Educator, writer, teacher advocate and coach, mother of twins, baker and passionate foodie. Riyam has a PhD in Chemistry and over twenty years of educational experience. Riyam is a certified Erikson and Lanning Concept Based Curriculum and Instruction Trainer. She works with teachers collaboratively to coach and consult on everything they need to make their classrooms intellectually stimulating environments. Throughout her career, Riyam held a diverse set of positions, but ultimately the classroom, teaching and training have is where she finds her passion.
On the weekends, you will find her in the kitchen, willing a sourdough starter to bubble, or a cake to rise in the oven, away from her professional life, she is a passionate baker and foodie!
65 g of milk chocolate (Easter Chocolate Bunny medium size)
1/3 cup unsweetened coco powder
1 Tbsp Vanilla
1 tsp crushed gum Arabica (mastic) (absolutely optional and only if you like the taste of mastic do you use this, and use it sparingly so it does not overpower your tastebuds, without it the ice-cream has a creamy chocolate taste)
The original recipe came from Betty Crocker, German Chocolate Ice-cream (www.bettycrocker.com). Changes were made through trial and error. We called it Peter Rabbit ice-cream because we were watching Peter Rabbit when we made it and we used an Easter chocolate bunny since we were out of milk chocolate chips.
My family loves a good bowl of ice-cream. It is hard not to, when you grow up eating Rukab and Baladna ice-creams. In Ramallah, everything begins with Rukab Street (officially named Main Street) which connects the city center (Al Manara Square) and the old town. A busy and often crowded artery, this is where life happens. A street that bore witness to an evolving city, a brutal occupation, and a never-ending beat of hope.
Separate the egg yolks from the eggs whites. My daughter loved this part, we cracked the eggs, and poured them into her palm. The egg whites slid off seamlessly, and the yolks where placed into a separate bowl.
If you ask someone for directions, they will immediately re-orient you to Main street by asking “Btiiraf wain’ Rukab?(Do you know Rukab?)” And then directions are skillfully given from there.
In a heavy sauce pan, add three cups of heavy cream (or heavy cream substitute, both work) and one cup of whole milk (you can substitute with low–fat milk)
At the heart of this artery is Rukab’s ice-cream shop. A family business passed on from one generation to the next, serving delicious, gooey ice-cream in all kinds of flavors.
Add 1/3 cup coco powder, and 1 crushed Easter chocolate bunny (medium size, 65 g in weight). The bunny can be substituted for 65 g of any kind of chocolate. Bring to a simmer then add 1 teaspoon of gum Arabica (Mastic). ّI must here emphasize that you should only use arabic gum if you like the taste and if you do choose to use it, use it sparingly since it can overpower the chocolate taste. Trust me I know from the disappointed looks on my children’s faces and my sister’s face when we tried adding it the first time. They said it tasted like wood! Without it the recipe works beautifully and tastes creamy and chocolaty!
Rukab has been serving ice-cream since the 30’s. It began in the family’s kitchen, where their mother made ice-cream to be sold by her children after school. In 1941, the father opened a coffee shop, in what is now the iconic Rukab Ice-cream Shop. The delicious gooey scoops are unmatched. The gooeyness is due to the use of Arabic Gum and Sahlab (Salep). Chemically when those two are added to the simmering cream mixture, they form a gel, giving the ice-cream the stretchy texture. It is thought that this might be one of the oldest ways of making ice-cream. Some attribute it to Syria, others believe its beginnings were in Turkey.
In the meantime, beat the egg yolks until light yellow, adding the sugar and 1 Tbsp of vanilla.
Today the business is run by Jimmy Rukab, the grandson of the founder and his father. Just passing by the place in the morning makes you crave the stretchy ice-cream even on a cold winter morning. Rukab’s shop survived and persevered through the painful history of Ramallah and Palestine, and it stands witness to the utter destruction and loss the city experienced throughout time, but also to the rebirth. Rukab’s history is as rich as its taste.
Temper the egg yolks by gradually adding the cream mixture using a ladle. Do not add quickly, your eggs will cook too fast and you wont have a custard.
Down the street from Rukab, is Baladna ice-cream. Both shops have an intertwined history. Baladna also serves gooey ice-cream to die for. In 1999, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I remember carrying containers of Baladna Pistachio ice-cream across the Jiser(Bridge) to bring it to her in Jordan where she was receiving chemotherapy. At the time chemo was unavailable in the West Bank, and it was easier for her to go to Jordan than get treatment in Jerusalem. During one of her sessions, she admitted craving the ice-cream. I will never forget the owner’s kindness and warmth as he wrapped those containers, and heartily wished my mother gets better.
