Foraging with Friends

A memory popped up on my Facebook page today and it’s one of my favorites, so I thought I’d share it here. This post was originally published on May 6, 2014 on Bedouin History Desert Safari’s blog.


It’s spring – my favorite time of year in Sinai! Especially after a particularly wet winter since that means our desert plants are thriving and the goats and sheep have plenty to graze. Recently, we met Freyj, one of Bedouin History’s drivers and guides, at his daughter’s springtime camp in the desert. We were welcomed with smiles and a light lunch of fresh bread and goat milk. It didn’t take long for the children to wander over to see their grandfather and his foreign friends. Freyj knows well my passion for plants and photography and knew I would be eager to explore the surrounding desert. Recalling our failed attempts last year to locate one of the edible plants, Zeinab, one of Freyj’s young granddaughters, eagerly offered to get her digging tools and lead our exploration. So we set off with Zeinab, Farah, Mohamed, and Omar to forage for tummayr (تِمِّير), the Bedouin name for Erodium crassifolium.

Zeinab with her digging tool.
Zeinab with her digging tool.

Known in English as Desert Storks-bill or Hoary-leaved Heron’s-bill, this plant has an edible tuber that grows deep in the ground. But there are eight different Erodium species growing in Sinai so finding the right one involves a knowledge of what tummayr leaves look like and where they grow. All Erodiums have fruit that look like long bird beaks, hence their common English name, but each species has distinct leaves. 

Erodium fruit
Erodium fruit

Zeinab and the other children are a wealth of information about the local plants, especially the edible ones, as foraging for these are a favorite past time of the Bedouin children who live in the desert for a few months of the year.

Erodium crassifolium, (tummayr)
Erodium crassifolium, (tummayr)

I followed Zeinab through the wadi, trying to keep up with her quick steps and even quicker digging abilities. I try to figure out which Storks-bills are the ones we are looking for and was cheered on by Zeinab when I correctly point out a large tummayr plant. 

Zeinab digging for tubers.
Zeinab digging for tubers.

Zeinab dug quickly, scanning the area to check on the progress of the boys, who are leading their own expedition with my husband. It seems that this had turned into a contest to see which “team” could find the most. But we are all successful and end up with handfuls of edible tubers! The children remove the skins with their fingernails and hand them to us to eat. The small potato-like tubers are sweet and crunchy. 

Foraging with friends
Foraging with friends

Along the way, the children have also spotted sweet desert onions. They are so quick to dig these up that I never see what the plant looks like when it is still rooted in the earth. The onions, possibly an Allium species, are sweeter and juicier than the tummayr. And easier to reach as they are not buried so deep in the rocky ground.

Handful of collected onions and tubers.
Handful of collected onions and tubers.

We returned to camp to share our foraged goodies with the other adults at camp, but they showed little interest in eating our treats. It seems foraging with friends is a childhood habit, something to entertain them during the long days in the desert. How lucky I am to have such amazing young friends!

Flowers of Erodium crassifolium.
Flowers of Erodium crassifolium.

Caper Bush ~ Part II

In Part I in my series on caper bushes, we learned what these plants look like, where to find them, how they grow, and why they make good additions to desert gardens. Today, I’ll share how to prepare the plant so you can savor their unique flavor.

You may already be familiar with capers, as they are a common ingredient used in Mediterranean cuisine and are available commercially in many places around the world. These are the flower buds of caper bushes, specifically Capparis spinosa. (Although C. sinaica, which also grows here in Sinai can be used, as well.)

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The buds are picked when small and then salted and/or pickled. They are used in salads, pastas, meat dishes, sauces, and are popular in salmon and other fish dishes.

Before the caper bush in my garden was big enough to supply enough flower buds for pickling – and even now as I prefer to leave our buds to grow into flowers and fruit – we would forage for the buds as we wandered through wadis. At the right time and place, it doesn’t take long to collect a handful of flower buds. We pick a variety of sizes, but try to keep them on the smaller side.

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Caper flower buds foraged from a wadi near Dahab.

Once you’ve collected the flower buds, put them in a jar, fill with water, and cover with a cloth. Let the buds soak for 3 – 7 days, changing the water every day (or every other day). The buds will turn from a bright green color to a more olive color. They will also start to give off a strong smell and white crystals or film may appear. This is all normal. The buds are releasing their mustard oil and their not-so-nice flavor.

At the end of the week, the capers should be giving off less of an odor and are ready to be pickled. You can use a vinegar brine or, even simpler, a lacto-fermentation method which just involves salt water. That’s what I do. I mix 220 mL of water with 1 tablespoon of salt. (Or multiples of that when I need more water.) Put the caper buds in a clean, sterile jar and pour the salt water over them, making sure they are all covered. Leave them for 3-4 days and then put them in your fridge; they will last a long time.

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Pickled flower buds – and one fruit – ready to be eaten.

Pickled flower buds are not part of the Bedouin culinary tradition, but pickled fruits are! Forage for fruit on the bushes in the wadi or collect them from your garden. You want to pick them when they are still green, not yet ripe. I generally pick them when they are between 5 – 8 cm long.

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The first harvest of the season from my garden caper bush.

You can follow the same method for pickling as described above for the flower buds. The fruits definitely need 7 days in water before they are pickled and give off a much stronger odor than the buds. The pickled fruit are called caper berries in English.

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Fruits need to soak for 7 days before pickling.

This is my first year to do so, but you can also pickle the leaves of the caper bush following the same procedure.

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Pickled flower buds, leaves, and fruit.

Bedouin friends have recommended cutting shallow slashes into the fruit before they are pickled. This allows more of their flavor to be released into the water. Bedouin will then use a few spoons of this zesty liquid to spice up their lentil and rice meals.

We like to eat the pickled caper fruits smashed up in white cheese, which we then scoop up with local flat bread. Delicious! I am looking forward to experimenting with the pickled caper leaves – as a side salad, with deviled eggs, with cheese, with fish. And the flower buds we use in typical Mediterranean fashion, usually on pastas and pizzas.

The caper fruit can also be eaten fresh, when it is red and fully ripe. As I mentioned in my first post about capers, you have to beat the ants to it! Pick the red fruit just as it’s ready to split. If you catch them before they split, open the fruit and use your teeth to scrape the flesh and seeds off of the hard skin. Whether or not to chew the mustard-flavored seeds is up to you. The Bedouin children, who have eaten plenty of fruit from my garden, warn me never to chew the seeds, as they will give you diarrhea. But I’ve heard from other people who chew the seeds and do not suffer from any intestinal upset. I’ve tried the fruit fresh but did not chew the seeds. They taste okay, but I prefer them pickled!

Besides being beautiful and delicious, caper plants are also used medicinally by the Bedouin. (Amazing plant, right?)  A poultice made from the crushed leaves is used to treat rheumatism, joint aches, headaches, and toothaches. Inhaling the vapor made when boiling ground dried leaves is said to treat head colds. I have used a poultice to treat joint aches and I can testify that the crushed leaves really do heat up, much better than creams from the pharmacy.

Okay, enough.

Have I convinced you to grow a caper bush in your garden yet? 😉