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The view from Amir’s porch, looking east. The neighborhood on the top left is Jewish, on the bottom right Arab.

Image: Naomi Tomky

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Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based food and travel writer who went to Israel in search of the secret to great hummus for a story, but was sidetracked by invitations to people’s homes for meals.

There’s no road map to get to Amir’s town. When I accepted his family’s invitation to Friday lunch at their house in East Jerusalem, he promised getting there wasn’t as complicated as it seemed. I just had to meet a complete stranger (his father) at an old bus station, who would then put me on a bus with instructions to get off in a seemingly deserted town to get picked up by...someone. They’d figure out who by then.

The bus dropped me on a road outside the Arab Bank. A film of brown dust settled on the streets, the signs, and the buildings. Nothing moved in the midday heat. After what seemed like a beige eternity, a spot of color — Amir’s sister, in a fuchsia headscarf — popped out of a car.

She and her husband drove me to the house where Amir and his mother greeted me. Israeli age restrictions prevent his family, other than his father (who is old enough to be exempt), from entering Jerusalem proper to get me. But now that I’d made it to their home, I could have been anywhere. A kitchen, a cook, and a festive meal change little from place to place, culture to culture. The anxiety of standing alone in a foreign place melted away: feasting (and its preparations) creates commonality.

Amir, his sisters, mother, and I settled into the kitchen, first rolling meat and rice into grape leaves, then pressure-cooking them along with squash and more meat. It was a first step into Palestinian cuisine: not entirely different from the dolmas served at many Greek or Middle Eastern restaurants around the world. We drank coffee together as we kneaded dough for savory pastries and talked about freekeh (green wheat). Amir’s mom used spices kept in old mayonnaise jars: cumin powder and nigella seeds and allspice. I learned how to roast a chicken in a bag and make yogurt from their goats’ milk. Goat-tending, Amir’s mother said with an eyeroll, was her husband’s hobby; the yogurt was how she made it useful. Looking out from the balcony on their porch (under which said goats resided), we could see the Dome of the Rock shining through the sky, just five miles away, despite my 45-minute, mapless journey to get here.

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The table set with delicacies in preparation for the Friday meal.

Image: Naomi Tomky

We sat down for Friday lunch, their most important meal of the week, with cousins and uncles and sisters. We passed the crispy roasted chicken, meat pies, couscous, and salads — bright purple cabbage, a verdant parsley-packed tabbouleh, and an “American” salad consisting of plain lettuce and tomato. We could have been anywhere, with anyone, until the doorbell rang and all the women scrambled for their hijabs.

“How long are you in Palestine for?” Amir asked. “I’m back in Jerusalem tonight, then in Israel for another week,” I replied. A pregnant silence ensued, then one of his sisters explained, “We consider all of this to be Palestine.” She motioned around the building, signifying the city to our west, the bleak sandy hills to the north, and the desert stretching toward Jordan to the east. For the first time since I’d arrived, I felt awkward. The quiet hung briefly, full of political tension, our previously ignored differences now palpable. But a few long seconds later, it was time to stir the peas and check the oven. Festive meals don’t solve international political problems, but they can smother differences in the scent of spices.

A few hours and a few miles later, I walked to Shabbat dinner with an American-Israeli family. Well-lit urban streets replaced the dusty roads of the morning as Google Maps narrated the 20-minute walk from my hotel. It was the same day but a different holiday; the same city, but a different culture. When I told them where I’d gone for lunch, they were intrigued, but bristly. Again, I let the sauces smooth the bumps in the conversation. Between bites of brisket, the controversial topic floated away; the tension released as we tore off pieces of challah. We passed the hummus and talked about eggplant dip. It was the same festive, welcoming conversations I’d had at lunch, just with different prayers. We could have been anywhere.

How to Get Freekeh

One-Pan Chicken and Freekeh

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Chicken with freekeh

I adapted this chicken dish to a simple, one-pan meal easily made at home. —NT

Feeds 4-6 people. Total time: 1 hour

  • 2 c freekeh
  • 3 T olive oil
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 c carrots, chopped (about 4 large carrots)
  • 2 c frozen green peas
  • 3 c chicken broth
  • 4-6 chicken thighs (one per person)

1. Wash the freekeh, rinsing it a few times, then leave it in water to soak for 10–15 minutes. 2. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat, add the onions, garlic, and salt. Sauté for five minutes, until onions begin to lose their color. 3. Drain the freekeh and add it, the carrots, and peas to the pan, stirring until well-coated in the oil and mixed, about two minutes.

Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the chicken and reduce to a simmer.

Cook until all the water is absorbed into the freekeh and the chicken falls apart easily, about 35 minutes.

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