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    Salt-preserved lemons in a jar

    The Lesson of the Lemons

    The Middle Eastern tradition of preserving lemons has become an annual Advent practice in my kitchen.

    By Kelley Nikondeha

    December 10, 2022
    3 Comments
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    • D King

      Please give the recipe!

    • Tim Kell

      Interesting that you have such a heart for the Palestinian people. I also ache for them, but probably not for the same reasons you do. Unfortunately, the world loves a good fight and to pick sides. The enemy loves Palestine at war. Huge strides were made in 2019 and 2020 for peace in the Arab community with Israel by the US administration in power at that time. It was difficult, painstaking, unprecedented and yet virtually unheralded by world media. They took lemons and made lemonade. And like giving birth, it was worth the wait. Sadly, the Palestinian leadership is corrupt and does not represent the best interest of its people. And so our hope once again is Jesus. And lemons.

    • Kenni Rae Hunt

      When I was a full time home maker, I loved to cook. Cooking allowed me to experience people and place I may never see in my lifetime. Meals were an adventure for my 5 children and whom ever we shared our table. I was always reflective and at peace preparing a meal. Thank you for beautifully sharing your reflective preparations. When the Counselor is present all work is sacred space. Your observations on waiting and transformation and hope in grief are meaningful for me this season. Truly, struggle is so much more accessible than joy. I’m excited to experiment with my own lesson from lemons. Thank you again. May God reward our waiting with joy.

    Preserved lemons represent my favorite culinary transformation. Something taut and tart destined to bejewel mezze platters, add complexity to pots of slow-braised meats, or a hit of citrus intensity to a winter salad. The sour becomes sweet, the rigid softens into a condiment that has graced Middle Eastern cuisines for centuries and is found on many Palestinian tables today. Preserving, once a necessity, still embodies the determination to hold on to bright flavors and defy the limits of seasonality. The lemons last long enough to stretch into future seasons and travel to distant lands, allowing citrus notes to break the monotony of what might be regionally available at the time. The jarred lemons arrive with their distinctive yellow glow, a welcome addition to any table.

    I first learned about preserved lemons in the pages of a Middle Eastern cookbook, in a recipe for Moroccan tagines. It was an unfamiliar ingredient and not easy to source for my home kitchen. But loving citrus as I do, I was intrigued by this illusive condiment. Perhaps it is a bit comical that something so ubiquitous elsewhere took on such mythic proportions in my own culinary imagination. A few times I did come across preserved lemons in a high-end food shop, but they were too expensive for my shoestring budget. I remained curious but uninitiated.

    Years later I was gifted a jar of preserved lemons made by a neighbor. No longer out of reach, I removed the lid and savored the salty, lemony aroma. I took my first small bite. It was both different and totally familiar. The preserving had both accentuated and altered the lemon simultaneously, a bit of a gastronomic miracle. The flavor was deep and bright, obviously able to break the heaviness of a stew or add levity to a vinaigrette. I was instantly hooked.

    So I decided to preserve lemons in my own kitchen. I discovered it was easy and only required a few things I usually had on hand – and one I seldom did. Lemons and kosher salt were permanent residents in my pantry, and it was a simple reach for a glass jar. But the more uncommon ingredient was patience. Preserving the lemons required an exercise of delayed culinary gratification I seldom attempted. In a world of multicookers, microwaves, and fast food delivered to your doorstep, I embraced a slow process for a deeply developed flavor.

    After washing the lemons of all waxy residue from the supermarket, I let them air dry on a tea towel, catching the morning sun against their yellow dimpled skin. I cut and salted them, then packed them tight in a clean glass jar.

    Salt-preserved lemons in a jar

    Photo by Lena Zajchikova

    Then the salt began its unhurried work of transforming the firm fruit. It pulled out the juice, and in several days’ time I could see all those juices pooled at the bottom of the jar as the structure of the lemons started to give way and collapse. The process happened right on my kitchen counter, evidence of steady change that got my attention during the week as I chopped vegetables or drew my gaze as I pounded warmed cumin and coriander seeds for a rice pilaf. I was mesmerized by the wordless testimony of transformation.

    It occurred to me that collapse was essential for the lemons to becoming something softer and sweeter. The breakdown was integral to addressing the bitterness of the white pith. While releasing their juices, the lemons looked lackluster, even unappealing. But I trusted that a conversion was underway. Goodness would emerge in due time. Collapse would not be the final word on lemons.

    I thought about the pain of the world salted by our tears, and how perhaps our own collapse contributes to a hard-born hope for the world. And Advent, the four weeks of dark and light, creates space for our lament as we wait amid the world’s darkness, and hope that injustice won’t have the last word. God invites each of us into the work of transformation, to become peacemakers in troubled times, but that might mean submitting ourselves to a slow conversion process first.

    Four weeks I watched the lemons on my countertop gradually become a condiment. Weeks with no additional effort but lots of waiting. If I wanted the citrus delicacy, I had no choice but to bide my time. Some things, like preserved lemons, like Advent, like hope, cannot be rushed.

    Some things, like preserved lemons, like Advent, like hope, cannot be rushed.

    Recently Advent has been commercialized and therefore weakened, both in practice and imagination. Advent calendars arrive in stores earlier each year, rushing us into the season. Every day there is a precious picture behind a cardboard window, or a chocolate or some other festive confection. Our appetite is satiated before we even spend a minute in waiting.  This immediate gratification is a far cry from the long wait of the first Advent.

    In contrast, preserving lemons invites us into the practice of slow transformation. This struck me as more congruent with the waiting that was characteristic of the first Advent. We watch and wait, trusting that at the right time our patience will be rewarded.

    When at last I could open my jar of lemons, I was delighted with the result. These lemons could go anywhere citrus was needed – in cold or hot dishes, minced or sliced, rind or flesh. They delivered a perennial flavor. Since these lemons are part of Palestinian cuisine, I reached out to Palestinian friends for recommended recipes. Now this condiment was connecting me to a place, to a people.

    My Palestinian friends add it to labneh. One friend makes a relish by adding cilantro, sumac, and olive oil to the chopped lemons. Now I cannot resist adding this relish to a meal of roasted meat and burnished potatoes, always remembering this friend and his Palestinian family’s heritage. As a modern innkeeper in Bethlehem, he knows something about hospitality, holy places, and the long wait for peace in occupied territory. Now, when I mince some preserved lemon to add to harissa, or warm slices of rind with thyme and olives, I am reminded of my own commitment to live as a peacemaker.

    This Advent I will reach for lemons instead of candles. I will enter into a time of lament and the long wait for peace. I may collapse in grief, but with hope for a transformed world. I will remember the people of Palestine, living in a hard landscape that cries out for hope during this season. I pray that in the times it takes to preserve lemons, I too will be made softer. And every time I take and eat, I will remember that we are meant for peace.

    Contributed By KelleyNikondeha Kelley Nikondeha

    Kelley Nikondeha is the author of The First Advent in Palestine: Reversals, Resistance, and the Ongoing Complexity of Hope (Broadleaf Books, 2022), and more.

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