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A food market in Bethlehem.

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‘Palestine Is Not Just Geography, It’s How We Cook and Eat and Talk’

A new generation of chefs is making a political statement — by modernizing and codifying the Palestinian kitchen

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Every morning, Fadi Kattan steps outside of the stone-walled courtyard that surrounds his gourmet Palestinian restaurant, Fawda, or “chaos” in Arabic, looking for inspiration. Stopping off at the butchers, bakeries, and spice shops that surround the cobblestone-lined outdoor market just outside his Bethlehem establishment, Kattan is working with ingredients that have been in Palestinians’ literal and figurative culinary backyards for centuries. That includes freekeh, an earthy, green wheat super-grain often served hot alongside meat; succulent lamb from nearby farms, which pairs well with his delicate seasonings; and ingredients for musakhen, a sumac, onion, and saffron-spiced chicken dish, served with fried pine nuts over a broth-soaked taboon flatbread.

On the Fawda menu, Kattan’s reinterpreted musakhen is a cold appetizer with chicken liver and heart pate, garnished with onion and sumac compote, on mini-taboon flatbreads. In his mind, freekeh is reimagined as an ideal base for cold, seasonally inspired salads. And after mild negotiation, he convinced his local butcher to cut the lamb as fillets rather than racks, as had been the custom; lamb is often featured as the main event in his meticulously planned, three-course dinner menu.

“What some of us are trying to do is to actually combine [locally sourced and locally made] Palestinian products and create a modern take,” Kattan says of his mission, and that of a new cadre of New Palestinian culinary adventurers. “It’s not fusion; we’re not covering the identity of any foods. We’re keeping the same ingredients and playing with the temperature and presentation. The plates are still generous, we’re not doing minimalism. We’re doing home dishes and reinterpreting them.”

The centuries-old Palestinian cuisine is, like many of its Mediterranean neighbors, deeply connected to the land’s diverse terroir and to its traditionally-produced products, like olives, wild herbs, and vegetables. While freshness is a general rule, cooking styles and spices vary greatly by region: the inland West Bank region is better known for heavier dishes like taboon bread and rice and lamb stews, the coastal Gaza is famous for its fish and spicy chile peppers. Many traditions were passed down generationally between women in home kitchens.

But the period in which Israel entrenched the occupation of some 3 million West Bank Palestinians served as a turning point. Kattan trained in Paris and London before returning to his ancestral hometown of Bethlehem in 2000, just three months before the outbreak of the Second Intifada, or second Palestinian uprising against Israel. The period was marked by brutal violence: More than 3,100 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed during the Intifada period from 2000 to 2005, according to the Israeli non-profit organization B’Tselem, which documents human rights violations in the Israeli-occupied territories.

In the first years upon returning home, Kattan watched Israel erect a towering border wall around Bethlehem and the rest of the Palestinian West Bank. The movement of people and goods between Israel and the West Bank were suddenly restricted, creating billions of dollars of losses for the Palestinian economy. From 2000 to 2015, the Palestinian unemployment rate spiked from 14 percent to 22 percent, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Since then, Kattan says that “funky” (it’s not a compliment) restaurants have popped up across the tourist-heavy centers of Ramallah and Bethlehem, serving “an international menu that is totally disconnected with the local products.”

But increasingly, chefs are not only getting more creative with fewer resources, but also seeking to champion the “Palestinian kitchen” while making a political statement. Some hope to catalog traditional recipes as a way to assert Palestine’s presence on the world stage. Others seek to connect modern techniques with ancient ingredients, mirroring the overarching fusion trend from elsewhere, but drawing on local traditions and regional influences. For most, to do so is to look with new eyes toward the foods of their mothers and grandmothers, those Kattan calls “the guardians of the local cuisine.”

As one of the world’s earliest agricultural centers, Palestine hosted a diverse, mainly vegetarian, historically healthful cuisine; its food has been influenced by centuries of both invasion and trade. “The borders between Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon are all recent,” says chef Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, a molecular biologist who swept Israel’s MasterChef competition in 2014 with deconstructed interpretations of classic dishes like baklawa. “Before, we were all part of a big entity in which foods were very fluid.” But unlike other cuisines of the region, Palestinian food is more directly tied to the traditions, customs, and stories of the peasants and nomadic Bedouins who populated historic Palestine.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has carried on in violent spurts and fits since the early 20th century, with intercommunal violence predating the 1948 war by nearly 30 years. Ever since Israel began occupying the West Bank in 1967, it has controlled the daily way of life for its residents.

