It was a food-world fairy tale come true. In 2013, Yasmin Khan decided to write a cookbook. She was 32 and burned out from her work as a London-based human-rights campaigner focused on the Middle East. She made a pitch on Kickstarter, promising a Persian travelogue and recipe book that would explore her heritage — Khan is half Iranian — and highlight “a side of Iran that never makes the headlines.”
Unknown and untested, Khan nevertheless quickly raised the money she sought, and then some. Three years later, she published “The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen,” which won rave reviews and plaudits from such boldface culinary names as Nigella Lawson.
No wonder, then, that Khan decided to follow her winning formula for her second book, out this week. In “Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen” (W.W. Norton & Co.), she visits, cooks and eats with Palestinian Arabs to open a window to another place in the Middle East that is widely misunderstood.
This book should have been easier. Khan had traveled widely in Israel when she worked in human rights, and she had contacts throughout the region. She also had a track record as a writer and a publishing house behind her. But writing about Palestinian food was thornier than even Khan had imagined. Where do you draw the lines for a country that doesn’t technically exist? So many words, such as “barrier” and “wall,” were loaded. If readers couldn’t find maftool, a traditional Palestinian couscous, would the more widely available Israeli version be an acceptable substitute? Some surely would say no. If there is anything more likely to spark an argument in this region than land, it might be food.
“I’ve been writing about Israel and Palestine for 20 years, so I know how careful you have to be with language on this topic,” Khan said. “It was a book I almost gave up on. I didn’t know that I could tell the story.”
The charmed writer nevertheless finished the book, which went on to make several best-of lists in the United Kingdom, where it was released last year.
Khan is not the only writer taking up the challenge of telling the story of Palestinian food. “The Palestinian Table,” by Philadelphia-based writer Reem Kassis, came out in 2017. Next spring, Sami Tamimi, the longtime business partner of British-Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi, will publish his own Palestinian cookbook, “Falastin.” The boomlet is, as Kassis explains, a simple case of supply and demand.
Over the past decade, Israeli food has exploded in popularity in the United States: Zahav in Philadelphia led the charge, followed quickly by Balaboosta in New York, Shaya in New Orleans, Little Sesame in the District and others. Intentionally or not, this led many food lovers to call everything “Israeli,” from hummus to the fashionable grain freekeh, which rankled Palestinians. (Particularly galling is the clamor for chopped “Israeli salads,” when, even in Israel, most everyone refers to it as “Arab salad.”)
“Suddenly, the conflict was playing out not only in the political arena but at the table,” Kassis said. “There’s a desire to correct misinformation abroad.”
Meanwhile, increasingly educated eaters were keen to avoid those infuriating mistakes, to untangle what Westerners have long referred to as “Middle Eastern food.”
“Talking about Middle Eastern food is like talking about ‘European food,’ ” said Tamimi in an email from his home in London. “It doesn’t do justice to the differences between the cooking and traditions and even ingredients, which make a region distinct. Focusing on the foods of Palestine allows us to hold a lens over Palestine in particular: the what, the where, the who, the yum.”
Each writer has applied a specific lens. Khan’s “Zaitoun” is as much travelogue as cookbook, providing a snapshot of the contemporary food scene. She includes classics such as msakhan — roast chicken served with flatbread, sumac and onions — but there are plenty of recipes inspired by places she saw and things she ate. From a Palestinian cook, Khan learned the trick of pickling avocado, a brilliant hack that ripens rock-hard fruit in a matter of hours, though it’s hardly traditional to the cuisine. And there’s not much Palestinian about a chocolate-coconut cake, even if Khan did eat it at a restaurant in Haifa.
The tack no doubt will make some traditionalists unhappy. But Khan dismisses such concerns.
“I’m not a culinary anthropologist, looking for the authentic and traditional ways that grandmas cook meals,” she said. “If I’m in Ramallah and a Palestinian chef serves me something, it’s a Palestinian experience. It represents what people are eating.”
“The Palestinian Table,” in contrast, emphasizes the authentic, publishing 140 of Kassis’s family recipes. These include small plates of walnut and garlic labneh and muhamarra, characteristic of the north, shrimp and seafood traditionally found in Gaza, and the meatier dishes of the West Bank.
“A long time ago, my mother told me to write down every single recipe I make,” Kassis said. “When I started work on the book, I already had 275 in an Excel spreadsheet.”
For Kassis, the big question was which recipes would make the cut. She had to include the classics: maftool, maqlubeh (upside-down rice with braised lamb) and mansaf, a lamb-and-yogurt rice stew served atop a paper-thin bread called shrak. But what about kubbeh tartare, raw meat pounded into a thick paste? Americans, Kassis knew, would probably not make it or have a butcher who could make it for them. (It must go through a meat grinder twice with absolutely clean blades.) But her mother insisted: “It is Palestinian and there will be Palestinians who want to see it’s there,” she said.
