Israeli summers are not like American summers.
First of all, they’re about six months long (if you go according to temperature), which I suppose is a good thing, as the official summer months, largely falling under the shadow of the fallen Beit Ha-Mikdash, just don’t promote the kind of light ‘summer fun’ that they do across the Atlantic.
Don’t believe me? Try this experiment. Close your eyes and say ‘July’ and ‘August’ and notice where your mind takes you. Now do the same, substituting ‘Tamuz’ and ‘Av’. See what I mean?
But one thing summers do have in common wherever you are (except, of course in the southern hemisphere, where summer is winter) is outdoor cooking. There is just something primordially pleasurable about searing a piece of meat on an open flame. Maybe it stirs our ancient DNA memories of offering korbanot.
This is especially apt if you’ve ever experienced the uniquely Middle Eastern pleasure of being in a park when an extended clan arrives and proceeds to shecht, skin, and spit-roast a whole lamb for their picnicking pleasure.
I admit I’ve never done the ‘lamb roast’ thing myself (although I’d be open to it if I could somehow figure out a way to skip the first two stages of the process – maybe someday they’ll come out with a frozen, ‘ready-to-roast’ whole lamb). But I have been privy to the nearly as exotic experience of the classic Israeli ‘mangal’ (cookout, or barbeque).
Growing up in the suburban America, cookouts always meant my Dad coming home from work in the early evening, filling our big, circular freestanding grill (this was before the day of the gas grill) or, if we were in a hurry or not so hungry, the smaller cast-iron hibachi with ‘match-light’ lighter-fluid treated charcoal briquettes. He’d throw on a match (or two, if was particularly windy), and exactly 20 minutes later, we’d be placing our steaks or whatever above the perfectly smooth and uniform layer of ash-grey coals.
The mangal, as I came to discover, upon being invited to one soon after we moved here many years ago, is a much more ‘hands-on’ experience.
My first surprise was when our host poured the coals. From the familiar sewn-top paper sack flowed not briquettes, but real pieces of charcoal – as in burnt wood au naturel. The pieces, some of which still retained their original tree-branch form, looked more like residue of a forest fire than anything you would possibly cook with.
He then carefully stacked the pieces in the center of his diminutive cut-and-bent-aluminum grill (that made our old hibachi look like a Cadillac), assuring me that he’d spread them out later, once they’d properly caught.
His son then strategically inserted a number of oil saturated napkins (reminiscent of those found under a tray of freshly fried latkes) into the pile. They helped maintain the fire, he said.
Next our host hoisted a small bright-orange plastic squeeze bottle, which I had assumed was filled with some sort of Middle Eastern ketchup, and delicately squirted a few clear droplets of what had been revealed to be lighter fluid atop the pyramid, and then, a match or seven later set it aflame.
I hadn’t assumed for a moment that these rustic coals had come pre-fueled, so I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised, however, and somewhat impressed, by his fuel efficiency. Little did I realize that this was just the lighter-fluid ‘appetizer’.
A moment later I jumped back in shock as first he, and then his son, continued to periodically spritz the fuel on the dancing flames themselves when they would wane, bringing up impressive – if imprudent – pyrotechnic flares.
The light show eventually ended, as the coals had presumably caught on to my hosts’ satisfaction (despite their remaining essentially black), and I dared approach again.
“Here,” he now said, handing me the torn-off top of a cardboard carton. Noticing my puzzlement, he said “Now you have to be l’hav’haev them.”
His accompanying pantomimed fanning motion told me he meant ‘stoke’. So like a slave waving ostrich feathers at the throne of an ancient oriental potentate, I dutifully flapped my cardboard fan, noticing how the coals glowed redder as I did (all the while keeping a watchful eye to make sure no one tried the ‘spritz trick’ again while I wasn’t looking).
Having worked up quite an appetite by now, I was relieved when my host told me the coals were finally ready to cook on. After spreading the more-or-less-caught embers more-or-less evenly along the bottom of the grill (which was an adventure in itself, that will remain untold), he proceeded to place the chicken wings (of which this ‘jumbo’ grill could hold something like six) on the grate. Slowly but surely he grilled a few rounds to feed our hungry families, who had been patiently noshing waiting inside.
Since then I’ve become a mangal expert, though I still wistfully gaze down from my porch at our American neighbor’s professional gas grill. So when our erstwhile hosts, whose path we hadn’t crossed in many a moon since they’d moved to a different part of the country, recently convinced us to make a summer trek out to their place for old time’s sake, I was ready.
That evening as we set to barbeque from what looked a newer incarnation of the same rickety aluminum grill, I noticed there was no orange bottle in sight; no torn cardboard box. Oblivious to my puzzlement, our old-new host swooped in with a colorful sewn-top sack. “You won’t believe what I found in the store,” he said to me, smiling broadly. “Match-light instant charcoal! It’s sooo easy, you just won’t believe it!”
What will they think of next?