Palestine Square recently spoke to Joudie Kalla, the founder of the culinary app Palestine on a Plate, which has brought the beauty, joy and taste of Palestinian cuisine into the palms and homes of countless individuals. Palestine on a Plate is no ordinary cooking guide. Unlike other recipes apps, Palestine on a Plate features Joudie’s personal stories relating her family history along with rooting the recipes in traditional preparation and the arc of Palestinian history.
If you had to sum it up, what t is the spirit of Palestinian cuisine?
The spirit of Palestinian cuisine is cooking with family and friends the recipes that have been passed down through generations. It is about using what’s around you to create dishes that evoke a sense of home. I didn’t grow up in Palestine, but Palestine was in me mainly through food.
Many of the dishes are simple, but carefully cooked and seasoned; in my case, the way my mother and her mother before her prepared them. National dishes such as Makloubeh and Mussakhan are spectacular whilst being simple in their ingredients.
The essence of Palestinian cuisine is that it is fresh and healthy and keeps our culture alive in the most delicious way. It is a joy to have a table full of Palestinian food – a table with Hindbeh, a simple tomato and onion salad drizzled with sumac and olive oil, and Warak Inab and some dips on the side like M’sabbaha and Mutabbal. A love story of our home on our table!
Palestine’s agrarian topography is exceptionally diverse, some villages are famous for their figs and others for their pomegranates and so on. How has this influenced the development of Palestinian dishes?
Palestine is such a rich land that even in poorer climates we’re blessed with extraordinarily bountiful ingredients – such as pomegranates, dates, pine nuts and olives prepared in so many different ways – to make a wonderfully diverse cuisine.
Traveling in historical Palestine, you can taste a gradual change from heavier and meatier dishes in the northern part of the country to lighter and more vegetarian dishes in the south, where fish is also a more common ingredient. Gaza is almost in its own culinary world. This is not to say they don’t eat Makloubeh and Mussakhan in Gaza, they do and they prepare it so well. But the local food is spicier, herbier and has plenty of seafood due to Gaza’s shoreline.
My mum is from Safed in the northern Galilee where they have abundant rice and bulgar dishes with lamb cooked in yogurt and stews. Kubbeh Nayyeh and Kubbeh bil Sanniyeh – a delicious dish of ground lamb and bulgar, stuffed with meat, onions, and spices – are very popular in this area. My grandmother is originally from Jaffa on the southern coast where dishes often feature fish, such as Sayyadiyeh, but when she moved to Safed she adapted her Jaffa dishes to the traditions of her new home, which was common culinary practice as people moved around. So Palestinian food is often a mixture of regional recipes.
In the West Bank, there are plenty of local specialties. In al-Khalil [Hebron], they’re famous for their grapes and harvest them to make jam, raisins and dibs, or molasses. A little further away in Bethlehem they are known for their stone fruits and especially their olive oil. Palestine, of course, is the land of the olive tree, so wherever it grows the end product is wonderful.
Cheese is so important and one in particular that I absolutely love is Nabulsi cheese that we use in Knafeh. It is a white brined sweetened cheese that is used to create this deliciously sticky dessert drizzled in orange blossom syrup.
Mahashi are also very popular as we love to stuff everything with meat, meat and rice, or simply rice and vegetables cooked in different sauces! The list is endless! But it all depends on family history and what the land offers. My cousin in Ramallah has never eaten Sayyadiyeh and another cousin in Jerusalem has never had Makloubeh!
What was the inspiration behind Palestine on a Plate?
I started this to put Palestine on the culinary map, as I think it truly deserves to be. Many Middle Eastern cookbooks are generic and dilute the communal spirit of the original recipes, but the Palestinian identity is at the heart of Palestine on a Plate. Palestinian communities are shaped through cooking and celebrating our cuisine together. And as Palestinians, we feel that our food is an insight into who we are and a reflection of our survival throughout the years. So Palestine on a Plate captures the beauty of our food, which is rooted in home, family, history, culture, and it recaptures what is slowly being lost.
Middle Eastern food and the Palestinian narrative are still novelties for many Americans; from your unique position at the intersection of both what has been the reaction?
It has been wonderful. And so many people are very excited about Palestine in the title, which I was very adamant about keeping. It is important for me to identify with my homeland, the land that my parents and their parents came from. I have had so many positive messages from people, some who are Palestinian and many more who are not, conveying to me the importance of Palestine on a Plate. I think it’s a great way to portray Palestine in a positive light and introduce people to who we are
In the U.S. market, Palestinian cuisine is often mislabeled as Israeli and many Americans believe, say, Hummus is an Israeli invention. A great cultural asset which has enormous humanizing potential for the Palestinians is appropriated and mainstreamed in a way that does not advance their interest. The Palestinians are invisible in their own story. Do you see yourself on a mission to reclaim food and identity?
First, let’s think about the word invention. I personally don’t think Palestinians invented hummus, but I do think that our culture influenced the Jewish community who came to Palestine. Prior to 1948, we lived peacefully with them as our neighbors and, of course, we shared our cuisine. As with anything in life, however, the dynamics changed and this is where our need for identity took form.
It is not just hummus (which is eaten all over the Levant) but other very particularly Palestinian dishes like Makloubeh that I’ve seen in Jewish/Israeli restaurants labelled as Israeli national food. This is a natural process for any country that has been occupied – its culture is gradually appropriated by the other. While I don’t think it necessarily undermines our human rights when food is called Israeli when it is in fact Palestinian, if you take hummus and brand it “Israeli” you distance the food from its origins and that does take something away from the Palestinian cause and history. It is all marketing – in fact, the Hebrew word for hummus is himtsa and not hummus at all.
What we need to focus on is properly showcasing our historical connection to the cuisine we have been cooking for hundreds of years. I personally started this journey as a nod to my mother who showed us her love through food, which just so happens to be delicious Palestinian food. Slowly this association with maternal love grew to encompass identity, and helped recapture my history. What trumps everything for me is presenting our food steeped in its history and tradition, placing it center stage.
In September, Joudie will be publishing the book version of Palestine on a Plate. You may preorder it here.
By Khelil Bouarrouj.
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