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Harry F. Rey

The Vine Leaves of Jerusalem
by Harry F. Rey

 

Glasgow’s rain is a cold rain. The wind makes it worse. It whistles through single pane windows in the tenement houses built for the Industrial Revolution, and on the downhill slope since then.  That’s why Glasgow’s food is brutally functional, like the city’s architecture. A steaming plate of neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) is about as good as it gets for a home-cooked meal. With all the seasoning a post-industrial city — heart ripped out by Thatcherism — can afford. Or if one prefers to eat out for a traditional meal of Scottish cuisine, the options tend to be deep fried: Mars bars, sausages, pies and pizzas. There’s nothing a Scottish chip shop won’t batter, fry, and serve up in a newspaper with headlines bemoaning soaring unemployment and slashed benefits, stuck to oily chips.
 

At twenty-three years old, sitting in a drafty office of a Victorian-era hospital, I was told I had AIDS. I was unwell. My T-cells were about as virile as a plate of neeps and tatties gone cold. My cheating boyfriend fled. The nurses threatened me with jail if I thought about a relationship again.  And this was 2012, not 1992. AIDS had changed remarkably since then. But it had changed away from me and my experience, and there was no one left in the ward to tell a frightened skinny kid there was any beauty left in the world.  Fighting to get better and with nowhere to live sans boyfriend, I moved back home.  But a few days later, I couldn’t find my toothbrush.  After searching high and low, I asked my mum where it might have gotten to.  With a sour face like I’d just asked her for a shot of whisky at seven in the morning, she went to the liquor cabinet and fished it out from behind dusty bottles of undrunk drinks.  She’d hidden it in the one place my younger sister and brother wouldn’t dare to look.
The toothbrush was dangerous.  My leftover saliva an offensive weapon that could cause
aggravated assault.  When she made my bed each week, the sheets were cheap supermarket nylons.  My bedding wasn’t washed, but burned. My dishes were paper. I didn’t ask why I didn’t get a real one.  I only asked her to switch to plastic. A pile of neeps and tatties very quickly soaks through a paper bowl. Having been openly gay since I was fifteen, I’d always been seen as different. But this was more. I was not only different, but expected to go somewhere else. With each uninvite, with unread texts, unanswered calls, uncaring words. I was a danger to be expunged from the lives of family, and many friends.


I was also different because I’m Jewish. The only Jew in my East End of Glasgow schools, with our culture all but forgotten through my mum’s several marriages to Catholics and the overwhelming cloudy drench of monochrome Scottish culture. So it was by chance I found myself on a group trip to Israel, offered a ticket like tens of thousands of young Jews from around the world to discover our heritage.

 

So it was on the eastern Mediterranean shore I found myself drinking beers on the beach under a winter sun, and dancing under strobe lights next to brown-skinned men whom I couldn’t understand. We communicated through music beats and stolen touches in Tel Aviv nightclubs.  In a land where it barely rains and the wind is never cold. Instead, it whistles through ancient stones with a thousand scents as varied as the storied peoples who make their home between the sand and sea. I never looked back.


A few years later, I was scrolling through Grindr in Jerusalem, at a loose end under the knobbled trees where olives and vine leaves grow. A hurried encounter with a beautiful Jerusalem man led to dates and restaurants and eloping to get married in New York, since it’s forbidden in Israel. That all paled in comparison to the greatest challenge of all. Would his family of Jerusalem Kurds accept a shipwrecked Scottish gay who’d washed up on their stony shore?

When my husband came out to his traditional Jewish family, it took years for him to be begrudgingly accepted. For himself. The idea of bringing around a man for Friday night dinner was like inviting in some awful disease.  It wasn’t a given I would win over his mother. Our first tongues were as different from each other as our life experiences. But it was generally accepted we both loved her son and wanted to make him happy. What makes him happy is traditional Kurdish food served up on a Friday night.  The kind his mother makes. The kind I devoured. Not just the first helping, but the second and third. Until the pot itself was clean. Chamin, kubbeh, kadeh, shashtahika, orez chamoutz.


There’s no Kurdish thing she could put in front of me that I wouldn’t eat every last bite of. I wasn’t coming with my own proud culinary traditions. I didn’t sit down at the table across from her and say how my mother would make something better (unlike certain other sisters-in-laws she had to put up with). I was a blank canvas. An empty belly denied taste for so long.  And there’s nothing that makes a Kurdish mother happier than her food finding a welcome home.
 

