleepless hours worrying about and checking in on family and friends in Israel who are living under a rainfall of rocket fire. I have spent those same nights sick to my stomach as hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians have been killed, children have been traumatized, and neutral sites that have absolutely nothing to do with Israel’s self defense - like the Associated Press and Al Jazeera offices, and Gaza’s only Covid-testing lab - have been flattened by air strikes.
I bring to the conversation a lot of sorrow and confusion, and fewer answers than I’d like. There is so much to hold all at once around this conflict - so many contradictions, so many competing narratives, so many moments when things you thought you knew turn out to have been wrong. Right now, I am holding the following thoughts, fears, outrage, and yearnings:
A deep belief that the Jewish people’s connection to Israel is ancient and valid, and that Jewish people have the right to live, thrive, and self-determine there - a right that was forcibly denied to Jewish communities living in the diaspora for thousands of years.
An equally deep belief that Palestinians deserve the same right. And an understanding that the creation of the modern state of Israel effectively erased Palestinian’s ability to self-determine. And that Palestinians living in Israel are treated as second class citizens, at best, and suffer human rights abuses, at worst.
The acknowledgement that Hamas is a terrorist organization that both snuck and forced its away into power. It does not care about the lives or safety of Palestinian citizens - only about maintaining its own power, and violently and completely eradicating Jewish people from the Middle East.
The understanding that Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is desperate to keep power he should have long-ago ceded (and arguably, never had in the first place). And that his sympathies lie with the nationalist extremists and increasingly aggressive settlers who do nothing to help, and plenty to harm, Israel’s quest for a peaceful existence.
The crushing sadness at seeing how people use this ongoing conflict as proof that they have justification to vilify and physically harm each other.
That there are communities in Israel where co-existence and camaraderie between Jews and Arabs exist. These communities do not even begin to negate all the atrocities faced by Palestinians, or the fear Israelis (and Jews elsewhere in the world) feel for the very act of existing. But they are a tiny reminder that what sometimes feels impossible might not ultimately be.
Last week, my friend Jane wrote something on social media that resonated for me. Here’s a small part of it: “Until we curb extremism on both sides and have leaders with the will to look out for their people’s best interests and not their own power, peace will be impossible.”
It is very difficult not to feel hopeless right now at the task at hand. It is often easier to keep squeezing tight to a chosen narrative than to soften oneself to another person or people’s conflicting truth. I honestly do not know how we move forward with corrupt leadership and calcified hatred blocking the way. But my blessing for us all is that we don’t back away from challenging our own beliefs, and that we keep ourselves open - despite the grief, confusion, and anger - to the possibility of softness, wherever it can be found.
I almost decided not to share the hummus recipe in this week’s newsletter because I didn’t want it to distract from or gloss over everything else. But one of the (admittedly small) ways I try to practice softness in my own work writing about Jewish food, is to acknowledge the complicated and overlapping history of Jewish dishes - both within and beyond the Middle East.
So much of Jewish food is “Jewish and,” because Jews have lived and cooked everywhere - and have both influenced and been influenced by our neighbors. So, if I write about borscht, I make sure to include that it is both the national dish of Ukraine, and a dish that became deeply important to Eastern European Jews, who helped to introduce it to America. Or if I write about chopped tomato and cucumber salad, I try to refrain from calling it “Israeli salad,” which does not acknowledge other Middle Eastern countries’ history with and love for the exact same dish.
Dishes like hummus, shawarma, and falafel have become uniquely polarizing in light of the conflict in the Middle East. So before I share the recipe, a bit of personal context. I learned to truly love hummus at Abu Hassan - the beloved, Arab-owned hummus restaurant in Yafo (the ancient port city out of which Tel Aviv grew). The hummus I tried there was unlike any I had ever had elsewhere - supremely creamy, unapologetically piquant with garlic and lemon, and served with both pita and slices of sharp white onion for scooping and swiping.
All hummus recipes I have ever developed hearken back to my first meal at Abu Hassan, and acknowledge that the ancient Levantine spread holds deep meaning to both Jews and Arabs. I am not naive enough to think or suggest that Israelis and Palestinians will ever find peace in plate of hummus alone. But in my own work, I will continue to be as transparent and truthful as I can about dishes’ history, culture, and significance. I think the food is ultimately more delicious for it.
*Below the recipe, I’ve listed three organizations whose work I have followed for years (and in the case of the Arava Institute, worked with a little). They are both dedicated to supporting coexistence and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. If you feel compelled to support their work, that’s amazing. And if you have other organizations you would like to send my way, I would love to know about them.
Dinner Hummus with Shawarma-Spiced Cabbage and Mushrooms
This dish is a vegetarian adaptation of something I developed for Food & Wine last year. If you prefer your dinner hummus topped with chicken and cauliflower, head there for the recipe. Also, a quick prep note: pre-measure your spices before you start cooking the veggies, so you can add them in all at once.
Serves 4 to 6
For the hummus:
2 (15.5 oz/439 g) cans chickpeas, drained, about 1/2 cup (120 ml) chickpea liquid reserved
1/3 cup (75 g) tahini
1/4 cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
For the mushrooms and cabbage:
¼ cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large yellow onion, halved through the root and thinly sliced
1 pound (454 g) cremini mushrooms (or whatever mushrooms you like), thinly sliced
2 cups (140 g) thinly sliced red cabbage
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
¼ cup (30 g) dried currants
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Optional toppings: freshly chopped parsley or cilantro, za’atar, toasted pine nuts*
Make the hummus: Add the drained chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and garlic to a food processor and process until a coarse paste forms, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. With the processor running, slowly pour in 1/4 cup (60 ml) of the reserved chickpea liquid, and process until smooth and creamy. If desired, add more chickpea liquid for a looser consistency. Taste and add more salt, if desired.
Make the mushrooms and cabbage: Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan set over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cabbage and cook, stirring often, until well browned and tender, 6 to 8 minutes.
Add the garlic, currants, cumin, smoked paprika, coriander, cinnamon, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Taste, and add more salt if desired. Remove from pan from the heat and let cool slightly.
To serve: Smooth the hummus onto a large serving plate. Spoon the spiced mushrooms and cabbage mixture over top. Garnish with the chopped herbs, za’atar, and/or toasted pine nuts, if desired.
(Toast the pine nuts in a small, dry or lightly oiled frying pan set over medium heat for a few minutes, until they are fragrant and a few shades darker.)
3 organizations I love:
“The Arava Institute is an environmental and academic institution in the Middle East, dedicated to preparing future leaders from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and around the world to cooperatively solve the regional and global challenges of our time.”
A film and media company based in East Jerusalem focused on “increasing the power and reach of Palestinians and Israelis working to end the occupation and build a future of freedom, dignity, and equality for all.
From Wikipedia: Combatants for Peace is an Israeli-Palestinian NGO and an egalitarian, bi-national, grassroots movement committed to non-violent action against the Israeli occupation and all forms of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The movement was formed in 2006 by Palestinians and Israelis who had taken an active role in the cycle of violence, and decided to work together to promote a peaceful solution through non-violent action.