Once done mixing, put back and cook on low heat until mixture thickens. (Don’t rush, cook slowly so that it doesn’t curdle).
It was a miracle that the containers survived the Jordan Valley heat, the endless lines, and the humiliation of crossing the border. It is hard to believe that human survive it, let alone ice-cream.
Pour into a glass container and cover with plastic wrap making sure it touches the surface. Place in refrigerator for at least six hours, or overnight.
Every time I came home during my studies in the United States; first on the endless culinary requests I made was Rukab and Baladna ice-cream. I took turns visiting both shops, and with every bite a piece of my childhood came alive. The stretchy ice-cream offers respite from the summer heat and the grind of living in a country still under occupation. Visitors to both shops come from all over Palestine. They stop by on their way to a doctor’s appointment, or on their way home, or they bring their families just to eat the ice-cream. For a few minutes, they indulge in a simple pleasure that perhaps relieves them ever so slightly of the checkpoints they have to cross to get home…
Pour mixture into your ice-cream maker and use according to manufacturer instruction. Freeze until it is time to serve.
The recipe I share with you here is a first step in my journey to discover ice-cream making. I hope that this gives my children memories they can re-visit time and time again as they grow up and come to grips with the realities of life and life in Palestine in particular.
This piece was written and published in This Week in Palestine July 2012, edition no. 183.
Update July 2018. Since the publication of this piece, my twins mentioned in the article are now almost seven. Several of the grandchildren of Khamis AbuLaban are now married with more than one great grandchild. His youngest son Ziad and his beautiful wife and dear friend Esperanza returned home a year ago with their two teenagers, and are now key players in this big feast. The meal now serves eighty plus family members, sometimes more. We commemorated my father-in-law’s fifteen year anniversary of his passing July 17th, 2018. I have changed jobs, but most importantly… I still cook, one could say I have even upped my kitchen game a bit!
This is not a simply family meal, but Palestinian heritage and tradition moving through generations. It is a reminder that we are still here; a family started by a refugee who lost everything, has not only survived but thrived and continues to thrive, and seems to have everything one needs…love
July 20, 2012 – Our Ramadan commences with a 70-person iftar that brings the entire AbuLaban family out of the woodwork. The sisters, the brothers, the daughters, the sons, the grandchildren, the great grandchildren, the brides-to-be, the grooms-to-be, the sisters-in-law, the brothers-in-law, the AbuLabans living in Ramallah, and the AbuLabans from all over the world. Seventy beautiful people sit under the age-old grapevine in our front yard and break their fast together on the first day of Ramadan. None of the food is catered, it is all homemade, and as Allahu Akbarsounds from the nearby mosques, Samira (my sister-in-law) and I smile to each other as we watch the soup evaporate, the chicken disappear, the meat vanish, and the rice platters wane. The ebb and flow of food from platters to plates, the sound of children arguing over who gets the first piece of kifta – all are signs that the AbuLabans are gathered here and now to eat and mark the continuation of a venerable tradition started by Khamis AbuLaban, father and patriarch of this extended family of Abu Shoosheh refugees who came and settled in Ramallah in 1948.
The AbuLabans are experts at hosting big gatherings; after all, to gather the immediate family means a 50 plus person congregation of men, women, children, and teenagers. But isn’t this what Palestine is all about, large extended families, big dinners, and food cooked with so much love? Such dinners hold within their folds, the story of continued existence despite displacement and loss.
The women in our family cook like pro chefs and can dissolve the best catering company into tears. To me, the American-educated, young bride, and mother of twins, an AbuLaban Iftar sounded a lot like a scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and I kid you not, it is! I mean the best of filmmakers could not have choreographed a scene like this. And as the latest addition to the family, I had better step up to the stove and join the cook off, because this is memories in the making for me and my children and grandchildren to come. And who does not love to cook, really?
