The Palestinian Table: Cook Reem Kassis on how conflict has eclipsed the region's food

Reem Kassis has detailed the regions culinary history in her new book 

Kashmira Gander
Thursday 12 October 2017 11:33 BST
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(Photos by Dan Perez/Phaidon)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Earthy hummus, gently bitter olive oil and simply prepared fresh fish: if you’ve ever eaten these dishes with a groan of satisfaction, you’ve indulged in Palestinian food (or something resembling it, anyway).

But while this region has an abundance of mouthwatering, healthy food, it’s rarely that which makes the headlines. Even less so the dishes that has been passed down between generations, never making it much further than the family dinner table.

Cook and writer Reem Kassis, who was born in Jerusalem to a Palestinian family renowned for its culinary skill, has sought to share the lesser known dishes of the region in her new book The Palestinian Table. The book documents almost 150 dishes from flatbread to za’atar, interspersed with notes on the beleaguered state and its rich food history.

We spoke to Kassis about how conflict has eclipsed the positive aspects of Palestinian culture, how she feels about Middle Eastern food being ‘discovered’ by the West, and her earliest memory of cooking.

What are the staples of Palestinian food?

Palestinian food has always been a function of the landscape and geography – we eat what the land and sea provide – and we enjoy a diet that relies heavily on whole grains, legumes, and fresh produce. The following list (non-exhaustive but quite representative) covers the main ones:

Za’atar and olive oil. You would be hard pressed to find a family that doesn’t have two bowls somewhere in their kitchen – one with za’atar and one with olive oil – which are brought out for breakfast, a quick sack, a school lunch and so on.

Taboon bread – this whole wheat bread baked in traditional wood-fired ovens is also a staple because in addition to using it for eating things like “Zeit o Za’atar” (Za’atar and Olive Oil) we also used bread extensively with all our meals.

Olives are also a staple food as many Palestinians were traditionally farmers who owned land abundant with olive trees. They were harvested each year at different times depending on whether you want green or black olives and then preserved to last until the following season

Dairy products like yogurt, labaneh, and kishek (a dried fermented yogurt) are staples but they are derived from goat or sheep milk mostly, not cow.

Sesame seeds are a staple and the basis for tahini and halaweh which are prevalent in our diets.

Fruits like figs, grapes, and apricots are also abundant in our landscape and we preserve them in various ways (molasses, jams, dried, beverages, cordials, etc.) which are also staples in our diet

Meat is very common in our dishes, but we rely mostly on lamb and goat meat, and rather than being the star of the dish, it is a component of it (minced beef in stuffed vegetables, stewing lamb in vegetable stews, and so on) with larger bone-in chunks and whole meats reserved for more special occasions.

Fish is a staple in the coastal towns like Haifa, Akka, Yaffa, and Gaza, and is very simply prepared.

Why do you think Palestinian food has remained unexplored until recently?

I think it’s a two-sided story. The first part is that Palestinians have long been involved in a political struggle and a desire to share that story with the world. The food angle was largely ignored because our political plight seemed to take precedence over our culture and food. But more and more I think we are realising food is part and parcel of our struggle and of our identity, and sharing it with the world, preserving it for generations to come, is in a way helping us to reclaim our country, if not geographically, at least psychologically and emotionally. So this new perspective, and the growing ease with which we can share our food with others (social media and otherwise), is leading to a rise in the Palestinians, like myself, who are using food to better communicate the Palestinian narrative to the world.

The second part is when people abroad were becoming familiar with Middle Eastern food, they were first lumping everything in into that category without actually delving deeper into the nuances of this region. Once Middle Eastern food became more mainstream, the demand for a deeper understanding of this cuisine led to the exploration of, and openness towards, the different countries’ foods, including Palestinian food.

What is the biggest misconception people have about Palestinian food?

