How does one approach the Palestinian table? Considering Palestine’s ancient history of political occupations and the fresh trauma of settler-colonial violence, bringing an appetite is not enough.
As Israeli forces impound homes and fence off swaths of farmland, the doggedness of Palestine’s farm-to-table philosophy seems to have deepened. In cookbooks and at community events chaired by those in the Palestinian diaspora, we’re seeing sustained emphasis on the archiving of regional nuances and local sourcing traditions. There is even a seed bank movement to preserve heirloom stock. The urgency that animates these endeavors is quite palpable.
Marcelle G. Afram, chef and owner at Shababi Palestinian Rotisserie Chicken in Washington, D.C., believes that home cooks in the diaspora are an important front in the resistance, serving as insurance against the real threat of extinct foodways. They are, quite literally, “the holders of the key, a crucial symbol of the right to return,” he told HuffPost.
Afram, whose grandparents were expelled from their Palestinian home in a 1948 cleansing known as Nakba, composes aromatic slow-roasted plates that pay homage to “the love of the Palestinian national dish, musakhan, and the world famous chicken shops from Beit Jala to Ramallah that my grandparents always spoke about.” He is grateful for the vibrant social media chatter around Palestinian food, “this large movement toward documentation, preservation and celebration” that will “keep the homeland on the table, generation to generation.”
Afram also explains that because “there is a need to consistently validate our right to existence, inevitably, our food is political.”
HuffPost spoke with four Palestinian women in the diaspora about the food culture in their families and the standout meals they won’t forget.
Heifa (who for privacy reasons prefers to omit her last name) and her family come from Farkha, a small village north of Ramallah and south of Nablus, a sweep of olive farmland. “You will find jars of fresh olive oil in every household, so fresh it burns the back of your mouth,” she said. There, food tends to be fresh, minimalistic and consumed with a sense of immediacy. Fresh bread dipped in fresh olive oil and za’atar is quite popular, for example, Heifa said, and the cooking is simple, so “the taste is always bold.”
Her most memorable meal was a big family affair that involved mattresses and musakhan. “We all sat together on the floor with our legs crossed and we had this beautiful tray stacked with musakhan made by my uncle’s wife,” she said. “Everything was just so fresh, organic, and the flavors just burst in your mouth. There was homemade bread called taboon topped with local olive oil, caramelized sumac onions and roasted chicken.”
Heifa believes cooking is central to the preservation of Palestinian identity. “So much of who we are is in these recipes or in ingredients that are native to our way of life,” she said. Festival staple and trusty crowd-pleaser makloubeh, an aromatic rice dish that’s plated upside down, is a favorite.
“It is made with lamb, chicken, sometimes just vegetables. The rice is fragrant with notes of cumin and cinnamon. The vegetables are perfectly caramelized and tender. All of this makes for a magnificent bite that reminds me of my homeland,” Heifa said. “I enjoyed this dish often in the company of my extended family and I can’t help but think of them when I make it. Like much of Palestinian cuisine, its simple technique and quality ingredients are what make it so fantastic.”
Jerusalem-born and raised Kakish cooks with shipments of za’atar and locally pressed olive oil. They’re courtesy of her teta (grandmother), who lives in Palestine, wears handmade aprons and bakes to the tunes of Fairuz on the radio. “She cooks with what we call nafas, which literally translates to ‘soul’ or ‘breath,’” she said.
Kakish often finds herself craving jazar ahmar, which is Arabic for stuffed red carrots in tangy broth. “It comes to mind simply because it is so hard to recreate outside of Palestine,” she said.
“The ruby carrots are stuffed with a meat and spicy rice mixture, simmering in a tangy, sweet, lemony sauce. Depending on the city, the sauce is made with either tamarind, pomegranate molasses or lemons. The carrots often come from farms in the Gaza Strip. They are a red-purple color just like the Mediterranean sunset. Once cooked, their ruby color stains the rice. It is glorious. With Israel’s restrictions on movement and sanctions placed on Gaza, the carrots are even harder to find,” she said. She’s even had a kind friend empathize and pack her a container, carried by a visitor from home.
Kakish is matter-of-fact about the politics of cooking Palestinian food and the generational pragmatism that shaped local agricultural practices. “We grew up with the concept that our grandparents planted so that we could eat,” she explained, so “confiscating Palestinian land, uprooting olive trees, damaging crops, preventing Palestinians from collecting the wild herbs of za’atar is political.” She dreams of reuniting with extended family over a musakhan feast at her teta’s home in Palestine.
Shami has roots in Jerusalem and Ramallah and grew up being shooed out of the kitchen by her mother, a prolific cook. On Sundays, her father would do a fun mezze spread and wash it all down with arak, a distilled spirit made of grapes and aniseed.
Shami loves the Palestinian obsession with seasonality, freshness and provenance. She says Palestinians in the homeland typically enjoy “cauliflower stew or spinach in the winter, and vegetables that are only available during summer ― squash and bitinjan battiri,” an eggplant variety with a sweet, melting flesh that is native to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Battir, south of Jerusalem. It stuffs and fries beautifully and its seeds are quite sought after.
Shami misses the authentic musakhan experience: warm taboon bread piled with sumac-stained onion and roast chicken, everything life-affirmingly unctuous. “In the U.S., I could never find a bread that is close enough to taboon,” she said. Today, she’s not shy about using substitutes like naan, discovered while dining at an Indian restaurant. In San Jose, a local bakery supplies her flatbread needs. She even does a vegan version with portobello mushrooms.
Shaheen’s family comes from Hebron, grape country in the West Bank. Hebron houses traditional ceramic factories that do handmade tableware in breathtaking glazes and designs, an aspect Shaheen plays up on her blog. “Preparing Palestinian food in Palestinian ceramics while emphasizing its nutritional benefits” is her way of cherishing home.
Shaheen credits her grandmother and aunties for her culinary chops. Family favorites include modardara/mejadra (a pilaf-like rice and lentil dish packed with fried onion) and maltoot (a sweet pillowy bread with probable roots in ancient Egypt). She also loves the big, flavorful Palestinian breakfast with its “array of breads, zeit w za’atar (za’atar moistened with olive oil), labneh (strained yogurt), foul (fava beans), falafel, Nabulsi cheese, allayet bandora (tomato stew), ejjeh (a riff on frittata), olives, fresh vegetables and greens.”
But it is really her grandmother’s za’atar bread that has her heart. The bread has a cut pattern her family is careful to respect: “Circular with indents around and a hole in the middle, a specific shape taught by my teta that we all make sure to do the same way.” What makes it special is the wild thyme in the za’atar ― her family uses only the spring flush and stores a year’s worth for special occasions or homesick visitors from abroad. It is served under her grandparents’ lemon tree with a pot of mint tea, chunks of Nabulsi cheese and homegrown vegetables. Shaheen always takes some with her back to the U.K., breaking off a piece whenever she misses home.