Palestinian foodies are tired of letting global awareness of the local cuisine be dominated by Israeli chefs. They are returning maqluba to the center of the table and don’t hesitate to dip into history and politics of the conflict when necessary.
“My home is Palestine. Even though where I grew up wasn’t geographically in Palestine, everything about our family life was Palestinian. Palestinian families have this innate yearning for community and it starts in the home. I lived with my siblings, aunties, and parents and we were always together.
Whether it was going on holiday, enjoying parties or simply having dinner, being together was what was important. The food we ate was always traditionally Palestinian, exactly what my parents had enjoyed when they were children. As we grew up, the dishes stayed the same, the food bonded us and helped to create a real sense of family — a Palestinian family.” From “Palestine on a Plate: Memories from My Mother’s Kitchen,” by Joudie Kalla.
It’s close to evening at a crowded, modern pub in central London. On the first floor, customers sip their beverages, but the second floor accommodates a different group: those who have made reservations for chef Joudie Kalla’s supper club. Dozens crowd around the long tables, drinking sparkling wine flavored with rose and citrus blossoms. On the menu: Fennel salad with pomegranate seeds; msabaha; hummus with tahini; and kibbeh bi laban, stuffed bulgur and lamb dumplings cooked in yogurt. The dishes are seasoned to please the palate of anyone who grew up in the Middle East and may be less familiar to natives of the British Isles. They are served in pots placed at the center of the table and strangers pass them around to each other.
“Palestine on a Plate” is the name of Kalla’s successful pop-up venture, which takes place on a monthly basis at various London locations. On September 15, Kalla’s first book (“Palestine on a Plate,” Jacqui Small publishers) went on sale across the United States and Britain. Getting the book published, the fulfillment of a five-year dream, was no small feat.
From 2010 through 2013, Kalla ran a small restaurant called Baity Kitchen. She had worked as an apprentice at famous London restaurants before opening her own place, which served modern Palestinian food.
“When I was in Baity Kitchen, I was really documenting all the recipes, not just for me but also for people who worked with me, because I needed someone to learn how to cook things. I had my agent at the time, it’s the same agent I have now, trying to interest publishers and it was quite difficult to get the book moving, so I kind of put it aside and concentrated on the restaurant,“ Kalla says.
“When the restaurant closed I took some time off from being a chef… The agent went and sent the book to a lot of publishing houses in the U.K. and most of them said no. Maybe 25 of them said no because they felt it was a hot topic in the wrong way.”
Publishers told Kalla in polite messages that it was too controversial. They posed questions such as “Yes, there are Palestinians, but is there a Palestine?” or: “How can we write about a country that doesn’t exist anymore?”
“They just didn’t want to put their hands on it, really,” she says. “I think they didn’t see past the title. And those who were interested wanted to change the title to something, you know, more floral. It was not my aim to have a book called ‘Pomegranates and figs’ or something. I wanted to put Palestine on a culinary map, I guess… I felt it was important to say what it is. And luckily my publisher Jacqui Small also felt the same. She didn’t want just to publish a Middle Eastern book with a pretty name. “
The Israeli kitchen as trigger
Kalla’s mother’s family came from Lydda (Lod); her father’s, from Safed. In 1948 both families were uprooted and fled to Syria. “On my mother’s side we still have family in Ramallah, on my father’s side they’re scattered across the globe,” she says. Because of her father’s business, in 1972 her immediate family moved to Qatar, where she was born five years later. A few years after that, they moved to London.
“My mom was a housewife and studying to be a pharmacist. Then she had five children very quickly, before she was 30 she had all of us, and we became her project,” says Kalla. “My brother and I were the most British ones out of all of us. They use to call me the ‘Englizia’, the English one, and they thought I would never learn Arabic. I wasn’t interested at all, and then something happened when I turned 21.”
“I was linked as a child to my family and tradition, we celebrated all the holidays and I knew a lot of the stories and history, but not in depth. When I learned to read and speak Arabic fluently, the language became my heritage. Even the choice to deal with cooking professionally was part of a process of opening up to my family and community’s culture. When I handed the book to my father, he wept with emotion and said he never thought that I of all people would contribute so much to changing the world’s image of the Palestinian people,” Kalla said.
