I knew my first trip back to Palestine, nearly 25 years since my last visit as a child, was going to be emotional, beautiful and trying. By that point, I hadn’t traveled internationally much so I wasn’t equipped with all the knowledge on how to pack light, battle inevitable homesickness and have unwavering patience. I was overwhelmed with the excitement to meet all my mother’s family I had only known through short phone conversations using calling cards and then later through social media. I was ready to put faces to names and then try to keep track of all those names, no matter how many cousins I had named “Muhammad.” I was anxious, yet confident it was going to be the trip of a lifetime.
That excitement made me create all these stories in my head of how perfect everything was going to be. So much that I hadn’t prepared myself for how different living in other countries can be. Or how different extended family would be from your immediate despite sharing the same lineage. I didn’t even prepare myself for how tired I’d be after a long, international flight with constant turbulence. I was a rookie.
It took nearly a full day of travel for me and my mother to get from Chicago to the first city we’d visit. We left Chicago, had a layover in Paris, and then arrived in Tel Aviv. After forgetting my jacket on the plane, tiredly walked to the visa kiosk, being directed to go “over there” to a dusty waiting area where I had on and off interrogation for 8 hours, I finally got my visa, found our bags and met one of my six aunts, Khaltee* Muzayan, for the first time at arrivals. She rushed us to her car and stepped on the gas to get home. She had been anxiously waiting for hours at the airport, afraid something had happened to us, and now our schedule had now been set back hours. I strategically booked our travels so we could drive up to Jordan to attend one cousin’s wedding and then come back to Palestine to attend another wedding and meet the remainder of my family. Khaltee Muzayan was coming to Jordan with us, but at this point she was stressed and frantic about getting there.
*Khaltee is the Arabic term for “aunt”, specifically from your mother’s side of the family.
By the time we got to the border, it was evening and my aunt’s stress level was through the roof. Contrary to us, she was full of energy and constantly 10 feet ahead. We dragged our bags and feet as we tried to keep up with her through border security, a bus station, a bumpy bus ride across the border (where I lost a pair of Ray-bans), a visa office filled with cigarette smoke and then one last border security checkpoint before officially being in Jordan. It was the middle of the night, the checkpoint had no waiting area and we stood on a dark street waiting for my cousin to pick us up. Every time my aunt called to check in with him, he was “a few minutes away.” At this point, I was exhausted on a level I never felt before and I was convinced the military dogs barking from behind the border fence were going to have us for a midnight snack. And I’m not even afraid of dogs!
My cousin shows up in his pickup truck…with FIVE other family members who joined him for the ride. We all squeezed in and I sat on the lap of the next aunt I’d meet on this trip, my Khaltee Ida. I dozed off a few times dreaming of a shower and somewhere to sleep. My Khaltee Ida ensured me we’d be home soon and that she’d prepare a meal since it had been hours since we last ate.
After some record-speed showers, because the hot water didn’t reach our bathroom, and a quick change to pajamas, we were ready to eat! My aunt and cousins prepared a spread of Nawashif, a small plates-style meal, similar to Mezze, featuring lots of homemade, preserved foods. We had labneh (strained, savory yogurt), olive oil and za’atar, olives, a variety of pickles and a generous bowl of shatta, because as I quickly learned, the love for spicy food ran in my mother’s family. Fresh baked bread, a huge pot of mint tea and fresh veggies like cucumbers and tomatoes completed the meal. I felt rejuvenated and the life returning to my exhausted body. More importantly, Khaltee Muzayan looked stress-free for the first time since I met her and Mom looked happy to be home and around her family.
I struggled to consistently speak in Arabic and learn everyone’s names, but we talked and joked until the time of morning prayers. I kept reaching for bread to dip into olive oil and shatta, a fermented chili paste, because I never had shatta with such perfectly balanced flavor, and if my mouth was full I couldn’t continue to embarrass myself with my broken Arabic. This shatta had just the right amount of spice, sweetness and a richness I never tasted in the store-bought type I was used to. Khaltee Ida grinned as I snapped a photo with my phone and asked if I was enjoying it. I asked her where it was from and she confidently told me she makes all of the pickles, condiments and preserves in the house herself. I had to have the recipe.
Every time I asked my Khaltee Ida for the recipe, I got a similar response to all the times I’ve asked my mom for a “recipe.” She’d say how simple it was and then proceed to give me vague directions and measurements. I’ve learned to ask for the recipe multiple times, as essential ingredients or steps tend to be left out, and then compile all the different versions of the recipe as I attempt to remake it. I even researched how other aunts make their version of shatta, so I can make sure I’m maximizing all the chili paste knowledge for this recipe.
