by Tessa Fox
20 May 2019
As I wound through the bustling market streets of Bethlehem’s Old City and entered the courtyard of the Hosh Al-Syrian Guesthouse, a calm oasis emerged. Set amid the pale Jerusalem stone and plant-lined terrace, Fawda Restaurant & Café is a reservations-only, upscale Palestinian food experience that merges local ingredients with French techniques. Owner and chef Fadi Kattan is determined to show tourists and West Bank residents that locally sourced Palestinian cuisine shouldn’t be solely defined by traditional dishes or casual presentation.
“It drives me crazy when the Palestinian kitchen is limited to street food like hummus and falafel,” Kattan said.
As the bitter, decades-long conflict with Israel continues, the Palestinians’ traditional cuisine is under threat, as families have been separated from the farms and valleys that supplied their regional ingredients for hundreds of years. As a result, locals worry that their once-proud culinary identity is disappearing and their food is losing its distinct land-to-table flavour.
It drives me crazy when the Palestinian kitchen is limited to street food like hummus and falafel
Yet, in the last couple of years, Kattan and a growing number of Palestinian chefs in both Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank have begun a concerted effort to both reclaim and revolutionise Palestinian cuisine. By returning to its roots and sourcing local, seasonal produce, Kattan and others are trying to champion this under-represented cuisine as it further blends with its Levantine neighbours like Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
“We’ve gone very far from [tradition]. We’re going towards frozen food, a lot of fast food and a bastardisation of international food,” Kattan said. “We’re facing a daily threat of [our food just] being called ‘Middle Eastern cuisine’ or ‘Israeli cuisine’. Today, you have Israeli chefs selling [Palestinian recipes] as Israeli food.”
Palestinian cuisine is a rich fusion inspired by the many cultures and empires that have settled in the region. The Ottomans brought plant-based mezze small plates and barbecued meats eaten with fresh, oven-baked taboon flatbread. Dishes like tabouli, a salad of finely chopped parsley, tomato and onion, and moutabal, a smoky aubergine dip, are common throughout the Levantine. And mansaf, a yellow rice and roasted lamb dish topped with goat cheese, has its roots in the ancient Bedouin population. Yet, over the centuries, Palestinians have managed to turn this cultural fusion into a distinct cuisine all its own, including dishes like maqluba, a baked aubergine casserole dating to the 13th Century that’s made with cauliflower, carrots and chicken or lamb.
At Fawda, Kattan creates four-course meals that highlight Palestinian produce grown no more than 18km away, still in the West Bank. A meal may start with a salad of local eilik (chicory), radish, hweirneh (wild hedge mustard) and pomegranate – all of which can be foraged throughout the Palestinian territories. Wild khobesia – a large, leafy green – comes sautéed with potatoes, followed by slow-cooked lamb seasoned in a ‘secret’ shawarma blend of local spices.
Kattan emphasised that foraging, once popular with many Palestinians, gives residents a strong link to their land. He says that so long as Israel continues its settlement program in the West Bank and confiscates Palestinian territory, this connection among Palestinians to their land is increasingly important.
We’re facing a daily threat of our food just being called ‘Middle Eastern cuisine’
Israeli settlements, which the UN Security Council has deemed illegal, are sometimes built on Palestinian farmland, thereby destroying the crops or rendering them inaccessible to Palestinians due to security checkpoints. Crops that traditionally require large swathes of land, like wheat, have become increasingly difficult to grow. In addition, Israeli restrictions on Palestinians importing fertiliser, which Israel deems as ‘dual-use’ item along with certain chemicals that could be used to manufacture weapons, have had a “detrimental impact on Palestinian agriculture,” according to a UN study, causing Palestinians’ agricultural production to decline by up to a third.
Fortunately for Kattan, Fawda happens to be located in a particularly advantageous spot for a chef. “The farmers’ market is a minute-and-a-half walking distance from here. It’s heaven for a chef,” he said. “I walk down in the morning and I greet all the farmers I know. That’s how we develop our menu.”
Another West Bank chef trying to innovate Palestinian food is Izzeldin Bukhari at Sacred Cuisine. Like Kattan, Bukhari is frustrated by the current state of Palestinian cooking, and feels it is slow to evolve from its traditional meat-heavy dishes such as mussakhan (roast chicken seasoned with sumac and served with caramelised onions over flatbread) or shish barak (lamb-filled dumplings in yoghurt sauce).
“There is no progression as far as continuing the tradition with a new input, in new ways,” Bukhari said, sitting in a cafe in downtown Ramallah. “As a Palestinian, I realise how much impact ‘the occupier’ has had on our culture. We feel a little ashamed [of our] Palestinian roots,” he added, citing the increased number of restaurants in the West Bank serving non-Palestinian fare.
Bukhari runs pop-up restaurants in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, often turning traditional food into vegan or vegetarian versions. With mansaf, for instance, Bukhari replaces the traditional lamb with mushrooms. Similarly, he makes vegetarian mashi (minced meat and rice-stuffed vegetables) by using mushrooms, cauliflower and walnuts as the filling.
“We cannot continue to do the same thing over and over,” he said. “When you take this culture and heritage, and you put it in a new form, you reclaim it.”
Like Kattan, Bukhari feels strongly that the Israeli government’s settlement policy in the West Bank and its restriction of movement of Palestinians is not only disconnecting Palestinians from their land, but dissolving their distinct culinary identity.
“They say ‘Arab’, not ‘Palestinian’,” Bukhari said. “They’re doing their best to remove Palestine from the map, from history. So, anything that is Palestinian should be mentioned more and more.”
