There is a place, called Chubeza, not far from Tel Aviv. I am told people wear black in Chubeza, and are always happy. “I don’t believe in all that crap,” said my best friend, and really, he just wanted to say that he doesn’t believe happy people exist. Lots of people don’t believe this.
– Etgar Keret, from Pipelines
This week we are delighted to include nice fresh bunches of Chubeza greens in your boxes.
Some sixteen years ago, at the very start of cultivating our first field, we searched for a name. My creative source for names was my spouse, Yisrael, who tossed out all sorts of ideas that were deliberated and tested. But you know what it’s like…. nothing seemed to stick.
I think it was getting close to the first scheduled delivery when I knew we would have to make a decision. It was a Saturday at the end of winter. Three of us sat together, Yisrael, my sister and me, when all of a sudden, out of the blue appeared the name “Chubeza” (mallow). Something rang true. My sister then remembered this story by Etgar Keret (one of my choice writers), something to do with happy people. The name was beginning to grow on us. We bought the book, found the story (above), and I researched mallow to find other reasons to finalize the choice.
Chubeza carries the scents of childhood, reminding us all of the small mallow fruits we would pick, peel and toss into our little mouths. The name derives from the Arabic word for bread, which made it nice, being a label for something basic, natural, simple. There was also the lore of how people prepared wild mallow cutlets during the siege on Jerusalem. Finally, the mallow is a weed, and my affinity for weeds, their survival instincts and abundance jived quite well with the concept of an organic farm living with nature without trying to subdue it.
The die was cast. That evening we celebrated with a ceremonious dinner of pastries stuffed with mallow leaves, nettle and mustard from our wild garden at home.
I’d like to share some thoughts about picking wild plants, and to ponder what it’s like to live in constant, direct barter with nature. We used to all live that way, you know. Truthfully, throughout most of the annals of the human race, we lived by collecting what nature had to give: seeds, leaves, roots, fruit, fish, wildlife…
None of us really knows what it’s like to be a hunter or “collectress” (that was the gender distribution of duties). Some of the research paints a harsh picture of a daily war of survival, the uncertainty of finding food tomorrow, and a constant, often dangerous foraging for food. Others will tell you that food was abundant, plants gave fruit, hunting was challenging but satisfying, and that our ancestors spent most of their time swinging on a hammock, playing and relaxing. I’m guessing a bit of both scenarios existed over the years. Some eras and places were probably very fertile and demanded less effort, and the various seasons played their part as well. The abundant springtime supplied an abundant yield, whereas the slow winter demanded harder, less pleasant work. I guess it also depended on where you were situated. Mexico was probably easier for the gatherers and the many fishermen populating its beaches than, say, Finland.
Let’s do some guided imagery: The local turf is home. Not a brick house or even tent encampments. Usually home is simply nature. Earth is home, and a great deal more. Earth gives life and is the source of all that is good. In our terminology, one may say that it is “the” means of production, plus so much more. People belong to the earth, they respect it and receive its gifts with admiration and thanks. Earth holds all the plants and animals that share it with human beings, maintaining them and in essence allowing them to survive (even if sometimes unwillingly). These neighbors are, of course, very well respected, as it is clear that without them there is no existence.
Earth is also the place of the nation or tribe. Not the continent or state, but the specific territory where the tribe dwells and which it knows intimately and comprehensively. Tribe members know the plants that grow there, which of them are edible or toxic, and which tastes the very best. Of the various animals sharing the environment, the tribe knows which are easy to hunt, which are impossible and which specie is worth the effort. They are bound by the earth to their ancestors and offspring. Of course, the notion of owning land does not exist. The earth belongs to them just as it belongs to all animals sharing it with human beings. Or to be more exact, they all belong to each other.
I’m not trying to paint an idyllic picture, just to describe the situation as I imagine it. I hope I’m more or less accurate. I’m certain that life wasn’t simple: such a total dependence on Mother Earth (or any mother) is complex, containing various measures of both the good and bad. Of course, there were many disasters and difficulties, sicknesses and hardships, just like today. But at the same time, the prehistoric human being had this amazing sense of belonging and the unique feeling of capability that I miss so much today. People really knew how to exist in nature, they knew how to keep warm, keep safe, find food and water. They knew how to find fun and games and music without plastic toys or smartphones. If we were to ask them “what would you take with you to a desert island,” they wouldn’t understand the question.
Over the past few years, a weed-gathering trend has emerged. Prestigious chefs go out into nature and happily pluck weeds for their cooking, and various workshops offer guided tours to acquaint you with weeds and cooking-in-the-wild. The Arab markets in Israel are overflowing with fresh green bundles of weeds that are quickly snatched up, and of course, some people never stopped wandering and picking weeds. Only now they’re garnering some appreciation for the effort…
I love it. Although I’m somewhat cynical about the trendiness, I like thinking about the veterans of my Moshav located in in the Jerusalem hills, who routinely went out foraging for wild beet, mallow, arum or fiddle dock, which they naturally and expertly cooked. They taught me a lot about identifying weeds and their uses, and I am proud of the renewed appreciation and respect the lowly weed now commands.
Chubeza (mallow) belongs to the Malvaceae family, like its cousin the okra. Chubeza grows all over the country in places where the earth is rich with nitrogen, in abandoned patches, at roadsides, dunghills, fallow fields and settlements. Its root is skewer-like, its stem covered with thin hair. The leaves are roundish, sometimes shaped like a hand, cut to lobes with sharpened edges. Chubeza grows in wintertime and blooms from February to April. The flowers grow out of the bosoms of the top leaves in a bluish-pink color. The fruit is a schizocarp, meaning it separates to molecules once it ripens, and those are shaped like a cake or a small tarbush.