Wanting to make said food for her son was a different matter. These things aren’t written down in recipe books. Their ingredients can’t be translated, but often only found by asking for the right man on the right day at the right market stall. These foods were carried over on donkeys from Kurdistan to Jerusalem. Their tradition goes back to the time when Jerusalem’s first temple was destroyed, and their family was sent off to distant Assyria and the town of Zakho on the banks of the Khabur river.  Their lineage is written in the Bible: So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria (that is, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria), who took the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh into exile. He took them to Halah, Habor, Hara and the river of Gozan, where they are to this day.  1 Chronicles, 5:26.  That’s where my mother-in-law’s food comes from. Recipes with such histories are not freely passed around to just anybody. They are heavily guarded like a mother’s love. They must be won like a mother-in-law’s respect. That I was determined to win, however. By my own hand.  Perhaps it was his birthday, perhaps it was Covid, the memory is lost to me now, but I resolved to recreate the thing I loved the most. Yaprach.
Picture a Greek Dolmadeh. That is a vine leaf stuffed with lemony rice. They come singly or double, often in a chilled section of a supermarket. They are sour, sometimes chewy, nice enough. That was my memory from the few times I ate them. But yaprach is something else. A similar concept, but picture an entire pot of stuffed vine leaves, and often onions as well. It’s cooked overnight, or for at least six hours, until each leaf, each stuffed onion, is caramelized. It sticks to your mouth like the best candy. The rice is wonderfully sour, like the freshest lemon,
while crisp leaves crunch undertooth. The heat from a day and a night’s worth cooking warms the coldest stomach. The pot itself like a fireplace for the soul. I recreated the recipe only from the memory of taste. The quest for instruction always politely, but firmly, refused. I learned to roll the leaves watching YouTube videos of Greek grandmothers and hoping the technique had crossed the breadth of old Alexander the Great’s empire. I mined
my husband for childhood memories of how much oil and water and how long on the gas versus how long in the oven.  The first time was of middling success. But that wasn’t the victory. A picture of what I’d done sent to his mother somehow convinced her more than the years of our marriage and Friday nights together ever could. Just maybe, I could be trusted.  Eventually, the recipe was shared. Orally, of course. Never written down among the Kurdish mums. Years of rolling, cooking and tasting brought me to the quietest of all victories. After eating a pot of Yaprach one holiday meal at her house, my husband leaned across the table and whispered that mine is better.
It’s an odd thing, slipping into a new culture. I look at the vine leaves that grow next to old stones of Jerusalem houses. I know it by taste, those trees. The aroma of leavening dark green larger than palms. I know the smell of certain parts of the city where the Kurds live, and the fresh lemon scent of Yaprach being rolled on a Thursday evening, ready for home cooking, crisping, and the family that will feast.  It’s a funny thing, finding a new place to call home. Jews have been doing it for centuries, so I guess it’s in my blood. And on that front, in this melting pot of worldwide cultures and foods from the depths of history that today is called Israel, the ability to make oneself a new home is about all that matters. At least for my family, now. My toothbrush sits next to my husband’s. He doesn’t have HIV, and he’s at no risk of it either, thanks to the reality that effective treatment is a guarantee against infection.  As an author by trade, I don’t believe in keeping stories secret. I want everyone to see themselves reflected in words, and that includes people like my husband. He is Jerusalem by birth, Kurdish by culture, Jewish by religion and gay by his soul. My 2022 novel Six Days in Jerusalem spins out his tale into a border-crossing gay love story of two Kurdish boys, one Arab, one Jewish, who met at the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War that catapulted Jerusalem from a divided city to an international question mark.  There are very few books in English which celebrate Kurdish culture. The first Kurdish novel translated into English - I Stared at the Night of the City - was only published in 2017. Good luck finding a recipe book, either. One day, those recipes should all be written down, but I feel I should be Kurdish just a bit longer before making those stories my own. This one is enough,
because these Fridays, I’m the one rolling the yaprach and bringing a pot over to eat at her house on a Friday night. And I’m never given a paper plate.

 

Recipe for Yaprach (stuffed vine leaves)
 

Serves 6.
Preparation time - 3 hours
Cooking time - 6-24 hours

 