The chef is part of a wave of third-generation Palestinian refugees and exiles trying to revolutionize their people’s image by preserving and publicizing Palestinian culture. In many places, including Israel, first and second generations of immigrants are busy overcoming trauma and the difficulties of immigration alongside adapting to a new society. Those of the third generation don’t need to prove they belong in the place where they were born, and many eventually seek to return to their roots and the traditions from which they were cut off.
The kitchen provides a comfortable means of identity formation — in this case Palestinian — and can be used to disseminate historic and national heritage. The rhetoric used by these young chefs, many of them women, recalls the way in which the kitchen helped Jews preserve their identity in the Diaspora.
“The Gaza Kitchen” by Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmidt (World Book Publishers, 2013) was the first Palestinian cook book to become a best-seller and generate great media interest. To all the cookbooks which have already been published or will be soon — and there is no shortage of books being written — you can add pop-up events, popular blogs about food, culinary tours to the West Bank and Arab cities in Israel and restaurants that offer a Palestinian menu.
Kalla, whose Instagram and Facebook accounts have tens of thousands of followers, believes the publicity enjoyed recently by the Israeli kitchen is directly linked to the renaissance of discussions about the Palestinian kitchen.
“Every Middle Eastern restaurant that has opened in London in the last couple of years is run by Israelis and Jewish people. They are making it fashionable and interesting, and there are Palestinians who have trouble with the fact that their food is being attributed in world consciousness to the Israeli kitchen, and want to claim it back for themselves,” she says.
“There are those among them who forget that members of other faiths and cultures in the geographic region have eaten the same food. My grandmother, who was born in Jaffa and moved to Lod with my grandfather, had Jewish neighbors. They would eat together, and she has good memories of that. Jews were in Palestine, and they didn’t appear suddenly in the middle of the night, it’s only Israel that was established in 1948. The Jews were already there. They ate the same foods and they are also a part of their culture.
“In current times, with the world revolving around money, this food has become marketable. Israelis did some excellent marketing and I definitely can understand why some Palestinians are angry. But some in the second and third generation have forgotten the common past where people didn’t even have to talk about peace, they just lived one next to the other. They forget and are angry because they cannot agree to the current situation.”
Kalla refuses to get excited about wars over hummus and falafel. “There is no doubt that these are not clearly Palestinian dishes and that they are eaten all over the region,” she says. But like many others dealing with the history of food in the conflict zone we inhabit, she believes that the four most typical Palestinian dishes are maqluba (an upside-down dish of rice, vegetables and meat), musakhan (roasted meat on bread with plenty of onions and olive oil, a dish that originated at olive-picking time), mansaf (a festive dish of rice, lamb and dry cheese) and sayadieh (chunks of fish buried in rice). These dishes are directly linked to a nomadic lifestyle, to those who worked the land and fished in this region for hundreds — even thousands — of years.
Some of my conversations with Kalla, a woman with a broad smile and contagious joie de vivre, were held in London; others, via Skype. During one meeting, I discern a delicate gold chain around her neck; on it, a pendant inscribed with a map of Palestine — a gift from her mother. The geographic lines, the curve of the Haifa bay and triangle of the Negev and Arava deserts, are familiar to Israeli eyes as the map of the Land of Israel.
“The whole point of the book is not to say that Palestine is Israel, it’s to talk about history and there is a fact that there was Palestine and that Palestinians exist,” Kalla says. “We are not a myth. And it’s not really a political book at all. It’s a book about family and about memories and mothers and generations talking and cooking together. People don’t know anything about Palestine. I am a proud Palestinian and I want people to know that we are human and we love family and we love to live and to eat, we are the same as anybody else.”
“I want them to remember that we are there,” she adds. “People think that we are just pieces of shit. Really. Just slashing people with knives and killing people. They don’t see the oppression and what’s happening.”
