Edible Leaves and Fruits
Palatable leaves eaten raw are listed first, and the first of these should be Atriplex halimus. One should try to find young leaves on stems that are in the process of intensive growth. The plant is mentioned in Job (30: 4) “those who cut (the English translators erroneously write the name “mallow”) saltbush leaves from their bushes”. After washing the dust from the leaves they are ready to be consumed raw. However, those who suffer from high blood pressure should pay attention to this source of extra salts. If you have limited quantities of water, think twice before eating salt-rich leaves.
Atriplex leaves added to the home – or field salad may serve as a replacement for salts. The Atriplex leaves I used to bring home as a replacement for spinach had to be carefully cleaned of their small petiole. Hard xylem components in these petioles were spoiling the soft texture of the rest of the cooked leaves. I cannot call myself a great cook, but in the days when I taught “Field Education” in the army, we prepared “axe soup” from the saltbush leaves. Here is the recipe with memories and one forest legend. Following the boiling of water with as many Atriplex leaves as possible, we add canned food such as maize grains, peas, meat, potatoes, tomatoes, fennel and other spices – exactly like that hungry soldier whose hostess did not have any food products, but agreed to provide “only potatoes” and “a bit of onion” to improve the taste of the soup he prepared from her axe. To such a soup one can add mallow leaves, cleaned Scorzonera roots, bulbs of Allium species, marjoram or thyme leaves.
I am sure that by now you are convinced that I am not a chef. The truth is that relativity is an important issue in our world, and when I arrived with the dishes of the “Field Education” they were compared to the cold canned food of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Today my dishes are compared to those of my wife, daughters and son and this is the clear reason why my progress in cooking stopped.
Allium species with big, flat leaves have a high spice-value in the wild plants kitchen. I had an interesting experience at the end of the 1950’s when I was ready to give a “Field Education” course to experienced soldiers of Druze origin. I came to teach them and they taught me. We collected mallow leaves and Allium ampeloprasum leaves and bulbs. First, they boiled or roasted the garlic (which they named “toum”), and after browning it a little, added mallow leaves and water, and boiled this. To those who can identify the plant with confidence, its bulb (Fig. 5.2.1) is offered in the case of onion-deficiency as a way of preparing a dish in the field.
Hot (peppery) tasting leaves may bring some unexpected new tastes to those travelers who took a bland sandwich from home. Several species of the Brassicaceae (Cruciferae) can play this role, especially their young parts, such as tips of growing stems, young leaves and closed flowering buds. Please look at the photos of the following species that belong to this group: Sisymbrium irio, Sisymbrium erysimoides, Enanthrocarpus strangulates, Eruca sativa, Moricandia nitens, Raphanus rostratus, Raphanus raphanistrum, Sinapis alba, Sinapis arvensis.
A slightly sour taste may be obtained from the leaves and stems of Rumex and Oxalis and should be included only for tasting. The sour taste is derived from oxalic acid which may cause health problems if consumed in high quantities.
Many Centaurea species are known in Arabic as “mourar” – reminding us of the Hebrew name “maror” = the bitter herbs of Passover. The Mishna gives “instructions” on how to use the plant in order to fulfill the obligation of eating bitter herbs at Passover, by teaching us how to cook it for food. The leaves lose their bitterness by being boiled in water. This water is then replaced by fresh water and suitable spices are now added. The species which may be used in this way are: Centaurea iberica (Fig. 5.2.2), Centaurea procurrens, Eryngium creticum (koursa’ane – Arabic) and Cichorium endivia (ilt – Arabic; Fig. 5.2.3).
Leaves which may be cooked to give them a soft “spinach-like” texture, each having its own taste, are: Malva parviflora, Malva nicaeensis, Malva sylvestris, Lavatera cretica (when young and not as hairy as old plants), Scorzonera papposa, Urtica urens, Urtica pilulifera, and Urtica membranacea. One has to be wary of the painful sting of the special protective hairs present on leaves and stems. Apart from the special taste of the nettle (Urtica species) leaves, some people consider it an important medicine. I cannot go into the medicinal value of these plants in depth, however, many people consider them as being the source of “much health”, especially in alternative medicine.
Gundelia tournefortii (‘akoub or kaoub in Arabic) it is a special plant with several tasty components. This plant is protected by law and therefore there is no point in going into details. A reminder only – the parts of the leaves below the ground are used in the preparation of a special cooked dish named ” ‘akoub”. Young flowering heads, before the flowers are opened, are cooked as well (Fig. 5.2.4).
Arab farmers and shepherds in the northern part of the country, when asked about the uses of Salvia hierosolymitana (Fig. 5.2.5) have always answered that it is used to make “malfouf”. The group of several species used for this purpose typically having wide, long palatable leaves, with which other fine-components of food (such as rice or other grains) may be covered and packed, cooked, and eaten. In other words one may cover rice with fried onion, pieces of fried meat, etc. with these leaves, making it a tasy component of the family food. North African friends recalled with pleasure the taste of the “bourek” where the filling of the grape leaves was ground meat with fried onion. The shape of each “unit” was triangular or as “cigars”. Among the spices following the “boureik” (is it what we call now in Israel “bourekas”?) were mint leaves and slices of lemon.
Leaving the discussion on grape-leaves as a well known commercial component which may be found in markets and condiment shops all over the country, the first in line of the wild plants used for “malfouf” is Salvia hierosolymitana. Its Arabic name is ” lisan e tour” = the bull tongue, evidently derived from their surface morphology. One has to be careful with regard to Hebrew and Arabic names in this area. The species that belong to the genus Anchusa = Leshon Hapar = the bull tongue in Hebrew, are poisonous plants. The similarity of leaves of the latter to the rough bull tongue brought about this confusion in closely related languages. Therefore, please take a look in the Salvia photos Later, please have a look at the Anchusa page.
Another plant with large, slightly sour but palatable leaves, which may also be used for “malfouf” is Rumex pulcher (Fig. 5.2.6). A related species with leaf rosette., e.g., Rumex crispus, is also used for the same purpose. Please do not forget that Rumex species contain oxalic acid, and a warning about it was given earlier. Another way to cook the Rumex may be seen in restaurants of the Galilee. The dish is named “karas”. Rectangles of dough are folded over a cooked mix of Rumex leaves with fried onion, to form a triangular or square shape and they are baked in the charcoal oven. I was very happy to eat karas in a meal during an excursion in the Upper Galilee.
Fruits of wild plants may become a pleasant reward in the field for those who know them, by their sweet or sour-sweet taste. Many of the small fruits are adapted to dispersal by birds. Some of them grow in remote places and are glorified by their users. In one of the popular songs in Hebrew, the poet, who possibly grew up in the Jordan Valley, sings of the “Domm fruits” that he obtained by shaking a Sheizaf tree (Ziziphus spina-christi in Hebrew). “Sidr” is the tree name in Arabic (Fig. 5.2.7) and “Domm” is the fruit name in Arabic (Fig. 5.2.8). This tree is marginally domesticated in desert areas. In an excursion to Gebel Sirbal, southern Sinai, I asked the Bedouin on the uses of this tree. Without answering me they brought me a big plastic bag containing dried fruits that had been collected from the tree near their dwellings and dried out in the open air. They told me that they keep the fruits and grind them for use in making special cakes.