"The Palestinian Table" is a fitting title for a cookbook which captures the essence of Palestinian culinary heritage, culture and reality. It is what ties all Palestinians together in spite of their political circumstances and global dispersion. But it stands for "more than just food," as author Reem Kassis explains in her introduction; "it is the notion of 'home', the spirit of generosity, the importance of family, and the value of bringing people together."
Kassis' passion for Palestinian food and way of life is evident in her debut cookbook, which she begins by describing her experience of growing up in Jerusalem and the distinct flavours of Palestinian food she was always surrounded by in her family's home and the streets of her home city.
Kassis relates her remarkable journey with cooking, which began when she left Palestine to pursue a professional degree and a glamorous business career in the United States, promising to "never return to the kitchen". It was when Kassis left home for another country that she grasped "the undeniable importance of food to national identity and the intricacies associated with defining it". She describes her nostalgia after leaving Jerusalem and her fears of raising her two daughters away from the culinary traditions and family gatherings integral to the Palestinian way of life. That was the ultimate motivation behind "The Palestinian Table"; a desire to preserve her Palestinian heritage for her children.
The book contains 150 comprehensive, easy-to-follow recipes laced with anecdotes on Palestine and adorned with vibrant images of the dishes as well as scenic shots of life in Jerusalem.
The recipes appear in 11 chapters: The Basics, Bread and Pastries, Breakfast, Dips and Small Bites, Salads and Sides, Soups and Stews, Bakes and Braises, Rice and Grains, Celebration Dishes, Desserts and Sweet Treats, and finally Drinks, Preserves and Condiments.
Inspired by three generations of family tradition, each recipe is personalised with an introduction about the dish, such as where in Palestine it is most popular, its origin and sometimes a childhood memory of the dish. Not only do these anecdotes provide valuable cultural insight as well as specifics about how the local dishes are prepared and served, but they also create the feeling that Kassis is there with you, talking you through each recipe and introducing you to her family's own culinary customs.
There is no single Palestinian table
From traditional pastries such as za'atar filled flatbreads and the sesame bagels (ka'ak) that Jerusalem is renowned for, to her mother's versatile nine spice mix, Kassis basically provides everything you need for a true Palestinian feast.
Each region in Palestine has its own recipes and dishes, so you will find dishes like "Sayadiya", a cumin spiced rice and fish dish popular in many Palestinian coastal cities like Haifa and Akka. Gaza, for example, whilst also known for its seafood, has its own dishes such as the Gazan fatteh, a take on fatteh in which the yoghurt sauce is replaced with a chilli, garlic and lemon sauce. Jerusalem has its own variations of popular Palestinian dishes, too. A recipe of beef patties in grape leaves is featured as one of the signature dishes from Jerusalem, in which minced meat patties are wrapped in grape leaves as opposed to the more common rice stuffing.
Fenugreek semolina cake "Hilbeh in Arabic" is one of the most typical and yet very unique Palestinian desserts with a distinct "love it or hate it" flavour, as Kassis describes, and is best enjoyed with a strong cup of cardamom coffee. Having grown up in a Palestinian household myself, I remember the excitement I would feel every time Hilbeh was served after dinner. The ingredient list might seem daunting, but if you can get a hold of fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds and ground anise seeds, it is not a difficult recipe.
"There is no single Palestinian table," Kassis explains in the book. "The Palestinian table spans our entire geography, from the mountains of Galilee to the valleys of the south, from the coast of Yaffa all the way to the West Bank. It is scattered across the globe and built from memories of a time when most of us lived in the same land."
You will also find recipes that are inspired and influenced by neighbouring countries such as Egypt and the levant region which have also been heavily influenced by Ottoman culinary heritage. Such Middle Eastern staples featured in the book include falafel, variations of fatteh and stuffed vegetables, from vine leaves and cabbage to aubergine and courgettes. Desserts that are popular in the region as a whole are also included, such as qatayef, semolina cake, caraway pudding and the famous baklawa.
Kassis invited MEMO over and cooked Freekeh with braised cubes of beef and pine nuts. Freekeh is a green wheat grain popular in various parts of the Middle East and North Africa, including Palestine. It is roasted and rubbed to create its unique smoky flavour, and is often used as a replacement for rice or couscous, or cooked as a soup. "When combined with the richness of butter and olive oil, sautéed onions, and the warmth of spices," Kassis writes, "it produces a flavour combination that is a feast for the taste buds".
Having acquired some freekeh from Palestine myself, I thought I would try out Reem's Freekeh soup recipe. Although I have had the soup hundreds of times in my family home, I have never cooked it myself before. As Kassis set out in more precise details, it was only a matter of frying chopped onions with some olive oil and butter, then adding the freekeh and her mother's nine spice mix and stirring for a few minutes before pouring the chicken broth and cooking for about 20 minutes in total. This was one of the single most impressively simple recipes I have ever taken on, and the result brought me back to my own mother's kitchen in Palestine.
"The Palestinian Table" is a great book to slowly work your way through over time. It will inspire you to incorporate Palestinian flavours in your everyday cooking by using staple ingredients such as sumac, which can be added to chicken, salads or soups, or by replacing ingredients such as rice with freekeh or maftool. Towards the end of her book Kassis details some of the most common, and often unfamiliar, ingredients found in the Palestinian pantry. Fortunately, they are becoming more commonplace in European supermarkets today.
Most of the herbs and spices used are featured in multiple recipes throughout the book, so it is unlikely that you end up with a near-full jar of a spice that you would not use again.
You are going to want to clear off space on your bookshelf, because if "The Palestinian Table" does not make a valuable addition to your kitchen and expose you to a wonderful array of tastes and flavours, I don't know what will.