The Palestinian Table
By Reem Kassis
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast, with me, Suzy Chase.
Reem: My name is Reem Kassis, and I'm the author of The Palestinian Table.
Suzy Chase: Describe growing up in Jerusalem surrounded by the love of your family and the communal experience of eating and enjoying good food.
Reem: It was an elaborate occasion for us. We would on Fridays go to my maternal grandmother's house, and she would have been up from the break of dawn baking bread and boiling chickens and doing whatever dish she was making that day. It's funny that I took those things for granted. I would even go so far as to say I didn't appreciate them growing up. But then, once I left home and I started living on my own, I started seeing how other people lived, I realized this was such a special way to grow up.
I think it's one of the reasons that I feel so attached to my family and to my culture and why I have this love of food instilled in me, because growing up I think food meant more than just sustenance to us. It was a way that we shared our lives with each other, the way we caught up with each other when we hadn't seen one another for a while. It was what we had in good occasions and in bad. It was I guess our main source of comfort throughout it all. Food still unites us every time we are back home.
Suzy Chase: Who taught you how to cook?
Reem: I think the most important person I would say is my mother, because she's the one I spent all my time with. Of course, my grandmothers are the ones from whom she learned how to cook, and growing up, obviously, like I told you, we spent weekends at different grandmothers' houses and I picked up things along the way as well.
When you live in such a big family, everyone plays an integral part in the things that you learn. There are many tips and tricks that I've picked up along the way from snippets of conversation that I've heard my grandmother have with my aunts or my mother or that I've even heard my mother have with some of her friends. But I would say my mom is the biggest influence.
Suzy Chase: I read that your grandmother was the taste tester in your village. What does that mean?
Reem: This was really way back when I was very, very young, but basically she was considered the best cook. She had very refined taste and her food was just exceptional. A lot of times when there was going to be a big gathering or a wedding, people would just bring her by to say, "Can you tell us, make sure it's okay, it's salted well, it's seasoned well? Does it need anything else?"
Initially, gatherings were made at people's houses, and then later on it started becoming in more specialized venues, I guess. But until her health started deteriorating, she was definitely the person people called to get her opinion on the food that they were serving to large masses of people for special occasions.
Suzy Chase: Over a decade ago, you were at the Wharton School and the London School of Economics, and you promised yourself that you would never end up in the kitchen. Tell us about that.
Reem: I guess it's funny the way life works. Sometimes you meet your destiny on the very, I guess, road you took to avoid it. With me, that really did happen. I grew up in Jerusalem. I took it for granted that I did not want to end up in the kitchen because I saw it almost as a sentence.
Part of what really pushed me to get that idea even later on in life was right after I'd been accepted to Wharton, and my father had mentioned to someone we knew that I was leaving in a few months. That person goes, "Are you really going to send your daughter to school and pay all that money? Don't you know she's going to end up in the kitchen like all Arab women anyway?" Of course, we laughed it off, thinking, look at this person who thinks in this backward way, but part of me felt he's not the only person who thinks this way, and I want to prove these people wrong. I want to prove that as a woman you do not have to end up in the kitchen.
For 10 years I did that. You saw from my background I went to Wharton, I did my undergrad. I did my MBA straight after, which is very uncommon. I worked at one of the top consulting firms in the industry. Later on, went back and got another master's in psychology. But I think once I matured enough and I learned a lot along the way from having done these things, I came to this conclusion, this clarity if you will, that the kitchen doesn't have to be a sentence the way I imagine it is. Food is actually one of the most powerful mediums through which you can reach people.
One of the other goals I had when I left home was I want to give back to my people. I felt fortunate enough to be able to go abroad to get an education and to escape some of the circumstances that many people back home could not, and I felt I owed it to Palestinians and to people that I knew back home to contribute in some way or other. It took me a long time to come to this conclusion, which is that through food I can actually do that. But I think today I'm happy with where I'm at, because it's out of choice, not circumstance, that I'm in the kitchen, if you will.
Suzy Chase: Give us an overview of the Palestinian landscape and geography as it pertains to the cuisine.
Reem: The geography, the north and the south you will see, you can get an entire range of climates, from very dry and arid in the desert, to humid near the coast, to very cold in the mountains. I think that comes across in our cuisine, because we tend to be very close to nature and to eat what the land provides. But given how small the country is, even these variations in climate don't tend to produce such massive differences. But you do notice that people in the north might enjoy things slightly differently from the people in the south, whether it's in terms of vegetation or even in terms of influence from neighboring countries.
We eat a lot of foraged greens in the north where it rains, and there's a lot of olive groves and olive oil there. In the coastal towns, you might notice more fish dishes, like the one that you made. Then you go more to the south and you see people eating dishes that are more rice based. Rice was initially imported from Egypt, and so on and so forth. But you see these influences that are coming both from the surrounding geography and from the climate and landscape and vegetation.
