Review: Myrna Robins
The Palestinian Table, by Reem Kassis (Phaidon Press)
Let’s start with the author – a Palestinian professional who offers in her introduction both a fascinating self-portrait one of her family, and follows with the complex composition of the Palestinian table.
Kassis’s mother is a Palestinian Muslim from a rural village in Palestine’s centre, her father a Palestinian Christian from a mountain village in the far north. Kassis grew up in Jerusalem, a melting pot of food and cultures, where her parents ensured that their daughter took a route other than aspiring to marriage. Having focused on her schooling, Reem was accepted, at 17, by several top American universities. A decade in the United States saw her attain professional degrees, followed by glamorous jobs and a hectic lifestyle. Then, after she met and fell in love with a fellow Palestinian, the couple moved to London and married.
As a young mother at home with a small daughter Kassis had time to enjoy cooking traditional dishes from her childhood, and she shortened and simplified some of them. She noted that British restaurants serving Middle Eastern dishes displayed little Palestinian cuisine, and decided to share with the world family recipes and others from various villages.
This collection doubles as something of a Palestinian chronicle as she weave tales of identity. Even in this fractured land, regional culinary variations persist, from the mountains of the Galilee to the southern valleys, and from the coast of Yaffa to the West Bank.
Kassis starts with basic recipes that she deems essential to to exploring the cuisine. Foundational food she calls these, comprising a spice mix, a broth and fried nuts, elements that lend dishes depth of flavour. They also include labaneth, tahini sauce, vermicelli rice and a sugar syrup flavoured with orange blossom water and rosewater. It’s easy to recognise similarities with the basics of other Middle Eastern fare.
Being a cornerstone of all meals, the chapter on bakes is largely about breads. Along with pita and taboon other flatbreads resemble pizza bases topped with ingredients such as cooked red bell peppers, and also used as dipping tools. Elaborate pastry bases are filled with vegetables and cheese or used as turnovers with similar fillings. Crackers, spiced and seeded, can be savoury or sweet.
Palestinian breakfasts are family affairs at which eggs play a major role in some delicious dishes. They well illustrate how Middle Eastern spices and classics transcend borders from Syria to Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and beyond. Eggs fried in olive oil scented with za’atar and sumac perch on pita breads with a slice of labaneh. Frittatas are spiced and herbed and served with olives, spring onion, mint and tomato.
The Tunisian shakshuka is a favourite in many countries, the Palestinian version using fewer vegetables than most. The “Middle Eastern peanut butter and jelly sandwich” is how Kassis describes the popular tahini and grape molasses spread, paired with warm pita bread. The Egyptians use grape molasses, the Gulf States prefer date molasses.
The custom of a table laden with dishes, large and small, for diners to help themselves is universal in the region. We are offered recipes for several dips like hummus, snacks like kubbeh, deep-fried cheese and za’atar parcels, pine nut rolls, which can be served either for lunch or supper.
Salads are sturdy affairs, often based on tomato, cucumber and mint around a grain base. Simple soups and substantial stews are based on vegetables and pulses and grains like freekah, (cracked green wheat) while others star lamb, beef or chicken. There are a couple of intriguing seafood dishes as well.
Sweet finales in Palestine are usually seasonal or defined by the occasion, religious or family celebration with which they are associated. Some are complicated and time-consuming. Think of baklawa, shredded phyllo and cheese pie, semolina cake. However their fragrant milk pudding with pistachios is closely related to panna cotta and easy to make.
Attractive food photographs and a glossary of ingredients add to the attraction of this hardback which is a significant addition to the cookbooks of the region. It is delectable proof that food can transcend divisions of religions and politics if allowed to do so.