I think to answer this properly we need to first define who holds this misconception. By and large, Palestinian food has simply been unknown in the West. Now with the rising interest in Middle Eastern food and the foods of specific countries in the Middle East, people – especially those in culinary and foodie circles – are well aware of what Palestinian food is.

In other pockets of people, more so in the US than the UK I think, the main misconception I see is people mistakenly recognising Palestinian food as Israeli. It is natural for Israelis to enjoy similar – and even identical – foods to Palestinians since we live on the same land. But there is no denying that the origin of these foods they are enjoying is Palestinian and or Levantine and adopted from the local indigenous population.

For example, I have seen Jerusalem sesame bagels, the quintessential Palestinian breakfast from Jerusalem dubbed as Israeli abroad. In most cases, I do not think the intent is malicious or even intentional. I think it is, as you call it, a misconception arising from the way these food items have been marketed abroad, and I hope my book will be one of the ways in which we correct such misconceptions.

How do you feel about Middle Eastern food being 'discovered' in the West in the past decade or so when it used to be regarded as 'odd' (when it's obviously delicious and healthy)?

It’s funny you say this because my husband, who grew up in the US, would take hummus in a pita bread to school and the kids would look at him in a “What in the world are you eating?!” type of way. Nowadays, those same people are probably sending their kids to school with hummus and carrots sticks

Part of me feels proud that our food has made such an impact on the Western world. It’s also a relief that many of the ingredients my parents would previously ship to me abroad, are now readily available in stores!

With that said, until recently, much of what I experienced in the West as Middle Eastern food fell very short of the food we ate back home. So another part of me feels responsible to share with the world our authentic foods, the dishes we eat at home and the way we make them, so people abroad can experience what our food really is and hopefully derive the same sense of pleasure from these dishes and way of eating that we have enjoyed for generations. This was, in large part, an inspiration for this book.

Can you recall your earliest memory of food and cooking?

So many of my early memories are tied to food, it’s hard to pinpoint the earliest one

But one of my favourite and most vivid ones is breakfast during winter at my maternal grandparents’ house. Whenever we visited, all the cousins would huddle together to sleep in one room - although I’m not sure how much sleep we got!. In the morning, I remember hearing my grandmother in the kitchen, smelling her frying cheese and eggs, taking whiffs of sweet sage tea and finally getting up to gather round a straw mat laden with all kinds of food. We would warm up bread on a heater, reach for food across the mat, share, talk, and be content. Something about the quiet world outside, the whole family gathered together in the soft light, and the simple but delicious food keeps this memory, and those flavours, alive for me to this day.

Why do you think it is important to weave in heritage and community into how we see food?

Because food is more than just sustenance. Food creates social bonds, marks cultural differences, and establishes a sense identity. It tells the story of people over time.

Especially in cultures like the Palestinian one, where food is so closely tied to different occasions like the Caraway Pudding for the birth of a baby in the book, and holidays - seen in the Holiday Date and Nut Cakes, and seasons in the Stuffed Cabbage Rolls in winter; za’atar flat breads in spring, and spinach stew in the summer, the food we eat tells a story about a way of life and allows us to pass that story from one generation to the next, and also to share it with other cultures.

In so doing, we can bridge differences and create a shared understanding, all of which would be more difficult to achieve without the common denominator of food.

What can the UK learn from Palestinian food culture?

Every culture has unique aspects that other cultures can learn from, UK included. I personally loved the years I spent in London, in large part because of the food culture. If there is something to draw upon from the Palestinian one, it’s probably our diet, especially as people go back to basics, to clean eating, and to a more sustainable life. The other thing is social eating – our food culture is very much a “family style” one where meals are meant to be shared, and in so doing we share our stories, lives, hopes, dreams and fears with others, making for a very social and enjoyable way of living.

What are some ways a home cook can incorporate Palestinian flavours into their food?

At its heart, Palestinian food is simple but layered with flavours or made of flavour combinations that truly shine.