Suzy Chase: What is the definition of the Palestinian table?
Reem: If you asked me this a few years ago, I'd have said, "I don't know. I don't even know what a Palestinian table is." Because when I grew up back home, there was the food that I ate at home and the food that I ate at my grandmothers' houses, and it was our food and it was delicious, but to me the notion that these things together made up a Palestinian table was kind of elusive. It wasn't until I left home and started living abroad that I noticed just how closely tied our identity is to food.
I think writing this book I realized that what really unites the Palestinian table is not just the foods that we eat or the specific dishes, but rather it's this notion of home that we all have, from those of us who live in the country to those of us who are outside, whether by choice or by circumstance, to people who have left and the Palestinian diaspora everywhere, you could say. I think it's this notion of home that we all in a way aspire to, and also the sense of generosity, of wanting to share our food with others, and finding that we really enjoy our food when it's communal and when it's shared with other people. I think that's what really unites the Palestinian table across the globe.
Suzy Chase: Why do you think Palestinian cuisine rarely makes the headlines?
Reem: I think it's a two-sided story. Part of it I think is just, initially, until the Middle Eastern cuisine started gaining more notice abroad and people started learning more about it, it took a while for people to realize that there is a difference actually amongst the different cuisines of the Middle East. That's one side of it.
But I think the other side is, as you know, obviously there's a political conflict that we have going on, and for many Palestinians it feels almost as if by focusing on anything other than the conflict, you are almost taking away from its importance. But more and more I think a lot of us are coming to the realization that food is part and parcel of our struggle and of who we are.
If anything, I think helping people to know us as a people, as humans, as a mother, a brother, a sister, a cook, the real part of our culture and getting to understand us better, it is not taking away from our struggle. If anything, it is helping send the message across in a way that is much more humane and easy to understand.
The other part is the rising interest in the cuisines of the Middle East. Now that that's happened, people are starting to learn more and more about the nuances of the different parts of the Middle East.
Suzy Chase: What are the differences between Palestinian food and other Middle Eastern food?
Reem: First let's define the other Middle Eastern foods, because it's vast. I think we form part of a geographic continuum that extends to pre-Ottoman times. Sometimes it's even hard to delineate the exact origins of a certain dish because we all enjoy many of the same things, but you start to notice nuances and differences, which can arise from a host of reasons. Part of it is the geography that we were discussing before, and the landscape, what grows where you are, what kind of animals you breed, et cetera. Another part of it is also you find differences from one family to the next, so inevitably you will find differences between these countries.
Part of it is the ingredients that you are using, but another part of it is how you combine them. At the end of the day, the general ingredients that you cook with tend to be similar, but it's how you combine them. Like maftool, which is, it's similar to couscous, but it's a grain that's the size of small caviar pearls that's made by rolling whole wheat around bulgur grains. No other country in the Middle East does it the way Palestinians do. Msakhan, on the other hand, is the combination of onions with sumac with chicken and olive oil on taboon bread, which is, again, a very Palestinian way of making this bread.
Here, everybody uses onions and everybody uses bread and chicken and what not, but it's the way you combine them and the way you cook them that makes them uniquely Palestinian. Same with another famous dish called maqlubeh, which is rice with fried vegetables and either lamb or chicken. Again, these are ingredients that everyone can use, but the way they are cooked and the way they are flipped upside down and spiced before doing so, that's very unique to Palestinians.
These differences are becoming more and more clear now that we are not all part of the same entity and the borders are up and it's harder to mix and marry and move about more freely. These differences always with each generation become more nuanced and clear.
Suzy Chase: The nine-spice mix comes up a lot in this cookbook. Can you describe it?
Reem: The nine-spice mix is actually, it's not something that's a very common or typical Palestinian blend, it's just the one that my mother makes at home. Palestinian cuisine relies heavily on pimento or allspice, and that is the major component in this nine-spice mix that I make. But I think I've found over the years, and so has my mother, that this combination, the way we've made it, it really works for a wide range of dishes, and it does give them a very unique Palestinian flavor. The major components are obviously pimento, and then you have cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cumin, mace, and in different proportions, obviously, with the pimento being the most dominant one.
But I've mentioned this in the book. For people who either do not want to buy their own spices or grind them, or who just want something easier, there is the Lebanese seven-spice mix, which you can buy in stores, or the baharat spice mix, which you can also buy. Obviously, they will give your food a slightly different flavor profile, but similar enough to the end result that I am describing in the book. But sometimes people have asked me, what is the major or the most dominant flavor in Palestinian cooking? And in most cases it is this pimento spice, and then it's complemented by a few others, like cardamom or nutmeg or coriander, depending on the dish that you're making.
