Ka’ak has ruled supreme as the Jerusalem bread of choice for thousands of years. It is eaten across the Middle East, but the Al Quds (Jerusalem) variety is known to be especially good. So, what is the secret to this stretched ring-shaped bread?
Ka’ak is a popular breakfast but also makes a good brunch, lunch or snack at any time of the day. The taste is slightly sweet but also a little bit sour owing to the secret ingredient – dried milk powder. This makes it very versatile as it works well with both sweet and savoury flavours.
As you approach the Old City of Jerusalem, you’ll start to see the ka’ak stalls piled high. These continue into the Old City itself, especially if you approach through Damascus or Jaffa Gate. Then there are the cute rickety little carts that deliver ka’ak through the Old City streets to shopkeepers and passers-by alike. The carts are designed with big bicycle wheels to weave in between the crowds and there are also little ramps built into the streets for them.
The ka’ak stalls also sell huge falafel the size of your fist, often stuffed with red onions and sumac for extra flavour. They also do oven-baked eggs and small paper wraps of za’atar which is an essential ka’ak accompaniment.
Together these make a great light meal or snack on the go. Ka’ak is made for sharing and dipping and this works well in a country where meals are designed to bring people together. I’ve heard in workplaces it’s quite common for one person to turn up with some cucumbers, another a tomato, a third some ka’ak and the shared meal comes together effortlessly. I admire the community spirited nature of this, which is in sharp contrast to the anti-social ‘sandwich at your desk’ which passes for lunch in the UK.
I mentioned za’atar and it’s worth pausing to explain what this is, as it’s a very necessary part of the Ka’ak experience. Za’atar is a mix of dried oregano and/or thyme, mixed with sumac, sesame seeds and salt. It’s hard to describe why this combination works so well, but it’s gentle enough that you can dip your bread into the mix, and it gives a really rounded flavour.
In his new cookbook Falastin, Sami Tamimi refers to it as ‘the holy trinity that is lemon juice, olive oil and za’atar’ which should be present for all morning meals! When you buy ka’ak you will always be offered a little paper wrap of za’atar to go with the bread and you’d be crazy to overlook this part of the process.
I decided this weekend, it was time to roll up my sleeves and try making my own ka’ak. I followed the recipe in the Falastin cookbook (give or take*) and it was pretty easy and fun to do. The result: well my husband said ‘it is nice, but it doesn’t taste like ka’ak’ which I begrudgingly admitted was true! Instead, I seem to have made ka’ak shaped focaccias.
I guess there is more to this local delicacy than meets the eye. Next time, I’ll be leaving it to the little old couple on the street corner who look like they have been practicing the recipe for 60 years or more!
In the meantime, if you want to find out more about Palestinian cooking, then I highly recommend buying the Falastin recipe book**. It is not just a recipe book but a history, a memoir and a food diary of Palestine written with love and beautifully presented.
What is your favourite Jerusalem food and why? Get in touch to share your foodie highlights.
* I’m not very exacting with recipes and often substitute items. In this case, I didn’t have dried milk powder so I used a bit of yogurt (even although I called this the secret ingredient)… and I didn’t have sesame seeds for the top unfortunately, so they were a little bit naked.
** To purchase in East Jerusalem, our pals at the Educational Bookshop have copies!