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Restaurant review: Experiencing culinary magic in Birzeit

A trip to Hosh Al-Elleeya, a restaurant in the heart of Birzeit’s old city.

Legend has it that the finest restaurant in the West Bank is located in the university town of Birzeit. My friend Gil and I decided to journey there at the end of a day of discovery in Ramallah. We took a 40 sheqel cab there, winding through the northern suburbs, overlooked by the settlement of Beit El.

The restaurant Hosh Al-Elleeya is located in the very heart of Birzeit’s old city. It opens to a quiet square, surrounded by stone dwellings.  Nothing in Ramallah’s modern bustle foretells a place such as this, and none of the city’s restaurants can compete for atmosphere. We took a seat and were immediately welcomed by manager Shurouq Qawariq and served lupin beans, a favorite Palestinian drinking snack and appetizer.

A “hosh” is a country dwelling that combines living quarters and agricultural functions.  The restaurant occupies one such structure. It is owned by a family that has lived in Birzeit’s “hoshes”  for many generations. There’s no country orientalism here, no search for contrived “charme champêtre.” The modest wooden furniture is both functional and appealing. The wall is decorated by an authentic road sign from the Gaza Strip, announcing that the (now destroyed) Palestine international airport is five kilometers away.

Gaza is also on the plate, and the “Gaza salad” might be the spiciest I ever put in my mouth. Manager Qawariq (unaware of our nationality) explained that Gazan cuisine is known for its intensity on the Scoville scale. She suggested that we try the Hosh’s newest offering: vegetables and meat prepared in ceramic dishes. The root vegetables were elegantly al dente without being undercooked.  A bowl of green beans and lamb meat was delightful.

However, if one dish served to us was truly exceptional, it was the grilled rabbit on musakhan (flatbread with onion and sumac, soaked in the roasted meat’s fat). While the bread itself was somewhat fatty to my taste, the rabbit was exceptionally tender and flavorful. Rabbit is rarely found in Israel, despite the growing popularity of other non-kosher meats, but it was not mere exoticism that made this dish exceptional. When consumed together, its various components worked in perfect harmony.

In my numerous expeditions into the Ramallah area, I have yet to encounter such a fresh approach to traditional food. Across the wall, Palestinian chefs like Hussam Abbas of Al Babour, in Umm Al Fahm, have often attempted to bring local country cuisine to a restaurant setting, but often backed down after a while, since customers were in the habit of ordering only grilled meats and cliché salads. The Hosh’s chef, Shadi Muhammad, stayed his path in the three years since the restaurant opened, providing diners with a unique opportunity. Why, then, was the terrace nearly deserted on a Thursday night?

It appears to be the rabbit’s fault. The Hosh’s owner, Mazen Sa’ade, has been busy of late developing an organic farm near Beit Jala in the southern West Bank. The poultry and rabbit used in the Hosh Al-Elleeya kitchen are all raised in new Hosh Al-Yasmin, which also offers a mountain campground for travelers. Focus on the project seems to have extracted some energy from the restaurant’s promotion, but clearly did not harm its quality.

We went into the West Bank, as we usually do, seeking to widen our understandings of Palestinian realities. We found ourselves in an historically Christian town, drinking pint after pint of great local Taybeh beer, and realizing once more that these realities are more complex than any cliché. The memory of an organic rabbit musakhan remained with us, as we crossed the concrete walls under powerful military lights back into familiar Jerusalem. It was subtle compensation for this bitter world, and a delight that leaves no room for dessert.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Noam

      very nice writing… asita heshek, as one might say. i would have, however, even while leaving mention i’m israeli. such respectful, eye-level encounters can only do good. i’m sure it wouldn’t have been aggressively perceived.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron

      “(unaware of our nationality)”
       
      ?

      Reply to Comment
    3. With these photos , Salwa, you made me hungry and anxious to go and visit Palestine. We are actually from Lebanon, Marjeyoun, but my father , like the rest of my uncles came to Haifa being less than 2 hrs to Haifa, they all seek work and settled there . My two older brothers and myself were born in Haifa. I visited Haifa after the Israeli invasion to Lebanon
      in the 80′s and my wife and my younger son, Iyad , we went to visit my cousins in Kufr Yasif Khouri family. Aunt Adma used to teach there and she met Michael AlKhori and now they have an Army of relatives there.We enjoyed them very much. My wife until today talks about them, how in no time they started coming to meet us. I lover them and miss them too