Ingredients
-1kg vine leaves (ideally fresh, but from a jar is fine)
-1kg of uncooked rice (any rice but I tend to use round rice or Persian rice)
-6-8 large onions
-1 pack parsley, finely chopped
-1 bulb of garlic, finely chopped
-Two large tomatoes, finely chopped
-Several cups of oil (Canola or vegetable oil)
-2-3 teaspoons of salt
-1-2 tablespoons of lemon salt (citric acid)
A large mixing bowl
A large pot
Several cups of water
500g minced beef (optional)
1 or 2 whole lemons (optional)
Sliced cucumber (for garnish)
Sliced red pepper (for garnish)
Method
Peel 6-8 large onions and make a single cut from top to bottom, stalk to stalk, down only one
half of the onion. The onion should remain whole. This will allow you to peel off the layer more
easily once it is boiled.
Put them in a large pot and boil for 15-20 mins, then leave them in the hot water for another 10-
15 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, prepare the rice filling.
You can add cooked mincemeat to this, but I personally feel it gets lost in it and isn't worth it.
Wash 1kg of uncooked rice and add to a large mixing bowl. Add the chopped parsley, garlic,
tomatoes, salt and lemon salt. Also add several tablespoons of oil and mix very well.
Return to the cooked onions, drain and add several rounds of cold water so you can peel them.
Carefully peel off the layers of onions and transfer to another bowl. These will be casings for
your filling later. Be careful because inside the onion will still be very hot. Unless you have my
mother-in law’s hands I would recommend peeling under the tap.
Finely chop or put in a processor any torn or ripped onion peels and the center of the onions.
Add these to the rice filling.
Mix the rice filling very well. Although the rice is not cooked, it is worthwhile to taste a little (just
on your tongue). It should be salty and sour.
Now you are ready to roll. Take around a tablespoon or more of the filling and stuff it inside the
onion shell. Don't over fill, but make sure you can wrap the onion shell completely around the
filling. Place into a large pot and cover the bottom of the pot with the stuffed onions. You can
also do another layer around the edge of the pot of onions. Pack them in close together so there
is no space left to see the bottom of the pot.
Any onion shells not used by this point chop up again and add to the rice mix.
If you like things very sour, slice a lemon and place four or five slices on this bottom layer, and
layer the lemon as you go up on layers with the grape leaves.
Now take the vine leaves. Place them into a colander and pour boiling water over the leaves.
Let them sit for a minute.
Place four or five leaves on a chopping board, and make sure to place them rough side up,
shiny side down. If there is a thick stalk, cut it off. Place around a tablespoon or so of the rice
mix in a line along the widest part of the leaf. Fold in the sides and then roll tightly, like a cigar.
Add to the pot and pack them in quite tightly in layers.
You can add a few slices of lemon to each layer, but you don't need to add anything else at this
stage. It will take a while. Usually it takes me around an hour to fill the pot.
Leave at least an inch at the top of the pot, which is why you want to use the largest pot you
have.

Now take a cup of oil and add some more salt and citric acid, around a tablespoon of each, mix
it with the oil and pour all over the stuffed leaves inside the pot.
Place a side plate or other plate that fits inside the pot on top to keep the leaves weighed down
during cooking.
At this point you can leave it overnight in the fridge if you want, if you aren't making it until the
next day or the day after because it will take at least 6 hours to cook.
If you are cooking it the next day, take the pot out of the fridge in the morning to give it an hour
or so at room temperature before you start cooking.
Take out the plate and add water. You will probably need a couple of cups, so you can just see
the water come up to the top layer of the rolled leaves. Add a bit more salt, replace the plate
and cover with a lid.
Bring it to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Sometimes there is too much liquid, so just
remove this with a spoon and set aside (you can keep this liquid and use it to cook rice or
something else if you want the sour, lemony taste). Conversely, you may need to add a bit more
water later.
Around 2.5 hours of simmering, extract a rolled leaf and try. The rice should be well cooked and
the leaf relatively soft and easy to eat. If it is still tough, add a bit more liquid and give it another
half hour on the gas. You can also add more salt or citric acid here if needed.
It is ready to eat at this point if you want it to be soft and not crispy / caramelized. Or you want to
cool and serve as Greek dolmades.
For Yaprach though, remove the plate and transfer the entire pot, lid on, to the oven. It will need
at least 2.5 hours in the oven. I usually do around 120 C for about an hour, then drop it down to
80-100 C for the remainder of the time. Traditionally it will be put into the oven before Shabbat
and left overnight and eaten on Saturday morning (or the day of a holiday) or put in the oven
Thursday night to be eaten Friday night. But 2.5-3 hours will give basically the same effect.
While it is in the oven, check it from time to time. You may need to add a splash more water.
After about 2.5 hours in the oven, the edges of the vine leaves should be browned and sticky,
and likely stuck to the sides of the pot. Slide a silicone spatula around the edges to peel away.
Take one out to try. If you want it more browned and sticky, give it another 20 minutes or so at a
higher heat, around 150. The middle leaves should have shrunk a bit as well, and you can
return the pot to the oven uncovered to give the top layer a bit of color and crisp as well.
Remove the pot from the oven when ready. Use your spatula to slide around the edges of the
pot and down to the bottom to separate the yaprach from the pot as much as possible. Take a

large serving plate and place on top of the pot, and carefully flip the pot over, the serving plate
still on, and carefully lift the pot up.
Some of the onions may be stuck to the bottom, so remove these from the pot and add to the
serving plate and that's it! Yaprach. You can serve with fresh cucumber and red pepper, sliced
and salted. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for several days. Reheat in the microwave or
covered with foil in the oven for about 30 minutes. Dab a bit of water on them first before
reheating.

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