Suzy Chase: Do Palestinians see food as a way to hold onto identity and existence?
Reem: I think so. I think most cultures actually see food as a way to hold onto identity and culture. But for Palestinians, the issue becomes even more stark and more passionately debated because of the political conflict. Palestinians don't have a independent, self-sufficient state. You have a lot of Palestinians that are refugees, that are dispersed across the globe. I think food is one of the things that unites us, and holding onto it is in a way allowing us to hold onto that very last shred of something that unites us regardless of where we are.
That's why I think it takes on more of an emotional significance for Palestinians than it might for other people, but I think across the world, everybody sees food as a way to, at least to an extent, represent their identity and their background.
Suzy Chase: Most flatbreads are made in a clay oven. What is your tip for making flatbread in our own home kitchen oven?
Reem: I struggle with this as well when I cook at home, depending on the type of flatbread you're making. If you're making pita bread, what it really needs is quick, high heat. That's what makes your bread very soft and not dry. Oftentimes I just use the grill in the oven or the broiler. I put it in for a minute or two, flip it over. It is a bit more time consuming because you're not putting in let's say five or six pitas at a time, but at the same time you're getting that out much quicker and they're fluffier and softer.
The other thing that I do when I'm making taboon bread ... Again, this is the kind of bread that you cannot make into sandwiches. You can make it into rolls or use it for Musakhan. But you use pebbles. You put the pebbles in the oven, on a very sturdy oven tray, of course. You let them heat up, and then you spread your dough over it. That allows the bread to get the authentic shape of taboon bread and also to cook very quickly. Another option is to use a pizza stone, because stone retains more heat. It just allows you to cook the pita bread more quickly and as a result end up with a softer, more pillowy dough.
Suzy Chase: Your father finishes off dinner with a piece of bread and an olive. Talk about how bread is an integral part of each meal.
Reem: For us, bread is more than just something that we use to dip into spreads. I think in the West most people associate pita bread as something that you use to dip into hummus or baba ganoush. For us, we use it as a vessel to eat many of our foods, from the dips like hummus and labneh, but also for stews and braises. Many of the kaftka dishes that I have in the book, the minced meat bakes, I suggest that people serve them with rice because that's what will make most sense to maybe people in the West, but at home we often just eat it with bread.
Bread is what you give your kids to school every day with something inside it. It's just such an integral part of our diet that we use it even in desserts. One of the recipes in the book is actually a toasted bread pudding with cream on top. As you can see, it's quite an important part of our diet.
Suzy Chase: Olive oil is another staple for you. When we're buying olive oil, what should we look for?
Reem: Luckily, we press our own at home, which also means I know quite a bit when I'm buying olive oils what is good and what is not good. I realize, as unfortunate as it is, that price is often a good indicator. There is a lot of adulteration, as we all know, in the olive oil industry. A $5 bottle of olive oil that tells you it's extra virgin is probably not.
The other important characteristics to look out for, obviously, is a day of harvest or the date of pressing. Then, the other thing is a protected designation of origin, because then at least you know where your olive oil is coming from. Generally, those that are packed in tins or in very dark glass bottles tend to be of better quality.
Suzy Chase: The other night, I made your recipe for fish with tahini and onion sauce and pine nuts. Give us the background on this dish.
Reem: This dish comes from the coastal towns where fish is plentiful. I think it started out as something to do with leftover fish, because you would go to the fishermen on the coast and you would purchase a large piece of fish, and you'd cook it very simply at home. When you have leftovers, Palestinians tend to not want to discard anything, so they would save it for the next day. But then bland leftover fish is probably not great, so you come up with this sauce to enhance the flavor. But it is such a good dish that nowadays most people make it from scratch.
I tend to use filets that I bake in the oven, and then I put the tahini with the onion sauce on top of it and bake it back in the oven for another 10 minutes until it bubbles up. But you can also, if you're in a rush on a weeknight, pan fry some filets while you have the sauce on the side and simply drizzle it on top. It's very delicious, but it's very simple, and it goes to show that many of the dishes in this book can be adapted to suit your day-to-day lifestyle and be made easily.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web?
Reem: You can find me on my website, reemkassis.com, and from there you can link to my Instagram, my Twitter, my Facebook, et cetera.
Suzy Chase: I will close with Anthony Bourdain's quote about The Palestinian Table: "A thoughtful collection of great recipes, historical and cultural insights, and beautiful photographs." I couldn't have summed it up better. Thank you, Reem, for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Reem: Thank you, Suzy. It was my pleasure.
Suzy Chase: Follow me on Instagram @CookerybytheBook. Twitter is @IAmSuzyChase. Download your kitchen mix tapes, music to cook by, on Spotify at Cooking by the Book. As always, subscribe on Apple Podcasts.