The nine spice mix recipe in my book is a very simple way to add a Palestinian touch to dishes. Whether roasting a piece of meat, baking chicken, or making a stew or soup, seasoning it with this mix will give it an added layer of flavour very reminiscent of Palestinian food.

Another way is to simply cook with Palestinian ingredients. Freekeh, bulgur and maftool can be prepared in many different ways, as easily as rice or pasta in some cases. So next time you’re making a pilaf or pasta dish try one of those ingredients in their place!

What do you think about the clean eating movement?

It’s interesting for someone like me to hear of and read about the clean eating movement, because with people increasingly recognizing the importance of eating natural food that is as minimally processed as possible, they are, in a way, going back to how Palestinians have been eating for generations!

The Palestinian diet has traditionally relied on whole grains, legumes, healthy fats such as tahini and olive oil, fresh produce and local meat and dairy. It is essentially a “clean” cuisine that depends on unprocessed carbohydrates (bulgur, freekeh, wheat, rice) and a wide array of vegetables and proteins, cooked quite simply. The rich and delicious taste comes from using good ingredients, spicing well, and layering flavours.

Ironically, as people in the West move back to basics, Palestinians are opening up more to the Western world and are now starting to enjoy the processed and unhealthy foods the Western world is slowly moving away from. As someone who lives between both worlds, it always feels ironic to watch how these events seem to unfold in a time lag, in alternating parallels, if you will. But nonetheless, it’s reassuring to see that the Palestinian diet continues to be, by and large, the healthy and sustainable one it has been for decades.

What do you hope the book will achieve?

The very initial motivation for this book was to preserve our culinary heritage for my daughters, who I knew would grow up outside their homeland. I wanted them to have a way to always carry our heritage and home with them and maintain a sense of connection to our culture through food. But the more I worked on the book, the more I realised how its impact could stretch far beyond my young family.

So my hope now is twofold: for non-Palestinians, my hope is that the chronicle this book tells will serve as a bridge to understanding Palestinians and our way of life outside the politics we have long been recognised for. I also hope it will help other cultures to better recognise Palestinian food by learning its history.

For Palestinians, I hope the book will capture a piece of home that provides comfort, especially to those of us outside our homeland, whether by choice or circumstance. Of course, I also hope that in documenting our rich culinary heritage, the book becomes a way we can continue to pass this heritage from one generation to the next.

The region is very politically charged - what role does food play?

Food often reflects a political landscape. So to Palestinians, who have long been denied an independent and self-sufficient state, and whose very identity and existence have been challenged, food appropriation becomes a sensitive and even contentious matter.

I understand that in a place like the Middle East, food claims are not always definitive. Located at a crossroads and forming part of a geographic continuum stretching back to pre-Ottoman times, it is impossible to deny the influence of the surrounding region on our food or to delineate the exact origins of every single dish we enjoy. I talk about this in the book, and you’ve probably noticed it yourself, but we share many dishes with Syria and Lebanon and Jordan. Yet, you do not see see us contentiously debating their rightful owners or origins.

In Israel, most acknowledge that these shared foods, which are now commonly eaten by Israelis, were adopted from the indigenous Palestinian population. But there are some Israelis, mostly abroad, who market certain Palestinian and regional foods, like hummus or za’atar, as Israeli. Even Jerusalem Sesame Bagels (Ka’ak Al Quds), the quintessential Palestinian breakfast from Jerusalem, has been dubbed by some abroad as Israeli. These attempts are met with outrage because they are seen as an effort to undermine Palestinian culture and identity.

It is not that Palestinians have a problem with Israelis eating the same food or adopting it into their culture. To the contrary, we have always enjoyed sharing our food with others. The big issue is denying the origin of these dishes, denying that in most cases they were adopted from the local population, denying that they are Palestinian. Doing this is perceived as an attempt not only to undermine Palestinian culture, but to completely erase its history and existence.

