An Introduction to Palestinian Cuisine
Attention to detail is one of those aspects of Palestinian cuisine that could deter the initiate cook. We roll vine leaves and chard into cigarette size morsels, we stuff bite size pastries with infinite patience and care, and we chop meat and vegetables into diminutive chips, undaunted by the lure of modern appliances. Yet for all this refinement and delicacy, Palestinian cuisine has not gone public and it is really within the confines of private homes that the Palestinian repertoire unfurls an extensive variety of food delights.
Recent visits to the old marketplace and to the many vegetable and fruit shops about the towns have been disheartening lately: displays are a caricature of what we would normally have in summer. Supply to the towns has been irregular and poor as a result of the isolation of agricultural villages, irreverent attacks on planted expanses and a persistent ban on the passage of goods in the Palestinian areas. One has to be content with basics; yet unfortunate as the situation might be, it is during times as hard as those we are living in that one comes to appreciate the ingenuity of Palestinian cuisine and its adaptability to dire circumstances. Penury of products can be an incitement for cooks to pull out once again old recipes from the bottom of their drawers and infuse what they have learnt from their mothers and grandmothers with the ingenuity of acquired experience.
Traditional Palestinian cuisine offers a rich variety of dishes characteristic of the eastern regions of the Mediterranean. While geographic differences are a major factor in distinguishing food preparation, it is mostly the wide range of life styles, which spans nomadic migration through urban sophistication, and which has remained a marked feature of modern day Palestine, that gives Palestinian cuisine its characteristic features. Other factors have played a role. While successive occupations have left their mark, the establishment of many foreign communities that have come to settle in the Holy Land in the aftermath of the Crimean war in 1855 has greatly contributed to the present character of Palestinian cuisine, especially in urban centres such as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ramallah and Bethlehem. In its most recent history, especially during the last fifty years, the demographic changes that have swept the area have influenced culinary trends both directly and indirectly and although the scope of such influences is still to be determined, they cannot be dismissed or underestimated.
Special Features of Palestinian Cuisine
Today, Palestinian cuisine is an expression of this diversity and manifold social and cultural make-up, and while it has shouldered the tides of history through integration rather than rigid resistance, certain features are constant and cut across the cultural diversity.
Lamb holds a place of honour at every Palestinian table. Throughout the year every occasion gives rise to celebration, and the slaughtering of a lamb is one important component capturing whole categories of cultural and social symbols that gird the fabric of daily life. It often happens that someone would borrow money in order to honour guests according to the dictates of custom by serving a lamb especially slaughtered for the occasion. The celebration of Easter and Adha, two major feasts based on the concept of sacrifice for Christians and Muslims alike, is a culmination of this long-standing tradition.
Rice is a staple. But it is also a symbol. The fact that it is not sown in Palestine is indicative of the integration that has been a feature of Palestinian culture. It has come about as a result of constant exposure to the world both as a station on several trade routes and as a destination for foreigners who wanted to make the Holy Land their home. Rice is the basic ingredient in ceremonial dishes. It invariably accompanies stews and is an essential component of mahashi, all dishes that involve stuffing, from whole lambs to chicken to daintily cored vegetables.
Samneh baladieh, or clarified butter, is another feature of Palestinian cuisine. Extracted from ewe’s milk, samneh is strained butter that has been boiled with cracked wheat, nutmeg and curcuma, a bittersweet spice that gives samneh its musk flavour and a distinctive bright yellow colour. It is one of those ingredients that cannot be bought off the shelves of food-supply shops but has to be obtained through a network of contacts among the nomadic bedouins who breed the sheep and make the butter. In recent years, as consumers have become more aware of the dangers of saturated fats, samneh is being used sparingly as an added flavour. Many among the younger generations living in urban centres have given it up totally. The tendency is to use more and more olive oil, which is certainly not lacking in a country where olives have been cultivated since ancient times.
When the milk is churned to extract the butter, the by-product, laban mkheed, another essential ingredient in many Palestinian dishes, is also processed for year round storage. This buttermilk is left to drip through cheesecloth for a few days. The resulting pasty cheese is then kneaded with salt, cumin and curcuma, shaped into balls and dried over a wooden board in a dark room for a few days and then stored in cloth bags. Individual balls of laban jmeed, as it is called in its new state, are diluted as needed for sauces for mahashi, mansaf, fatteh and a variety of stews.
Typical Palestinian Dishes
Mansaf and kidreh, without which any celebration does not deserve any mention, are de rigueur at every traditional wedding, funeral, baptism and circumcision. Mansaf, a dish with lamb meat, rice and laban jmeed, comes originally from Trans-Jordan but was adopted wholeheartedly by the Palestinians as a dish for special occasions, most particularly in the Hebron area and the Naqab. It is sometimes served the traditional way in a large common plate, a sidr, and without the use of western tableware. Kidreh, another dish typical of the Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jerusalem areas as well as the Gaza Strip, is also based on rice and meat, with minor regional variations, particularly in the use of spices.
