On a beautiful day in March, my friends Susan Feit and Eitan Stern took me to northern Israel to see fields of wildflowers, painting the landscape with their vibrant colors: red poppy, yellow mustard, purple Iris, pink cyclamen.
Along the way, we stopped to observe two Palestinian women harvesting wild vegetation. Being Spring, I assumed they were collecting a vegetable I know as kangar, a Spring delicacy we ate during Passover, specifically during Passover Seders in Iran.
We pulled the car to the side and waved and screamed Shalom, Ahlan, trying to get their attention. A barbed-wire fence separated us. Although the fence was not a border fence, we all silently acknowledged the awkwardness of our separation.
Photograph: Iranian kangar
The women walked toward us with a basket of vegetables. The older woman carried her harvest in her apron.
We tried to communicate in Hebrew, a bit of Arabic, some English and the universal sign language. The younger woman was more fluent in Hebrew than her mother—or was it her mother-in-law. I understood some; my friends tried to translate as well.
The women were harvesting akoub, a similar vegetable to kangar or cardoon, both from the artichoke family. Since we couldn’t cross the fence to meet with them, the younger woman cut the entire plant to show us the edible part of akoub. She harvested it then in front of us, and her mother pared-down one with her knife and let us taste it.
I would later learn that there has been a cultural debate in Israel about harvesting wild akoub. In her article, For Israelis and Palestinians, a Battle Over a Humble Plant, Shira Rubin writes: "While a handful of Jewish farmers in Israel have been cultivating akoub to feed the feverish demand among Palestinians, illegal harvesting remains the main method for getting akoub to market."
As the Israeli government has forbidden cutting or stepping over wildflowers, and thus their abundance in Spring, they have made illegal the harvesting of wild vegetations such as akoub as well.
The Israeli Palestinians protested that recipes with akoub were part of preserving their culture, and that they should be allowed to harvest them. A few farmers started cultivating akoub to sell them in the market to Israeli Arabs.
I never saw akoub in any of the open markets. It is possible that they were sold in mostly Arab villages. However, the prohibition didn’t seem to have prevented the harvesting of wild akoub for mouth-watering dishes.
In fact, my friends who took me north found a restaurant that served this authentic Palestinian dish.
Akoub was fried with onions in olive oil, decorated with thyme and served with yoghurt and lemon in El Rawche (previously Tanureen) restaurant near Kiryat Shemona.
Salma Abu Remah and her mother Mezal told us that akoub is a very versatile vegetable that could be sautéed with onions, garlic and eggs; to be tossed into a meat stew with herbs, or folded into a chicken dish.
We hugged, took pictures and exchanged phone numbers. They sent me pictures of the meal they made with akoub the following day.
Akoub is the tender heart of the vegetable shown in this picture with the tougher stems and thorns removed.
Akoub, steamed and sautéed in olive oil, is a simple but traditional way to prepare the dish
1 C cooked chickpeas or lentils
2 lb akoub, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 C onions diced
3/4 C olive oil
salt and pepper
Saute 1 cup onion in 3/4 cup olive oil, then add cleaned and chopped akoub, and cook for 5-10 minutes. Season to taste.
Add water or chicken broth to cover everything and simmer covered until the akoub is tender.
Add chickpeas or lentils and season to taste.
Our Palestinian friends send me videos as they prepared their own version of the dish.
As they both said, akoub is quite versatile. After sautéing the vegetable with onions and garlic, you may add a sauce made with tahini, lemon juice, salt and pepper and a bit of water.
You may add a few eggs to the sautéed mixture and bake to create a casserole, or just have it as a side dish.