When it comes to Israel and Palestine, even the food is fraught. Now, as Israeli chefs gain prominence—both Shaya in New Orleans and Zahav in Philadelphia took home James Beard Awards this year—Palestinian cuisine is getting some of its own well-deserved time in the sun. London chef Joudie Kalla's beautiful new volume, , is equal parts cookbook, history and .
For years, Kalla was the chef and owner of Baity Kitchen. This vibrant, delicious collection, published late last year, is part of the latest iteration of her career. It reflects generations of tradition across continents, innovates and shows how far a few well-chosen spices can go. (We're looking at you, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.) It's also a reminder that while debates over, say, the true provenance of falafel will persist, some things are beyond dispute, like how the dish should be eaten: still warm from the fryer.
Kalla spoke with Bloomberg about the place of Palestinian food in Middle Eastern cuisine, how it has both changed and stayed the same and how it can be a means of resistance—and reconciliation. means "my home," in both Arabic and Hebrew.
Here are excerpts of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
In the book's introduction,you translate a Palestinian adage that often dictated the menu, “What was feasible and what we could afford.” These recipes have been passed down for generations. How have you adapted them to modern life?
I used to watch my mom, grandmothers and aunties cooking the same thing for days, rolling grape leaves and coring [zucchini]. It was a combination of making a lot of the same thing to put in the freezer and making it to eat immediately. Back then, not many women worked, so it was a daily activity, to get into the kitchen and have everyone do their roles, peeling, cutting, chopping, cooking, searing, whatever it was. Today, it’s all about flexibility and fitting it into busy life schedules.
At the same time, it’s more in their minds than reality. Everybody that I meet always tells me, "I just don’t have time," and then I do cooking classes with them and we cook five things, and they cannot believe that they could actually pull off a buffet lunch in three hours with few ingredients. [which looks like an “upside down” cake of spiced rice with lamb and eggplants] is not a full day’s work. You can leave the meat boiling along while you do something else.
When I was going through the recipes with my mom, I was explaining this to her, and she was quite upset that the recipes were changing. She said, “I need to taste them all before you write them down. It’s not going to taste right.” I said, “You know what, Mom, it’s not going to taste right to any Palestinian that makes it, because everyone remembers their own way they had it at home."
You spend a lot of time describing conversations with mothers, grandmothers and aunties, with very little mention of men. At the same time, restaurant kitchens are dominated by men. What do you make of the gender dynamics around cooking?
There are a few recipes that mention my dad, too. It was always fun—he would come in like a tornado and create a mess and then just walk out, and he’d be so proud. But I have 18 aunties, so it was constantly a challenge to see who has the better recipe, when in fact all their recipes were the same, it’s just the order of things that they put in that was different.
When I do these cooking classes, it’s very much half men and half women. A lot of people online send me pictures [of what] they cooked, and the majority are men who got my book, Palestinian or not, making the dishes. I worked in professional restaurants for 20 years, and I was the only girl in the kitchen, always. They thought women didn’t have stamina, but I had more stamina than the men, and I think it’s from watching my mother and my grandmothers cooking nonstop. It’s changing, definitely, in the U.K., but I think it needs a bit more pushing from us.
The book refers to other Arab countries and their influence on Palestinian food, but are there any recipes that are specifically Palestinian?
A lot of the dishes are drawn from countries across the whole Levant region, but some are very traditional Palestinian—the usual suspects. , the flatbreads with onions, chicken and pine nuts. It’s a peasant dish—they cook the bread on hot stones— and it’s eaten all over Palestine. , the stuffed vine leaves with the lamb, I don’t think there’s any family that hasn’t got one recipe for that. It comes out at every celebration, at Ramadan, birthdays and New Year's.
But different parts of Palestine also have different national dishes. You have za’atar chicken, which is eaten in Jerusalem, but some of my cousins who live in Jerusalem have never eaten (cod with cumin, lemon and tahini tarator sauce), and my cousins who live south near the sea have never eaten makloubeh. It’s what’s available and cheap.
In the U.S., the word “resistance” is becoming a prominent part of the conversation. For Palestinians, it’s been in the vocabulary for decades. Do you think of food as a form as resistance?
Definitely. Here in the U.K., a lot of “Middle Eastern” restaurants have popped up, and they are, in fact, Israeli. And it’s all the dishes we grew up on, in Arabic names, and it’s very frustrating. I’m not anti-Israeli, not anti-Jew, not anti-anything, just anti-misinformation. I think to label makloubeh and sayyadiyeh—dishes that actually mean something in Arabic and are historically from Palestine, from Arabs—to be presented and cooked and sold as Israeli is offensive and frightening. It’s the deletion of a culture and people.
But resistance doesn’t have to be aggressive or physically harming anyone. It can be through food, it can be through music and design, to reclaim some kind of identity. Some of the dishes are almost forgotten, like (a fava bean and jute mallow dip), from my Auntie Lamia. She said, "You have to put it in the book, because it’s dying, even in Palestine—people are not making it anymore because the older generations are dying out and the younger generations are going away and traveling and eating different things.” Now every single auntie is writing me messages, “If you write another book, I want to be in the book, I want people to remember my dish.” This is the whole point. The name was tongue-in-cheek, but it was also factual, and it represented us—well, me in particular—as resisting this deletion of Palestinian people and Palestinian food.
At the same time, many of these recipes use very traditional Jewish foods, like pomegranate and eggplant, and other dishes common in Jewish cuisine from the Middle East. It feels like food is an area where the two cultures have so much in common, and is representative of a shared history.
I personally think there is room but it has to be delicately handled and represented correctly. When people say to me, “Jews eat it, too,” I say, “Of course they do, they all lived together.” My grandmothers lived in Palestine before they were forced out of their homes in 1948. Jews, Christians and Muslims were their neighbors. It’s a very long, complicated and emotional conversation to have, because people think Palestinians hate Jews, and we don’t. We hate what’s happened to us.
But I think to represent it as Israeli food is not the same as Jewish food. It’s such a sensitive issue in every sense, that we became very possessive over our foods, because there was nothing else to cling on to. This is part of us, and we’re not going to let it go, and we’re going to fight for it.
I’m actually working on a book with Israeli and Palestinian chefs to put all our recipes together, to show the commonality between us. I told a lot of people about it, and quite a few people were upset and were like, “Why would you do that?” And I said, “Because we live together, and they do eat falafel, and they eat hummus, and they eat these dishes.”
This book is to show that—all types of people living in conflict and sharing our history, because Jewish people have been living in Palestine and Israel since the beginning of time. This is something you cannot dispute, it’s in the Bible, in the Koran. Hopefully things can change, because we are, at the end of the day, related.