Lamb and nut stuffed aubergine bake

(Dan Perez)

My great-great-grandmother brought this recipe with her from Syria when she moved to Palestine. She then passed it down to my great-grandmother, who passed it on to my Teta Asma, who gave it to my mother, who passed it on to me. There is something to be said of recipes that stand the test of time and continue to please generation after generation.

This is a spectacular dish that is definitely worth the effort.

Preparation time: 45 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Serves 6

For the filling

1 quantity Toasted Pine Nuts (page 31)

1 quantity Lamb with Onion and Spices (page 30)

1 teaspoon sumac (optional)

For the aubergines

6 medium sized or 12 baby eggplants (aubergines) (about 3½ lb/1.5 kg) vegetable oil, for frying (see Note)

12 oz/350 g tomatoes (about 3 medium), diced

olive oil, for drizzling

1½ cups (12 fl oz/350 ml) chicken broth (stock), homemade (page 34) or store-bought, or water

½ teaspoon Nine Spice Mix (page 24)

1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses

salt and black pepper

To serve

— rice or bread

Prepare the filling by frying the pine nuts then making the Lamb with Onion and Spices in the same pan. Combine with the sumac, if using, and set aside. This can be prepared a day or two in advance and refrigerated until ready to use.

Using a vegetable peeler, peel alternating strips from the skin of each eggplant (aubergine) to create a striped effect. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise, set in a colander, sprinkle generously with salt, and allow to sit for about 1 hour. When ready, rinse and pat dry with paper towel. If you are using baby eggplants, keep them whole, skip the salting, and pierce with a knife before frying.

Pour enough vegetable oil into a large skillet (frying pan) to reach about ¾ inch/2 cm up the sides. When the oil is hot, pan-fry the eggplants in batches, taking care because the oil may splutter from the water, and turn over once until golden brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Continue, until all the eggplants are fried.

Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C/Gas Mark 5. Place the eggplants cut side up in an ovenproof dish, approximately

12 x 16 inches/30 x 40 cm. With a pointed knife, make an incision halfway into the flesh, leaving 1¼ inch/3 cm at each end. Gently push apart at the incision with your fingers to make a large pocket and stuff each eggplant with the filling. If any filling is left, scatter it around in the dish.

Top the eggplants with the diced tomatoes, scattering any extra in the dish as well. Drizzle the tomatoes with olive oil and sprinkle with some salt and black pepper. Combine the broth (stock) or water, Nine Spice Mix, pomegranate molasses, and 2 teaspoons of salt. Stir until combined then pour into the dish. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to sit for at least 5 minutes before serving with rice or bread.

Note: To roast the eggplants instead of frying, brush with oil and cook in a 425°F/220°C/Gas Mark 7 oven for 20–30 minutes.

Toasted bread and pudding with cream and pistachios

(Photos by Dan Perez/Phaidon)

The name of this dish means “bread of the royal palaces” and a royal dessert it is indeed. A vestige of the Ottoman rule over Palestine (saraya is a Turkish word), this luxurious dessert is actually very easy to make. Toasted bread is soaked in flavoured sugar syrup then topped with cream and pistachios. While it sounds very simple, the flavours are anything but.

Preparation time: 15-20 minutes

Cooking time: 5-10 minutes

Makes one 9-inch/23-cm round cake

For the base

vegetable oil, for greasing

5 oz/150 g ready-prepared toasted bread, such as melba toast

1¼ cups (9 oz/250 g) superfine (caster) sugar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 oz/25g butter

1 tablespoon orange blossom water

For the topping

9 oz/250 g mascarpone cheese (or use ricotta for a lighter version)

½ cup (4 fl oz/125ml) heavy (double) cream

1 teaspoon orange blossom water

1 cup (4 oz/120 g) unsalted pistachios, coarsely ground

preserved lemon blossom flowers, raspberries, strawberries, or pomegranate seeds (optional)

Lightly grease (use a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil) a 9-inch/23-cm round springform pan and set aside.

