It’s hard to define Abu Kassem in a few words but genuine, humble and generous would be a good start.
He is known for the za’atar he grows in the fields surrounding his home in the south of Lebanon and considered to be one of the few enterprising farmers who started domesticating the wild za’atar plant (thyme), which was previously only collected from the wild. He’s since developed the brand Za’atar Zawtar which combines the fruits of his labor, namely the za’atar mixture which includes dried za’atar, sumac, salt and toasted sesame seeds.
I first met Abu Kassem last year when Kamal Mouzawak of Souk el Tayeb introduced us and suggested I pay Abu Kassem a visit in his village of Zawtar. I shook Abu Kassem’s hand, exchanged a few words and told him I would be visiting him in the next month.
I’ve since returned several times, with my own family and also taken Taste Lebanon guests to visit him and his lovely wife, Fatima, in the lush surroundings of Zawtar which include picturesque rolling hills (you’d think you were in Tuscany) and the meandering Litani River.
On one of my recent trips to Abu Kassem’s, we drove through some narrow, dirt roads to reach one of his fields when he asked me to pull over quickly. He got out, walked off track and then hunched over. I knew he was picking something as I’ve seen him do this before when he introduced me to the varieties of wild za’atar. This time though he returned with a bushel of wild fennel. “hol elkon” (for you and your family) he said with extended arms. He then went on to share his wife’s recipe ratio for making them into fritters.
Fatima’s recipe only included flour, the herbs & eggs but when I got home I noticed some potatoes that were on their way out and decided to incorporate them into the recipe. They really turned out lovely and while you could bake them, if you wanted to, I personally find the “crispiness” you get from frying them so satisfying.
Note: I have just launched a new website for Taste Lebanon which also includes new services that we offer such as cooking workshops and more. If you want to join us on the 3rd edition of Culinary Journeys across Lebanon (September 15th-23rd 2011), then be sure to head on over and register as soon as possible. The next one is going to be a filmed documentary in collaboration with the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism, get in touch for more information.
- 700g of potatoes (around 4 medium sized) shredded and juice squeezed out
- 300g Wild Fennel leaves or dill, finely chopped
- 50g of flour
- 4 cloves of garlic, pressed
- 3 eggs, combined
- 1 tablespoon of salt
- 1 teaspoon of hot pepper
- 1 teaspoon of allspice
- Vegetable oil for shallow frying (depends on skillet size)
- 250ml tahini
- Juice of 1-2 lemons, to taste
- 2 garlic cloves- pressed
- Water-enough to dilute to a creamy consistency
- mix together the tahini with the garlic and juice of 1 lemon. You will notice a thick paste develop. This means you are doing right. Now dilute this paste with some water till you reach a creamy consistency (you don’t want it too runny). Now if you feel you need more lemon and salt adjust seasoning to taste.
- Have the potatoes readily shredded (use the thicker setting on a cheese grater) and remove as much of the juice as possible as this will affect the texture of the fritters.
- In a deep skillet, pour in enough oil for shallow frying (you want to cover about half of the fritter patty) and adjust heat to medium-high
- Combine the shredded potatoes, chopped wild fennel leaves (or dill), garlic, hot pepper, allspice, salt, flour and egg. Mix well and then shape into palm-sized patties. Carefully place them into the hot oil using a slotted spoon. Fry on each side for about 2-3 minutes.
- Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool for a minute on grease proof paper.
- Dish up with lemon wedges and tarator sauce on the side. Sahtein!