Preserving a Palestinian identity in the kitchen

Matriarchs hand down secrets of a cuisine in the hope of keeping it alive

By Aina J. Khan

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The New York Times
The New York Times

Published: Sat 22 Oct 2022, 11:30 PM

A tangy scent permeated Mariam Sindawi’s kitchen as she scattered flecks of ruby-coloured sumac into a simmering pot of caramelised onions, following a centuries-old Palestinian recipe handed down by her mother.

Sindawi, 82, was preparing mussakhan — flatbread layered with onions cooked in olive oil from the village where she spent her childhood, adorned with spice-infused roast chicken, and topped with fried pine nuts and almonds.

Watching her every movement was her 28-year-old granddaughter and culinary partner, Abeer Abbasi, long a keen observer of her teta — Arabic for grandmother — in the kitchen.

As many Palestinians move away from the culinary traditions that have been a cornerstone of their culture, family matriarchs like Sindawi say they feel compelled to pass down their family’s kitchen secrets.

“It’s for preserving our traditions and making sure they don’t get lost along the way as time passes,” Sindawi said as she gathered the spices — star anise and cinnamon, among others — to season her chicken, closely watched by Abbasi.

In 2021, Fadi Kattan, a Franco-Palestinian chef from Bethlehem, travelled across the occupied West Bank and Israel in between Covid lockdowns, recording a video series called “Teta’s Kitchen” in which he met with Palestinian women like Sindawi and exchanged recipes and techniques.

His project, he said, was aimed at reclaiming a cuisine that is part of a broader Arab tradition involving foods like hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, fattoush and shawarma that he felt was being co-opted by Israeli cooks.

“Food is being used to normalise the Israeli occupation by denying the origin of everything from hummus to falafel,” Kattan said. “The images of our grandmother’s hands working in the kitchen, rolling the vine leaves, dipping the bread of the mussakhan in oil.”

He added, “These are images of beauty that are being stolen from us.”

There are many overlaps between Palestinian and other Arab cuisines, and many of the hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi Jews who emigrated to Israel from Arab countries and North Africa in the late 1940s and early 1950s, often under duress, also would have eaten foods like hummus.

But many Palestinians worry about the future of a cuisine they say is intrinsic to their identity, especially when it is categorised as “Israeli,” which they feel denies its Palestinian or Arab origins.

In July, Ina Garten, the American author and TV cooking celebrity, came under attack for describing on Instagram a recipe involving hummus and fattoush as an “Israeli vegetable salad.” Last year, contestants at a Miss Universe pageant in Israel were criticized for rolling vine leaves with Palestinian women and calling the food they created an example of Israeli culture. (Controversy over hummus was also featured in a new Netflix series in which Palestinian American comedian Mo Amer lamented the existence of a chocolate variety.)

The secret to real Palestinian cooking, according to Kattan?

“When you knead dough, it’s what you do with your hands — words cannot describe it,” he said. “When I ask people, ‘What’s the secret to your cuisine?’ They say, ‘nafas.’ Nafas means breath. It’s the emotion. It’s the desire for hospitality. It’s sharing.”

For Sindawi, when preparing dishes like mussakhan, whose origins are unclear beyond references to it in folk songs and tales, it is also about using ingredients steeped in tradition. Wild sumac for the onions is essential, she said, as is the extra-virgin olive oil freshly pressed in Jish, her ancestral village at the foot of Mount Meron, near the border with Lebanon.

“We don’t buy our olive oil from anywhere else,” she said.

While she reveres tradition, Sindawi acknowledges that Palestinian cooking has changed in recent years.

Much of that is the result of higher incomes among Palestinians — allowing people to afford a broader range of food choices — and exposure to new cuisines on television and online, which has led to some changes in cooking practices.

Sindawi says that Palestinian cuisine has long been associated with the use of vegetables and plants but that more meat-based diets are increasingly common, citing the shawarma and kebab stalls that have become ubiquitous across the occupied West Bank.

But traditional, plant-based culinary practices are still current among many younger Palestinians.

