When I was a child in the 1960s in Israel, we ate what today’s foodies call “seasonal”—before we even knew what a “foodie” was. So in the summer we gobbled up lots of watermelon, which was abundantly available in piles under tents at every intersection.
Avatiah, avatiah al ha’sakin! “Watermelon, watermelon on the knife” was the call of the watermelon seller, who came to our street with a horse and a mound of green melons in his carriage. This call, with its promise of juicy red crispness, coaxed us to leave the cool, shaded house and run into the scorching summer heat to make sure that he waited for our mother, who trailed a few steps behind us.
Selling watermelon al ha’sakin, which can also be interpreted as “a look inside,” guaranteed it would be all that you remembered or imagined—red, crunchy and, especially, sweet. After you picked a watermelon, the seller quickly drove his sharp knife into the fruit and skillfully cut a deep triangle. He then stuck the tip of the knife into the triangular rind, pulled out the piece and offered the buyer a taste. If you did not approve, the process was repeated.
We ate watermelon in long wedges like you would corn on the cob. The sticky watermelon juice that we did not manage to slurp ran down to our elbows and stained our clothes.
Later on, I discovered the pairing of watermelon with feta cheese or, as we call it, Bulgarian cheese. When we were soldiers, my friend from boarding school took me to visit an aging Israeli cowboy—a Palestinian Jew—who lived on a beautifully rustic farm in an old moshava in the Galilee. Bravely negotiating up the steep hill, I was totally freaked out by the prospect of snakes hiding in the brush and weeds that reached up to our necks.
At the top, we were rewarded with a large bowl of fresh watermelon served with homemade labane, a yogurt cheese. It was exotic and intriguing to my young palate—the creamy, tart labane combined with the sweet crunch of the watermelon.
The pairing of watermelon with labane is more authentic in the Middle East. An outcome of wisdom accumulated over many generations, native food combinations tend to have a good nutritional basis. A bit of fat is said to aid the absorption of lycopene, the nutrient that gives watermelon its red color. Lycopene is thought to cut the risk of cancer, among other things. That is why one should not use fat-free cheese with watermelon.
Reimagining traditional recipes is now my creative outlet and half the fun of cooking for me. I serve a twist on the watermelon and cheese combination—watermelon granita drizzled with sweet lemon cream made from labane. With the sweet labane cream, this recipe marries fresh summer flavors to make a light, delicious dessert.
By itself, the granita is a good palate cleanser. It retains the distinctive fresh fragrance of the watermelon and transports me to breezy summer nights in Tel Aviv, enjoying a wedge of watermelon on a small wooden table, the full moon reflecting in the breaking waves and my bare feet digging into the damp sand. Not a bad return on the time and effort I put into making the granita.
In Washington markets, there is no al ha’sakin. You can only hope that the watermelon you take home is all that you desire. So before I buy it, I lift the watermelon to my ear and knock on it to hear the hollow sound that tells me the fruit is ripe.
Alas, it can be a hit or miss, even when it sounds right. This year’s crop in the DC area has been disappointing so far. They say it’s because of the unusual weather. Luckily the sugar in the granita makes up for the sweetness that might be less than what you might desire in a watermelon.