Preparations for this joyous event begin days before Ramadan. My husband Ahmed and my brother-in-law Hisham (and now Ziad) spend their time on the phone calling everyone and confirming an already known tradition. Everyone is invited. The menu is discussed extensively and the vegetables involved in the main dishes are chosen based on what is in season. Since Ramadan is in the summer these days, maqloubeh, the ultimate comfort food for Palestinian families, would take centre stage. Firm eggplants, watery cauliflower, yellow potatoes, and bright orange carrots all expertly layered with meat and rice and slow-cooked with water and spices, then flipped onto a large platter to take its rightful place as the queen of all dishes. Alongside the queen will sit fresh, green molookhiyyeh cooked with chicken broth and finished with qadhet tomeh(garlic), sprinkled with lemon and eaten with white rice; and for those strong at heart, hot green peppers on the side. Kifta bit-heeniyyeh will give those hungry for something tangy, dense, and meaty something to look forward to. The table is then complemented with fattoush, the perfect marriage between fried bread, fresh salad vegetables, and a lemon-vinegar-oil dressing, and ornamented with the deep-crimson baladysumac that Samira gets from Sinjel. Tamarind, qamr el-deen, and soos(licorice) filled with essential minerals necessary to quench a fasting person’s thirst sit in tall glass carafes on the side, along with the rest of the soft drinks. Dates decorate the corner of every table. And of course qatayef, the dessert of the season, nervously waits in the kitchen for its turn in this theatrical production of food and love. Qatayef is the showstopper of the evening. No one forgets dense, doughy qatayefstuffed with walnuts and cinnamon or sweetened Arabic goat cheese. Some of us wait the entire year for that one particular crunchy soft moment when it meets your tongue and explodes into your mouth causing a firing of taste buds and an overload of serotonin in the synaptic cleft. Your brain glows with pleasure. Kahweh sada washes it down.
The night before, as we all anticipate hilal (crescent moon) Ramadan to be spotted in clear skies, we begin to plan the next day. The schedule is set so that as the chicken is marinated the meat is cooking, as the meat is cooking the eggplants, cauliflower, and potatoes are fried. The rice relaxes in water as it soaks and gets ready to be cooked into the perfect softness. The ground beef is spiced and made into medium-sized fingers, precooked in the oven before the thick tahini sauce and the fried potatoes are placed on top and then left to roast in the oven. Samira and I along with many of my other sisters-in-law are up as early as five in the morning. The twins are up at that time and need to be fed, so I feed them, put them back to sleep and head to the kitchen. Samira is up too, and she stands in her own kitchen trying to begin the cooking marathon. And in collective but separate kitchens we cook rhythmically, systematically, and ritualistically, only stopping every now and then to check on each other. We coordinate the use of her big gas oven, the kind only restaurants and, of course, the AbuLabans own. We decide that the last thing we should tackle is fattoushso it can stay fresh, and we often encourage each other: “Just a few more hours, the kifta is ready, the chicken is roasting; khalas, we are almost done.” While the sounds in the kitchen rise with women chattering, and the temperature from the ovens spikes to carry aromas of cooked goodness, the young nephews and nieces are busy putting together the dining area. The tables are laid with plates, spoons, forks, and glasses. It is a world-class attempt to make sure that every guest has a place. Ramadan lights are threaded through the grapevine to add a touch of ambiance. Ahmed is busy managing the team of young nephews and nieces.
Samira has been cooking for the AbuLabans for years. She has been surrounded by nine sisters-in-law who all, like trained dancers, join her at the right time in the kitchen to give her an extra pair of hands to hold a pot or chop an onion or wash the accumulating dishes. She has four more sisters who may even extend this intricate and complex cooking dance into their own kitchens and offer to bring something cooked from their own homes. I have been doing this for three years (now seven), and lucky for me and the AbuLabans, cooking is a passion passed down to me from my mother. The act of bringing food to the table makes you a provider, a mother, and the owner of your own home. The first iftar in Ramadan holds all those meanings and much more. It is a tradition started many many years ago by my father-in-law, may he rest in peace. And it was continued by Samira and my husband many years after he passed away. It is not just food; it is about love and family and memories. It is simply Palestinian.
To Khamis AbuLaban, family is all he had left after he lost his village. And when you lose all that is material and physical in life, you always hang on to what is more precious, love. This coming Ramadan will start around the tenth anniversary of his death, but this Ramadan also starts after two more of his grandchildren have gotten married and started families of their own, one of his granddaughters welcomed another member to her family, one of his daughters-in-law is expecting another baby girl, and another grandson will be on his way to the golden cage of matrimony. We will all gather under the grapevine, we will eat, laugh, yell at the children to be quiet, and plan to marry off another son or daughter soon, and we will all play our little part in keeping the Khamis AbuLaban tradition in all its Palestinian-ness alive for many years to come. Ramadan Kareem!