In the mid 1980s, an Israeli banking crisis inspired the country to drastically liberalize its economy; during that period, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians worked as migrant laborers in Israel, bringing home salaries that were much higher than most Palestinians earned. With their new purchasing power, dining out became more frequent, and “Arab” food began to appear in new forms across the Palestinian territories and in Palestinian communities in Israel.

The shaabi, or “common man’s,” restaurant presented itself as a formal and festive Arab eating affair, considered a special outing for the many families who enjoyed the economic boon. Its several-course meal was composed of barbecued meats and an array of free-refill salads, finished off with a sugary Arabic baklawa and cardamom-spiced tea or coffee. The rich, comparatively healthier Palestinian fare was to be had within the home.

Meanwhile, as life in Palestine took on a faster pace, fast food quickly became a status symbol of the new middle class, as it had in many other countries exposed to Western-style consumerism for the first time. “The brands were something to yearn for,” says Sam Bahour, an American-Palestinian businessman who was among the wave of diaspora Palestinians who moved to the West Bank in the 1990s, buoyed by the apparent atmosphere of economic and political optimism. In the early years, Bahour explains, Palestinians under Israeli control “had a prisoner mentality” and, through their foods, craved “something that was not home-grown.”

Chef Fadi Kattan selects ingredients at the shops that surround his restaurant Fawda.

The mid-aughts brought another construction boom: As the main Palestinian governing party, the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority, was establishing itself and the modern West Bank city of Ramallah, just six miles from Jerusalem, as the de facto capital of the future Palestinian state, thousands of people and billions of NGO dollars flooded in. (Palestinians are among the largest consumers of foreign aid worldwide, according to the Congressional Research Service, the public policy think tank of the U.S. Congress.) “International” cafes with pseudo-Italian names used imported, expensive ingredients for dishes like fettuccini alfredo. Knockoff KFC franchises sold greasy fried chicken. A “Stars and Bucks” chain took hold in Ramallah and Bethlehem, replete with its own green-encircled goddess image that barely tried to hide its imitation of the American coffee giant.

Waleed Abu Jumaa, a 54-year-old Jerusalem-born chef, says that the Ramallah bubble — despite the downsides of its glittering cocktail bars, expensive cafes, and emphasis on foreign products like butter and heavy cream — started to change generations-old attitudes toward professional cooking. “My parents, God bless their souls, they were old fashioned,” he says, noting that the thinking once went: “If you’ve failed in life, you became a chef.”

In the 1990s, Abu Jumaa traveled to London to work in hotel restaurants, where his clients included Queen Elizabeth. When he returned to Jerusalem in 2013, he saw Palestinian families pooling their resources to afford tuition for prestigious Ramallah cooking schools, which taught mostly French techniques and ingredients. The schools attracted young cooks eager to attain the glamour witnessed on TV cooking shows and earn their income through the tourist economy. To know how to cook for the Western palate is to secure an economically viable future in a place with few other options, he explains. “They see it as something to invest in. The new generation has hope.”

But Abu Jumaa — who has since founded the International Master Chef Association in the Levant, a Ramallah-based consortium of Arab chefs spanning North Africa to the Palestinian Territories to Egypt — says that the Ramallah culinary scene’s graduates have also gone on to experiment with their skills. Often, it’s in a way that suits their Palestinian culinary heritage.

Joudie Kalla, chef and author of the exuberantly colorful cookbook Palestine on a Plate, says she once cringed as Israeli restaurants popped up around her hometown of London. Traditional Palestinian dishes were being labeled as “Israeli”: Using recipes, she says, that borrow heavily from the Palestinian culinary tradition but only rarely give it credit. “It’s not about a fight with the Israeli restaurants; we have the same foods,” she says. “It’s not to take away the fact that Jews and Israelis also eat these foods, but because Israel is relatively new and our grandparents and theirs were eating it for hundreds of years.” So she set out to correct the inaccuracies she saw.

Kalla opened a deli in London called Beity, which means “my home” in Arabic as well as in Hebrew. It was there that she served traditional dishes and started to create new, wholly invented recipes that fused European and Palestinian techniques and ingredients. She whipped up a kanafeh cheesecake, based on the typical pastry made from a sweet cheese famous in the West Bank city of Nablus and topped with shredded phyllo, and drenched in sugary syrup and pistachios. “People from all walks were coming in and trying food and feeling nostalgic, like they’ve eaten it somewhere before,” she says.

Kattan in the Fawda kitchen.