Tamimi’s “Falastin,” which he co-authors with Tara Wigley, promises to split the difference, honoring traditions but doubling down on recipes that busy Westerners can cook. So expect meat laced with allspice and cumin, plenty of olive oil, grains, yogurt, dill and lemon, but fewer of the stuffed vegetables that are ubiquitous on Palestinian tables.
“They take a little bit too long to make them practical and useful for the busy home cook,” Tamimi said.
The books aim to promote greater understanding; “Zaitoun,” after all, is the Arabic word for olive, a ubiquitous Palestinian ingredient — and a universal symbol of peace. But will the books serve to open a new food front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The question of cultural appropriation is roiling the food world. Scholars question whether African American cooks get enough credit for Southern food. In 2017, Yelpers flamed customers of a burrito truck run by two white women. So when it comes to drawing lines between Israel and Palestine, there’s bound to be some controversy, says Michael Solomonov, who opened Zahav in 2008 and has been at the forefront of propelling Israeli food into the mainstream, including through his latest cookbook, “Israeli Soul.”
“If you can’t recognize Palestinian food, you can’t recognize Israeli food. But the fact of the matter is Israeli food isn’t just Arab food stolen from the Palestinians, either,” he said. “There’s a danger in all this ‘we own this’ and ‘we own that.’ It’s food. Who owns anything when it comes to food? What’s the limit on cultural appropriation?”
Still, Solomonov hopes that the shared history and traditions of Israelis and Palestinians will bring people together. After all, it has happened to him personally. After publishing “The Palestinian Table,” Kassis reached out to Solomonov. Now, she is one of his best friends. (“When we get together for dinner, my kids only want to eat her food,” he joked.)
“It’s a way to share our narrative with the world,” Kassis adds. “It helps people to get to know Palestinians as humans, as mothers, as cooks. Not just as people in a war. When you know someone, you’re less likely to be afraid of them.”
Yasmin Khan will be in conversation with NPR’s Dalia Mortada at Logan Exchange, 1509 16th St. NW, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 7. Tickets are available at eventbrite.com.
Makes 8 six-inch rounds
For making these flat breads in home ovens rather than in the clay, fire-powered taboon ovens used in Palestinian cooking, baking them on a pizza stone is the best way to go.
We found in testing that folding the disks of dough in half, with the za’atar seasoning paste tucked inside and then re-rolling, yields softer, lighter flatbreads. Also, grinding or slightly crushing the seedy za’atar blend before you mix it with oil produces a more pronounced flavor.
MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to rise twice: first, for 1 hour, then as separate disks for 15 minutes. The baked flatbreads can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 day.
Adapted from “Zaitoun: Recipes From the Palestinian Kitchen,” by Yasmin Khan (W.W. Norton, 2019).
2 cups (300 grams) flour, sifted, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon active dried yeast
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon sugar
About ⅔ cup plain full-fat yogurt
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
⅓ cup lukewarm water (100 degrees), or more as needed
5 tablespoons za’atar
Combine the flour, yeast, salt and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough-hook attachment, or, if you are kneading by hand, combine in a large mixing bowl.
Whisk together the yogurt and 3 tablespoons of oil in a liquid measuring cup, then add to the flour mixture, along with half the water.
Knead the dough on medium speed for 5 to15 minutes (or longer by hand), to form a dough that is smooth, silky and pliable. If it looks a little dry, you can add the remaining water a little at a time.
There are a few ways to tell whether your dough is ready. You can give the ball of dough a firm poke with your finger and, if the indentation that you make fills quickly, you know it’s done. If the dent stays, then continue kneading. A windowpane test involves taking a small piece of dough from the ball and stretching it between your fingers and thumbs into a very thin, almost translucent, square (so it looks a bit like a windowpane). If you can stretch the dough nice and thin without it breaking, then it’s ready. If not, keep kneading it for a few more minutes.
Once the dough has been well kneaded, use your fingertips to smooth its surface with a little oil, to coat it lightly. Place in a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
Stir together the za’atar and the remaining 5 tablespoons of oil in a small bowl, to form a thick paste.
Knock the air out of the dough by firmly whacking it on your work surface a few times, then divide it into 8 same-size pieces. Use a rolling pin to flatten each piece into a disk about 6 inches wide and ¼ -inch thick. (At this point, you could brush the za’atar paste on each disk of dough, fold in half and re-roll to the right size; see the headnote). Cover with a clean, damp dish towel and let it sit for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, place your pizza stone (or two baking sheets) in the oven; preheat to 500 degrees.
When you are ready to bake, brush the za’atar paste over each disk of dough (unless you have already included it during the rolling step).
Lightly dust the baking surfaces (stone or baking sheets) with flour. Working in batches as needed, place the flatbreads on the hot stone or sheets; you will probably have to cook them in batches. Cook for about 3 minutes until they start to puff up, then remove from the oven while you cook the rest. You can serve these immediately, or wait until they have cooled. They will keep for about 24 hours.
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