Izzeldin Bukhari, 37, who organizes vegetarian cooking classes and food tours of East Jerusalem, makes a point of tapping into the culinary knowledge of older generations.

He regularly visits with Palestinian women, most of them wives of farmers from Bethlehem, who gather daily on the cobbled sidewalks near the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem to sell wild plants and vegetables.

“I get my knowledge talking to these women,” he said, “asking what they do with the greens they sell.” Grinding unripened chickpeas to make a pistachio-green hummus and making stew from the fibrous pods that enclose fava beans were some of the tips he gleaned.

“Nothing is discarded,” he said, approvingly.

Fathiya Salah, 56, a vegetable seller from the Palestinian town of Al-Khader, near Bethlehem, has childhood memories of drying grapes in the sun to make raisins with her mother, who also taught her to prescribe grape molasses as a homeopathic remedy for anemia.

“This generation, they don’t eat this stuff anymore,” she said, referring to the homeopathic products that were once common among Palestinians.

Before 1948, when more than 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes or fled as the state of Israel was created, a mass displacement Palestinians call the nakba or “catastrophe,” about three-quarters of the Palestinian population lived in villages centered around agriculture.

Some of the traditions that stemmed from that agricultural heritage continue. Outside a house overlooking verdant hills and ancient terraces in Battir, a village in the West Bank south of Jerusalem, a group of 15 older Palestinian women preparing for a wedding celebration this year sifted through cracked wheat to remove dirt from the grain.

Plumes of dust rose as the women — some of them wearing robes with traditional red tatreez embroidery — sang and clapped as they readied the wheat for use in a lamb dish.

But such traditions and the social gatherings anchoring them are gradually being lost, said Vivien Sansour, a Palestinian conservationist from the neighbouring village of Beit Jalla who is writing a book about the practices of Palestinian farmers.

The urbanisation of once rural Palestinian villages and towns, and the difficulty of gaining access to farmland controlled by Israel, has prompted many young people to seek better paid work in Jewish settlements, Sansour said. Instead of harvesting wheat themselves, families are buying it already sifted, obviating the need for women to gather to clean it.

“Inside my hands are my ancestors’,” she said, sweeping her fingers through the wheat in a steel pan outside the home of Umm Hassan, the mother of the groom. “This is 10,000 years of cultivation.”

A sense of belonging and loss also infuses Sindawi’s sentiments about the Palestinian recipes inherited from her mother.

Born in the coastal city of Haifa, she was 8 when large areas nearby, originally allocated to a putative Arab state by the United Nations in 1947, were occupied by Israeli soldiers in 1948 after Arabs rejected the UN plan — including her ancestral village of Jish.

Sindawi and most of her immediate family had already fled north across the border to Lebanon. When they returned home six months later, they found that 18 members of their extended family had been killed, she said, her eyes tearing up.

Many Palestinian families returned to razed homes and slaughtered livestock.

Foraging, a traditional Palestinian practice, suddenly became a lifeline. “We tried to be creative about our food,” Sindawi said, “so we cooked wild plants.”

Khobeizah, or common mallow, and loof, a flowering perennial plant with bright green leaves, were some of the edible plants found growing wild that her mother cooked.

Sindawi is now in the twilight of her life. Taped to the front door of her apartment, a note scribbled in Arabic reminds her: “keys.” Her hands tremble as she removes her chicken from the oven, a side effect of a medication she takes.

But her memories of a time and place she yearns to return to, like making taboon bread in a clay oven with her mother, are still vivid, she says — as vivid as the fragrance of cinnamon and sumac rising from the modern oven she uses now as she cooks with her granddaughter.

“Our relationship is really based around the kitchen,” said Abbasi, who asked her grandmother for advice when she was training in Tel Aviv to become a pastry chef.

The women worked seamlessly together in the steamy kitchen, occasionally pausing to note down each spice and ingredient used to create the mussakhan chicken.

“My dad said it’s very important that I learn everything she cooks,” Abbasi said. “He literally said, ‘Write it down because you don’t know when you’re going to need it.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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