Palestinian Culinary Revival
By Fadi Kattan
Culinary culture and history are inextricably linked to our identities, our heritage, and our communities. Palestinian gastronomy has often been preserved by maternal oral transmission of recipes and the recent writings published by Christiane Dabdoub Nasser and Dr. Ali Qleibo amongst others. But like so many other elements of our culture under the fear of disappearance, Palestinian gastronomy has preserved its “original” form - its traditional approach - thus offering a rigid reading of the possibilities of Palestinian cuisine, despite the fact that food and the palates of gourmets continue to evolve.
Most cooking and hotel management schools, restaurants, and hotels in Palestine tend to glorify Western cuisine and, all too often, a Palestinian restaurateur would be proud of his canard à l’orange but incapable of creating a fantasy based on freekeh. On their menus you would find a weak Palestinian selection of grilled meats, salads, and a few dishes such as musakhan and fukhara neighbouring an elaborate Western variety of Fettuccine Alfredo, sautéed calamari, Beef Stroganoff, and Picattas.
This adaptation of taste harmonization will lead to an over-simplification of our very rich Palestinian cuisine by a takeover of the hummus/shawarma syndrome, thus limiting our food to snacks and our chef’s abilities to mass production of mediocre European or fusion dishes despite the presence of excellent chefs - in the kitchens of restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and catering institutions - who are capable of exquisite culinary feats.
Faced with this bleak snapshot of the Palestinian culinary world, I started designing the Palestinian Culinary Competition in 2006 in the hope of bringing together chefs, food-sector professionals, cultural institutions, and the public to reflect and experiment on the possibilities of enriching our culinary repertoire. Along with pioneers who became members of the jury and also participating chefs, we were helped by the technical platform provided by Transjordan Engineering and AngeloPo in order to reach our goal.
At the outset, this seemed quite difficult. After having worked with chefs in London and Paris and dealt with their mood swings and often their violent tempers, I was dreading the idea of having some of Palestine’s best chefs in the same kitchen. On a sunny morning last October, as I stood in the Nativity Square in front of the Bethlehem Peace Center, I was expecting to see fierce, competitive, and slightly deranged chefs straight out of the 1978 movie Who is killing the Great Chefs of Europe? But rolling out of the cars in the square came a jolly group of eager, talented, and dynamic cooks, all willing to work in designing an elaborate variety of foods, adding their personal touches to revised classical recipes or presenting new creations.
We asked each of these twelve chefs to present two dishes: one of Palestinian inspiration, bringing forward Palestinian flavours, aroma, and sensibilities; and the other a free entry, to test the technical mastery and creativity of each chef. The participants included Chef Johnny Goric (2007 Champion), Chef Abd El Karim Shamasneh (2006 Champion), Chef Ghassan Abd El Jawwad, Chef Odeh Abu Alhawa, Chef George Srour, Chef Samer Gedeon, Chef Peter Andonia, Chef Iyad Jaffal, Chef Ahmad Snoubar, Chef Suheil Mubarak, Chef Dirar Barham, and Chef Mohammad Al-Jabi.
Mrs. Siham Baghdadi, Mr. Kevork Alemian, Mr. Majed Totah, Mr. Daniel Francou, and myself had the pleasure and difficult task to watch, taste, analyze, and grade the performance of all these chefs.
The first part of the observation was during the preparation time in which the chefs were each working at a kitchen station. We could observe their techniques, their choice of ingredients, their relation with the foodstuffs and, moreover, their approach to hygiene and safety.
In the second part, the tasting was done in a quiet, secluded room, where each chef brought in his creation and proceeded to explain his choices to the jury. Then the jury sampled the dish and graded its flavour, its presentation, and the research done by the chef through combining different foods or cooking techniques.
The experience was exhilarating for all participants and rewarding for the audience as they had the opportunity to interact with the chefs, thus discovering new creations such as pigeons stuffed with freekeh (Chef Peter Andonia), an ouzi with freekeh (Chef Ghassan Abdel Jawwad), a Jerusalem tabouleh with warm maftoul, raisins, and nuts (Chef Abd El Kareem Shamasneh), or an Oriental Trio with miniature fried and sautéed aubergine makloubeh, miniature sea-bass maftoul, and an elaborate miniature musakhan (Chef Johnny Goric).
The journey we started in 2006 has grown in the 2007 edition thus encouraging us to follow up this competition with the formation of a group to promote and develop Palestinian cuisine and encourage Palestinian chefs in their development.
Fadi Kattan is the managing director of Transjordan Engineering Company and the organizer of the Palestinian Culinary Competition. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Wajeeh Farrargeh and Fadi Kattan