Cooking with a Palestinian Grandmother and Christmas in Bethlehem. A Vegetarian Journey Through Israel and Palestinian Territories Part II

by Sala @ Veggie Belly on March 22, 2012

My first vegetarian meal in Bethlehem – dinner at Laila’s house.

After a delicious and fun few days in Jerusalem, I headed to Bethlehem for Christmas. (Yes, I am that late with this post, but I’ve finally found the time to write it up!). In Jerusalem, I was already giddy with excitement that I was journeying through the holiest of lands. And spending Christmas with a Palestinian family in Bethlehem just made the trip even more special. I am so grateful and feel incredibly lucky that I could spend Christmas right in the very place where Jesus was born.

Laila showed me how to make Arabic coffee.

My home stay with Laila’s family was arranged through the Holy Land Trust – an organization that has community outreach and non violence programs in Bethlehem. They also arrange home stays for foreigners – a great way to learn and see for yourself how locals live in Bethlehem. I told Holy Land Trust in advance that I was vegetarian, and they said that would be no problem at all. Laila cooked meatless food especially for me, and her whole family only ate the vegetarian food for the two days I was with them!

Laila, a mother of two sons and two daughters, and a grandmother of three, was a kind and hospitable woman. She patiently taught me how to make some of her simple, Arabic food. Recipes coming soon!

I walked into Laila’s house in Bethlehem on a cold and drizzly Christmas eve. Her family greeted me warmly and with a lot of questions about India and the US. Do you know Amitabh Bachchan? How big is your house in America? What do they eat in India? Does your husband allow you to travel alone? Over fresh mint tea, I answered their questions about my culture and asked them questions about theirs. I knew right away this was going to be a memorable trip.

Dinner at Laila’s house consisted of an elaborate spread of Falafels, soft pita bread, hummus, fries, salad, moutabel (and eggplant dip like babaganoush), and olives. There was only one rule at the dinner table – eat with gusto.

The next morning, Laila served eggs, and more amazing bread. I discovered Kaik that day – an oblong, chewy bread with sesame on top. It was perfect with the Arabic cheeses Laila served that morning! To top it all off, breakfast ended with Arabic coffee – strong, muddy and fragrant.

Next, I went off to explore Bethlehem. Here are some photos.

My hosts’ kitchen in Bethlehem. Left – brewing Arabic coffee. Right – sumac, zaatar and other spices.

Scenes from Bethlehem at Christmas





Pasta from the Franciscan Monastery

There were falafels being fried everywhere


If you are in Bethlehem, grab a falafel  sandwich at Al Sufara – delicious! And the owner gives tourists free dessert!

Church of Nativity, the spot where Jesus is said to have been born

Prayers printed in Arabic at the Church

The ‘security wall’ in Bethlehem. Massive stretches of this wall cut off the West Bank from Israel. The Israelis I met said bombings have decreased since the wall was built and they feel safer. The Palestinians I met say they are prisoners in their own land because of the wall. I had to go through multiple check points to get from Israel to the West Bank. Its a short distance, but takes a long time because of the vehicle searches and passport checks by the soldiers. But despite the wall, the heavy military presence, and the politics, I felt generally safe in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem was an incredible, eye opening experience. Finding vegetarian food was no problem at all. I had plenty of fresh salad, bread, hummus, falafel, nuts and dessert. Laila also made me interesting vegetarian Arabic food. She made rice and vermicelli with nutmeg, a simple peas and carrot dish that she served with smoky shrak (thin bread), and a lovely lentil soup with cumin.

More Photos of Jerusalem

I’ve already written about my Jerusalem experiences in my post, ‘The best hummus I’ve ever had and other stories from Jerusalem’. Make sure you read that post! Here are more photos from Jerusalem.

Bagel cart near Jaffa Gate
Arabic coffee
Cheese filled pastries at Mahane Yehuda market

Loved the bagels in Israel! This one was a zaatar (yummy spice mix of sesame, sumac, hyssop or thyme) bagel with lettuce, cucumbers, olives, mushrooms, sweet corn and some kind of cream cheese. Israeli bagels were less dense and more moist that American bagels, which makes them perfect for bagel sandwiches.

Stay tuned for more posts from my Middle East trip, and some great recipes I learned there!

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Comments

comments

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 shabs March 22, 2012 at 9:03 pm

Wow Sala!This is a lovely post with great pics! You must have had very good time there. Are you exploring these places in a group or are you just by yourself?

Love,
Shabs.

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Sala @ Veggie Belly Reply:

Just me :)

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2 Manasi March 22, 2012 at 9:20 pm

What a beautiful virtual tour! Thank you so much!
I love the fact that there are vegetarian options available and that you had such a great hostess.
The pictures are fabulous, as always.

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3 Shruti March 22, 2012 at 10:54 pm

Wow this is such an amazing thing to do. Travel unknown lands all on your own! I am amazed. You should write more on how you plan such a trip and how you use CS. I joined CS but still very naive to do anything out there!

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4 Sara{OneTribeGourmet} March 22, 2012 at 11:29 pm

Wow, what an amazing journey to the Holy land, I wish to visit one day! Beautiful pics and memories, thank you for sharing!

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5 jamie hayworth-chin March 22, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Thanks so much for sharing this post. My husband and I just got back from our first trip to Israel and we are head over heels in love with the land, the people, etc. How amazing to have spent Christmas in Bethlehem. We can’t wait to be able to make another trip. I’m going to check out that link that you posted for Holy Land Trust.

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6 Marina March 23, 2012 at 12:04 am

Oh, that muddy coffee is so delicious! Lovely post!

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7 Rosa March 23, 2012 at 3:35 am

Wow, what a great experience! Lucky you.

Thanks for sharing your story and clicks with us!

Cheers,

Rosa

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8 Zita March 23, 2012 at 7:40 am

Great post with wonderful photos!

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9 Veena March 23, 2012 at 10:47 am

Your post reminds me yet again how food is such an awesome bridge between cultures!

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10 Spandana March 23, 2012 at 11:47 am

Good that you got to travel to all these places… that makes me feel jealous :)

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11 GS March 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Lovely pics!!! Can’t wait for the recipes…….falafel sandwich looks delicious.

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12 Lubna Karim March 23, 2012 at 2:20 pm

What an awesome virtual tour…..food, flavors, roads, people, boundaries, celebrations……everything in one post….love that street fried falafel…

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13 Shobana March 23, 2012 at 3:13 pm

How wonderful your experience! And Laila looks like the perfect host.

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14 Sruthi March 23, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Love your photos, stories, and recipes. Bethlehem looks lovely!

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15 indosungod March 24, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Sala, you are great story teller and have a great eye for fantastic stuff.
Great to hear about Laila and the spread she put for you. Just amazing.

Looking forward to more of your stories.

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16 Hema March 26, 2012 at 12:01 am

Wow, loved your post and the Jerusalem shown through your eyes.

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17 Viswa March 29, 2012 at 10:10 am

Travelling is one thing, travelling alone abroad? I have new found respect for you.. Amazing to see those pictures..

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18 Lakshmi April 23, 2012 at 3:46 pm

What a beautiful post, I mean, not just the writing, but the pictures are absolutely ogle-worthy:)! And the spread on the table looks so mouth-watering.

It is very nice of you to have shared such a lovely experience interacting with the local people, with the rest of us. Laila and all the others you met on this trip seem so generous and kind!

Cheers to more safe and delicious, healthy travels for you…

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