Friday, March 8, 2024


"Food can bring people together in a way nothing else could." 

-- Yottam Ottolenghi

There is a reason why this post, which focuses on an Arabic dish, begins with a quote from an Israeli-born, British chef. The name of this dish, arayes, is the plural word for "bride" in Arabic. Some say the name is a reference to the "marriage" of the meat mixture with pita bread. An alternate explanation, offered by cookbook author Reem Kassis, is that "the culinary world of the Levant draws upon this poetic imagery." The culinary imagery painted by the combination of crispy pita bread and the rich meat mixture, results in a dish that is as beautiful as a bride.

The key to arayes is balance. One needs the right pita bread. (I realized this fact during the process of making this dish, because I think the bread I used was too thin and broke easily as I tried to stuff the pita.) There must also be an equilibrium between the bread and the meat. In doing research for this post, I found that there were a range of arayes, some thickly stuffed with meat and others that were more thinly stuffed. From what I could tell, the more thinly stuffed arayes are the more traditional way to prepare the dish. This is a point that draws support from Reem Kassis, who described arayes as "pita bread spread with a thin layer of spiced meat...."  

I prepared arayes for a reason. I cooked this dish and wrote this post in the midst of the Israel-Hamas war. That war began with unspeakable horrors on October 7, 2023, when Hamas fighters entered into Israel and carried out war crimes against innocent Israeli citizens. The war has continued, day after day, with the Israeli Defense Forces carrying out war crimes against innocent Palestinian civilians across the Gaza Strip. One of the worst crimes committed by the IDF involves not simply restricting food and aid into the Gaza Strip, which is starving the Palestinians, but destroying the food systems in the strip.  Not only does starvation present clear and present dangers right now, but it will also have long lasting effects upon the Palestinian people. The short term effects include muscle wasting, stunted growth, nd medical issues that include sepsis, meningitis, diarrhea and severe anemia. Longer term issues include cardiovascular disease, hypertension and metabolic disorders. Medical issues may even carry into future generations when pregnant women are subject to starvation, leading to medical issues for the children after birth.

This reality is very distressing to me. Food should never be used as a weapon, especially when it involves innocent civilians. To the contrary, food may very well be one of the most effective means of achieving peace. Food has the ability to create connections between groups of people, build relationships, and promote understanding.

Arayes provide an example of how we have more in common than we have in differences. There are many claims to the origin of this dish. Most of what I found traces those origins to Lebanon, but similar dishes (with as long of histories) can be found in neighboring Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Even the Palestinians lay claim to arayes. Yet, even with its Arabic roots, the dish has become very popular in Israel. The popularity began with a small restaurant known as M25, located in the Carmel Market of Tel Aviv. When the restaurant opened, it served basically three dishes: kebabs, minute steak and kebabs in pita. That latter dish became a version of arayes. Customers wanted a particular type of kebab in the pita, and the owner connected the description with arayes that he had in Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel. Eventually, M25 began to serve as many as 800 arayes per week. 

In the end, a simple dish demonstrates how much we have in common despite decades of division along religious, cultural and other lines. People of different faiths (Muslim, Christian and Judaism) and different cultures can come together to enjoy crispy, meat-filled pita breads. If they sit together long enough, they may find that they have more in common than what they have been told or led to believe. 

In fact, true peace will never come with a politician's words or a general's actions. It can only come when the people themselves come together, recognize what connects them and understand that those connections exceed what separates them. Food may not get us all the way there. But, it is a start. If people can gather around a proverbial table to share a meal, that is when discussions can begin. That could be the start. 


Recipe from Food & Wine

Serves 5


  • 1/2 medium (about 8 ounces) yellow onion, chopped (about 2/3 cup)
  • 3 medium cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 cup (about 3/4 ounces) loosely packed parsley leaves
  • 1 pound ground lamb or beef (lean) or 1/2 pound of each combined
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1-2 teaspoons red chile paste, such as sambal oelek
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon all spice, seven spice or Palestinian nine-spice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of kosher salt, plus 5/8 teaspoon divided
  • 5 6-inch pita bread rounds, halved crosswise
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Greek-style yogurt, for serving (optional)
  • Toum, for serving (optional)


1.    Prepare the oven. Preheat an oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Place a a broiler-safe wire rack in a baking sheet and set aside.

2.    Prepare the mixture. Place onion, garlic, and parsley in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped into a rough puree, about 6 to 8 pulses, brushing down the sides of the bowl as needed. There should be about 2/3 cup of the onion mixture. Place in a medium mesh sieve set over a medium bowl. Press on the mixture to drain excess liquid. Discard the liquid. Combine the onion mixture and ground lamb (and/or beef) in a large bowl and mix until evenly combined. Add tomato paste, smoked paprika, red chile paste, pepper and allspice (or seven spice or nine spice) and 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt and mix to combine. 

3.    Prepare the pitas. Spoon about 1/4 cup of the filling into each pita, spread and flatten so the filling is evenly distributed and reaches the edge of the pita. Brush some of the olive oil onto each side of the pita and sprinkle evenly with the remaining 5/8 teaspoon of salt. 

4.     Bake the pitas. Place the filled pitta halves onto the prepared baking sheet and bake on center rack until filing is cooked through and the pitas are crisp on each side, about 18 to 20 minutes, flipping the pitas halfway through cooking. If desired, turn the oven to broil and cook on each side until desired crispness, about 1 minute per side. Serve with yogurt or toum. 


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