      Reply to Comment
    4. Leila

      “unaware of our nationality”? Who cares?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Grietje

      This is really not cool. Did he check whether he was welcome? It does not look like it. He probably knows he would not have been welcome if they had known who he was. This looks to me like a major abuse of privilege, the privilege of being a member of the occupying state who can wine and dine where he wants, because it is effectively “his” country…

      Reply to Comment
      • Miriam

        to Grietje: the Isarelis cannot visit Ramallah legally (the entrance to the A-territory of the PA is forbidden for Israelis). So your phrase about being able to “wine and dine where he wants” is, how to say, not precise…

        Reply to Comment
    6. Melissa Sugarman

      This looks so yummy, though they lost me at the bunny. Lighten up, people. This is the sort of cross cultural interaction we should be encouraging- it humsnizes the Palestinians, though I wonder if he feared for his safety and thats why he didnt mention he was Isrseli. Is there a lot of crime directed towards Israelis in this community?

      Reply to Comment
      • Carolina

        No, I’m from Birzeit and we have a lot of interaction and close reltionship with Israelis. They visit as well. Palestinians are not as bad as people think.

        Reply to Comment
    7. ya allah

      this piece stiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinks of orientalism. Well done Lina for a great take to this article.
      “it humanises palestinians”
      we are already human, and we don’t need you to tell us that we are.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Here’s my reply to Linah Alsaafin’s very cleaver parody of this piece, shared by Michael, above. It was posted as a comment on “Sixteen minutes to Palestine”:
      .
      Being the muse, I’d like to give some background on the original piece. I was at Hosh Al-Alleeya for the first time at the end of a work day. I’m a journalist and political columnist writing against the occupation. I come to the West Bank to learn about the realities and inform of them, more so than in order to eat, but hunger happens. It was a Thursday, and we were the only party present. The food was truly exceptional and I thought I could perhaps help the place get tourist traffic. There was no way to ignore in writing the fact we were Israelis, so I made a reference to it, though the piece is not intended for Israelis at all (Few Israelis read English language blogs, and very few are even aware that the +972 site exists). I may well have failed. it’s very hard to overcome a perspective that sounds colonialist when one is a privileged occupier, and I apologize to Linah and to others whom the piece may have upset. In turn I would like to note that if all I did in life was to write reviews of Palestinian restaurants from an Israeli perspective, that would have been horribly offensive, but I’m active in many ways, especially by writing in Hebrew for Israeli readers, in an effort to change paradigms and bring closer the day in which the current crimes are a thing of the past. An Israeli is always a problematic player in the struggle against the occupation, but I feel that I must be involved, because the atrocities are committed in my name and that is intolerable. Please, when you see us try to support and mess up due to our blind spots, do not discourage us, but rather engage us in dialogue and give us guidance. We have a serious amount of learning to do. Finally, I’d like add that I found Linah’s piece funny and on point, and to express the hope that when a new, just order is established, everyone will be able to go and enjoy the food of Sderot. Unfortunately it is a very disappointing town from a culinary perspective, and indeed a difficult one from a political perspective.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        I don’t know. Could you grovel any lower in your apologies for being an Israeli? On the basis of your ethnicity I am still entirely unconvinced that you are not just another imperialist oppressor eating Palestinian rabbits and Palestinian olives so that Palestinians starve. Don’t you know that by eating at that restaurant you are normalizing your existence as a Jew living in the land of Israel and that in itself is unacceptable? Did you even bother to burn your Israeli passport while wearing a keffiyeh and singing Fida’i upon coming into the restaurant so as to demonstrate that you reject Israel and Israelis in toto? Did you apologize profusely for forcing the Palestinian restaurateur for having a rabbit killed to satisfy your barely human corporeal colonialist needs? Did you reassure him that you are not there to occupy the restaurant to turn it into an outpost? You are such an arrogant bastard for going into that restaurant when you were hungry and paying that willing proprietor for eating his delicious food and then daring to write about it like it is something normal. Have you no shame?
        .

        From now on, or as long as you insist on continuing your colonialist presence in the Arab world, I surely expect you to eat only food imported from abroad, bought from a supplier that is not a supporter of Israel, and then mailing your bodily wastes abroad so as to not pollute any corner of the great land of Palestine with your Zionist filth. Anything less than this would surely be an affront to my humanist nature and an affirmation of your nature as a Zionist oppressor.

        Reply to Comment

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