A beautiful book about Palestinian food is a reminder of a rich culinary culture – but the renaming of the dishes in English deprives them of something essential
When Reem Kassis brought home acceptance letters from top American universities, a family acquaintance quipped: "Why bother paying for such an expensive education? Don't you know, like all Arab women, she is going to end up in the kitchen?"
Kassis left Palestine. She flourished with a degree and exciting work but, once in London, after a break when she became a mother, she admitted her great joys were writing and cooking and thus comes her beautiful book on Palestinian cookery.
Food and national identity are tied together for Reem Kassis. Frustrated by the oversimplification of food in London restaurants, simply dubbed Arab after adding a sprinkling of zaatar, and not wanting the dishes that have survived generations to be all lumped together, she decided to write The Palestinian Table.
She wanted people - and her own children - to know the unique and complex depth that makes Palestinian cookery.
Having spent my entire life in England, Jordanian-Palestinian food is my main connection to the Middle East and I, too, hold it very precious.
The Palestinian Table spans the entire geography from the mountains of Galilee to the valleys of the south, from the coast of Yaffa to the West Bank. However what combines all the dishes is the notion of home, generosity and family.
The Palestinian Table spans the entire geography from the mountains of Galilee to the valleys of the south, from the coast of Yaffa to the West Bank
Each recipe comes with a small anecdote, usually of a family member. I felt I knew both Kassis's Tetas (grandmothers) and their lush environment with avocado trees and zaatar growing outside.
We also experience the narrative of particular dishes. Muhamarra is a Levant dish from the time when Syria, Palestine and Lebanon were one territory, people travelled freely, and her grandmother, along with her bridal trunk, brought family recipes, Syrian in origin, but also part of Palestinian cuisine.
When anyone asks me what my favourite dish is, I can't answer, as all I see is the mezze table at my mother's home as I grew up, which usually took her two days to prepare. This book definitely honours the mezze way of eating and sharing with so many mouthwatering spreads, dips, sauces, and small pastries.
Kassis has a very infectious, easy to read and fluid style. I enjoyed sitting in bed reading her stories and recipes. The photography is stunning, stone, wood, old world neutral colours, the shaded details of a cauliflower, the exquisite colours in a row of spring onions.
There is nothing flashy here, like the food, which is all about home cooking and natural light.
We are brought into the slow pace of life, shelling and peeling and chopping; a bevvy of aunts, grandmothers and family cooks with laughter and storytelling. But one wonders - does every Arab family have this? Where are the manipulative aunts and the family rifts over inheritance?
Kasis wanted people - and her own children - to know the unique and complex depth that makes Palestinian cookery (Photography © Dan Perez.)
I guess I'm suspicious of the sentimental picture of Arab families as comprised of kindly aunts and storytellers. However this is a recipe book, not an Isabelle Allende novel, so it offers harmless soft nostalgia while we peruse the ingredients and recipes.
The recipes themselves are thorough and foolproof. Having read many such books I often wonder why some essential ingredient is missed out, or, when they reach the hands of famous chefs, why they are they fiddled with to the point of ruin or pretension.
I've lost count of the number of times people talk to me about couscous, apricots and tagines as they confuse North African food with the food of the Levant
The Palestinian Table has all the ingredients and instructions. It is not a vegetarian's best friend and I feel more of the recipes could have provided a vegetarian alternative, though some do. Both my parents are vegetarian so I have seen many of these recipes adapted.
My own feelings often range from irritation to rage when people talk about Palestinian food. I've lost count of the number of times people talk to me about couscous, apricots and tagines as they confuse North African food with the food of the Levant.
I learnt to just roll my eyes secretly or just smile and wait as all colours and cultures are lumped together in one mispronounced handy bundle. Now, when my favourite dish, mutubbal, was once quoted at a dinner party as simply 'Ottolenghi' I actually felt rage.
However, my one problem with this book, which is a shame as I really like it, is that the recipes are not headlined in their original Arabic names. These are mentioned in the text, although this feels inadequate.
Philosophically, I find this problematic. Bertrand Russell defined a proper name as a description, but was quickly refuted by many successive philosophers as descriptions change in time.
Saul Kripke was the main opponent to Russell and he defined a proper name as that which designates something in the world and in every possible world.
So, Mussakhan is the name which designates the national dish of Palestine. A designation - not a description - is needed in a world where Palestine is divided or, some would argue, doesn't exist. I found it disempowering, and I would go so far to say, apologetic, that the title of the dish is changed to Chicken, Onion and Sumac Flatbreads, instead of Mussakhan.
We have recognisable words from other cultures in the book such as casseroles and pilaf. And yet Maqloubeh is translated as Flipped Over Chicken and Vegetable Rice. Why not give us the title it deserves and then explain?
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These meals represent stations in my life and areas of the Middle East, but robbed of their name it feels like they’re being robbed of their dignity and title.
I couldn’t believe that mjaddarah - the poor man's feast, and my father's favourite (he was indeed a poor boy who lived on this) - is called pilaf. Yet some titles retain their identity - Baklava for example. Kassis makes a judgement, it seems, as to what names readers can pronounce or handle, and gives us some familiar titles and not others.
Or is it because the food of the Turks got to the British first? So again, by removing some names, Kassis is stepping straight into history and politics.
My overall feeling was a connection, reminder and a great sadness, a sadness about the language I lost when I started school and the country I have never visited. The only thread I hold of this world is the food and its flavours and colours.
My knowledge of how to cook these dishes and feed them to friends and to my own family is the only thing that makes me Arab. It is the only part of the culture I can really claim to know so please don’t rob me of their name.
- Tanushka Marah is a British-born Palestinian-Jordanian theatre director, actor and teacher. She was a winner of the Young Vic director awards in 2002 and won the Brighton Fringe Outstanding Theatre Award 2017 for Agamemnon. She has directed productions at international festivals in Europe and toured extensively in the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: The Palestinian Table has all the ingredients and instructions (Photography © Dan Perez)
The Palestinian Table by Reem Kassis is published by Phaidon for £24.95.