The Rise of Palestinian Food
Cookbook authors and chefs are arguing for their place at the table — to chronicle recipes, safeguard ingredients and assert a sense of humanity.
SOURCE: THE NEW YORK TIMES
BY: LIGAYA MISHAN
THE CARROTS, KNOWN as jazar ahmar, are stocky and rugged, as dark as wine, shading from red into purple. This may be the closest they get to the color of their ancestors, the primeval carrots that were first cultivated about a thousand years ago in what is today Afghanistan and later sown throughout Arab lands. A 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook dedicated to the food of the caliphs quotes the poet Kushajim rhapsodizing about a cold dish of carrots, cut into coins, as “dinars of carnelian.” Raw, they’re dauntingly tough, as hard as beets.
The Palestinian chef Joudie Kalla, who was born in Syria and now lives in London, inherited a recipe from her Teta Najla (her maternal grandmother) for jazar ahmar stuffed with cinnamon-scented ground lamb and rice, simmered in tamarind and lemon and given a lashing of garlic oil suffused with dried mint. But when Kalla first tried to recreate the Gazan dish for her 2018 cookbook, “Baladi,” she found the carrots almost too dense to core. (In the book, she cautions, “This is going to take a while.”) Her mother revealed the secret: Teta Najla would take the enormous red carrots to a local electrician and ask him to hollow them out with a power drill.
This is not an ancient technique. But the dish that winds up on the table — whether made by Palestinian cooks in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon or, like Kalla, in the West — is still true to its roots, bracingly sour and sweet. If cooking is in part an act of preservation, a way to sustain cultural identity across time and distance, it is also an art of resilience, demanding the ability to adapt. The very endurance of the dish may be counted as a victory: Six years ago, Vivien Sansour, a native of Beit Jala, a small town next to Bethlehem in the West Bank, feared that the indigenous jazar ahmar her mother had always stuffed were disappearing. She could no longer find them at markets and was repeatedly told that they were unavailable, until one day a vegetable peddler showed her a stash hidden under a tablecloth, promised to other buyers. She persuaded him to sell her two carrots, took them home, put them in the ground, waited for them to flower and harvested their seeds — among the first in an archive for the future, a project she calls the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library.
These days, Sansour travels the West Bank with a street-cart-size wooden kitchen that she sets up in the middle of villages, where she hosts meals and gathers stories of vanishing ingredients: strains of wheat like kaf al-rahman (“the palm of the merciful”) or abu samra (“the dark and handsome one”), which yields a bread as rich as cake; drought-resistant watermelons from Jenin in the West Bank, in whose fields people took refuge during the Six-Day War of 1967, and distant cousins to the watermelons of Gaza that are roasted unripe over open flames — in a communal process “that can take more than half the day,” according to Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt’s 2013 cookbook “The Gaza Kitchen” — and mashed to make fattit ajir, a salad strewn with scraps of qursa, unleavened bread baked in the fire’s embers.
Palestinian food is still rare in the West, at least under that name. Often it’s subsumed under the oversimplified label of “Middle Eastern” — a broad sweep from North Africa to Central Asia — or the more euphemistic “Mediterranean,” invoking the familiarity and safety of Italy and Spain to deflect from negative Western stereotypes of Arabs. Certainly it has kinship with other culinary traditions of the Levant, with meals built of dishes meant to share, at tables set with bright salads of just harvested vegetables and khubz (flatbread) baked that morning, alongside bowls of cooling yogurt, olive oil and za’atar, a wild herb that is ground with sesame seeds and sumac in a blend that’s deeply floral and sour. But the particular contours of the cuisine come from the natural bounty of the land between the Jordan River and the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, today designated as Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
Therein lies the difficulty. Before Kalla’s first cookbook, “Palestine on a Plate,” was published in 2016, prospective editors were worried that the title might be taken as a provocation, by asserting Palestine as a literal place. (“The Gaza Kitchen” and Christiane Dabdoub Nasser’s 2001 “Classic Palestinian Cuisine” were early outliers, issued by small presses dedicated to international issues.) There are those for whom the word “Palestinian” is already a stance, as if simply pronouncing it constitutes an attack on Israel’s right to exist. Some insist that, historically, there was no Palestinian culture distinct from that of their fellow Arabs in the region — since Palestine was for centuries part of Greater Syria, under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire — a largely academic argument that fails to answer the question of what, then, to call the people who lived in the territory before 1948. They are not merely Arab any more than the French are merely European. In any case, if they did not have a fully formed identity under the Ottomans, they certainly do now, defined in part by the land they have lost.
If cooking is in part an act of preservation, a way to sustain cultural identity, it is also an art of resilience, demanding the ability to adapt.
