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‘In Palestine, the olive cycle gives the rhythm of our cuisine’

Palestinian restaurateur, Fadi Kattan, opened Akub in London’s trendy Notting Hill neighbourhood over a year ago and it’s given him the opportunity to share the flavours of Palestine with people and tell his country’s story.

June 23, 2024 at 12:05 pm

Olive trees are a universal symbol of peace and a powerful symbol of Palestinian steadfastness and connection in their land. Franco-Palestinian Chef Fadi Kattan says few things encapsulate Palestinian identity quite like the humble olive tree.

“You know why I decorate my restaurants with olive trees? It’s very, very iconic, very historical for Palestinian culture. It roots an entire nation to a land and livelihood lost to occupation.”

“The olives we have, some of the olive trees are the oldest in the world in Palestine. And the olive cycle gives the rhythm of our cuisine. So, when it’s olive picking season, people go out onto the land, and they pick the olives. There are foods that they take with them for the olive picking.”

After completing his hotel management studies at the Institut Vatel and working in Paris and London, Kattan came back to Palestine to join the family business.

Kattan says after 15 years, influenced by the ever changing situation in Palestine, he decided to go back to his passion, “the kitchen”.

Originally from Bethlehem, Kattan opened his first restaurant in the occupied city in 2016, he has since opened other establishments, including Akub in London’s trendy Notting Hill in 2023.

Kattan says his city is known as the place where Jesus was born, “but in reality, nobody knows Bethlehem.”

He, however, was born in the city “to an old Bethlehem family on my father’s side.”

It is there that he learnt Palestinian cuisine, which he says alters from city to city. Even the way olives are marinated differs from area to area in the West Bank. In Bethlehem, Kattan explains, “we put a lemon, chilli with the water and salt and olive oil. In other places they will not put chilli, some places they will put garlic. Wherever you are in Palestine we have the same foods, but they change according to the region.”

As a result of these differences, there are “millions of fights on who does the better olive oil. So, if you’re from Bethlehem, like me, you would say the olive oil of Beit Jala, which is a small town next to Bethlehem, is the best in the world. If you’re from the north, you will say that it’s the olive oil of Sebastia.”

But Palestine’s old olive trees are under threat. Israeli settlers have been attacking the West Bank’s natural resources and commandeering agricultural lands belonging to Palestinians.

Kattan has experienced this “ecocide” first hand.

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“We have a town called Birzeit in Palestine, which means literally in Arabic, the well of oil. And it had some of the oldest olive oil presses. Today, olive oil is also very symbolic because, sadly, since the Israeli occupation, there has been a systematic uprooting of olive trees in Palestine. The settlers are burning down olive trees, they’re attacking Palestinians during the olive picking season. It makes our link jeopardised.”

“You know, our resources are becoming more and more limited with the Israeli occupation confiscating lands, controlling our water. And I’m talking about the West Bank, Jerusalem. Gaza is being bombed left, right and centre.”

Israel’s attacks are not just against people and land, but against culture and sites that are of religious importance, Kattan says. As a result, cooking Palestinian food is the only “tangible” way to preserve the culture. It is through cooking that Palestinian mothers, who became refugees in 1948 as a result of the creation of the state of Israel, were able “to keep our culture and identity that sadly is being wiped out.”

His is a modern take on these traditional dishes. Though deeply rooted in Palestine, his upbringing was heavily influenced by his family’s travels. “My grandparents moved to Japan in 1920 and they stayed in Japan until 1943, when the Americans bombed Japan. They ran away to India. My father was born in India, and they came back to Palestine in 1954. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was born in Bethlehem, but he was raised in Paris and came back much later to Bethlehem,” he explains.

“It’s a pleasure to be sharing the flavours of Palestine with people, telling the story of Palestine. People create a fantasy of what Palestinians are. But in reality, we’re just like any other people in the world.”

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