Mahashi dishes are popular all over Palestine and have the advantage of being prepared the day before. The preparation of stuffed vegetables - aubergines, marrows, baby pumpkins, potatoes, carrots and cucumbers- is a delicate operation requiring great dexterity and infinite patience. Coring vegetables requires a special tool that one can buy for a pittance from the local souks. It can also be bought in Middle-Eastern food shops or in the Arab quarters of big cities. Mahashi also includes the stuffing of vines leaves, cabbage leaves and chard into small cigarette size portions, an elaborate and time consuming job, a minor consideration in large families where many women can chip in.
Fatteh, another popular dish often based on rice, derives its name from the cut up bread which, soaked in sauce, is a basic component of the dish. Fatteh can be cooked with meat, chicken or fish and the added rice and sauce are prepared with their broth. It is originally a peasant dish and was convenient for recycling left over bread.
Stews are basic fare for every day family cooking and are always served with vermicelli rice or plain rice. They are popular because they provide a wide range of nutrients from the meat, the vegetables and the rice, and supply the extra liquid so essential in a climate where dry weather is the norm for most of the year. They also have the advantage of being economical as a relatively small amount of meat can go a long way into feeding a large family, especially during hard times and among the poorer population.
Mussakhan is an all time favourite with all Palestinians and while many make a special trip to the Ramallah restaurants to enjoy it, it originates further north from Tul-Karem and Jinin. A succulent dish consisting of grilled chicken served on bread that has been smothered with a mixture of onions and sumac cooked in plenty of olive oil, it certainly competes with mansaf and kiddreh as the representative dish of Palestinians. The ideal bread for this dish is the local tabun bread. The tabun is the famous clay oven that was a centrepiece in every garden or backyard. When this bread is not available, it is possible to use kmaj bread, which is thick enough to carry the stuffing.
As we go further north, to Akka, Haifa, Nazareth and the Triangle, the differences that we encounter in the cooking styles between the rural and the urban areas are as sharp as those in the rest of Palestine. One marked regional difference is that rice, which is a staple in these parts too, is less important in ceremonial dishes. While oriental rice -a mixture of rice with chopped meat and nuts flavoured with an assortment of spices- accompanied by meat or chicken is quite a favourite, a variety of dishes consisting of meatballs and potatoes are ubiquitous at specials occasions. Kubbeh, a mixture of meat and burghul ground to a paste and shaped into oblong balls and stuffed with spicy meat and onions, is associated with happy occasions. It is often served raw, a practice directly imported from the Lebanon, which had maintained strong socio-economic ties with northern Palestine up until 1948 when the partition of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel abruptly interrupted a thriving exchange. Northern Palestine associates kubbeh with happy occasions and it is often served at social gatherings to officially put an end to a period of mourning.
Food Preparation and Life Styles
One eats with one’s eyes first, an Arab saying goes, and Palestinian cuisine is colourful! There is nothing more delightful than the myriad colours of a mezze. A whole assortment of salads and dips and fresh bright vegetables cut and prepared in a variety of ways; generous dribbles of olive oil smoothing the sharpness of pickles and hot peppers; fried or baked pastries stuffed with all sorts of savoury fillings; and the ubiquitous bowl of olives, home grown and home pickled according to grandmother’s recipe!
The concept of mezze, typical of most countries of the Mediterranean basin, is associated with leisurely meals consumed over hours of nibbling and sampling and dipping, with languid after-meal siestas or long summer evenings on the terrace stretched by endless puffs on the argileh. It disguises the time and effort invested in the preparation of an assortment worthy of the name and it most certainly belies the harsh reality of a land forever craving for temperance and restful living!
Traditionally, food preparation has been the domain of the many women living under one roof within the extended family. Changing life styles in urban centres and a shift towards the nuclear family, with a growing number of women joining the work force, have inevitably brought on dramatic changes in food habits. Starting from the concept of shopping for food to the actual sharing of a meal, middle class urban Palestinians are increasingly demonstrating signs of standardised habits: pizza nights; frozen food; pasta salads; Chinese takeaway. The social dimension of the collective preparation of food and sharing of favourite dishes has almost disappeared. Yet it is during these last few hard months that I have noticed around me a remarkable reversal in cooking/eating habits.
Fancy dishes have all but disappeared from menus and while women are generally reverting to plain old country cooking, there are remarkable attempts at creativity!
Christiane Dabdoub Nasser is the author of Classic Palestinian Cookery, Saqibooks, London.