For This Palestinian Prepare dinner, The Kitchen Is A ‘Highly effective Place’ — Not A ‘Life Sentence’


Cookbook writer Reem Kassis says that many meals which might be thought of Center Japanese or Israeli really originated as Palestinian dishes.

Dan Perez/Phaidon Press


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Dan Perez/Phaidon Press

Cookbook writer Reem Kassis says that many meals which might be thought of Center Japanese or Israeli really originated as Palestinian dishes.

Dan Perez/Phaidon Press

Rising up in East Jerusalem, Palestinian cookbook writer Reem Kassis by no means anticipated to enter the meals business. For her, the kitchen represented a “life sentence” for ladies.

As an alternative, Kassis moved to the U.S. when she was 17, first learning enterprise on the College of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Faculty after which on the London Faculty of Economics. It wasn’t till she had a baby that she started to see the kitchen as a “highly effective place” the place she may share necessary tales about meals and tradition along with her daughter.

“I began compiling my household’s recipes and tales collectively, nearly as a method for her to have a chunk of residence wherever she ended up on the earth,” Kassis says. “However as soon as I did that and I began to see all these items coming collectively, I spotted, sure, these are my household’s recipes, these are my household’s tales, however taken collectively as a complete, they could possibly be the story of any and each Palestinian household.”

Kassis says that many meals which might be thought of Center Japanese or Israeli really originated as Palestinian dishes. Her first cookbook, The Palestinian Desk, chronicled the historical past of Palestinian meals — together with a few of her private historical past. In her new e-book, The Arabesque Desk, Kassis expands the main target to the cross-cultural culinary historical past of the Arab world.

Interview highlights

The Arabesque Table, by Reem Kassis
The Arabesque Table, by Reem Kassis

On her id as a Palestinian being inherently political

It is comical as a result of all it takes is for me to make use of the phrase “Palestinian” and something that I need to speak about — irrespective of how far faraway from politics — all of a sudden is political. However on the similar time … as Palestinians, as a those who do stay below occupation, who’re combating for justice, it is exhausting to separate that actuality from the rest that we do. Each particular person goes about it differently. I’m within the meals and writing world and that is how I attempt to tackle or take care of that difficulty, from that angle. And another person in a unique sphere would possibly take care of it from a unique angle. … It may be a landmine, nevertheless it should not be. … Meals is the bottom frequent denominator all of us have. … No matter the place you come from or what faith you’re or what your beliefs are, it’s a must to eat. However do I consider that meals can convey folks collectively? I believe that is a stretch.

On the controversy in regards to the origin of hummus

Hummus itself is controversial overseas as a result of only a few many years in the past, no one knew what it was. When my husband would take it to highschool, folks would make enjoyable of him for consuming this beige paste. Now, all of a sudden, because the late ’80s, it is grow to be rather more common and acknowledged overseas as Israeli. And I believe that is the place the controversy occurs. …

It is a dish that’s inherently Arab and overseas it is being marketed as Israeli — with none point out to these origins. … Once I’m right here and I see one thing that I do know is such an necessary a part of my culinary id being appropriated as Israeli, it feels nearly like including insult to damage and willfully saying that I do not exist, that I haven’t got a previous, that I used to be by no means there or a part of the historical past. So I’ve mentioned this earlier than, it isn’t in regards to the chickpea itself, it isn’t in regards to the dish, it is extra about what that omission signifies to folks like me who’re Palestinian, who see our historical past being sidestepped utterly and ignored overseas.

On the Arabic bagel

Kassis explores the cross-cultural culinary historical past of the Arab world in her cookbook, The Arabesque Desk. Proven above (clockwise from high left): sujuk fried eggs; “secret” Shankleesh salad; fried Arabic white cheese; labaneh, purple chili and egg salad.

Dan Perez /Phaidon Press


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Dan Perez /Phaidon Press

Kassis explores the cross-cultural culinary historical past of the Arab world in her cookbook, The Arabesque Desk. Proven above (clockwise from high left): sujuk fried eggs; “secret” Shankleesh salad; fried Arabic white cheese; labaneh, purple chili and egg salad.

Dan Perez /Phaidon Press

I really additionally all the time assumed it originated with the Ashkenazi communities in Japanese Europe. After which I began doing the analysis for this e-book … and a part of the analysis concerned trying via historic medieval Arabic cookbooks. And I am flipping via certainly one of them from the 13th century, and there in a chapter on bread, I see a bit on ka’ak, which is a ring-shaped dough that Arabs used to make centuries in the past. And I am studying and in there it says, “Take these ring-shaped doughs, put them on a dowel, boil them in water after which bake them.” And that primarily is what a bagel is at this time.

