A celebration of Palestinian food by Fadi Kattan

Seventy-six years after the Nakba, Palestinians continue to be pushed back from their lands, their lives snuffed out, as their culture and country continue to face systematic destruction.

To remind the world of Palestine’s rich culture and heritage, Franco-Palestinian chef and restaurateur, Fadi Kattan turns to the cuisine of the region to showcase the beauty and resilience of his people in his recently published book, Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food.

“Writing this book has also sent me back to memories of how the city has evolved under occupation, how the raising of walls has choked the livelihoods of many, how tourism has been subjected to ups and downs, how visitors have come and gone”

The book, which is more than a cookbook of recipes, honours the people, places, and produce of the land, taking readers on a walk through the city of Bethlehem and the hills, desert, olive and orange groves, the farms in the land that Palestinians call home.

Comprising 60 recipes organised by the seasons, the book celebrates the diversity of the flavours of Palestine.

The recipes come with short descriptions of the food and the traditions around it, connecting the dish to reminiscences of places and people.

Kattan writes in the introduction to the book about how putting the collection together evoked poignant memories of his homeland: “Writing this book has also sent me back to memories of how the city has evolved under occupation, how the raising of walls has choked the livelihoods of many, how tourism has been subjected to ups and downs, how visitors have come and gone.”

The author shares intimate stories about how food and cooking created camaraderie and strengthened the bonds between the members of his family.

Franco-Palestinian chef and restaurateur, Fadi Kattan shares intimate stories about how food strengthened the bonds between members of his family

Crediting his grandmother, Julia, for inspiring his love for cooking, the author writes, “I spent a lot of time at her house, absorbing her busy daily routine. There would always be enticing smells and a frenzy of activity in the kitchen as meals were prepared, often for guests. Meanwhile, farmers would call directly at the front door to offer their seasonal specialities: ripe prickly pears, watermelons from Jenin, fat courgettes, and finger-length aubergines from Battir.”

Long before the book, Kattan has been championing the cuisine of his homeland through his restaurants, Fawda in Bethlehem, and Akub in London’s Notting Hill.

He also co-founded the Kassa Boutique Hotel, a boutique property on the UNESCO World Heritage site of Star Street in Bethlehem’s Old City.

Interspersed between the recipes are the stories of people living in the ancient city: traders, farmers, bakers, artisans besides beloved family members, connecting always to the foodways of the region.

Kattan takes readers on a journey to the desert oasis of Jericho, known for its date and banana farms, as well as its mustard greens and Molokhia (Egyptian greens).

He reminisces about his grandmother’s orange groves in Jaffa, lost during the Nakba of 1948.

He also describes the meat shop run by the Natsheh brothers, where every part of a slaughtered animal is sold, emphasising the philosophy of utilising all available resources for food.

Additionally, he discusses the unpolluted salt harvested from the Dead Sea — a resource facing depletion due to over-extraction and pollution.

Lastly, he mentions a tiny hilltop village dating back to the Iron Age, renowned for producing some of the most flavourful olive oil.

Reminiscing about his maternal grandfather’s love for bread and cheese, Kattan writes: “It is his legacy that has also left me with passions for bread and cheese — two staples that combine the beauty of his Palestinian and French identities.”

The cookbook details various forms of bread baked in the region. It includes the classic Palestinian bread called Taboon, baked over pebbles, as well as kmaj, the Palestinian version of pita.

There’s also the malleable crepe-like Shrak, which can take any shape to hold fillings, and the sesame-coated ka’ek, baked fresh every morning in bakeries and sold from small carts that roam the streets.

Additionally, there are fluffy crisp Manakish, enjoyed for breakfast or as a snack, which can be topped with a variety of ingredients. Lastly, the cookbook mentions the non-traditional white loaves made by the Salesian Bakery.

Laban jameed which comes from the dairy culture of the desert, where yoghurt is preserved and dried with sun and salt, appears frequently in the recipes. It finds a place in salads, soups, and sauces where its special umami taste would elevate the dishes.

Though many of the recipes are those from the cuisine of Palestine, Kattan also includes some unique foods outside the cuisine of the region – like stuffed courgette flowers, and roasted bone marrow.

There are also unique interpretations of traditional foods like replacing the meat kofta in grape leaves with fish or cheese, or roasting meat and vegetables separately when traditionally they were roasted together.

Providing a glimpse of the Christmas festivities in Bethlehem, the author writes about outings to Jerusalem, Jericho, and nearby places with cousins at a time when no tall walls or checkpoints were shackling the landscape.

The frenzy and the festivities surrounding the festival come alive in the two essays at the end of the book that describe in vivid detail the scents and flavours wafting in the house as the family comes together to worship and celebrate.

The author brings alive the storied city of Bethlehem and its surroundings in this book which is a tribute to his homeland.

In this book of recipes, the author also evokes memories of happier times in a land lush with fresh produce, aromatic spices, and clear horizons, and carries hope for justice and peace in the land.

Fehmida Zakeer is an independent writer and author based in Chennai, India. Her articles have been published in various Indian and international publications, including The Hindu Literary Review, The Hindu Young World, New Indian Express, Prevention, Better Homes and Garden, Women’s Feature Service, Women’s International Perspective, Azizah, Herbs for Health, and Good Housekeeping

Follow her on X: @FehmidaZakeer

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