This Article First Appeared in This Week in Palestine in the April 2015 issue 204. (www.thisweekinpalestine.com)
by: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban
“Khobaizeh (mallow) carries the DNA of our heritage,” said Vivien Sansour. She stood by her kitchen counter cutting green velvety khobaizeh leaves that we had just picked in Al-Walajeh, a small village outside of Beit Jala. Al-Walajeh was once a green haven and a productive agricultural community. Today, however, the village is strangled by the Israeli Segregation Wall and the systematic illegal confiscation of land. The people of Al-Walajeh have been displaced three times: once in 1948, again in 1967, and more recently, as the Wall came cutting through their lands and homes. Three generations of refugees with first-person memory reside here. Three generations tell the story of the Palestinian diaspora and punctuate it with semicolons of lettuce, fijel, fool, and, of course, khobaizeh.
Vivien is a dear friend, an agriculture specialist, and an avid forager. When she talks about edible wild plants, I feel as though my own grandmother were talking to me. She is knowledgeable and passionate about the land; not the symbolic land but the actual physical soil, rocks, plants, and animals, and all the bounty – from wild plants to cultivated produce – that makes its way into our kitchens and onto our cooking counters. To Vivien cooking isn’t an isolated incident that happens in a well-lit kitchen with stainless steel counters and razor-sharp knives. To her, cooking is a direct relationship between the land, human experience, and the table. It is an expression of trust between humankind and Mother Nature.
Like many cuisines around the Mediterranean region and the world, Palestinian cuisine begins with edible wild plants, a fact that relates painfully to forced alienation from ancestral lands, most forcefully in 1948. Nakba narrative focuses on displacement and dispossession. Palestinian refugees who were expelled from their villages and survived for days in hills and fields as they walked from one destroyed village to the next often relate that they ate hindbeh, lufaiteh, huwairneh, and of course, khobaizeh. In other words, they foraged their way to survival. While foraging may seem to be the latest trend in gastronomy, here it is an age-old craft; it is a way of life, and it is where our cooking originates. It is what our ancestors did in the privacy of their kitchens, away from fancy cooking shows and gregarious food writers.
♦ “In al-khala (nature), I reconnect to an earlier way of being – before agriculture existed – without the need to control our surroundings, but rather with complete faith that it will provide. We may have gained some things with the transition to agriculture, but we lost some of our instinctual trust.” Vivien
On that day in Al-Walajeh, I was in search of many things. I wanted to begin telling the story of Palestinian food away from all that is stereotypical and mainstream; I was also searching for my own self; my own relationship to Palestine, its land and food, and the meaning that such a relationship might carry in its folds. I, with my formal education, which by all accounts should have taken me away from the kitchen, found myself gravitating towards it. Vivien believes that the ancient community-held knowledge of plants, food, and agriculture that is present in places such as Al-Walajeh, and more importantly in the people of Al-Walajeh, is precious knowledge that is worth seeking and defending. As a young girl, I was pushed out of the kitchen. My mother’s response was always “Miliha‘aalaal-tabeekh (you still have time before you start cooking), roohy odrosy (go do your homework).” My mother systematically pushed us out of the kitchen and preferred that we read books rather than make our beds or learn to do laundry. Vivien’s mother was not that different; Vivien recalls being thrown out of the kitchen. The extent of our relationship with cooking was to fetch missing ingredients for the dishes our mothers were expertly cooking. Having developed my own interest in food and food writing, I still see the disapproving looks my mother gives me when I express my passion for msakhan or mansaf, or when I post photos of mabroosheh and ka’ak bi ajweh on Facebook.
For us – like it is for many, even if we don’t consciously know it – cooking can sometimes be an act of resistance. Given that cooking is directly tied to the land, and the land is a vanishing body, it is only natural that we hang on to our old recipes and traditional dishes. We need to take an interest in our cuisine, which seems to be becoming less ours and more theirs (the Israelis’). With the fading landscape there are disappearing edible wild plants that have adorned our tables for generations and that are slowly becoming scarcer on our lunch and dinner tables. Food, then, is not an isolated hedonistic pleasure; it is culture, tradition, heritage, and identity.