Kalla persisted with her book, and since the publication of “Palestine on a Plate,” each year has seen a new addition to the Palestinian culinary canon: Reem Kassis’s “The Palestinian Table” in 2017; Kalla’s “Baladi” in 2018; last year’s “Zaitoun,” by the British writer and human rights activist Yasmin Khan; and this spring’s forthcoming “Falastin,” by the Jerusalem-born, London-based chef and restaurateur Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley. Still, for each, the problem remains: How to speak of the cuisine, given the political context? Alongside recipes, must there be testimony to the daily tolls of life under Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza, the bulldozing of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of local olive trees over the past half century? Should there also be an acknowledgment of the rockets lobbed into Israeli territory by Palestinian militants, or the rallying cry of Hamas, the party that controls Gaza, for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea,” tacitly wiping out the country that lies between, or the rise of anti-Semitism in the Islamic world, or any of the countless accusations and defenses that can make a case for suffering on both sides?
In the end, these are cookbooks, intended to be a celebration — of a rich and storied cuisine whose history extends much further than the past seven decades. Some of the writers use their pages to chronicle the current Palestinian plight while others focus on the food and pass over the conflict in silence; both approaches have been criticized. But if to say “Palestinian” is in itself a political act, then each author is, in effect, an advocate. And all are united in the hope of making readers see Palestinians as “ordinary human beings with needs and wants,” as El-Haddad says: as a people like other peoples, whose name can be spoken.
IN A 1986 INTERVIEW, the Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said recounted a conversation with a friend over a breakfast of yogurt cheese strewn with za’atar. It was a breakfast that, Said mused, existed “all over the Arab world”:
But my friend said: “There, you see. It’s a sign of a Palestinian home that it has za’atar in it.” Being a poet, he then expatiated at great and tedious length on Palestinian cuisine, which is generally very much like Lebanese and Syrian cuisine, and by the end of the morning, we were both convinced that we had a totally distinct national cuisine.
Without the anchor of a name and a place on a map, what are the markers of Palestinian identity? To eat za’atar is to remember the land from which the herb was historically gathered. So, too, with spiky akoub, a tumbleweed as tender as artichoke inside its armored buds; and iron-rich loof, the leaves of the black calla lily, which are toxic when raw and must be carefully cooked.
Around 1.9 million Palestinians live within the borders of Israel, 2.8 million in the West Bank and 1.8 million in the breathlessly crowded 140 square miles of the Gaza Strip. Six million, nearly half the total population, make up the diaspora. They are a people who have no country to call their own, like the Basques in Spain, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Roma in Eastern Europe and, for millenniums, the Jews. But while a country is demarcated by official borders and governing laws, neither is prerequisite to a nation. What binds a people is a collective repository of memories and a consensual commitment to a way of life — a commitment that is not only sustained when they are sundered from their ancestral lands but arguably grows all the stronger for it.
Declaring allegiance to a nation need not be intrinsically political, then, or even a conscious choice. In keeping with the British social psychologist Michael Billig’s notion of “banal nationalism” — that nationhood is most powerfully reinforced not through grand gestures but the small, mundane repetitions that slip under the surface of conscious life — it might be as simple as the prosaic affirmation of beginning the day with a bowl of tahini drizzled with grape molasses, at once earthy and sweet; of aunties arguing over how much cinnamon to put in the rice. This is how a nation survives, in its most taken-for-granted details.
FROM THE PRIVILEGED vantage of the West, the true culinary revolution of our time is a return to the particular. Globalization has brought wider access to foods from around the world but it has also homogenized and elided them. Where Western cuisines were always granted minute distinctions (Tuscan versus Piedmontese, say, or the thousand gradations within American barbecue), “foreign” cuisines were perceived as monoliths. Only in recent years has the once countercultural and now mainstream concern over where our food comes from gone beyond the simple trajectory of farm-to-table to a deeper sense of terroir, encompassing the history of both the land and the people who live on it.
This helps explain why Palestinian food is starting to find an audience in the West, in cookbooks and at restaurants like Qanoon in Manhattan, Beit Rima in San Francisco and Reem’s California in Oakland, all opened in the past few years. (Reem’s has drawn protests because it features a mural of Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian activist who was convicted in Israel — some believe wrongly — for involvement in a 1969 bombing that killed two university students.) For while Palestinian cuisine may be “generally very much like Lebanese and Syrian cuisine,” in Said’s words, specific ingredients and culinary techniques shift with each microclimate, from the verdant Galilee in the north to the rolling hills of the West Bank to Gaza’s arid coastal plain, where chiles come pounded raw with tomatoes and dill in dagga, a hot, bright salad, or are left to ripen and then crushed and fermented to make shatta, a condiment of forthright flame.
