In the northwest corner of the Negev, near the borders with Egypt and Gaza sits Mikneh Dekel, a quiet sheep farm with a trailer and guard dogs roaming the property that’s enclosed with a wooden fence. This is where Itamar Gilad (who goes by Itush) lives. His father built the farm when the family moved here from Sinai a generation ago. After the war started on October 7, Itush’s family fled to the Aravah temporarily, but he stayed to care for the animals, which include horses, antelopes, sheep, and even a few pigs.
The farm is located next to a Bedouin camp and Itush learned this recipe from his neighbors who slaughter and prepare a whole lamb for celebrations called haflas. Traditionally, it’s cooked over a fire until the meat falls off the bone, but Itush has adapted the recipe a bit, browning the meat just before serving and thickening a buttermilk sauce to serve with it.
The dish — made with Mikneh Dekel lamb — is on the menu at Cafe Asif this season, but you can also make it at home. You will need to ask your butcher for assistance with the meat. Ask for cuts from the front of the animal like shoulder, neck, short ribs, and the front shank, and make sure half of the total weight, including bones and fat, is meat. Have them cut it into pieces that are approximately the size of two fists.
2-3 kg (4½ -6½ lb) bone-in lamb or mutton shoulder, cut into pieces (see headnote)
2 bay leaves
6 allspice berries
2 cups (500ml) buttermilk
Fresh parsley or mint
- Place the lamb in a large pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Skim off any scum that rises to the surface until the liquid is clear. Add pepper and bay leaves. Reduce to medium heat, cover, and gently simmer until the meat is soft and separates easily from the bone, 2½-3 hours. The meat should be fully submerged in the liquid, check occasionally and add more water if needed.
- Remove the lid, add the buttermilk and gently simmer uncovered over a low heat for 30-40 minutes. At this stage, the dish can be served as a stew.
- Alternatively, reduce it further, uncovered, to a thick sauce, 10-20 minutes. Set sauce aside. To brown the lamb, preheat the oven to 230°C (450°F). Transfer the meat to a roasting pan along with a bit of the cooking liquid and roast on the top rack until the meat is brown, 10-15 minutes.
- Spoon the sauce on top, garnish with herbs, and serve over a thin flatbread.