When you take this culture and heritage, and you put it in a new form, you reclaim it
Through his pop-up events in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Bukhari reintroduces Palestinian diners to local, seasonal produce and their historical and medicinal uses. At Sacred Cuisine’s most recent event, Bukhari focused on khobesia’s many healing properties, including relieving sore throats, coughs, bronchitis, and stomach and bladder issues.
Bukhari has spent the last two years diligently researching the history of Palestinian food and leading tours to local markets for both Palestinians and tourists. And while he is quick to point out that the Palestinian territories share many culinary similarities with places like Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, he believes Palestinian food will always be rooted in its distinct land and the traditions of its farmers.
“We Palestinians have practices of our ancestors – that they created utilising the land and what they had,” Bukhari stressed. He explained that traditionally, farming was a task shared by the whole family and larger community. As a result, various communal cooking methods have evolved, such as baking taboon bread, in which the fire lit in a village’s clay oven was never turned off, in order for everyone in the community to enjoy the bread all day.
Sufian Mustafa, the Palestinian author of The Cultural Encyclopaedia of Arab Kitchen and other cookbooks, emphasised that certain dishes, such as mussakhan, which is often considered the national dish of Palestinians, don’t exist anywhere else. “This is Palestinian!” he said, emphatically. “I’ve found no reference in other Arab countries.”
Mussakhan also happens to be a dish Bukhari prides himself on serving with a modern, vegan twist at Sacred Cuisine, replacing the chicken with aubergine and mushrooms. According to Bukhari, the dish’s name, which translates to ‘heated up’, is a reference to Palestinian villagers competing against each other to see who has the best olive oil.
“One of the techniques to figure out if you have a good olive oil or not, is if you heat it up,” Bukhari explained. “The colour or taste changes if it’s not good olive oil.” Since olive oil shouldn’t be directly heated on a pan, Palestinians would soak their taboon bread with oil and then heat it in a fire. If the colour of the oil changed after the bread was heated, it meant the oil wasn’t good.
Mustafa explained that on the other side of the Israeli West Bank barrier, there are cities such as Nazareth where the majority of people are still Palestinian, but are now residing in Israel. After Israel declared its independence in 1948, many Palestinians fled or were forced to flee their homes in the war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence. And while Palestinian chefs in the West Bank are increasingly turning back to the land to modernise their food, Palestinian chefs in Israel are blending Palestinian culinary traditions with their new environment.
One such chef is Yousef Hanna, the owner of Magdalena – an upscale restaurant on the banks of the Sea of Galilee in the village of Migdal. Now located in north-east Israel, Migdal was built on top of a Palestinian village depopulated in 1948 called al-Majdal.
Inside Magdalena’s chandelier-lit dining room, Hanna fuses traditional Palestinian and Levantine dishes with European accents, such as baba ganoush ravioli, where the smoky aubergine dip is stuffed in pasta and served with Spanish gazpacho and olive tapenade. While Hanna’s Palestinian grandfather lived near the village before 1948, he calls his food ‘Arab-Galilean’.
“I know our food in the Galilee. The basics come from the Palestinian kitchen. But we cannot only say it’s [Palestinian],” Hanna said, explaining that the Galilee region retains many culinary influences from Lebanon, Syria and Turkey from its shared history under Ottoman rule.
Hanna grew up with parents who owned a traditional Palestinian restaurant. “I learned everything from my mum,” he said proudly. “My mother didn’t like my cooking before. She said: ‘It’s not true what you make. It’s not the original food. You changed it!’ But slowly, now, she says it’s tasty.”
Hanna said that there’s a greater demand for more experimental, progressive cuisine in Israel. As a result, Magdalena serves new takes on traditional Palestinian- and Levantine-based dishes, such as vegetarian kibbeh, with chickpeas instead of ground meat.
“Arab modern food is still a baby. We have a long way to go to compare to the Italian cuisine, the French as well,” Hanna said.
Palestinian food is perfect – you don’t need to fix it or change it
Yet, according to Adnan Daher, chef and owner of the Palestinian restaurant Maadali in the Israeli port city of Acre, whenever a Palestinian restaurant in Israel serves more modern dishes, it only further distances Palestinians from their roots. At Maadali, customers can feast on traditional stuffed grape leaves (waraq dwali), or ‘knafa’, a famous Palestinian sweet-baked dessert made with cheese.
Daher feels he plays an important part in maintaining Palestinian identity through food by educating the many Jewish customers who eat in his restaurant.
“Israeli Jews [know they’re eating traditional Palestinian cooking] because I explain to them that they’re eating the real local [cuisine],” Daher said.
The chef, who learned to cook from his grandmother, believes other restaurants in Israeli cities where large groups of Palestinians remained after 1948 are scared to label their food Palestinian because they worry they will lose business. “They’re worried about the opinion of the Jewish people, so they call it ‘Galilean’ food,” Daher said.
Daher believes that since the erection of the barrier and restriction of movement from the West Bank into Israel, many Palestinians living in the Occupied territories have forgotten the importance of the sea in Palestinian cooking. Outside the Gaza Strip and coastal Israeli communities like Acre with sizeable Palestinian populations, most Palestinians no longer have access to the Mediterranean and have stopped cooking traditional seafood dishes.
But at Maadali, Daher is determined to remind people of the sea’s strong influence within traditional Palestinian cooking as he prepares his daily menu using fresh-caught seafood, such as shrimp with garlic okra, calamari with yoghurt, and fish fillets with onion and sesame sauce. And as conflicts and blockades continue to split the region in two, Daher says what’s most important is that Palestinians don’t forget their storied cultural or culinary roots.
“Palestinian food is perfect,” Daher said inside Maadali. “You don’t need to fix it or change it. It’s one of the best flavours in the world.”