The chubeza is an important and very nourishing vegetable. More about this below, but along with its nutritional value, chubeza boasts medicinal merits known for years in folk medicine. Nisim Krispil quotes the Mishna which names the mallow as a plant whose stem contains liquids that were used then for preserving seeds. This is true—all parts of the plant contain a disinfecting mucous, very effective against the common cough, disturbances in the respiratory system or urinary tract, and as a proven cure for necrosis wounds, burns and skin diseases, infections in the delicate female genitalia, urinary tract and kidney diseases, and even as a shampoo and hair strengthener.
Cook 250 grams of chubeza greens in half a liter of water for 30 minutes (250 grams take up a lot of space, but they shrivel as they cook). The result will be a lump of moist spinach-like greens. Squeeze out the water (and save the liquid), then mash the greens, manually or with a food processor. Add half a cup of olive oil, and spread this balm over burns, necrosis wounds and skin irritations and diseases. The mixture can be refrigerated in a sealed glass jar. The cooking liquid is rich in nutrients as well. Drinking it is good for the common cough, eases respiratory ailments and urinary tract infections, and cures infections in the female genitalia. Washing your hair with this water strengthens the roots and prevents hair loss.
A major advantage of mallow is that it’s so easily available, growing wild nearly everywhere. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, residents of besieged Jerusalem ate the leaves and fruit (termed to this day “Jerusalem bread”) of mallow they picked and often cooked them to create chubeza cutlets. “Kol Yisrael” radio used to broadcast chubeza recipes and cooking hints. These broadcasts were picked up in Jordan, prompting Radio Amman to announce that “the Jews are eating mallow, which is donkey and animal fodder, a sure sign that the Jews are dying of starvation and Jerusalem is about to fall into our hands.” During the 30th Israeli Independence Day celebrations, children were sent on a nostalgic hunt for chubeza leaves, which were frozen by “Sunfrost” and sold at a symbolic price along with recipes from the siege. But the mallow is not only a default option. It really is delicious, and in terms of nutritional value, a real treasure: rich in iron (almost 13 mg per 100 g, compared with 1-2 mg in broccoli, for instance) and in vitamins A and C. Eating chubeza greens will improve your eyesight. Mallow contains 12 times more vitamin A than the carrot!
And one last fun fact: the abovementioned sticky mucous characteristic of the Malvaceae family is actually the primary component of the prehistoric marshmallow, prepared by the ancient Egyptians some 2000 years ago. They used the Marsh Mallow root to produce a sticky concentrate resembling natural gelatin, which they sweetened with honey and nuts to prepare ritual confections for the gods and pharaohs.
Easy and complex chubeza recipes (for mortals) can be found here in our Recipe Section.
I simply adore mallow. Like other wild plants, it manages to simply and serenely retain within itself both contradictions and differences, as if wondering why anyone would question the possibility. Mallow is an austere, unsophisticated plant, popping up everywhere, yet – in today’s new foraging trend, it is the star of hip gourmet restaurants in the kitchens of renowned chefs who hit the hills and fields at the break of dawn to gather them. It is a wild and annoying weed, the bane of farmers everywhere, an obstacle in the path to nourishing the world, and on the other hand, mallow in itself is a curing, nourishing plant, perhaps a perfect substitute for domesticated vegetables growing in the very beds she invades.
Chubeza is also very Israeli – combining within itself the deep-rooted Palestinian culture of weed gathering (hubez = bread), while at the same time connoting the Zionist lore of how brave, besieged Jerusalemites creatively survived on mallow greens when no other food was available. And there’s something so homegrown Israeli about the chubeza, a citizen of the world, yet easily spreading to any old damp patch of earth, competing against domesticized plant life with the charming chutzpa of a weed.
Right at the beginning of Chubeza (the farm) we opted to wage only limited combat against the chubeza (the weed) growing wild in our field, as it is our kin, our own flesh and blood, and its flowers are purplish and beautiful. But also because we wish to harvest them and add them to your boxes. Enjoy!
The mallow we send you is organic, from our field. But we recommend you go out and pick some for yourselves, along with other weeds (wood-sorrel, purslane, beetroots and mustard, goose foot and sparrow grass [aka asparagus]) which grow wild all over the country. If you’re gathering mallow leaves (or other wildflowers), be careful not to pick them from roadsides where they are undoubtedly polluted by auto exhaust, and try to avoid locations where you think the city or the occasional neighbor may be spraying weed killers. Best to find them in the rough, still available here and there, and in unpopulated abandoned areas where nature’s wild grows undisturbed.
Good luck, enjoy the adventure, and… bon appetite!
Wishing you more of a happy month of Shvat, and more downpours to come!
Alon, Bat Ami, Yochai, Orin and the entire Chubeza (the farm) team
WHAT’S JOINING THE LOVELY CHUBEZA (the weed) BUNCHES IN THIS WEEK’S BOXES?
Monday: Scallions/onions, celeriac, broccoli/cabbage/cauliflower, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers, potatoes, Jerusalem artichoke/fennel, chubeza (mallow) greens. Small boxes only: coriander/parsley.
Large box, in addition: Lettuce/Swiss chard/kale, beets/white turnips/ kohlrabi, parsley root, fava beans/snow peas or garden peas.
FRUIT BOXES: Bananas, avocado, clementinas, pomelit, oranges.
Wednesday: Scallions/onions, celeriac/parsley root, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, Jerusalem artichoke/fennel, chubeza (mallow) greens, Swiss chard/kale, fava beans/snow peas or garden peas, beets/white turnips.
Large box, in addition: Broccoli/cabbage/cauliflower, coriander/mizuna, kohlrabi.
FRUIT BOXES: Bananas, avocado, clementinas, pomelit, oranges.