When people are displaced, they leave behind all that is physical and carry with them all that is metaphorical. They carry their identity tenderly and protect it from time, loss, and forgetfulness. Food becomes an act of remembrance; and cooking, then, feeds hungry mouths and more. It is no longer tied to a woman’s traditional role. It is, rather, a resistance tool, a ritual of return to the Palestine we love and long for, a measure of perseverance. When I first talked to Vivien about this piece, we chose khobaizeh because it was in season, but the more I learned about it, the more I realized that khobaizeh is much more than a weed that grows on the side of the road.
Khobaizeh is not native only to Palestine. In fact, it is found almost everywhere in the world – from sunny Californian sidewalks to ancient Chinese temples. In the Mediterranean area, however, people are known to cook and eat khobaizeh in various recipes. In Palestine, this is the one dish that everyone eats at least once in his or her lifetime. It is the one dish that everyone hates during childhood but loves in adulthood. Khobaizeh is the coming-of-age dish. It is the dish you fall in love with as an adult because you finally fall in love with Palestine, and it finally dawns on you why your parents spent years explaining to you why you should be Palestinian; why you should come home after finishing that university degree; and why your PhD means a lot more here than in Europe, the United States, or anywhere else in the world. Khobaizeh is a Palestinian dish, and it embodies everything about Palestinian cuisine.
Khobaizeh represents resilience and return. It comes back every year, no matter how many times it is cut. We can trust khobaizeh to be there, right under the fig tree, right beside the lettuce head, right by the side of the road. It sprouts everywhere, no matter how harsh the conditions. It sends roots into the ground and refuses to leave. Khobaizeh is symbolic of all that is Palestinian, the determination to live despite all, to exist, to stay, and to never leave. Khobaizeh is Mother Nature’s way of saying to us, “Trust me, I will provide for you.”
♦ “During the first Intifada, people turned their little backyards into small farms. We planted tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, and many other greens. We ate our own produce and boycotted Israeli produce and products. I was a child back then, and whether my mother knew this or not, her kitchen was a tool of resistance at the time.” Riyam
Before we became modern societies, when we were hunters and gatherers, we trusted nature, we ate whatever was available in the wild. We trusted that Mother Nature would provide for us every day of the year, every season. We trusted her to give us what we needed. As humans became more domesticated and more modernized, I think, we lost that trust. Vivien believes that this trust is forcibly broken in the world in general and in Palestine in particular because of the writhing metropolises that are expanding into natural habitats, as well as the brutal Israeli occupation practices against the land and the cancerous illegal settlements that are erected on hilltops. The end result is a shrinking wild habitat and dwindling agricultural land. Farmers are intentionally targeted by land confiscation, olive-tree uprooting, and water shortage. We no longer trust that the land can provide for us regardless of whether we cultivate it or walk through it to pick all that is edible. When I asked Vivien why she cooked, she said that it was because she wanted to restore that trust. She wanted to protect her own heritage and inherit the know-how of Palestinian cuisine from our elders “because, for now, we have them to ask for help. But when they are long gone and our children are trying to cook their food, who will they ask?” And then I think and wonder, “How will they teach their own children that khobaizeh is not just a dish to hate when you are young, like broccoli and cauliflower, but rather a story of resilience and resistance?”
Palestinians seem to have fewer and fewer tools to resist Israeli occupation. Kitchens are intimate spaces were families share their stories and pass on knowledge and history. We spring from our own dishes, and rarely are our dinner tables devoid of stories of the 1948 Nakba or the 1967 Naksa. It is food that brings us together, and it is food that will keep us together. It is khobaizeh insistently returning every year that will stand witness to villages that existed and to a people that lived and continue to live. In her article on ethnobotany, Vivien recalls the village of Imwas through the small pomegranate, fig, and olive trees growing silently underneath the cedar and pine trees in Canada Park, built on the ruins of Imwas. The people of Imwas have been forced out, the stone houses are nothing but dust blowing in the wind, and Imwas may no longer be recognizable, but it is our own trees that will remain “to stand witness to an unperfected crime.”
♦ It seems so frivolous to be a Palestinian food writer; at the same time almost offensive to and detached from the starving children of Al-Yarmouk and Gaza. “But when we go in there saying, ‘We actually want to see you make maklouba,’ so much other stuff comes along with it. In the course of making maklouba, we would hear about Um Sultan’s farm by the border that was razed by Israeli armored bulldozers two different times, forcing them to relocate, and how that impacted their lives. So you get the back stories.” –Laila El Haddad, co-author of The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey.
