Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sabras, Tzabar צבר - Cactus, Fruit and People

It is only fitting that my first post on In Season Israel - celebrating the seasons of the produce and species of the Land of Israel,  their yearly arrivals and their places of honor in our holiday traditions - be that of the  enigmatic Sabra. This legendary cactus-cum-Israeli has quite a story to tell of it's own, and Israelis love to tell stories of the Sabra..

Let's start with a few pictures.

THESE are sabras, or Tzabar צבר in Hebrew:

photos: left to right,,

AND THESE are ALSO sabras - some friends of mine

So what's the deal? Cacti are called sabras, the flower and the fruit are sabras, and people are sabras!!..Actually, only Israelis are sabras..and only those born in Israel...we olim don't qualify. You see the sabra fruit is tough and very very prickly on the outside, but inside, the fruit is sweet and ..well, kind of mushy.   That IS the description of both the fruit and the native Israelis. When you handle the fruit you must wear gloves...the prickles are tiny but very sharp, and they hurt a lot, even seeming to leap off the sabra to jump into and under your a porcupine releasing its quills when you get too close.   And I might add, with all the love in my heart that I can muster, so describes the Israeli sabra...sometimes, ya' gotta handle them with kid gloves - touchy and defensive, this human Sabra will release a bunch of barbs if this.. and if that...even if you get too close without mutual understanding..and the prickles most certainly can get under your skin..and hurt..a lot. But, once finally opened up, trust and acceptance suddenly happens, and everyone knows that the fruit inside that outer toughness, is soft and sweet..and yes, kinda mushy. 
In actuality, sabras the cactus were only introduced to Israel a few hundred years ago, (Spaniards brought them from Mexico and Central America during and after the Spanish and Mexican Inquisitions)  Tzabar צבר was the original hebrew for aloe (not true today) and when this new plant came into the Mediterranean Lands it also was called tzabar or sabr as the leaves of both plants were succulent and grew rapidly and prolifically, even in hard, dry and difficult places. There are many symbolic and metaphoric comparisons for this plant and it's relationship to both Israelis and Arabs in the Land.  There is an allusion in the arabic word sabr meaning "patience" or "resilience"...and well, the discussion could go on and on.

Sabra cacti are found all through out the Land of Israel and in the Arab villages and along the paths and roads.  As I talked to people about this wonderful plant, stories began tumbling out about how important the sabra fruit was in the summers of yesteryear.  One woman told me that when she was young, growing up in Beit HaKerem, Arab villagers and youth came into the Beit HaKerem village with many fruits, peddling them down the streets.  What she remembered the most were the sabras.  The children would excitedly gather around, and the Arab sellers would sit on the curbs expertly peeling all that prickly fruit for the children who wanted to purchase them. She said there would be a pile of the sweet juicy insides waiting to be eaten. It was a summer treat and adventure not unlike the ice cream truck that would one day replace them. 

2 photos by S.Melamed

My friend Talia told me that when she grew up near Haifa, she remembered going out to the sabra plants when the fruit was ripe, carrying poles and tin cans, and somehow she said, but she couldn't quite describe it, they used these homemade pickers to pluck the testy fruit from the paddles of the cactus.  One could not just pick the fruit with hands.  To my great surprise and delight, as I searched for general sabra information, I discovered a fellow blogger also enchanted by this elusive fruit,  and who has written a wonderful account, not only of the fruit and it's story, but her blog...were pictures (shown and linked above) of the poles and the tin cans and the maneuvers one needed to get to the fruit and make them your own !!  Sarah Melamed took her children on a Prickly Pear (Sabra) Expedition, and relayed their adventure in her blog Food Bridge She shared amazing photos and a delicious recipe.  Please click here to read and learn more.

So now that you know a little history...and a couple of stories, I want to teach you how to open a sabra to eat.  While the fruit lends itself to some lovely recipes, most people just eat the sabra, chilled, like a watermelon, for a refreshing summer treat.

Basically, after donning heavy gloves (please note - my amazing friend did NOT wear gloves - but.. please..I warn you NOT try this bare handed. !! ), cut each end off the fruit, leaving the inside fruit exposed. Next slice a slit in the outer skin from end to end, just to the beginning of the fruit.  With your gloved hand, gently pry apart the skin from the point of the slit, pulling it all the way to the surface of the board or table.  Lift out the fruit, with the help of a large spoon, slice and eat !!  Note: the inner fruit has large seeds or stones which most Israelis simply eat.  I think it takes a leap of faith to just swallow them - I am still spitting out at least half of them.  But ...l'iat l'iat (little by little) I will learn the Israeli talent for swallowing the bitter with the sweet.


1 comment:

  1. My thanks to Koby at Zmora Organi, my local co-op & organic foods store, for demonstrating the proper technique for peeling and eating the sabra. And thanks to Sarah Melamed for permission to share her photos and stories about the sabra. Please visit both websites and