“A recipe might be known in one area and totally unknown in another,” said the artist and chef Mirna Bamieh, who grew up in East Jerusalem and Ramallah and now travels around the West Bank and Israel, meeting with the oldest generation of Palestinians — those born before 1948 — and documenting oral cooking traditions, which she later recreates in elaborate meals open to the public, under the aegis of the Palestine Hosting Society. One meal in 2018 offered kofta (meatballs) of minced fish, a reminder of the bounty of Gazan waters before Israel limited fishing to as little as three nautical miles from shore. (Last year, the zone was extended to 15 nautical miles, then repeatedly reduced and restored in response to demonstrations.)
Kassis has written about the comic frustration of trying to coax precise measurements out of home cooks who’ve only ever worked by feel: “I cannot tell people to ‘add flour until it’s soft like your earlobe.’” There is an urgency to these recent cookbooks to tell the full story of Palestinian food lest it disappear, from its most famous dishes — mussakhan, chicken rubbed with sumac, roasted among gilded onions and served, in a spill of spice and juices, over flatbread from the taboon (clay oven), and maqluba, scented rice layered with meat and vegetables and flipped over on a plate in a great shaggy mound — to ones more difficult to replicate outside of the region, requiring ingredients like kishk, hand-cut wheat soaked in yogurt, left to ferment, then shaped into rough orbs and dried for weeks in the sun.
Some of the threats to Palestinian cuisine also apply to other indigenous populations around the world: Modernity is championed over traditions dismissed as “primitive”; hybridized seeds displace heirlooms. When the Utah-born artist and chef Amanny Ahmad visits her family’s village in the West Bank, she milks goats alongside a neighbor who is one of the last in the community to make her own goat cheese. Meanwhile, the popularity of a local Chinese restaurant delivery service has prompted Ahmad’s aunt to add spring rolls to the catering menu she offers during Ramadan. This is enterprising and adaptive. Still, Ahmad expresses concern about all that might be lost in the embrace of the new.
But the most dire and immediate threats are political in dimension. A 2019 United Nations report on conditions in the occupied territories described ongoing “loss or depletion and endangerment of natural resources” under Israeli control, with land seizures, the over-extraction of Gaza’s coastal aquifer and 85 percent of Gaza’s fishing waters placed off-limits. Palestinian farmers have been separated from their fields by barrier walls; the flow of water is restricted and Palestinians are currently forbidden to dig or restore wells without a permit, which is hard to obtain. Exporting food products is tricky, making it difficult to earn a livelihood from agriculture, which once made up a third of Palestinian gross domestic product but by 2018 had sunk to less than 3 percent. Laws against foraging, purportedly intended to protect the environment, have made it a crime to pick akoub, meramiyeh (sage) and za’atar. Power cuts in the West Bank and especially Gaza cause spoilage. And travel between Gaza and the West Bank is practically impossible, fragmenting the population and disrupting the oral traditions that keep the culture alive.
To Sansour, the problem goes beyond daily hardship to the metaphysical: “Israel is always stealing our time.” Palestinians wait for hours at security checkpoints; when they travel internationally, those without Israeli papers have to fly out of Jordan, which requires more hours waiting at a border crossing. The slow labor of cooking becomes a way of reclaiming time, of letting herself imagine an abundance of it.
TO A NUMBER of Palestinians, there is another threat, one that is subtler and more abstract but no less potent. Like the controversy invoked by saying “Palestinian,” it centers on the problem of a name: “Israeli cuisine,” which in the West has come to signify the likes of hummus, falafel, labneh, tabbouleh and shawarma, dishes long part of Arab tradition.
In its most basic definition, Israeli cuisine is simply what the people of Israel eat, brought to the newly founded country in the midcentury by Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe and Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews from Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. This might include everything from cheese blintzes and goulash to cakes of almonds and whole oranges, boiled and pulped, from a recipe that’s six centuries old. But as the British cookbook writer Claudia Roden notes in Trevor Graham’s 2012 documentary “Make Hummus Not War,” many Jewish migrants “wanted to forget their old food because it reminded them of persecution.” In the food of their Palestinian neighbors, they found a connection to the land and their ancestors.
If to say ‘Palestinian’ is in itself a political act, then each author is, in effect, an advocate.
It’s worth noting that the term “Israeli cuisine” is of fairly recent vintage and appears to have more currency outside Israel; the American chef Ari Miller, of Musi in Philadelphia, spent a decade living in Tel Aviv and said that he never heard it until he returned to the United States in 2013. The Israeli journalist Ronit Vered, who writes for the newspaper Ha’aretz, suggested that because the country is so young, “we don’t know yet what is Israeli and what is just part of the region’s diet” — but there is a willful refusal by some Israelis, she said, to acknowledge Arab influences.