“One of the most unfortunate things for Palestinian people — besides all they have been subjected to since Al Nakbah in 1948 to date — is not only having to stand witness to the active attempts to completely erase and destroy the Palestinian identity, culture and very existence of Palestinians in their own homeland, but also seeing their identity and culture being actively replaced by stereotypes of violence, bloodiness and all-round savagery. All it takes is a simple search online for the unknowing to make up an impression reflecting that forced narrative that could not be further away from the truth. The Palestinian people are human beings like the rest of the world. The country did not create a separate race. There are good, bad, heroic, shameful, honest, deceiving, successes, and failures… All that is human resides in Falasteen as anywhere else.” From “Plated Heirlooms,” by Dima Sharif.
Chef and food writer Dima Sharif was born in Jordan in 1979 and today lives in Dubai with her husband and their children. Her father’s side of the family came from Hebron and Jerusalem, and her mother’s side from Qalqilyah. She has many relatives who still live in these cities. For the past decade, Sharif has dealt with the kitchen professionally and for her, the kitchen has also become a means of expressing herself and her Palestinian identity.
A few years ago, Sharif decided to write a book about Palestinian cuisine, “simply because I felt many people do not know what Palestinian cuisine is.” She says that often, “the local and very unique interesting cuisines get lost under the label ‘Arabic Cuisine,’ and what I have found from experience is that most people don’t know what the differences are within Arabic cuisine, or what is unique to each area within ‘Arabic cuisine.’”
“I also wanted to create a resource that includes all the best-loved, popular and unique Palestinian dishes. Explaining in the case of regional similarities how the Palestinian version is different or what makes it the Palestinian version and so on. Furthermore, explaining the varieties within the different areas of Falasteen,” Sharif says.
“Nonetheless, I wanted to showcase that it is culture that creates cuisine and not just geography. Palestine shares the same geography with the Mediterranean region, the Levant, and in the south a more desert nature exists. However and while there are undeniable similarities in the foods shared between these regions and areas, each country in the region has its own unique foods that were created and made to fit its culture and the lifestyle of the people living there.”
Kalla’s book, offers a small preface that explains the history of Palestine and the Palestinian kitchen, but focuses mainly on recipes, presented with light and modern interpretation. The role of musakhan, falafel, maqluba and siniyeh isn’t forgotten, but is incorporated to the satisfaction of a Western palate. Traditional dishes appear along with modern recipes with Middle Eastern inspiration, such as soft-boiled eggs with za’atar or sea bass tartare with za’atar and sumac.
“Plated Heirlooms” (CPI Media Group, 2015), the thick 500-page book Sharif has put together, features original recipes from Palestine from before 1948. They are prefaced by detailed historical information and a discussion of three food regions in Palestine: the Galilee, West Bank and Gaza. It contains chapters that deal with issues such as the place of olives and their oil in the local kitchen, Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry and the rural vs. urban Palestinian kitchen. The book is illustrated by photographs of families in Palestine prior to 1948, and the general tone is much more political than Kalla’s — perhaps because the book was published privately for limited distribution.
Sharif credits globalization and the accessibility of information in the modern world with rekindling conversations about the Palestinian kitchen. “Globalization and the age of information opened the door to awareness and people taking an interest in different cultures and ways of life, including cuisines and food in general,” she says. “I think what used to be limited to a very small group of people who could travel in the past is no longer the case. Nowadays you can virtually travel anywhere you wish. Online you find information and recipes and images of all you need to know to recreate that experience right where you are.
“That said, I believe that for the Palestinians, their cuisine is a reflection of their identity, a means to preserve that identity and express it. The cuisine is also the story of the land, the people lifestyle, culture and so on. The Palestinian kitchen focuses on the Palestinian human as any other human, regardless of troubles, politics, propaganda, war, occupation… which unfortunately and unjustly now dominate all mainstream media and communications about Palestine and the Palestinians.”
Sharif adds: “For the Palestinian people, this is a chance to have a different kind of communication, which I believe is essential. And today unlike the past, having access to information apart from mainstream media allows many people to see another side to Falasteen than that which is prevalent and pushed through mainstream media. As such, I would think people are interested to learn more.”