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Eating yourself: Reclaiming Palestinian identity through food

“Palestine on a Plate” is a cookery application that offers food lovers the chance to taste the beauty of Palestine through its famous dishes. The person behind the application is Joudie Kalla, a professional chef born to Palestinian parents who has lived most of her life in London.

Kalla says her love for food was ignited when, at the tender age of four, she would sit in the kitchen with her three sisters and watch her mother cook several dishes at a time. “I loved baking cakes with her [mother] and bread stuffed with different fillings. I knew then that I wanted to be a chef,” she says.

As a child, like most little girls, Kalla’s obsession was with Barbie dolls but food came a close second. When she started school she chose to study home economics which is “sadly not offered to children these days which I think is vital”, she explains.

She used to rush home from class to see what was for dinner and to see if she could help in any way to prepare the food. Kalla admits it made her a little anti-social as she loved to be behind the stove and interact less with people. “All I wanted to know is if someone liked my food. I felt comfortable in the kitchen and really blossomed there.”

At the age of 21 she decided to become a professional chef, something her father did not fully approve of. He was “exceptionally difficult to please as he always is, but he was tough on me for a reason. He wanted me to be the best I could be and true to myself,” she explains.

Her mother, on the other hand, was very supportive and encouraged her. “She really felt and feels that I am living on through her with my food. Which is actually true. “

Cooking for Kalla is a combination of a hobby, a profession and a lifestyle. “It makes me happy. Happy to cook and happy to feed.”

In addition to this, food has a nostalgic feeling, Kalla explains, that reminds you of “home” and connects you to your past and your identity. “My recipes were a way to become closer to her [mother] as I felt very far away when I moved out of London and went to France. I had never left home and being away made me miss all of my comforts,” she says.

Intrigued by the creativity of this field, Kalla says cooking “allows me to paint on a plate, so to speak. My mind goes into a totally different world as it closes off to everything else and frees me to just focus on what I wanted. I love creating things and finding a way to put my feelings on a plate.”

Being a Palestinian woman who wants to be a chef was not an easy task, Kalla had to work extra hard and often found herself the only woman in the kitchen. The only time she felt like she was offered any real guidance was at her last job “my chef guided me in the right direction to find my way and begin my own catering company and then later to open my own place. You really need support in this field to keep motivated when times are tough.”

Kalla went to the Leiths School of Food and Wine – a prestigious cookery school in London. She has worked in Pengelly’s, a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, Daphne’s and Papillon with Michelin starred Chef David Duverger.

After closing her deli at the end of 2014, Kalla took some time off but many of her old customers called and emailed her asking for recipes for dishes such as makloubeh, fattet djaj and sayyadiyeh. This inspired Kalla to document the recipes and so “Palestine on a Plate” was born.

The application began its life with the help of Kalla’s friend Steph, who helped build it. Kalla describes the venture as “a labour of love and it still is as it needs constant nurturing.”

She says she feels a special bond to the application not just because it is her own venture but she believes it has “benefited me because it made me learn more about my background and investigate my history. It has made my mother and I even closer and made me more proud to be – not only an Arab – but specifically Palestinian.”

Her work has received much praise with Chef Ian Pengelley saying: “She is the foremost expert in Palestinian food and is by far the biggest contributor to making Palestinian cooking the popular cuisine that it is today.”

However, Kalla has also met with much criticism and abuse in particular from Israelis, and is often asked if she stuffs the food with explosives. This has not deterred her, “if it angers people than maybe I am doing something right. I would have thought that food is something that would unite people, but I am afraid not.”

There has been a highly publicised food war with Israelis claiming many Palestinian dishes as their own. Kalla has been attacked by many Israelis who have insulted her and even said they wanted to kill her for lying to the public about her dishes and claiming them as Palestinian when they are Israeli. However, Kalla is defiant: “I don’t react; I just let them have a fight with each other and show their true colours. Dishes like mussakhan and makloubeh are historic Palestinian dishes eaten by our ancestors before our land was split into smithereens. It infuriates me inside, but if they enjoy it enough to claim it, who am I to stop them?”

“Palestine on a Plate” covers recipes from all over Palestine and is not focused on one area in particular. Kalla is concerned that Palestinians are losing their identity. “People don’t see our food as Palestinian food anymore they see it as Israeli or Jewish food. We need to own this again and empower our culture with our history and background. Not lose it [to] propaganda and the media.”

This is the challenge that Kalla has set for herself: to educated people about Palestinian cuisine. “We have enough Italian, French and Chinese restaurants out there, but not many Palestinian restaurants,” she says.

Kalla’s passion for food and Palestine are the main force behind her determination. “I believe in this 100 per cent. I love it and people love it too. Since launching the Instagram account only a couple of months ago, I have had nearly 9,000 people connect and share their – mostly – lovely thoughts with me and so many wonderful messages from people who are so proud of what I am doing. It makes it all worth it. I was worried that not all markets would understand the title, because let’s face it, not many people acknowledge Palestine, but I am not going to hide the most important part of me.”

The most popular dish featured on the application, Kalla says, is m’tabak which her mother only recently taught her to make. “It is sensational. It is a flaky pastry filled with halloumi and ricotta baked at a high heat and then drizzled with lemon-sugar syrup, topped off with dried roses and pistachios. Incredible and simple. My own personal favourite Palestinian dish is makloubeh. The combination of lamb, cinnamon scented rice and fried aubergines with yoghurt is a marriage made in heaven. Always a crowd pleaser.”

Kalla’s ambition for the future is to see “Palestine on a Plate” turn into a cook book, a small deli, and supper clubs throughout the year teaching people how to cook Palestinian food.

“Sharing and loving our culture and giving people another reason to talk about Palestine. We are not always war based and in sadness. We have so much to offer as a people and as a country. I hope to shed light on that and many other wonders of our home,” she says.

To buy the app visit www.palestineonaplate.com. Follow Palestine on a Plate on Instagram @palestineonaplate and Facebook. Images by palestineonaplate.com

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