Expat Surprise: No Olive Oil in the Holy Land?

by Miss Footloose

Wouldn’t you think that finding olive oil in Palestine would be easy? Of course you would. But I have news for you: It isn’t.  Well, it wasn’t for me (serial expat relocating again) when I first moved to the Holy Land and went in search of it.

Ancient olive tree in Palestine

Ancient olive tree in Hebron, Palestine

I love olive oil, and I was delighted at the thought of now being able to use the Biblical variety — you know, the kind kings were anointed with! The kind the ten virgins were using in their lamps! Imagine!

So, soon after arriving in Ramallah, I went shopping on foot to stock the kitchen with various needed supplies, including of course, olive oil. Now, just walking around Ramallah is an adventure. The old center is a warren of a place, the narrow streets coming together at, and moving away from, numerous traffic circles. Trust me, you’d better keep track of your whereabouts or getting lost is as certain as the sun rising in the east.

Oh, the sights and smells!

Brisk commerce takes place along these narrow streets. Shops of all sorts tempt the eye and nose: spice shops, coffee shops, jewelry shops, pastry shops and so on. Middle Eastern pastries are in a league of their own, dripping with honey and butter and filled with nuts. But let me not stray here.

Palestinian pastries

Ramallah pastry shops are filled with these huge trays of various pastries

Brimming with enthusiasm, I went foraging for olive oil in a number of small grocery stores. All of them carried bottles of oil: sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, but, alas, no olive oil.

I was flummoxed!

And worried. Had a plague of Biblical proportions descended on Palestine and destroyed all the olive trees? Had I somehow missed this catastrophe on CNN?

Surely not. I had simply not found the right store.

Seek and ye shall find, or not

Another day, another seeking in the shops. No olive oil. I trust you understand, dear reader, that I was not going to live in Palestine and use corn oil from Texas, so my quest was taking on a distinct epic flavor. But wherever I seeked, I found no olive oil.  Let me explain here that, having been in the country a mere few days, I was a language cripple, and had not a single Arabic word at my disposal. Except inshallah. Inshallah, I would find olive oil. But God was not willing.

The Holy Land without olive oil! It was not to be contemplated. So, what do you do when you have a perplexing question as an expat in a foreign land? You find a local person who speaks your language and ask. Of course!

Unfortunately I didn’t know any local person who spoke my language yet. Fortunately my mate did. So off he went to his office and asked his Palestinian colleagues: Pray tell, why is there no olive oil in the Holy Land?

Ask and ye shall receive!

Alhamdulillah! The next day we had a supply of oil to last us for months. The oil came packed in a variety of un-Biblical containers, mostly recycled Coca Cola and SevenUp bottles. And not only did we get oil, but an avalanche of olives as well. All given to us with love and generosity by our new Palestinian friends.

Palestinian olives

Palestinian olives

Turns out there’s plenty of olive oil in Palestine. You don’t buy it in the shops because everybody has his or her own supply, straight from the home village. And of course, everyone’s oil is the best in the land. Needless to say, I agree.

Palestinian olives

Sorting olives in Palestine

Never again did I suffer a lack of oil or olives in the Holy Land. Friends just kept bringing us more. When we left to go to our new expat life adventure in Ghana, West Africa, we were presented with copious amounts to see us through in the coconut-oil tropics. We shipped it and enjoyed it for months.


NOTE:  This took place  some years ago and possibly the bigger supermarkets in Ramallah now carry commercially bottled olive oil. I should ask my friends. Or perhaps you’ve been there lately and can enlighten me.

* * *

Have you ever experienced a shopping mystery? Or unraveled a food conundrum? Or what foods were you given by people in your host country?

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Cool story! And a great reminder to just ask.

Oh, I’m so glad you found some in the end! I was getting worried.

guyana gyal

What an adventure. You’re so brave. I’d still be wandering around, lost, with my terrible sense of direction.

Guava jam! That’s what I couldn’t find in the shops here. Light jam, not loaded with too much sugar. Fortunately, my mother and her cousin came to my rescue and made for me. I’m thpoilt 🙂

Also…BIG cassava bread. Now made really really small. It’s not ‘bread’ bread but thickish wafers. Toast, add butter or tomato sauce or avocado or…or…any spread of your choice. Mmm.

I feel so smug: this time, I knew right where you were going! It was possible to find olive oil in Cyprus, but it was all imported from elsewhere. As you’ve said, nobody has to buy such a staple: all Cypriots had their own supply. We got jam jars full of it from our students along with home-cured olives, heavy bread made with mint, and big salty rounds of home-made cheese. I’ve heard it from good authority that in Hawaii, it is hard — and expensive — to buy pineapples. That’s just wrong. Once in Amsterdam, I spent a whole… Read more »

Carolyn Vines

Hello Karen, Searching for greens in the Netherlands is my equivalent of your olive oil. I’ve lived here for 11 years and have yet to find mustards or collards. Kale is in abundance here. And why not? How could the Dutchies eat their stampot without their boerenkol? The funny part about the greens is that I’ve asked where to get them. No one’s been able to enlighten me. I assume that’s because no one I’ve met seems to know the Dutch word for greens, not even my husband who finished the Hotel School of The Hague and lived in the… Read more »

Having your own supply of olive oil just sounds too good to be true. How could you go back to the bottled stuff sold in stores again?

Imagine that, having your own supply of olive oil and olives at home! Oh how I would love that! I think that next to having my own vineyard I’d love to have my own olive trees… a girl can dream! 😀
Lovely story, as usual.

Laural Out Loud

I love olive oil, and my surprising favorite is from Portugal. But I’ve never had the pleasure of trying some from a personal stash. I bet it was amazing!

That is one incredible story. How did it taste coming out of a Coca Cola bottle? I would also like to find out if things have changed since you lived there, just in case I get stuck when I move to Ramallah.

maria altobelli

Ah, yes. Olive oil. One in the trinity of my essential foods, Parmesan cheese and wine being the other two. This is how we decide where we can put down roots for a while — I must be within one hour of good Parmesan cheese. If I can get the cheese, I can get the other two. I remember being in a group of Italians a few years back in Puglia and one woman saying, “Disaster this year with our olive crop.” I imagined horror stories of Nature taking down all their trees in some way. She went on to… Read more »

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