Put the toast into a large bowl and crush with your hands into small bite-size pieces. Alternatively, pulse to a very coarse crumb in a food processor. Set aside.

Put the sugar, 1¼ cups (10 fl oz/300 ml) water, and lemon juice into a small, heavy pan, place over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 3–4 minutes until slightly thickened. Remove from the heat, add the butter and orange blossom water, and stir until the butter is melted.

Pour the syrup over the toast, mixing very well with a spoon, until all the liquid is absorbed. Transfer to the greased pan, smoothing out into an even layer, and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of a freestanding mixer fitted with the whisk or paddle attachment, whip the mascarpone, heavy (double) cream, and orange blossom water together on medium-high speed until smooth and creamy with stiff peaks, about 1 minute. Avoid over mixing.

Evenly spread out the cream mixture over the bread base, smoothing it out with the back of a spoon. Sprinkle the pistachios over the cake. Refrigerate for a couple of hours before serving, until the cream is set.

To serve, remove the cake from the springform pan and place on a cake platter (do not attempt to remove the

springform pan base). If using, top with preserved blossom flowers, raspberries, strawberries or some pomegranate seeds for colour.

Maftool with Butternut, Chickpea, and Chicken Stew

(Dan Perez)

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 2 hours

Serves 4

For the broth (stock)

2 ¼ lb/1 kg chicken joints (about 4 bone-in breasts or 4 legs, or two of each)

1 whole onion

1 tablespoon salt

2 teaspoons Nine Spice Mix

2 teaspoons ground caraway

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 bay leaf

½ teaspoon tomato paste (pureÅLe; optional, just for colour)

For the stew

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, sliced into half-moons

½ butternut squash, diced

1 x 14-oz/400-g can chickpeas, rinsed and drained

For the maftool

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 lb 2 oz/500 g maftool (see Note)

Maftool—gorgeous caviar-size pearls made of whole wheat— is one of the most distinctively Palestinian dishes you will find. The word maftool means “rolled” and refers to the way flour is rolled around small bulgur grains to arrive at these pearls. In Galilee, people tend to make them larger and call them moghrabieh, while in central and southern Palestine they are made as small as caviar and called maftool.

First make the broth (stock). Put the chicken into a large stockpot and cover with 8 cups (31/2 pints/2 liters) water. Bring to a boil on high heat, skimming away scum from the surface, then add the onion, salt, spices, bay leaf and tomato paste, if using, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until the chickens are done but not falling apart, about 1 hour. When done, remove the chicken pieces and set aside, covered in aluminum foil to keep warm.

To prepare the stew, heat the olive oil in a pot over medium heat and add the sliced onions. Sauté for about 5 minutes until softened and golden brown at the edges. Add the squash, toss to combine, and cook for a further 2–3 minutes. Using a fine-mesh strainer, pour in 4 cups (13/4 pints/1 liter) of your broth into the pot, then add the chickpeas and allow everything to simmer until the squash is cooked and the flavours have all melded together, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil and butter in a pot with a tightfitting lid over medium heat. Add the maftool, tossing to coat, and stir to toast lightly, about 5 minutes. Using a finemesh strainer, pour 2 cups (18 fl oz/500 ml) of your broth into the pot, cover, and bring to a simmer. Once the maftool has absorbed about half the liquid, turn off the heat and allow to sit for 15 minutes. This method, which is halfway between the absorption and steaming methods, produces the best texture for the maftool: fully cooked but still fluffy.

To assemble, preheat the broiler (grill). Drizzle the chicken with olive oil, salt, and black pepper and place under the broiler, skin side up, for 3–5 minutes or until the skin is a crispy golden brown. Meanwhile, tip the maftool into a large serving platter and ladle some of the stew over it. Top with the chicken and serve with bowls of the stew on the side.

Note: Maftool is becoming widely available in supermarkets and online, but if you can’t find it, use moghrabieh, fregola sarda or giant couscous.

All images by Dan Perez

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