So when you begin digging deeper, you notice the bagel will be traced again, and that is achieved by loads of Jewish researchers, they hint it again to Poland within the 16th century. In Poland, nevertheless, they hint it again to their royal household to the 13th century. After which once you look, who married into that royal household, it was a lady who got here from Bari, Italy, and Bari, Italy within the Center Ages was … [a] stronghold of the Islamic Empire, and from there, the delicacies of Europe was influenced closely by Arab merchants and the conquest of that area. So that you begin to see how the bagel, in its authentic kind, traveled the world over. And you then additionally see very related variations of it in China the place the commerce routes additionally went. And you then realized the factor connecting all these was their origin in these Arabic cookbooks, that reality of boiling a chunk of dough earlier than baking it.

On what impressed her to begin cooking the Arab dishes from her childhood

I believe loads of instances you’re taking issues with no consideration as a baby — and I positively did that with my mom’s cooking. My daughters do the identical with mine. However as soon as I left and I arrived within the U.S., there was a little bit of tradition shock for me. A part of it was seeing how I am consuming by myself within the eating halls. There is not that familial feeling of getting everybody consuming collectively after which the meals itself. I began to crave it. I missed it. I missed not solely the style and the flavour, however the complete feeling round it. And that is after I began really tinkering with cooking and I might name my mom and ask her for recipes. So it began out easy.

I keep in mind the primary dish that I needed to make was maqluba, that inverted rice and vegetable dish. … I believe I referred to as her possibly 15 instances within the span of two hours [and] at one level she mentioned, “It is cheaper for me to fly over and prepare dinner it for you than to must preserve answering your questions on the right way to make it!” However I keep in mind consuming it then, and in some way it gave me a way of satisfaction of being nearer to residence. And even when only for just a little bit, that nostalgia that I had was placated simply by consuming that dish.

On za’atar seasoning

Za’atar is an herb in and of itself, and it is from the oregano household. What finally ends up occurring right here is when folks say za’atar, they’re referring to the condiment constituted of that herb, combined with sumac, sesame and salt. And generally folks will name it thyme, nevertheless it’s really not thyme in any respect. It’s a lot, a lot nearer to oregano than it’s to thyme. And the rationale it is misunderstood is folks in all probability do not realize it is an precise plant. So we do make a condiment from that plant and we creatively name it by the identical identify because the plant, however we additionally use it in different purposes. We use it in doughs, various kinds of bread and pastries. We use it to make teas as nicely. And naturally, the condiment might be essentially the most widely-used and acknowledged … combined with sumac, sesame seed and salt, and it is in all probability current on each desk in any Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian family. And it is your go-to breakfast: You dip pita bread in olive oil and za’atar and also you’re good to go.

On growing a friendship with Israeli chef Michael Solomonov (recognized for his award-winning Philadelphia restaurant, Zahav)

The primary time I ever ate at Zahav … [I had] a dish that very a lot jogged my memory of 1 that my mom makes, freekeh. And I keep in mind a part of me feeling glad that I had eaten this dish that tasted of residence and one other half had felt extraordinarily annoyed. Why am I consuming the very best Palestinian dish I’ve had since coming to the U.S. in an Israeli restaurant?

And you then quick ahead 10 years and I am scripting this e-book on the one hand, sure, to safeguard our tradition for my daughter and our culinary historical past, however partly additionally to indicate the world that that is our meals that we have been consuming for generations earlier than Israel was even a state. And so when my e-book got here out, I despatched Mike [Solomonov] a duplicate of the e-book with a handwritten letter partly to say, “That is our meals. That is what we have been cooking.” … And I believe he was very touched by that. I did not count on to listen to from him after I despatched the e-book, however he reached out and mentioned, “I used to be very moved by your e-book,” and he needed to satisfy for espresso. And we did. And I used to be shocked to understand what number of issues get misplaced in translation. You see Mike and also you suppose he is the face of Israeli delicacies. He should deny the Palestinian origins of the meals he serves. He have to be anti-Palestinian, so on and so forth. And when you get to know somebody on a person stage, you begin to notice what number of misconceptions you in all probability maintain of that particular person. And that is the start of that friendship.

Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper tailored it for the Internet.

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