We are free to digress from the hordes. We possess the right to ditch stereotypes. And it is completely legal to choose the road less traveled…
In Na’ama’ s cozy kitchen in Washington DC, we brought together two generations of Egyptian-Americans and Israeli-Americans to a family signature recipe, “Shoshana’s Bread.”
I was in Washington DC with my family, for a brief two-week visit. Faithful to her gracious tradition, Na’ama stopped by, on our first night in the city to drop off a warm meal of Iraqi roasted chicken to die for, and a fragrant, nutty loaf of homemade bread that was perfect to dip into the chicken’s succulent sauce.
Na’ama didn’t forget to include in the large food container my favorite traditional coffee as well as her signature dates shortbread.
In Paris, almost a decade ago, our paths crossed for the first time. We were both newly naturalized US citizens. Coincidentally each one of us was expecting her first baby. Our husbands were good colleagues and friends for a number of years prior to our presence in their lives. Several logical factors were likely to entice bonds to grow between the two of us, except for one imposing fact! Our countries of origin had a long, hostile and bloody history.
Although the political leaderships of Israel and Egypt enforced a historic peace treaty in 1978, a hefty mutual apprehension prevailed among Egyptians and Israelis. Not to mention that the ongoing, convoluted Palestinian-Israeli conflict considerably hindered a normalization of relations. In other words, the war ended, yet the bitterness lingered.
The first time I met Na’ama was one fall afternoon in Paris. My husband and I had just moved there to embark on our three-year foreign service tour. Arriving to their cozy Parisian apartment, Na’ama and her husband gracefully received us. Na’ama had prepared a beautifully inviting coffee table. A levantine hand-carved tray was topped with traditional cups of mint tea, and diamonds of glistening basbousa, a staple Middle Eastern semolina cake.
The wafting aromas of mint and the genuine, warm welcome slightly eased the tension I was harbouring. To be honest, she had me at the basbousa! I had a bite, and it was perfectly syrupy and nutty, and very similar to the one my grandma was famous for. Clearly, the basbousa was destined to be the conversation starter.
The tea time scheduled for one hour was prolonged for a couple of more hours, as we decided to have a walk in their neighbourhood’s picturesque park, Parc Monceau. The barriers were gradually melting away, while each one of us was opening up, sharing her story— the story of a foreign born spouse of a U.S diplomat.
Similar to the stories of millions of sephardic Jews, Na’ama’s grandfather — a well established, reputed lawyer — decided to flee Iraq with his family in the early fifties. He chose to leave behind all his belongings and hard-earned wealth to start from scratch in Israel, the newly established state back then.
The political instability in the Middle East, ongoing war with Israel, and persecution of minorities drove the Jews out of their homes throughout the Middle East in what was considered to be the biggest Jewish exodus of modern history. Most went to Israel.
That said, what makes this classic Jewish story stand out, in some ways, is Na’ama’s grandmother, Shoshana. The dainty, wealthy lady, once served by an army of domestic help in Iraq, found herself overnight leading a bucolic life, along with her husband and five kids, under a tent roof in the promised land.
Shoshana’s genetic strength did not fail her. She let go of her comfortable past to embrace her reality and thrive in her new destination. To overcome her family’s limited means in Israel, she creatively leveraged her talents in sewing and cooking to make clothes for her kids out of her old garments, and create meals for a family of seven, using leftovers.
Fast forward 70 years, Shoshana (95) survived several wars and currently still lives in Tel Aviv. She is the matriarch of a four-generation family. Thanks to her, the Iraqi culinary heritage of her sephardic family remains vividly alive. She made sure to hand it down to her daughters and granddaughters.
According to Na’ama, her grandma Shoshana had a significant impact on shaping her personality. Na’ama owes her passion for crafts and fondness to Middle Eastern cuisine to Shoshana. She inherited her grandma’s determination gene, that serves her well in overcoming challenges in every foreign land where the Foreign Service takes her.
Belonging to a long line of solid cooks, Na’ama’s mother herself runs “Dina Dish,“ a popular Israeli food blog, where she shares modern twists on kosher and classic sephardic recipes. She makes a fusion among Jewish culinary traditions from all over the Middle East.
When I met with Naama last summer, I asked the possibility of cooking together one of her grandma’s favorite recipes to publish it on my blog. She generously approved, and Shoshana’s bread was Na’ama’s first choice. “It is a signature recipe of my grandma, who always baked her own bread. And it includes my grandma’s favorite spices mix, Hawaij (see notes). My eight years old daughter is now the fourth generation to bake it”, Na’ama proudly explained.
Our kids were playing together, babbling in a mix of Hebrew, Arabic, and English while watching us bake the heritage bread. Na’ama started first with proofing the yeast by mixing instant yeast, water and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer. When the mix became frothy, after about half an hour, she proceeded with the recipe.
In the same mixing bowl, Naama added the other ingredients: the hawaij spices, seeds, flour and olive oil. Then, she gradually added 1/2 cup of warm water as she ran the mixer, which was fitted with a hook attachment. I saw her adding some more water as the dough was still dry. Then she sprinkled the salt over the dough as a last step, and kept the mixer running for at least 10 minutes. She turned off the mixer only when the dough came together.
