Food is one of the best ways to demonstrate Palestine’s unique culture and its diversity.
The first recipe book from Palestine, which features multiple contributors and is soon to be published, brings together accomplished Palestinians to celebrate their love of food, culture and giving.
For Lama Bazzari, an entrepreneur and philanthropist from Nablus, as well as her daughter Farrah Abuasad, an eager poet and high school student, Palestine, their native home, is always close to their hearts.
Farrah uses her writings to connect people through food, as well as to help raise awareness over the difficult situation that Palestinian refugees and communities in Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan face.
Lama has dedicated years of work to running micro loans and angel investment funds to help set up small businesses for underprivileged women in Palestine and across the MENA region.
Last year, the mother and her teenage daughter joined arms and conjured up a noble project: to raise awareness and funds in aid of Palestinian communities through the sale of a not-for-profit recipe book. That resulted in “Craving Palestine”, a compilation of more than 100 recipes and stories generously donated by Palestinian chefs, musicians, artists, writers, poets, film-makers, entrepreneurs and many others, along with recipe dedications to Palestinian literary icons Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish.
The book showcases a wide variety of recipes from traditional classics, passed down through generations, to modern, innovative reinterpretations of favourite dishes that will take any gastronome on a unique journey through Palestine. The many different contributing voices help others discover authentic, delicious specialties by introducing distinct aromas and flavours from each region of the Palestinian terroir.
“Food is one of the best forms to show how rich and complex Palestinian society is. The book displays this beautiful diversity of Palestinians”, Fadi Kattan, a Franco-Palestinian chef from Bethlehem and co-curator of “Craving Palestine” remarked. “There’s a person with a story behind each of the contributions”.
The contributors include US congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, real estate developer Mohamed Hadid, businessman Zahi Khouri, acclaimed poets and writers Naomi Shihab Nye, Susan Abulhawa, Lisa Majaj, Nathalie Handal and more.
Sofia Halabi, a Chilean-Palestinian chef living in Santiago, learned to cook as a child having been shown the ropes by her grandmothers. They themselves were adept at adapting recipes from Palestinian cuisine using products available in Chile. As she grew up looking into the history of her family and that special way of cooking coming from afar, Halabi was eager to delve into her roots.
It was not until she first visited the West Bank last year that she became inspired to incorporate Palestinian culinary traditions into her everyday work. Throughout her three-month stay, she found a new sense of belonging. “Since day one in Palestine, I felt this very strong connection and realised that it was home more than Chile”, she said, reminiscing about her trip.
When her only living grandmother passed away two weeks after she returned home, she realised she would have to be the one to keep the tradition of cooking alive. Proud of her heritage, she has since devoted herself to promoting and increasing awareness about Palestinian food in the largest Palestinian community in Latin America through pop-up dinners and other food events.
As a contribution to “Craving Palestine”, Halabi chose a cheese samosa recipe which she suggested is reminiscent of the Latin American empanada that may indeed have originally travelled from Palestine with the diaspora, and been adapted from the original sambousak.
“This specialty is so simple but fine!”, the Chilean chef uttered, “Palestinian food is all about few ingredients but distinct flavours”.
The skills of Palestinian mothers
The Trio Joubran, a band composed of three brothers from Nazareth playing traditional Palestinian music, are not just world-renowned musicians, they are passionate about cooking and have always enjoyed making and sharing food with their friends.
When the trio last performed in Bethlehem at the end of last year, they stayed at the guesthouse owned and run by Fadi Kattan. Soon after meeting the well-respected chef, Adnan and his older brothers Samir and Wissam joined one of his morning market tours. Later, they ended up cooking together in his kitchen and tasting some delectable dish based on meat that he had come up with on the day.
“We were charmed by Fadi’s respect for every aspect of our culture. How he talks with farmers, buys local Palestinian produce daily, and shows passion at every stage of cooking”, the youngest brother recalled, “it was an unforgettable experience”.
The band was honoured to contribute to the cookbook, putting their names to a recipe of chicken and potato bake (sayniyeht djaj w batata).
“It’s a very modest dish but it evokes all the experience and skills Palestinian mothers put into cooking something straightforward yet delicious for their children”, Adnan said, expressing the same determination that has made the trio Joubran a symbol of Palestinian identity and resistance.
“We’re here to say that we do exist and this is our culture. Being alive with our food, poetry, history and language is our most powerful weapon,” he said resolutely.
Kattan, who co-curated the first ever Palestinian cookbook compilation, scrupulously tested and modified the one hundred plus recipes, fine-tuned instructions, and made the text user-friendly. He took pride in working on a great range of recipes, and collaborating with a very culturally rich and diverse community.
“Many of the contributors are based outside Palestine, and the one thing they all share is this transmission through food which is really about keeping the identity alive”, the Bethlehemite chef said, evidently delighted. “What is enjoyable is to see how these recipes travelled, were changed but retained some very Palestinian character”. He considers himself very lucky to be a Palestinian living in Palestine.
Omar Sartawi, a Jordanian designer and food artist of Palestinian descent, participated in the book project with much enthusiasm as he welcomed the idea of coming together with so many from all walks of life in their love for food as well as for a meaningful cause.
As for his contribution, Sartawi picked a watermelon and cheese dish (bateekh w jibneh) and gave it an avant-garde twist. The end result was cooked watermelon rinds with cheese mousse on the top.
“I wanted to take a basic specialty, which my grandparents used to make at home, and turn it into something a little elevated, playful and exotic”, the conceptual artist explained.
Sartawi has always been closely connected with Palestinian food and the culture behind it. Until today, some of his most cherished memories about food stem from the days when his mother and grandmother were cooking delectable dishes with simple, high quality products.
He values the cookbook for its breadth of input from all the various voices featured in it. “It’s an interesting medley of recipes, original and modified, cooking styles and influences representing one of the oldest cuisines in the world. All in one book”, the Jordanian said.
“Craving Palestine” will be out in mid-September. Full proceeds of book sales will go towards NGO Anera’s education, health and development programmes which will benefit Palestinian communities in Gaza, the West Bank and in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon.
“Despite all that Palestinians have lived and are living through, there’s still a very strong sense of community”, Kattan noted, emphasising that everybody who contributed to the book acted pro bono for a great cause.
“This collection of recipes and stories will bring Palestine on the shelves of a lot of Palestinians and non-Palestinians. It will make you feel at home”, the book’s co-curator said.