Where is the Lean Cuisine? (West Bank)

Part I of Debra’s Excellent Adventures in Palestinian Cooking

Spice shop in UAE
Spice shop in UAE


While in Bethlehem, I am living in a fully furnished apartment by myself. This is a good situation, except at feeding times. There is no room service to bring me over-priced spaghetti, and no hotel restaurant for my immediate caloric gratification. It seems that I have to do something I’ve only read about in foreign novels: cook for myself. Of course, I shouldn’t exaggerate. I do cook for myself at home. But for me, “cooking for myself” equals “putting frozen food-like product in microwave and pushing button.”

Alas, my kitchen here does not have a microwave. I do not know if this is because it is a mere rental, or if this shocking lack of a basic human necessity is shared by all members of the Palestinian community. In any case, I quickly realized I needed to find another source of cooking heat, unless I wanted to eat raw stray cats for dinner. My landlord pointed out a large white object on top of which were four dark circles covered by dark iron lines in the shape of a star. The side of the object could be opened, and items could be placed inside of it. I thought at first this was some sort of exotic religious contraption used for sacrifices and perhaps the burning of frankincense and myrrh. However, my landlord explained to me that this is called an OVEN and a STOVE. It looks something like this:

Natives use this for cooking
Natives use this for cooking


He explained that when used properly, the OVEN and STOVE can be an invaluable tool for heating up food. Hmmm. Interesting. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.

The next step was to find some food to insert into this contraption. My landlord told me that there is a supermarket only a block away, so finding food would not be a problem. I walked to the market, expecting an equivalent of Kowalksi’s or the Target grocery section, except perhaps with more hummus. However, Supermarket Khleif (pronounced like you are trying to rid your throat of a foreign object) was not exactly the same as the grocery stores at home. First of all, it was much smaller—maybe five aisles instead of 35. I could forgive the size, but I was shocked to learn that everything was in Arabic rather than in English. What are these people thinking?
Well, I figured I would just go to the produce section and grab some stuff from the salad bar. I don’t need language skills for that. Hmmmmm….where is the salad bar? Ummmm, where is the produce? I circled the store several times looking for fresh fruits and vegetables and couldn’t find any. Do they not eat produce in Bethlehem? Is there some religious prohibition against salad? I was perplexed and starting to panic. Well, I would get some protein instead. Where was the dead animal section? I couldn’t see any boneless, skinless, free-range, antibiotic-free chicken breasts anywhere. What exactly do people eat here?
The aisles were full of stuff in packages, but I didn’t know what most of it was, or what to do with it if I did know. It seemed that there was one full aisle of crackers, cookies, candies and other fun stuff. I backed away slowly to avoid temptation. Other aisles contained pure mystery and I started to have dark fantasies about needing to walk the streets of Bethlehem at night, armed with a steak knife, looking for prey to kill simply in order to survive. I would be arrested for terrorism when really I just wanted a nice big salad with chicken breast meat and perhaps some Balsamic Vinaigrette. Then I had the bright idea of frozen food. Frozen dinners are a universal, right? I’d just get a few Lean Cuisines and insert them into the thing called OVEN.
Or not. I could not find any frozen dinners either. In what state of barbarianism do these people live? By this time, I was in a state of pure panic, bordering on tears. Fortunately, I found the refrigerated section and I recognized a few things. That stuff looked like hummus; I grabbed it. That white stuff looked familiar. Could it be yogurt? Good. And look! They had Laughing Cow cheese wedges—truly a universal product. I started to breathe easier. If I could just find some bread, I would have dinner tonight.
Where was the freaking bread? They had to have bread! I decided to ask for help. I went up to the man behind the counter and wished him peace, if God were willing to grant it. He wished the same for me. I searched frantically in my brain’s weak Arabic files for how to say “bread.” My most recent Arabic lessons came to mind instead: Waladee Ta’mal fil umammil motaheeda and Rooseea Balad KaBeer Jiddan.I decided, however, that “My father works at the United Nations” and “Russia is a very big country” would not be helpful at this juncture.
Finally, I remembered the Arabic word for “bread” and I expelled the sound “chubz???” The clerks said, “Na’am” and pointed behind me to a stack of pita bread. I thanked him, bought the bread, hummus and cheese, and made a hasty retreat. Dinner was ready

Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

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