At issue is not the right of Israelis to eat hummus and falafel. “I have never said, ‘Don’t cook this food,’” said Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, a molecular biologist and the first Arab-Israeli (and Palestinian) to win Israel’s reality TV competition “Master Chef,” in 2014. For her, the problem is a denial of origins, as if these dishes were wholly unique to Israel: “I am asking for modesty.” Ahmad goes further, saying that it’s “psychologically dissociative” for Israelis to embrace the daily food of a people whose name is rarely spoken within the country: “It’s taking what you want and rejecting the rest.” In 2015, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs began flying in renowned chefs from around the world to attend the annual Round Tables by American Express culinary festival, as an opportunity for them to explore local cuisine while also sharing their own, a campaign that Ahmad calls “culinary whitewashing” — promoting the pleasures of food to distract from the grim consequences of the government’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza.
Food may be the most effective form of propaganda. It humanizes: When we dine with strangers, we learn something of who they are. The fear for Palestinians is that as dishes labeled Israeli grow increasingly popular in the West, their Palestinian counterparts — and, by extension, Palestinians themselves — sink out of view. They are rendered invisible.
Consider maftoul, often called Palestinian couscous, although it’s molded not with semolina but bulgur, from hard winter wheat berries that have been boiled until on the verge of bursting, then sun-dried and cracked. The broken pieces are soaked in water and coated in wheat flour, a process done entirely by hand, pinch by pinch, turning them into tiny orbs. Beyond shape, maftoul has little in common with what has been marketed in the West as Israeli couscous but is known in Israel as ptitim (“little crumbles” in Hebrew) or, more colloquially, as Ben-Gurion rice, named after former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who in the 1950s, during a time of austerity and rationing, asked Osem, a local company, to come up with a cheap, machine-extruded alternative to rice. It’s perhaps inevitable that a factory product, easy to replicate, would gain ascendance in the world over a handmade one; but for Palestinians, it can feel like erasure just the same.
IN 2015, ATAMNA-ISMAEEL started the A-Sham festival in Haifa, Israel, to highlight Arab food — A-Sham is the Arabic name for the Levant — and to pair up Arab-Israeli (Muslim and Christian, Palestinian and those with roots in other lands) and Jewish-Israeli chefs to cook traditional dishes. As portrayed in Beth Elise Hawk’s documentary “Breaking Bread,” which premiered in Haifa last fall, the festival is an exuberant success: One chef, the son of a Jew and a Catholic, says cheerily, “Even my godfather is Muslim”; another, a Jaffa, Israel-born Palestinian, reminisces about his multicultural childhood: “In our neighborhood, we spoke Arabic, we laughed in Hebrew, we cursed in Romanian.”
Food may be the most effective form of propaganda. It humanizes: When we dine with strangers, we learn something of who they are.
Still, there are hints of discord: A Palestinian chef and his Jewish wife explain that when their son joined the Israeli military, they asked him to take a naval post so he wouldn’t wind up in the West Bank; they didn’t “want any aunts to bring him food from the wrong side of the barrier.” On camera, Atamna-Ismaeel laughs over “what is politically correct to order” when an Arab salad of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and onions is listed on the menu as an Israeli salad; but in a more recent interview, with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in October, she was more vocal about the discrimination she’s experienced as an Arab in Israel, adding, “And now they come and also take my food.” Last year, the festival was suspended after local government funding was cut.
El-Haddad questions the “feel-good, hummus-kumbaya narrative” of bringing together Palestinian and Israeli chefs without addressing the underlying inequity between them, arguing that such gestures are mere optics because the situation on the ground doesn’t change. “Who doesn’t want to move forward and forget what happened?” she said. “It’s like white people [in America] saying, ‘Why are black people so angry?’”
At the same time, candid dialogues between Palestinian and Israeli chefs are beginning to take place. In 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted a dinner and discussion with El-Haddad, her co-author Maggie Schmitt and Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israel-born chef who is a partner in the Ottolenghi delis in London with the Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi. Last year, Kassis cooked alongside the Israel-born chef Michael Solomonov of Zahav in Philadelphia, the chef perhaps most identified with Israeli cuisine in the United States and a friend of hers. The event, at the James Beard House in New York, bore the title Breaking Bread (no connection to the film), with proceeds going to an organization working toward reconciliation, made up of Palestinian and Israeli families whose loved ones have died in the conflict. “I don’t think either of us think that we will break bread and then there will suddenly be peace,” Solomonov said. “But we can start with the bread.”
“There are other ways to raise awareness — to spread your culture and have people know you as a person,” Kassis said. “I want our recipes and our stories to speak for themselves.”