Atamna-Ismaeel, the MasterChef winner, says that shared, cross-cultural experiences has always been at the heart of her cooking, too. She grew up in Baqa al-Gharbiyeh, an Arab city in northern Israel. Her relationship to the kitchen was also deeply personal. Her grandmother, a brilliant student, was forced to leave high school to help her mother. When her grandmother got married and had children, her daughter, Nof’s mother, was never allowed in the kitchen. “My father would make jokes that my mother couldn’t even make an omelet,” she says, laughing. But Atamna-Ismaeel spent her childhood afternoon on the kitchen countertops as her grandmothers, each from different regions, learned each other’s recipes.

“Food was the center of the house back then,” she says. “Women would wake up, make the bread, and whatever would be for dinner. There were no frozen pizzas.”

Atamna-Ismaeel was entranced by iconic Palestinian dishes like the maqloubeh, an aromatic stewed meat, rice, and vegetables dish that translates to “upside-down” because of the way it’s cooked — in an earthen pot and then flipped over onto a serving plate, maintaining its round shape. It’s rooted in the cuisine of the Bedouins, and in contemporary Palestinian society, maqloubeh is still a beloved dish among both the rich and poor. It’s also extraordinarily versatile: If money is tight, it can be easily made more economically by replacing the lamb with the more affordable chicken or cauliflower.

Atamna-Ismaeel translated her curiosity about the diverse palates of her childhood into Israel’s first “Levantine” food festival, the Levant Arab Food Festival, held annually in the northern port city of Haifa. The event transforms Israel’s third-largest city into a celebration of old-school and newbie Palestinian chefs, and showcases Palestinian dishes on the verge of extinction.

Kalla and Atamna-Ismaeel say that the translation — to Palestinians who are familiar with the foods and those who are not — has been essential to the creative process currently revolutionizing Palestinian food. In the past decade, cookbooks like Kalla’s Palestine on a Plate, or the equally famous Laila el-Haddad’s Gaza Kitchen, have attempted to record — and codify — the Palestinian culinary canon. In chronicling the fish-based delicacies of coastal cities like Haifa or the heavier, meat-and-rice combinations typical to cities like Hebron, they hope to bring granular portrayals of Palestinian foods, distinguishing them from their previous inclusion in the more general “Middle Eastern” category. It’s a daunting task, given that most recipes before then had been passed down from mother to daughter, and hardly involved quantifiable instructions, says Kalla.

Kalla learned Arabic only at the age of 21. But for her, “Palestine is not just geography, it’s how we cook and eat and talk, and how we interact as families and friends,” she says. And by cooking Palestinian food, she hopes to create a Palestinian experience that people can relate to. Like many Palestinian diaspora families, Kalla’s was dispersed across the region after the 1948 war that led to the establishment of the state of Israel. They lived first in Qatar and Syria before settling in London, where she’s been for the past 35 years.

Kalla says that her identity as a Palestinian in the diaspora gives her food both its distinct Palestinian flavors as well the unique stories of her family’s global wanderings. “It’s all very sentimental and emotional,” she says of the process of gathering and recording her family’s recipes. “My grandmother’s since passed away, and she hadn’t told me how to make certain things.” Kalla was, in many cases, going at it with only vague recollections from her childhood kitchen.

Like many of her counterparts, Atamna-Ismaeel is working on a comprehensive Palestinian cookbook, which, so far, includes around 400 recipes, accompanied by multiple backstories and respective variants on ingredients and measurements. “It’s my life’s project,” she says.

In recent years, several high-profile Palestinian restaurants in Israel have opened and closed. But Atamna-Ismaeel believes the hiccups can be fixed with a dose of historical culinary education. “In the last few years, more Jewish chefs have started to use and be inspired from local ingredients, and the Arab cuisine is just a treasure for that, and Arabs have done the same. It’s coming from both sides,” she says. “Sharing is important because I think it also gives you the ownership of the foods. It’s not a top-secret, nuclear thing, it’s recipes. They’re part of our culture and, ultimately, sharing them will help a lot in preserving them.”

She hopes that education will help Palestinian chefs understand their cuisines in a deeper way. Along the way, she believes it could accomplish nothing short of helping the region to understand and treat itself better.

“We wouldn’t be so militant if we were all good neighbors to each other,” she says. “But that’s exactly my dream: that food will bring us back to the time when we were all eating and drinking together.”

Shira Rubin is an American journalist covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Nechama Jacobson is a professional sentimentalist photo-documenting life in the Middle East.
Editor: Erin DeJesus


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