Photo: Mirna Bamieh

“Recipes are leaving us for different reasons. I collect them to understand why they left us or why they are leaving us. And how bringing them back might help us rewrite the present moment.”

Mirna Bamieh is a Palestinian artist whose work creates encounters between people. In 2017, she started a project called the Palestine Hosting Society, a live art project that collects Palestinian recipes on the verge of disappearing, and serves as a platform for interaction.

What I love most about interviewing artists is that not only do I get a crash course in contemporary art, but the simple act of talking about food allows me to learn about the history, geography, and politics of the artists I’m speaking with.

Through talking about her art practice, Mirna transported me to her world. From za’atar—her symbol of home—to olive oil, carob, tahini, wild thyme, and pink fermented turnips. All things beautiful, significant, and delicious.

Her descriptions of Palestinian cooking, the landscape, the herbs, and wild edible plants made me long to be there, suddenly feeling a sense of nostalgia for a country I have never been to.

“What colonization does is flatten your sense of identity. I grew up not knowing another Palestine other than the one that has been occupied—the one that has been dispossessed. What we have is our voice, and for me, that’s one way of making peace. Once you’ve discovered that there's a richness to who you are, that you didn’t know of before, openings happen.”

By using cooking, storytelling, and connection as her media, Mirna harnesses the special power of an intimate environment, where people can learn about themselves and each other. Food is a warm hug—bringing out the very best in people, and making a space to receive and listen.

“I started my project because I wanted encounters to happen around food. I think people become better when you present food to them. They open up. They smile. They listen. They accept.”

I’d like to think that between art and food it’s possible to save the world.

Mirna shared a simple and aromatic olive oil carob cake that fills your house with the scent of nostalgia for a place you haven’t yet been to. The richness and warmth of Mirna’s personality are palatable in this fragrant cake that makes the most of local Palestinian ingredients.

This vegan cake is simple, very delicious, and refined-sugar free. It uses carob molasses as a main ingredient, common in many Palestinian recipes, as Mirna details below. I found carob molasses easily at a local Middle Eastern shop, but you can also order it online.

*“We have traditional recipes that use the carob pods in all their cycles from unripe, to ripe, to dried. The most well-known use for carob is as juice, a traditional drink that is sold in old cities by a roaming carob vendor. An ancient and less-known drink, called mkeka, uses unripe green carob pods and is mixed with milk. Other recipes using carob are sauces for stuffed vegetables such as carrots, cucumbers, and turnips. Carob recipes are not hard to prepare. We mix tahini with carob molasses and dip morsels of bread in it for breakfast or dinner—a must-try. I am sharing this delicious olive oil and carob cake that uses local tastes from my country and is glazed with a simple dibs-b-tahineh or tahini and molasses.”*

Photo: Mina Stone

Photo: Mina Stone

Olive Oil Carob Cake

1 tablespoon anise seeds
3/4 cups water
1 cup carob molasses (or grape molasses)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
Tahini to grease the pan

Dibs-b-Tahineh (a side sauce for a delicious drizzle when serving)

4 tablespoons carob molasses (or grape molasses)
2 tablespoons tahini
A tiny dash of salt
Water as needed

Bring 3/4 of a cup of water to a boil and add the anise seeds. Reduce the heat to very low and simmer until the water has an amber color. Remove from the heat and allow it to cool. Strain and discard the anise seeds, reserving the water.

While the anise water is cooling, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x13” rectangular pan with tahini and cover the bottom and sides with sesame seeds.

Whisk the anise water into the carob molasses and then add the baking powder, whisking well to incorporate. While stirring, gradually add the olive oil, then the flour, and whisk until the batter comes together and is smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake the cake for about 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out dry. Place it on a rack to cool.

For the topping:

Whisk together the molasses, tahini, and a tiny pinch of salt. If the mixture is too thick, add a little water to thin it out to a honey-like consistency. When water is added to tahini, it can initially thicken, and will then loosen as you add more water.

Drizzle the dibs-b-thineh syrup over the cake when serving.

Photo: Mina Stone

Photo: Mina Stone

Photo: Mirna Bamieh

Photo: Mirna Bamieh

Fermented turnips

Mirna is also an expert in fermentation and teaches classes online. I loved what she had to say about this method of “cooking,” and what it represents to her. This is a general technique more than a recipe with specific quantities.

“Fermentation represents preservation and prolonging the time and life of produce that is on the verge of dying. For me, the space of the jar is a beautiful space of containment. The bacterial life of cultures fighting inside the jar, the color, and the smell keeps changing over time. It is a way to slow down time and to create a sense of control over the fears of the world and my country. Preparing this delicious ferment is easy, but it takes skill and practice to preserve that crunch in the turnips.”

7 medium turnips, cleaned and sliced into 1/2 inch strips or half-moons. (Any thinner than that and you’ll have softer turnips, any more than 1/2 inch and they’ll be less enjoyable to bite.)
1 liter water
2 1/2 tablespoons coarse salt
A couple of bay leaves, 1/4 teaspoon black tea, or a few grape or oak leaves. (They all have great tannins that will preserve the crunch for longer.)
1 cup active brine (from another jar of fermented vegetable, like beetroot or cucumber, at least a month old. OR add 1–2 tablespoons of raw apple vinegar. Never use chemical or white vinegar as it affects the good bacteria we want to cultivate in our jar.)

Submerge the chopped turnips in a jar with the water and salt.

Add a couple of bay leaves, or any of the other leaves.

Add one cup of active brine or the raw apple cider vinegar.

Store in glass jars with a tight-fitting lid at room temperature.

Place in the refrigerator after two weeks to stop the fermentation.