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He points out the wide green leaves of the mallow plant, called hubeza, whose root is the original source for marshmallow. The ancient Egyptians would squeeze the sap out of the root and sweeten it. Basson uses the leaves in a popular salad in his restaurant. During the siege of Jerusalem in the War of Independence when food supplies were scarce, women gathered the vitamin-filled wild mallow leaves, he says, and used them in cooking, turning them into everything from salads to soups to fried patties.
A few years after that war, in 1951, Basson came to Jerusalem as a child with his family. Refugees from Iraq, they lived in an aluminum hut. His father planted a garden for vegetables and herbs and kept chickens. The family purchased a bakery in the nearby Arab village of Beit Safafa.
Most of the bakery’s ovens churned out challah, pita and baguettes. But Basson was riveted by what was baked in the one oven set aside for Arab villagers: “They brought in za’atar, sumac, wild garlic, beet leaves, wild spinach and lamb fat, and would create samosas and pitas with them. I went crazy for the scents.” He began learning about plants and herbs in the wild from local Arab goatherds, who used the fields as their buffet table.
In 1986, his brother opened a simple diner near their Jerusalem home. Two years later, Basson took it over and renamed it Eucalyptus, after the tree he had planted on the site. He began to use the restaurant as a laboratory for his interest in local food and its biblical history. He chatted with customers about food and Jewish history and culture and kept a basketful of leaves and plants in the restaurant to show diners the origins of their meals, which he still does today. The restaurant and its unique sources of ingredients drew national attention. The journalist Eli Tavor went so far as to write that “what Ben-Yehuda did for the Hebrew language, Moshe Basson has done for food.”
A few days after our foraging trip, I made the pilgrimage to Eucalyptus. Basson was wearing his Chefs for Peace jacket, which he wears daily. He was a founding member of the organization, whose mission is “for peaceful coexistence and culinary excellence.” Despite living in the West Bank, he has Arab friends and colleagues. Basson uses his profession to spread a message of coexistence. “It’s the natural way of food,” Basson said. “It brings people together.”
This sentiment is echoed in some of his dishes, which reflect Arab culinary influences. From his tasting menu I try the Jerusalem sage leaves. They are indeed softer and more flavorful than grape leaves when stuffed with rice and herbs. The hubeza salad made with the native mallow plants, combined with whole chickpeas is delicious — similar to spinach, but with an extra kick in each bite. The standout among the main courses is Basson’s famous maglubeh, a native Palestinian casserole made with chicken, rice and thinly sliced potatoes, all cooked in a huge pot that is turned upside-down dramatically in the dining room before serving.
Basson’s philosophy has been unchanging throughout his career. “I really believe that [foraging] opens people’s minds and can influence thinking,” he said. “I don’t just forage for food. I forage for recipes and… stories. I always try to pass it forward. It’s a natural process. I laugh when people ask me about my secrets. I don’t believe in secrets. I believe in sharing.”
Allison Kaplan Sommer is an Israel-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Forward.