I picked one hell of a week to visit the West Bank for a food trip. Having arrived in the region on the very day that the three Israeli teens were kidnapped and later killed, I watched "Operation Brother's Keeper" escalate around me as I traveled from city to city sampling Palestine's diverse and wonderful cuisine. As of today, the situation continues to spiral out of control and Palestine is once again in the news, looking to the outside world as nothing but a deeply violent and inhospitable place. But the food of Palestine is both an escape from and a direct mainline into the heart of the conflict.
One place I kept coming back to was Hosh Jasmin, an organic farm and restaurant set on a hillside in the Bethlehem-area town of Beit Jala that's remarkable for its truly fantastic food, hospitable people, and beautiful setting. Think Dan Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Barns, but under occupation.
Mazen Saadeh, who describes himself chiefly as a writer and filmmaker, started Hosh Jasmin (known as "Hosh al-Yasmine" in Arabic) in 2012 after a successful stint in Birzeit, near Ramallah, with a restaurant-cum-exhibition space called Hosh al-Elleeya. He originally got the idea for a farm and restaurant while living in Portland with his American ex-wife, but returned to Palestine when the opportunity arose in Birzeit. Hosh al-Elleeya didn't have a farm—what Saadeh desired the most—so a friend alerted him to his family's available land in Beit Jala. After extensive renovations of the farmhouse, which dates back to 1944, the restaurant opened its doors to an enthusiastic response from locals as well as expats, including Jerusalem-based foreign government workers. In addition to the restaurant, Mazen and his staff run movie nights, yoga nights, and welcome overnight campers.
Mazen's property is just barely in "Area C," the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control. The other regions are known as "Area A" (larger cities like Ramallah and Nablus, under Palestinian Authority control) and "Area B" (smaller villages that are, in simplified terms, under joint Israeli-Palestinian control). Mazen told me that the Israeli Defense Forces demolished a neighboring restaurant in May of 2013. They've come to Hosh Jasmin, too, he said. Mazen notes that his building, however, "is very old and existed before Israel, before the occupation, before everything, so they couldn't touch it." He was quick to add that if they build additions to Hosh Jasmin, there is the danger that "[the IDF] will demolish not the new [expansion], also the old [building], so we know the rules!"
My first meal at Hosh Jasmin, taken on the restaurant's porch overlooking terraced olive groves and winding paths and valleys, started with an ice cold Taybeh beer—the first microbrewery in the Middle East. Things only got better when the food started coming—first a bowl of hummus with olive oil and the sumac, along with a couple bright and acidic salads of fresh lettuce, watercress, onions, and tomato, sprinkled with more sumac.
My main dish, rabbit zarb, stopped me in my tracks with how delicious it truly was. Presented in what I guess you'd call a "hobo pack" of carrots, potatoes, garlic, a single hot green pepper, seasoned with rosemary, cardamom, and black peppercorns, it was incredible. The meat slipped off the bone, its juices infusing the root vegetables and forming an addictive sauce at the bottom of the pack. It was pure comfort food.
Zarb builds upon a Palestinian culinary tradition that's difficult to find in most West Bank restaurants. At Hosh Jasmin, the zarb is cooked an underground oven—in which my rabbit cooked for a couple hours—buried in earth over a fire made from olive and almond wood built over ash. Much like classic Moroccan tagines, zarb refers to both the cooking method and the finished dish. The meat takes on a smokiness from the cooking process, and works particularly well with rabbit—a cute, furry creature that Hosh Jasmin raises. Rabbit around here is most commonly eaten in Palestinian cuisine with m'loukhiyya, a slimy, spinach-like green that's eaten in parts of North Africa, the Levant, and especially in Egypt.
After lunch, I stood outside admiring the view, noticing that if you pivot your view too far to the left, reality sets in. For all its bucolic, Chez Panisse-y glory, Hosh Jasmin sits at a harsh geographical interstice, a raw, gaping hole where the land is obstructed by the big, ugly, concrete separation wall that divides it from Israel.
Farming in the West Bank is, like so many other aspects of life there, often riddled with complications over fundamental issues like land and water access. Luckily, for Hosh Jasmin, they have reliable water sources—though the construction of nearby highway tunnels diverted a pre-existing natural underground spring—and the ability to cultivate 13 different varieties of vegetables including eggplant, tomatoes, and green beans, which Mazen said are "100 percent organic" and farmed without any chemicals, noting that other farms on this land used to spray. They have their own olive trees, which provide all of the delicious olive oil, and almond and fruit trees like fig and apricot. Some things, like rice and wheat, must be sourced from from nearby villages when necessary. All in all, though, Mazen estimates that about half of what Hosh Jasmin serves is from its farm. Winemaking and arak distilling are also in the works for the near future.
Apart from zarb, the kitchen turns out classic Palestinian dishes like musakhan. I spent a languid afternoon making the dish with Alaa Qassas, a friendly Hosh Jasmin employee who lives in Bethlehem's Dheisha refugee camp. First, we slathered piece of tabun—a leavened flatbread—with a paste of caramelized onions and sumac, topping it with a chicken leg that had been parboiled with aromatics. We then put this into the outdoor stone oven (also called a tabun) after drizzling with some olive oil to roast over high heat fueled by olive wood. When we took it out, the chicken skin had turned crispy, the outside of the bread had charred a bit, and the onion-sumac mixture was glistening. I ate it with some yogurt and za'atar on the side.
Later that night, the IDF stormed Beit Jala as part of "Operation Brother's Keeper." The following day, on my last visit to Hosh Jasmin, I was forced to abandon my taxi and navigate a randomly closed checkpoint on foot—a place where the restaurant lies just beyond—past an Israeli soldier with a giant sniper rifle pointed directly in my path. Later, assuaged by my fresh apricot juice but still a bit shaken up, I brought it up with Mazen, mentioning something about "Area C." He was relaxed. He looked at me and exclaimed, with a smile, "We are… in Area D!"