Friday, July 29, 2011

Swirling Thoughts #207 – Surprisingly typical conversations in Israel

Me to Friend: How did your mortgage meeting go at the bank?
Friend to Me: Great! We are approved for the mortgage! But we have to have another meeting.
Me: Why?
Friend: Well, they ran out of paper.
Me: What does that even mean?
Friend: The copy machine. It ran out of paper. So they could not print out our information.
Me: There was no backup paper? No other copier?
Friend: Nope!
Me: And I guess nobody’s job description in the bank includes running to Office Depot for more paper.
Friend: Nope.
Me: Well, congratulations!

Life insurance agent to me: Do you have any extreme hobbies?
Me to life insurance agent: Like jumping out of airplanes?
Agent: Yes. Somesing dangerous. Like jumping out of airplanes.
Me: Like living in the West Bank with many small children?
Agent: Well, this sounds very dangerous but it is not considered an extreme hobby.
Me: So then, no. No extreme hobbies.

Bob to me: Check out that lady’s grocery cart.
Me to bob: Wow! She’s really organized in there.
Bob: Look how she has the Nestea all standing upright on the bottom.
Me: I know! Look how she has every dot of space utilized perfectly!
Bob: I think we are staring.
Me: No, don’t worry – tell her! Tell her how impressive her cart is!
Bob: You know what? I think I will.

Proceeds to compliment woman on the immaculate organization of her cart. Woman responds with encouraging words of how tranquil life can be if one is just organized.

Me: Take a good look, Bob. She’s the one that got away.

Me: You know, in Israel it’s an ideal to be so MISUDAR (organized). In America, there’s a clinical diagnosis for people like that woman. It’s called OCD.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Swirling Thoughts #206 - You've got mail!

We've finally reduced mail collection intervals to about once every 2 weeks. Which is a noticeable improvement (read: mail box is not stuffed/jammed/overflowing). Granted, the mail sits in a shopping bag on my buffet server for an additional week or two before I even take a crack at it, but who’s counting?

Well, maybe my downstairs neighbor who probably missed the wedding for which his invitation was (most unfortunately) lost in the black hole that is my mail pile.

And my around the corner neighbor who’s Rami Levy membership cards were (mistakenly) mixed in with my pile of neglect.

Maybe my ulpan is taking. Or maybe I feel guilty about the attention I don’t give my mail. Whatever the motivation, I actually made a good faith effort to read the mail today. And I noticed a few things. You’ll notice much of what I noticed was actually in English. But no matter.

I’m sure everyone’s mail looks just like mine

This cute graphic was part of the electric bill. The guy all bundled up with earmuffs on the right is saying:
I feel like a popsicle!
The guy in the wife-beater with sunburn on the left is saying:
There's no need to freeze! 25 degrees is enough!
Maybe 25 C (77 F) is enough for him! He looks sort of happy - maybe satisfied with his electric bill - but not truly comfortable. If the drawing was of me, on the other hand, you would see me as comfy as can be, oblivious to my bill, happily advocating for a cool 21 C (69.8 F).

This really important looking bill (note how I cleverly deleted Bob's personal information!) is my TV Tax Bill. For TV service. Which I do not have. And, as such, I ignore this bill. What I do have is a 42 inch screen. The purchase of which alerted the TV police to my existence. I'm just waiting for them to show up one day. I will invite them in to watch Season One of the Brady Bunch.

This next one is my Bank Statement (unbelievably) in English! I scanned it today, taking note of the putter-inners (Bituach Leumi child payments, Kupat Cholim reimbursements) and the taker-outers (Bituach Leumi husband payouts, Kupat Cholim monthly premium). I noticed a pattern of sorts. The housing department is a putter-inner around the first of each month (an aliyah benefit? most likely! thank you very much, housing department!) while the 'Osher Comm. is a taker-outer. But what is the 'Osher Comm.? And what are they doing with 17.95 of my shekels on the first of each month? Osher means happiness. Is this a happiness fee?

This one is by far the winner of todays prize for 'mail that is funny without trying to be funny'. I mean, funny in that Israeli paradoxical existence way. That says it's normal to showcase clowns alongside bomb-sniffing dogs.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Swirling Thoughts #205 - How do we cope?

Everyone has their fallback coping mechanisms. I have one friend who eats. Another who starves. Some shop. Some read. Some watch TV.

I cook and bake. I plan menus and shop for ingredients. And I talk about cooking, baking, menus and ingredients with whoever’s interested. For me it’s total escape and comfort.

Since we made aliyah, I’ve fine tuned how to prepare some of the special foods my family is accustomed to eating. Syrian delicacies such as lahamagine (little meat pizzas?) and yebrat (grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice). Persian staples such as gundi (a chickpea and meat dumpling) and ashpolo (a pyramid of rice, chicken, carrots and raisins).

Unlike Brooklyn, where abundant full-service Middle Eastern groceries carry everything from raw ingredients to ready made cuisine, my experience in the actual Middle East is that such groceries do not exist.

There is Machane Yehuda, the shuk, which is as close as I’ve gotten. There you can find the rare vendor who knows, himself, what oot (temerhindi) is, but none of his workers have ever heard of it. There’s a ka’ak guy selling something that looks like ka’ak. They even call it ka’ak. But it’s just not. I once asked for ele’gefen (grape leaves) and was shown ready made parve yebrat. Like the kind they sell in a can. I had to go to the Arab vendors in the Iraqi shuk to get the actual leaves. Incidentally, they knew exactly what I was asking for and why.

And so, I’ve figured out oot (equal parts temerhindi paste and date honey), grape leaves (buy them fresh and boil them for 1 minute), allspice (ground English Pepper), chickpea flour (kemach humus), and even rose and orange water (which, imported from Lebanon to NY, come in tall bottles and are mostly water – here they come in tiny vials and are so concentrated, I use half a drop at a time).

Sadly, certain culinary staples we’ve let go. Our daily ka’ak is but a faint memory. So much so that we are able to eat shuk ka’ak with ever-diminishing reluctance.

Sembusak is a whole other story. Without the ready-made semolina dough easily available (yes, I know about the lady in Givat Shaul who sells dough), I tackled the daunting task of making the buttery pastry from scratch. For my only son, who lived on sembusak before we made aliyah, could I do any less? Except that my homemade version was too grainy (coarser semolina), too buttery (the ready made dough is made with margarine), too different.

Suffice it to say, I refuse to spend 3 hours making sembusak if my son, for whom I am making it, refuses to eat it. I’ve been in refusal for close to two years. And then my friend Tuni showed up with a bag of sembusak.

We baked Tuni’s sembusak and then fought over every last one of them. I shamelessly ate them from the tray before I served them to the kids, instructing them to take only one at a time. I made sure my baby had one (her first!) and then, as Asher took a sniff and rejected them without trying, it occurred to me that the rest of my family loves sembusak and that I need to get back to the business of making sembusak. I called Tuni for her (mother in law’s) recipe which called for an ingredient usually found in ka’akmachlab.

If I was in Brooklyn I would have called my mother in law, my sister in law’s mother and a handful of friends to confirm that they’d ever heard of putting machlab in sembusak. Here all I could do was ask Tuni if she was sure that was correct. She assured me it was.

I have a good friend here who picks up my temerhindi paste from a certain spice guy in the shuk. She’s never used oot and, in fact, I showed her the packaging so she would know how to buy it. Now my friend, who, until recentely, didn’t know what a lahamagine was, brings me the quintessential lahamagine ingredient almost weekly. This week when she offered to pick me up temerhindi paste or anything else in the shuk, I couldn’t shake this desire I’ve had for the past few weeks to try my hand once again at sembusak. And every time I think of Tuni’s recipe and the machlab, I think of homemade ka’ak.

When Bob and I first got married, eager to please and impress, I took out the Red Deal Delights cookbook my mother in law had so lovingly bestowed upon me. I looked up the recipe for ka’ak, quickly shopped for the exotic ingredients at the Middle Eastern grocery across the street from our apartment, and started preparing the bracelet rounds. At some point the recipe instructed me to dip the bracelets into beaten egg and then to dip them into sesame seeds.

This is where I need to mention that I did not grow up making or eating ka’ak. In fact, the first time I took a bite of one I was expecting a sweet cookie. I nearly choked.

And so, as per my literal interpretation of the recipe instructions, I took each round, fully dipped it into beaten egg and then fully coated it with sesame seeds. Bob walked in as I was halfway through.
No, no. Not like that! Like this!
And for the first and only time in our 13 years of marriage, Bob rolled up his sleeves and dipped ka’ak with me – the proper way (a light brush of beaten egg, ideally with the palm of your hand and then a light dip into sesame seeds). It’s no wonder I went on to edit cookbooks. I had a keen appreciation for highly detailed recipe instructions that needed to be nurtured.

I answered my friend’s offer via email.
Can you ask the spice guy for machlab?
Can I ask what that is?
Why, it’s ground cherry stones.
(Okay, so I only know this because I did edit two cookbooks subsequent to my ka’ak fiasco).
May I ask what you use it for?
Ka’ak. And sembusak.
Can you translate that into my language?
Those sesame bagelas you see in the shuk? Those are ka’ak. Sort of. And sembusak is a buttery cheese pastry.
Sounds hard. You should buy them!
I wish I could!

I warned my friend that once she walks into the spice guy and asks for machlab, after asking for temerhindi paste for the last month, he will never believe that she is not Sephardic. No matter what she tells him. Sure enough, she asked for the machlab and he offered her a taste of his wife’s freshly homemade ka’ak. He had the plate hidden under the counter. He wasn’t giving out ka’ak samples to every customer. I’m sure he felt that as a member of an insider’s club of sorts, she would surely appreciate it. And she did.

I made lahamagine last night. And today. There are two stages of production when you make the dough yourself. I sent over a plate to my friend to taste the delicacy she made possible.

It’s her new favorite food.

Now she’s asking when I’ll be making the ka’ak.