“I am interested in all food culture, not just Palestine’s,” Chef Fidaa Abu Hamdiyyeh told Palestine Square in a recent interview. “But the Palestinian kitchen is important to us because it is part of our identity; when I talk about our recipes, I am simultaneously speaking about my homeland and what people grow. The stories of my family are also tales about all Palestinians.”
Chef Fidaa’s own story is a fascinating one: of how one Palestinian woman introduced Palestinian cuisine, and won a fan following in the process, to the nation whose love affair with gastronomy is legendary and whose emblematic foods have conquered the four corners of the globe— Italy, of course! Italians are deeply attached to their cuisine and enamored of a kitchen that is so closely intertwined with regional identities, dialects, traditions and family bonds. Introducing Italians to new foods and getting them to try these is no easy task. Their uncompromising demand for fresh ingredients and skilled preparation can be intimidating; and if the presented plate fails to please the taste buds, Italians can be unforgiving. That’s what makes Chef Fidaa’s extraordinary success in Italy so remarkable. And at a time when Palestinian cuisine is widely misrepresented in the American market, Chef Fidaa’s Roman Holiday is an endearing tribute to the vibrancy of Palestinian cuisine and a testament to the facts which Italians know so well: that a people’s heritage is often best exemplified by its cuisine, that its recipes are historical documents, and that food can be a significant global asset in shaping public opinion.
Every chef might describe themselves as a natural-born cook, already reaching for the frying pan and seasonings at age 2. Chef Fidaa insists she’s no exception: “I think ever since I was born in 1982 I felt in love with cooking,” the Hebron native related. Following high school, she took that love and enrolled in the Culinary Art program of Jerusalem’s Notre Dame Center after which Italy beckoned. Luck would have it that Chef Fidaa would land a spot at one of the world’s great restaurants: Le Calandre in Rubano (northern region of Padua) ranked 28th on the celebrated “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” annual list. Le Calandre’s Chef Massimiliano “Max” Alajmo is the youngest chef to have ever won a third Michelin star. After her time at Le Calandre, Chef Fidaa pursued a 3-year course in the Science and Culture of Gastronomy and Catering at the University of Padua. “The course was the launching-pad for implementing my ideas on food as a part of culture and identity,” Chef Fidaa says. “So I started studying Palestinian food culture — going on to earn a Master’s in Nutrition and Food Education as well. My studies helped me to further my goal of keeping alive Palestinian food culture and tradition, and preserve it from the ravages of the [Israeli] occupation.”
Although she had returned to Palestine after several years in Padua and Milan, it is in Italy that she’s really made her mark: she has launched the website Maqlouba (after the famous Palestinian dish) in both Italian and English, runs a blog in Italian named fidafood, and she also develops Palestinian recipes for the Italian news agency, NENA News. “About 3 years after coming back to Palestine from Italy, I met Silvia Chiarentini, an Italian interested in food culture, and Alessandra Cinquemani, a famous photographer in Florence,” Chef Fidaa relayed. A new friendship was born, and “together we made a travel documentary about our journey from the southern end of the West Bank to its northernmost tip, collecting recipes from families, chefs, and street food vendors.”
The documentary, Pop Palestine: Salam Cuisine da Hebron a Jenin, was the outcome, and it won the Audience Award at last year’s Montelupo International Independent Film Festival (MIIFF) in Tuscany. (American audiences will get their first opportunity to view the film at the Boston Palestine Film Festival this fall.) Chef Fidaa and Chiarantini also produced an accompanying cookbook with photographs by Cinquemani entitled POP Palestine. POP Palestine was published this spring in Italy and Chef Fidaa exclaims that it’s already sold out. “It’s great to see how many people are interested to learn about Palestinian culture from its kitchen. Many of the readers told me that they loved the food and many decided to go and visit Palestine after reading the book,” she added. The book features recipes from each of the major regions and cities of Palestine outside the Green Line, including Gaza.
Documentaries and cookbooks reach large audiences, but it’s the personal connections with Italians that Chef Fidaa finds to be most impactful. “Living in Italy, I served Palestinian food on many occasions. The food was always appreciated, and many people who expressed interest were already in solidarity with Palestinians,” she tells me. “But I don’t always get the same reaction when I talk about Palestine. Most Italians get their knowledge on Palestine from the media, and as you know much of the Western media is sympathetic to Israel; I’ve met people who have the idea of a Palestinian as just a terrorist.” Such unfortunate experiences are more than offset by the Italians who upon hearing she’s Palestinian, embrace Fidaa with “tears in their eyes,” as they hugged her and told her of their love of Palestine. In general, however, she acknowledges that it’s difficult to gauge “whether Palestinians are viewed favorably or not.” So personal interaction is vital for changing perceptions, and there are fewer better ways to do that than through a culinary experience.
Last year, Chef Fidaa was invited by Florence’s Middle East Now film and cultural festival to give a cooking class to a packed audience at the Scuola di Arte Culinaria Cordon Bleu, one of the city’s premier cooking schools. Chef Fidaa’s list of dishes included Palestinian classics such as maqlouba, waraq dawali, falafel, mutabbal, mana’ish bi-za’atar, basbousa, and cardamom-scented Turkish coffee. As she remarked, the class demonstrated to the Italian participants that Palestinian cuisine shares much in common with their own kitchen. “We are Mediterranean countries and there are many similarities between us, especially with the south of Italy,” Chef Fidaa told me. “For example, our shishbarak is similar to tortellini; it’s a stuffed pasta shell made with flour, olive oil, vegetables, and meat.” Such events can be transformative according to Chef Fidaa, “I want Italians to learn about Palestinian food and to be their guide. I want people to know that there’s more to Palestine than what you hear and see on the news.”
In her role as a culinary ambassador to Italy — sold-out cookbook, audience-favorite documentary, and a cooking column — it could be argued that Chef Fidaa is a more effective Palestinian voice, with a bigger impact on Italy’s understanding of Palestine, than the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Rome.
While Italy continues to tug at her heart and is an adopted country to which she travels several times a year, Palestine remains the homeland. And while teaching Italians is important, she considers her work in Palestine to be above all else. “I keep studying and preparing traditional Palestinian cuisine not just to teach foreigners about my culture, but to keep the memory of our cuisine alive in Palestine, because much of our heritage is being replaced with a sort of ‘food globalization’ that is not healthy and does not reflect the biodiversity and seasonality of our traditional dishes.” Palestinian food is passed down generation to generation, she adds, and is “part of our history.” As she goes about preserving and refining Palestine’s gastronomy, and promoting it to the world, Fidaa exhibits the quiet tenacity of a rising star and her accomplishments make her one of the most prominent Palestinian chefs anywhere. As our interview winds down, I realize I have one last (obvious) question.
As for the Chef’s choice: “I love food, I can’t say one dish is my absolute favorite, but one of my favorite dishes is musakhan. I love the mixture of the ingredients; bread, sumac, olive oil, onions and chicken together and the way we prepare and present it.”
Read about fellow Palestinian chef Joudie Kalla, the founder of Palestine on a Plate.
By Khelil Bouarrouj.
Generous contributions from people like you make it possible for us to preserve Palestinian heritage and defend Palestinian rights. Make a tax-deductible donation today!