This recipe is not exactly how my Khaltee Ida makes it. I tried to mimic it best I could and write a recipe that many could replicate despite their living situation. My aunt sun-dries her shatta paste before preserving it, giving it the deep and rich flavor I was instantly in love with. But I live in Chicago where the winters are gloomy and the summer’s humidity would not lend itself well to sun-drying. So I use the oven to “dry” the paste before flavoring and bottling it.
Also, I take the time to let the shatta age/ferment at room temperature to deepen the flavor. While it can be eaten within a few days of making it, giving it the extra time for all the ingredients to break down and become a flavorful family really pays off. If you can give it 2-4 weeks, depending on the season/weather, you will notice it’s worth the wait.
I started delving more into preserved and fermented foods when the pandemic forced us all into quarantine in mid-March. I took my last flight for a while from California to Chicago in March, got furloughed from my job, had freelance gigs cancel left and right and quickly drowned in the anxiety and stress of it all. I cooked, but didn’t want to photograph it. I wrote, but didn’t want to share it. Developing a shatta recipe or learning to make kombucha became my calming space. Preserved and fermented foods take attention, patience and close care. They became a distraction for me. A way for me to let go of everything else clouding my mind and focus on nurturing these sensitive foods. They reminded me to care for myself. And that even when times are so uncertain, all I could do is take it one day at a time. And that after these days pass, I might end up wiser or have grown in ways I didn’t know, or even think I could. That I might end up with a bubbly kombucha or perfect jar of shatta. Or that even when your aunt is dragging you across borders and you think you’re going to die, you just might actually live to tell (and laugh) about it.
Tips for making Shatta:
- Any chilis will work, green or red, mild or spicy. Choose what you like or what’s available.
- Wash your chili peppers well to make sure any dirt or residue is removed before turning them into shatta.
- As with any pickling/fermenting, make sure everything is very clean. All the tools, jars, cutting boards used should be washed with soap and hot water and dried. This also goes for when the shatta is fermenting-if it needs to be stirred or packed down, use a clean spoon to avoid any mold from forming.
- As the shatta ferments at room temperature, cover it with kitchen towel or paper towel. This allows it to breathe, ferment and build flavor. A completely closed container will build up pressure and potentially pop.
- Temperature is a vital factor in the fermentation process. Depending on where you store the shatta, you might find that it is fermenting faster/slower. The ideal temperature to ferment the shatta at is 55-75 degrees F (13-24 C). A spot on your countertop or in a cupboard away from direct sunlight generally works well.
- Use caution when handling spicy chilis. Use gloves if you like and make sure to wash your hands well with soap and water before touching your face or eyes.
- Once you make a plain batch of shatta, experiment with flavors by adding ingredients like fresh garlic, ginger, herbs/seasonings and other additions.
Shatta | Homemade Chili Paste
Prep Time: 30 minutes Cook Time: 1 to 1 1/2 hours Fermentation Time: 1-4 weeks Yields: 16 oz jar
- 1 pound chili peppers (preferably red in color), roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, smashed (optional)
Preheat your oven to 150 degrees F, or use the “dehydrate” option if available.
In a large bowl or colander, thoroughly wash your chili peppers and drain. Roughly chop the peppers and add them to a food processor or blender with the salt. Pulse until finely chopped and close to a puree consistency. Spread the chili peppers onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake in the oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours until most of the moisture has dried. Check on it every 20-30 minutes, redistributing the mix across the sheet to make sure it’s evenly drying out. Remove from the oven when little moisture is remaining and allow it to cool.
In a bowl, combine the chili pepper paste, vinegar, olive oil and any additional flavors (optional). Mix well and pack into a 16 oz glass jar or larger. Cover with a light kitchen towel or paper towel and secure with a rubber band. Allow the shatta to ferment in a warm place (55-75 degrees F) away from direct sunlight for 1 to 4 weeks. Periodically check on the shatta and stir with a clean spoon to release any air pockets. Smell and taste the shatta to get familiar with how it changes through the fermentation process. Pack it down and keep covered with a towel to continue fermenting.
When it reaches the desired flavor/stage of fermentation, simply cap it with a secure lid and move it to the fridge. In the cooler temperature, the fermentation dramatically slows, but the flavor will continue to deepen with time. It will keep in there for up to a year.