With experienced hands, Naama collected the dough, shaped it into a ball and placed it in a bowl previously sprinkled with flour. She covered the dough and let it rise in a dark, warm place for one hour. Naama glanced quickly at her kitchen machine and grimmed. “My grandma didn’t have fancy gadgets in her kitchen. She cooked and baked everything by hand. That said, her freezer was and is still always packed with enough make-ahead meals to feed an entire town”, Naama said with a smile on her face.
When the dough had risen, Na’ama sprinkled some semolina on the kitchen counter, and started kneading the dough by hand again. She formed a log and placed it in the loaf mold. With a pairing knife, she traced decorative patterns of diamonds shapes. And she let the loaf rise again.
Naama turned to me and said, laughing, “My grandma’s funniest anecdote is about her first few weeks in the refugee camp in Israel. When she first got there 70 years ago, she dressed in her most elegant clothes for her first day at work, but she wasn’t told where she would be working, or didn’t understand because she had not yet learned Hebrew. She was taken in her fancy dress and shoes to a field to dig up potatoes. It took some time to adjust to her new life!”
When it was time to bake the bread, we popped it in the oven and adjusted the timer. Then, we realized that it was a perfect time for coffee. Our kids were busy making handmade tote bags, so we headed to the bright corner of her stylish living room to relax and sip our cardamom coffee.
It was an epic moment, when the chatty, happy noise of the kids mingled with the wafting aromas of the Hawaij bread and coffee! We recalled that very moment when we first met 10 years earlier, and wondered what if our choices were different… What if we had succumbed to the negative stereotypes about Israelis and Arabs and lost the chance of being friends. What if we had walked away from such an enriching sisterhood, in favor of a dominating narrative?
We defiantly nurtured our friendship with mutual compassion and trust. And we deliberately avoided the potentially poisonous impact of politics on our growing bond.
We even went further and launched a joint art initiative in Paris. Together, we created Parisian-themed jewelry, sold them, and gave the entire proceeds to unprivileged kids in Paris from diverse backgrounds. It took us two months of hard work, and it took our husbands hours of babysitting our girls, who were both less than a year old.
Our common strong values as women, mothers and human beings survived our radically disparate political views. It successfully endured distance and time—no matter how much time went by without seeing one another, whenever we got together it was just like we had seen each other the day before, as we picked up where we had left off.
Naama and I are both grateful to the US, as our adoptive land has offered us the gift of choice. And we chose the road less traveled; we chose to be lifetime friends.
Our thoughts of gratitude were interrupted by the timer alarm. Na’ama removed the steamy, fragrant loaf from the oven! Intrigued by the fresh bread smell and spices aromas, the kids flocked to the kitchen, impatiently pleading for a piece! A piece of bread with a taste of peace.
Recipe by Shoshana Shlomo
Serves 6 -8 people
- 1 package (7 grams) or 2 ¼ teaspoons of dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon white sugar
- 1/2 cup warm water, slightly over body temperature
- 2 cups all purpose white flour
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 2 tablespoons seeds of your choice (such as sesame or sunflower)
- 1 teaspoon hawaij spice mix (recipe follows)
- 1/2 to 2/3 cup warm water
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup semolina to dredge the dough
The Hawaij Spices
- 1 teaspoon ground mahlab
- 1 heaped teaspoon fenugreek
- 250 grams freshly ground fennel seeds
- Proof the yeast. Mix together the yeast, sugar and water. Cover with plastic and towel. Let it proof in a warm, dark place for half an hour.
- Make the dough. Pour the starter into the bowl of an electric mixer, and add the seeds, spices, oil, and flour. Turn the mixer on and start adding the warm water gradually. The dough should not be sticky or dry. If 1/2 cup water is not enough, feel free to add another 1/4 cup. Keep the mixer on, until the dough comes together and forms a ball. Then add the salt and keep mixing for another 10 minutes.
- Take the dough out of the bowl and shape it into a ball. Sprinkle some flour on the inside of the mixer bowl. Place the dough ball back into the bowl. Cover the dough with a plastic wrap or a towel and let it rise in a dark warm place for one hour until it doubles in size.
- Knead the dough. Take out the dough and knead it by hand for few minutes to release the gluten. Shape it into a log. Sprinkle the semolina on the surface of your work station and roll the dough in the semolina until it is covered from all surfaces.
- Line a loaf or cake mold with parchment paper. Put the dough into the pan.
- Create a pattern on the surface of the bread. Use a pairing knife to draw intersecting diagonal lines to create decorative diamond shapes.
- Let the bread rise again for another 30 minutes uncovered.
- Bake the bread in a preheated oven at 200 C for half an hour.
- Lower the temperature of the oven to 175 C, take the bread out of the mold, but keep it lined with parchment paper. Place it back in the oven and continue baking for another 10 minutes. The loaf is ready when a tooth pick is inserted in the middle and it comes out clean.
- Peel away the parchment paper and place it on a wire rack to cool down completely before slicing it.
- Serve it hot or at room temperature with stews, or jam and butter. It is also delicious on it own as a snack.
- To keep the bread fresh, keep it in a paper bag or wrapped in a towel. Reheat it in the oven, or toaster if it gets dry.