San Francisco Chronicle

East Bay family’s meal draws on ancient tradition

Karola Saekel, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Like Christians worldwide, the Nassar family is preparing for Easter this week. And like most of their neighbors, this year they will celebrate only once.

Generally, the family marks the feast of the resurrection of Christ twice: Once for Samir Nassar, who is of the Eastern Orthodox faith, and once for his wife, Georgette, a Catholic. The two celebrations, with dates anchored in ancient customs tied to the lunar calendar, can be as much as six weeks apart. This year, they fall on the same date: April 8.

And the food traditions, many going back to ancient times, are the same for both groups of Palestinian Christians, no matter the date of the observance.

Actually, the family still had two Easter feasts this year: They did a demonstration dinner a couple of weeks ago at their Hercules home to show us what a typical Palestinian Christian Easter meal looks and tastes like. As they will this Sunday, the whole family worked together in the well-equipped kitchen before sitting down to a feast that stretched over a couple of hours.
Juju, as Georgette Nassar is called, has her men well trained. While her husband (Sam to his American friends) chops, sons Samer and Suheil (Soosh) fetch platters, peel cucumbers or watch over food simmering on the stove or baking in the ovens.

Though father and sons studied a variety of subjects, they all ended up in the food business in one way or another. The young men, both in their 20s and UC Berkeley graduates, live together in the East Bay.

Samer operates ‘Grub-n-Go”, a popular downtown Berkeley sandwich shop; his brother manages a deli in Walnut Creek, and the parents’ Brewed Awakening coffeehouse has been a fixture just north of the UC campus for 20 years.

“Food and service — that’s what Palestinians here do,” Sam Nassar says with a grin.
Food certainly is a focal point, and the traditions of the table are one way for Palestinians in the diaspora to preserve the connection to their ancient culture, the Nassars believe.

The family’s togetherness in the kitchen and at the table is not reserved for holidays. The two sons come for dinner at least twice a week, their filial loyalty no doubt aided by their appreciation of their parents’ cooking, which dovetails with modern American trends. Much of the family’s food is local and seasonal; they grow it in their own backyard.

The hot sauce that seasons many Palestinian dishes comes from peppers grown in a protected spot by the side of the house. The garden also provides home-grown tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, squash and more — Soosh pulled neat, flat packages from the freezer to show off the grape leaves from their own arbor that are the basis of stuffed grape leaves year-round.
Many of the fruit trees and vegetables are grown from seeds brought from the place Sam and Juju Nassar call home. They were both born and raised in Bethlehem and were married in the ancient Church of the Nativity there.

Unlike some immigrants who have a hard time duplicating their traditional meals in the United States, the Nassars say they can find all the needed ingredients here, generally in mainstream groceries.
A few, such as sumac and the binding/sweetening agent, gum Arabic (also called mastic) require a trip to stores specializing in Middle Eastern or Greek foods (such as Haig’s on Clement Street in San Francisco). And some come directly “from home” — especially arak, the potent liquor that’s a favorite digestif in the Middle East.

Olive oil is a staple, although the Palestinian kitchen also makes use of samna, a form of clarified butter similar to ghee that adds richness to some dishes. It is not used sparingly. As Sam Nassar puts it, there has to be enough “to stay on your mustache.”

The trial Easter meal followed Middle Eastern custom, with no clear delineation between courses. Except for dessert, everything is brought to the table simultaneously, so diners can set their own pace and pattern as platters pass from hand to hand with frequent encouragements: “Have a little more.”

First on the table are bowls of hummus. The Nassars add lightly fried pine nuts to the lemony, garlicky garbanzo spread for a toothsome, crunchy contrast.

Two yeast dough-based dishes also might be considered starters: fatayer, which are turnovers filled with lemon-scented spinach; and sfiha, a close relative of pizza. At the Nassar house, the chewy crust is topped with finely minced cooked lamb seasoned with onion, garlic, jalapenos and parsley, moistened with tahini and tomato sauce.

Lamb in a coarser grind also gives substance to hashweh, a rice dish seasoned with allspice and again highlighted with pine nuts.

The main attraction is mousakhan, sumac-scented game hens roasted to a reddish brown and placed atop Arabic pocket bread, or pita, with more sumac and plenty of sauteed onions. Laban bi khiar — mint and cucumber salad in a yogurt dressing scented with garlic — offers a cooling contrast.

To conclude the feast, there are kaak bi ajwa, date-filled cookies in the shape of wreaths. Sam Nassar says some Palestinian bakers now make them any time of year, but his family likes the tradition of baking and eating them only at Easter. The shape of the cookie is symbolic of the crown of thorns that, according to Christian tradition, was put on Jesus’ head in his final hours.
At the trial run for the feast, there were seven of us at the table. On Easter Sunday, there will be many more. Juju and Sam Nassar were both reared in large families, and between the two of them have about 50 relatives in the Bay Area.

It’s a safe bet that not only will everybody invited to the Easter feast eat their fill, but also be urged to carry some food home. Hospitality and generosity are Palestinian hallmarks, says Sam Nassar. “If we have to feed three, we cook for 20.”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: