The Jewish Week is always here for you.
We need your support now.
Your contribution will help us bring you vital news
and frequent updates about the impact of COVID-19.
A taste of Palestine, ‘a place and a people’
search
Book excerpt

A taste of Palestine, ‘a place and a people’

In an excerpt from their new book, 'Falastin,' Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley share their lifetime obsession with Middle Eastern food and cooking.

This is a book about Palestine—its food, its produce, its history, its future, its people and their voices. It is a book about the common themes that all these elements share, and how Palestine weaves narrative and cooking into the fabric of its identity. The two go hand in hand. Recipes are like stories: events brought to life and shared in the making and telling. They are passed from one person to the next, and in that movement, some details change, others come to the fore, while others will be left by the wayside. And stories are like recipes: a series of individual experiences blended together to create a whole. Where stories and recipes intersect is the nexus, the point, of this book. Rather than telling “a” story or “the” story of Palestine, then, we’re telling lots of stories. These come in the form of both our recipes and the profiles of some of the people and places we’ve met along the way.

First, however, an outline of what is at the heart of this book: the story of Falastin, the place and its people; the story of Falastin, our book; and the story of Sami, your host, and Tara, your guide.

Falastin: the place and people

There is no letter “P” in the Arabic language so “Falastin” is, on the one hand, simply the way “Falastinians” refer to themselves. On the other hand, though—and in the Middle East there is always an “on the other hand”—the word is a big one, going far beyond a straightforward label. It is about geography, history, language, land, identity, and culture. Ask a Palestinian what the word “Falastin” means to them: the answer will rarely be short and will often end with the word “home.”

For us, for the purposes of our book, “Falastin” is about all of these things. Geographically, it refers to a small piece of land at the easternmost corner of the Mediterranean Sea where Palestinians have been living for many centuries. This statement is complicated by the fact that this land is also home to other peoples, Israelis; something of which we are very mindful. Our aim with Falastin is to tread the fine line between paying heed to the situation on one hand and remembering, at the same time, that our book is first and foremost a celebration of the food and people of Palestine.

As well as being a geographical label, “Falastin” is also about identity. For us, it embraces all those who identify as Palestinian, wherever in the world they’re now living. The Palestinian story, post 1948 and with the creation of Israel, could be seen as one of relocation. There are as many different stories as to why a Palestinian is now living where they are living as there are Palestinians. And with more than 12 million Palestinians worldwide, that’s a lot.

There are those who’ve chosen to live abroad and those who have had no choice but to live abroad. There are those who have been displaced closer to home and those who are still living where their parents and grandparents lived before them. Some have known nothing but life in a refugee camp and have never seen the nearby coast, and others have traveled the world freely and have now chosen to return. And then there are those who’ve never actually been to the country itself but who still strongly identify as Palestinian, through the stories and memories passed down from their Palestinian family.

The people of Palestine go by several different names, depending on whom you ask. Some favor “Palestinian,” others prefer “the people of the north,” “Arabs of the Negev,” “Arab refugees,” or “48ers.” “Arab-Israeli,” “Israeli Arab,” and “Palestinian-Israeli” are also used. For us, the words “Falastin” and “Falastinian” are inclusive, managing to incorporate all these various words at the same time as somehow transcending their often loaded meanings.

Falastin: our book

Falastin is a new kind of Palestinian cookbook: a contemporary collection of more than 110 recipes we hope you’ll cook, eat, love, and make your own. It’s the culmination of Sami’s lifetime obsession with Middle Eastern food and cooking—born and raised in East Jerusalem, relocated to London in his late twenties, and a founding member of Ottolenghi—and Tara’s decade-long obsession with Middle Eastern food and home cooking—raised in London and adopted into the Ottolenghi family.

The recipes come, therefore, from all sorts of places. Some are those Sami grew up with and which will always remind him of home. His father’s easy za’atar eggs, for example, or his mother’s buttermilk fattoush. Others are those most Palestinians grew up on: classics such as chicken musakhan or the upside-down rice cake, maqlubeh. One recipe—that for hummus—remains untouched from when Sami first published it in his second cookbook, Jerusalem. After all, there are some things that can’t be played around with or improved upon.

We haven’t felt bound by a set list of “traditional Palestinian dishes,” though. We’d rather shine a new light on an old classic than re-create it verbatim. Doing this—“playing around”—is a risk, we know, because loyalty to the way a dish is cooked is not, of course, just about the dish. It’s about tradition and identity and being able to own these things through food. The process has not always been easy for Sami. Like a lot of Palestinian chefs working today, he keenly feels this tension—between a sense of loyalty to the way a dish is traditionally cooked and the desire to move it forward so as to keep it fresh and relevant.

If Jerusalem was Sami and Yotam’s joint effort to celebrate the food of their hometown and bring it to a wider audience, then Falastin is Sami and Tara’s focus on the food of Palestine. Speaking in general terms about “Middle Eastern food” is rather like saying “European food,” or “Italian food”: it does not pay heed to all the distinct people, produce, and dishes that distinguish one country from another within a region. It doesn’t allow for the importance of sumac in a dish such as chicken musakhan to shine, for example, or reveal how many Gazan dishes have the trio of dill, garlic, and chile shaping them. It doesn’t tell us anything about the red tahini of Gaza or the white salty cheese of Nablus or Akka. Keeping our focus exclusively on Palestine allows us to explore not only the food of this land and people but the regional differences within.

At the same time that it explores the regions of Palestine, the purpose of Falastin  is to be full of recipes that work for and delight the home cook today. We really want you to cook from the recipes in our book—to find them practical and doable as well as delicious. This means you’ll find fewer recipes for stuffed vegetables in Falastin  than you would in a “traditional” Palestinian cookbook, fewer recipes for celebratory dishes that take half a day to prepare, less call for hard-to-find kishek or jameed, the fermented discs of yogurt and wheat in which to bake a leg of lamb. Loyalty to the Palestinian pantry, though—and a reliance on the ground allspice and cumin, olive oil, pulses, grains, za’atar, sumac, lemons, yogurt, dill, garlic, and green chiles that fill it—is unwavering. Our recipes feel distinctly Palestinian, even when they are presented in a slightly new light. Luckily, for those living outside the Middle East, the Palestinian pantry is also one that can be easily sourced and put together from mainstream stores and websites.

As well as our recipes, another way to get to know the country is through its people. When talking about Palestine in general terms, conversation can quickly become political and difficult. The day-to-day frustrations for a Palestinian trying to go about their business, when heard by those who don’t need to carry an ID card with them or require a permit to travel around their country, are easy not to comprehend. For most Palestinians in the West Bank, the reality of checkpoints, a separation wall, and the complicated systems and differing rules surrounding Areas A, B, and C (see page 130 for more on this) makes, frankly, for a pretty grim picture.

Focus, though—travel around the country meeting and eating with people—and the picture painted is a different one. The link between the land and the produce and the people who grow, farm, and make it is strong. Meet someone who explains how they make their labneh or yogurt from the milk of their own sheep or goat, for example, or smell the fresh za’atar leaves on a small farm holding on a sunny spring afternoon, and the outlook is clearly brighter. How things are seen depends on who is looking and through what lens. For all the differing points of view, the reality of someone’s story—the story they live with day in, day out—cannot be denied. This is why we want to tell the story of Falastin through profiles as well as recipes. These are not our stories. They’re not even always our views. They are, however, stories we’ve been moved to tell from people whom we’ve met.


Eggplant, chickpea, and tomato bake

Musaqa’a 

Serves four as a main, or six as a side

Echoes of Greek moussaka are correctly heard here, both in the name and the feel of the dish. It’s a vegetarian take on the hearty, humble, healthful, and completely delicious sheet-pan dish. It works well either as a veggie main or as a side with all sorts of things—piled into a baked potato, for example, or served alongside some grilled meat, fish, or tofu. It’s just the sort of dish you want to have in the fridge ready to greet you after a day at work. It’s also lovely at room temperature, so it’s great for an on-the-go lunch.

Getting ahead: You can make and bake this in advance; it keeps in the fridge for up to three days, ready to be warmed through when needed.

5 medium eggplants (2¾ lb/1.25kg)

½ cup/120ml olive oil

Salt and black pepper

1 onion, finely chopped (1 cup/150g)

6 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tsp chile flakes

1 tsp ground cumin

½ tsp ground cinnamon

1½ tsp tomato paste

2 green bell peppers, seeded and cut into 1¼-inch/3cm chunks (1 1/3 cups/200 g)

1 x 14-oz/400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (1¾ cups/240g)

1 x 14-oz/400g can chopped tomatoes

1½ tsp sugar

¾ cup plus 2 tbsp/200ml water

1 cup/20g cilantro, roughly chopped

4 plum tomatoes, trimmed and sliced into ½-inch/1.5cm rounds (12¼ oz/350g)

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Use a vegetable peeler to peel away strips of eggplant skin from top to bottom, leaving the eggplants with alternating strips of black skin and white flesh, like a zebra. Cut crosswise into round slices, ¾ inch/2cm thick, and place in a large bowl. Mix well with 5 tbsp/75ml of oil, 1 tsp of salt, and plenty of black pepper and spread out on the prepared baking sheets. Roast for about 30 minutes, or until completely softened and lightly browned. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Decrease the oven temperature to 400°F.

While the eggplants are roasting, put 2 tbsp of oil into a large sauté pan and place over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook for about 7 minutes, until softened and lightly browned. Add the garlic, chile flakes, cumin, cinnamon, and tomato paste and cook for 1 minute, or until fragrant. Add the bell peppers, chickpeas, canned tomatoes, sugar, water, 1¼ tsp of salt, and a good grind of black pepper. Decrease the heat to medium and cook for 18 minutes, or until the bell peppers have cooked through. Stir in ¾ cup/15g of cilantro and remove from the heat.

Spread out half the plum tomatoes and half the roasted eggplants in a large baking dish, about 9 x 13 inches/23 x 33cm. Top with the chickpea mixture, then layer with the remaining tomatoes and eggplants. Drizzle with the remaining 1 tbsp of oil, then cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 20 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the tomatoes have completely softened. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 20 minutes. Top with the remaining ¼ cup/5g cilantro and serve either warm or at room temperature.

Excerpted from Falastin by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley. Copyright © 2020 by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley, foreword by Yotam Ottolenghi. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Like what you read? Get the book here.

read more:
comments