By Lana Nasser | Instagram: @l4n4n
“We’re nine! How are we all going to fit in your mother’s snug SUV?” I asked my husband as we packed the kids’ Salomon fleeces and a few water bottles in our backpacks. “You’ll see, Palestinian style,” he replied with a sneaky half-smile on his face. This was definitely a sight I couldn’t wait to see. It had been almost two years since we had visited Haifa, my mother-in-law, in Palestine and so we decided spending Easter in Ramallah was the perfect occasion. We especially chose spring time because the terrain is lush, green and the hills are covered by a great variety of wildflowers and flowering shrubs. It’s no exaggeration when I say that Palestine is a hiking paradise and the beauty about this land is wherever you stand in the middle of it, all you see around you are hills and more hills like being surrounded by white choppy waves. So whenever we visit, hiking is always the preferred chosen activity by the young and the not so young and the best part is the hills are a short car ride away, literally in our backyard.
We squeezed in the back with some kids on our laps and the rest in the slightly spacious boot of the car; everyone was brimming with excitement because we were planning to stop for lunch and cook a traditional easy-to-make Palestinian dish called “Kalayet Bandora”. The direct translation into English is sautéed tomatoes. It doesn’t really sound like a dish to be ecstatic about but coupled with the fresh air, crisp weather, perfectly painted blue skies, sunshine, green hills, man-made fire and the squeals of the kids, it turned into one of the most unique foodie adventures I’ve been on. The essence of this dish lies in its simplicity; it’s enjoyed by villagers and farmers in Palestine, mostly during spring and summer, which is when tomatoes are in season. It’s also super nutritious because tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene, a carotenoid with anti-oxidant properties, which becomes more concentrated and nutrient-dense under gentle cooking. The extra power ingredients added to this dish are: fresh garlic cloves, which strengthen the immune system, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels, green chili peppers, which fight off disease and promote health and finally the heavy drizzle or down-pour of extra virgin olive oil extracted from olives indigenous to the region and rich with numerous benefits. The dish can be enjoyed with rice or taboon bread, which is a Middle Eastern flat bread cooked in a Tabun oven.
After hiking for almost two hours, we found the perfect clearing to start our cooking activity. It was fairly windy so we chose a spot closest to the side of a huge boulder to shield the flames once we got them started. The secret to a perfect fire is to have a generous base of dried tree branches, which you then slowly grow branch by branch. A few tricks I discovered on this expedition is that you can actually chop up tomatoes, very roughly that is, using a spoon and even a fork and then use a steel bowl and the bottom of a tree branch to replace your mortar and pestle to crush the garlic cloves. We had forgotten all the important cooking utensils at home, not the smartest idea, but it definitely got our creative juices flowing. Haifa and I prepped 1 kilogram of tomatoes in our laps and the heady fragrant aroma filled our nostrils that more than a couple of sweet, firm wedges made their way into my mouth rather than into the extra-small copper pot, which we remembered to bring along with us. As the boys in the group busied themselves with placing the pot on the fire, the kids proceeded to fill it up with our help.
Everyone took turns to stir the concoction and the smell of burnt wood mixed with caramelized tomatoes invaded the air. We cooked the first batch without chili peppers for the kids and the second batch was spiced up for the adults; once the tomatoes turned into a dark sunset orange color, we poured the stew into two separate stainless steel bowls. We then carried our bowls to the largest boulder we could find, sat cross-legged, drizzled Palestinian liquid gold and tore into our lunch with little shovels of taboon bread. The roasting of the tomatoes on a wood fire lent a deeper layer of flavor that I had never experienced before with cooking the dish on a gas stove. It tasted almost entirely different and I fell in love instantly. While we nourished our stomachs and aching bodies from the hike, the fire was still going strong, so we brewed some freshly picked chamomile leaves for dessert. It was the sweetest ending to our day.