Our recent profile of Chef Fidaa Abu Hamdiyyeh was one of our most popular posts to date. For us, it was no surprise. Chef Fidaa’s story is an inspiring tale of triumph, and “an example of the level of distinction that many Palestinians have attained in spite of the circumstances that have afflicted their people for generations,” as the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies observed about another remarkable Palestinian.
One of the things that made Chef Fidaa’s story captivating was its unexpected nature: achieving culinary recognition and success in Italy — a nation rightly enamored with its gastronomy, incredibly demanding of its chefs, and unforgiving toward those who fail to meet expectations — was no small feat. But Chef Fidaa persevered. After a fruitful time cooking at one of Italy’s great restaurants — Le Calandre — she left the Italian kitchen to launch her own ventures.
There can be little second guessing Chef Fidaa’s influence on Italians’ understanding and appreciation of the cooking style and recipes of her native land. Her cookbook, Pop Palestine, likely the first Palestinian cookbook most Italians have ever seen, sold out its first printing. A documentary about local food from the West Bank’s southern end to its northern tip won the audience award at the 2015 Montelupo International Independent Film Festival (MIIFF) in Tuscany; and last year Chef Fidaa conducted a live cooking show at Florence’s Middle East Now film and cultural festival. In addition, she writes recipes for the Italian news agency NENA.
We argued then that Chef Fidaa as culinary ambassador is a more effective promoter of Palestine than the Palestine Liberation Organization’s representative in Rome. And she fully embraces the role when expressing the hope that sharing a Palestinian meal with Italians goes a long way to overcoming the prejudice that some of them harbor. As we previously observed, Chef Fidaa’s Roman Holiday is an endearing tribute to the vibrancy of the Palestinian kitchen and a testament to what Italians know in their bones: that a people’s heritage is often best exemplified by its cuisine, that its recipes are historical artefacts, and that food can be a significant asset in shaping public opinion.
In that spirit, Chef Fidaa has prepared a couple recipes for Palestine Square readers:
Manaqeesh Zaatar مناقيش زغتر
This delicious flatbread is perfect for any season, and especially good to take on picnics. The main ingredient is fresh Mediterranean oregano, known in Arabic as zaatar, which is used in a number of Palestinian dishes.
Yield: 3-4 flatbreads
- 1 lb. all-purpose flour (3 1/3 cups)
- 2 cups warm water
- 1 teaspoon instant yeast
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon sugar
For the topping:
- ½ cup zaatar (preferably Palestinian, available at good Mediterranean/Middle Eastern groceries)
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Put all the dough ingredients except the water in a mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand-mixer with the dough hook attached.
- Gradually add warm water to the flour mix. Stir until the dough forms a cohesive and smooth mass.
- Knead the dough for an additional three minutes either by hand or in the mixer.
- Divide the dough into rounds the size of a ping-pong ball, and leave to rest for 5 minutes.
- With a rolling pin, flatten the dough balls into discs of no more than 1/8-inch thick and about 8 inches (20 centimeters) across.
- Pre-heat the oven to 500⁰F (250⁰C or Gas Mark 10).
- While the discs are resting, prepare the topping by mixing the zaatar and the olive oil in a medium-sized bowl. Stir well as the mixture likes to separate.
- Smear each flatbread with 1/3 cup of topping, and place the flatbreads on a pre-heated pizza stone if you have one, or on sturdy cookie sheets. (Thin cookie sheets might buckle under the high heat so use the heaviest sheets you have available).
- Bake the flatbreads for 8-10 minutes or until the edges are golden and crispy.
Now you’re ready to serve! Manaqeesh pair well with mint or sage tea!
Mutabbal Batinjan متبل الباذنجان
This delicate dish, known as mutabbal batinjan (seasoned or fragrant eggplant) is more commonly known in the West as baba ghannouj. The eggplant dip is traditionally served with pita bread (khubez) as part of a mezza (assortment of small plates) common to Palestinian tables that might also include hummus, olive oil with za’atar, falafel, etc. Mutabbal is famous for its smoky aroma, which is obtained by fire-roasting the eggplant, something that is not particularly difficult to do but that requires a bit of time and patience.
- 1 large eggplant (1 lb. or 500g)
- 6 tablespoons tahini
- 1 garlic clove, crushed with ½-3/4 tsp. salt in a pestle and mortar
- Juice of 1-2 lemons
- ¼ cup of olive oil
- Chopped parsley and pomegranate seeds for garnish
- To truly taste the excellent smokiness of mutabbal, you’ll need to fire-roast the eggplant. To do this, use a BBQ grill, the top of a gas-stove, or the broiler of an electric stove. If using an ordinary range, line your stove-top with aluminum foil around one burner, cutting out a circle to leave the burner flame unhampered.
- Place the eggplant directly on a medium flame. As the eggplant blisters and chars, turn it over with tongs occasionally until the entire surface is blackened and the eggplant collapses. It will ooze out juice, which is why it’s handy to cover the stove-top around the burner with foil
- Remove from the fire, cool slightly, and peel the eggplant, removing all the bits of charred skin. So as to obtain a textured purée, mash the eggplant in a bowl with a potato masher or a pestle rather than putting it through a food processor.
- Add the tahini, lemon, salt and finely crushed garlic to the eggplant purée and mix until well blended. Spread mutabbal on a serving dish, smearing the edges so as to obtain a slight indentation. Drizzle with olive oil, and garnish with chopped parsley and pomegranate seeds.
Add a side of pita and you’re ready to enjoy this fabulous dip!
By Khelil Bouarrouj.
Generous contributions from people like you make it possible for us to preserve Palestinian heritage. Make a tax-deductible donation today!