We are so in love with Palestine, we carry maps of her in gold and silver necklaces that nestle on top of our hearts. We write poetry about her, we mourn her loss, we fight for her. We lose our loved ones for her, we teach our children to never question her. But what is Palestine, if it is not soil, ecosystems, wild plants and animals, agriculture, and of course food? What is Palestine without the seasonal sautéed khobaizeh dish topped with crunchy onions and cooked by our elders – our mothers and grandmothers – and the young – Vivien and me?
This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of This Week in Palestine (www.thisweekinpalestine.com)
By Riyam Kafri AbuLaban
When children are asked to name things that they love about their mothers, food is one of the most reoccurring items on their lists. They will tell you that they love her laser-beam eyes that seem to find lost toys and detect lies before they even make their way to their mouths. Answers will vary from one child to another, but generally children will cite their mother’s food as one of the things they love about her. Food’s emotional fingerprint is stamped into our memory and emotions at a very young age. Nothing tastes like mom’s food, but more importantly nothing feels like it. As we age, we pursue cooking to replicate those dishes in the hopes of reviving childhood memories and all the feelings that come with them, and in the hopes that we can create similar experiences for our own children. Food is, therefore, not just sustenance, and our journeys into our kitchens are not only a daily chore to put food on our family tables, but rather a deliberate, creative process in which memories, love, belonging, loss, celebration, and a sense of identity are created and engrained for both those of us who cook and those who eat.
Food is culture and not a simple hedonistic pleasure that lasts for the duration of a meal. If it were just that, then food memoires and food writing wouldn’t be among the most popular types of literature. I remember the first time I came to realize the power of food for me. I was in my second year of college in the United States and was considerably homesick. I went to the kitchen to make tabbouleh and stuffed eggplants for myself and friends coming over for dinner, and it was as if I were transposed back in time to my mother’s kitchen. As I recreated those two dishes, I was guided by my intuition, my visual memory, and my muscle memory as I felt my way around the kitchen and carved the eggplants, chopped the parsley, soaked the bourghul, and juiced the lemons. And when the food hit my tongue, my taste memory took me back to my mother’s kitchen again. The experience was powerful, but I am not sure it cured me of my homesickness; it perhaps made it even worse.
Food and cuisine are deeply engrained into our psyche, and it is no wonder that when someone tries to steal it, or claim it, or “appropriate” it as their own, our stomachs turn, quite literally and figuratively. The first time I stood in the grocery store holding in my hand a container of “Israeli hummus” nearly 22 years ago, I had to reconcile my feelings of homesickness, hunger, craving for food from home, and the fact that thehummus I knew was not Israeli. For me it was Palestinian, made with Nabulsi tahini, lemons from Tulkarem, and garbanzo beans dried by some old Palestinian woman in a nearby village, and rehydrated and cooked for hours by my mother. It made an appearance on our Friday breakfast table. And it was eat-it-by-the-spoon delicious, just ask my sister who until the age of five insisted on eating it with a spoon, she loved it so much. Little did I know (back then when I was a child) that 20-some years later, I would stand in the grocery store trying to convince myself not to buy the “Israeli hummus” and reach for the peanut butter instead, because deep down in my stomach, something turned, telling me that this would only culminate in a series of encounters with Israeli knafeh(a sweet made with cheese and pastry, soaked in sugar), falafel, sahlab(a starchy hot drink enjoyed mostly in winter), shakshouka(sautéed tomatoes with onions and sunny-side-up eggs), makloubeh(a dish with rice and fried cauliflower, eggplant, and potatoes), shawerma (a sandwich with shreds of meat, salad, and tahini sauce), and more, as I became more interested in food and cooking.
I most certainly do not want to spiral into a conversation of my hummus, your hummus. The conversation on hummus these days seems to take over much of the food-writing scene, including articles in peer-reviewed academic journals such as Gastronomica (published by the University of California Press) and mainstream media outlets such as The Guardian. Conversations on Middle Eastern cuisine must continue to be sophisticated and not trivialized. They rather need to remain cultured and complex, much like the subject matter that is multi-layered and diverse in its stories and history. On the other hand, this conversation is very personal and intimate. Who we are today and how we eat is largely shaped by the food presented to us as children. So, although conversations on hummus may seem redundant, we need not degrade them into “Hummus Wars” as if they were some reality show on the Food Network. Neither can they be settled by a scholarly declaration of “Our Hummus,” as if to please two feuding sides into a deceiving claim of co-existence.
It isn’t the claim to the food that bothers me, per se, because we Palestinians are aware that our claim to hummus isn’t an exclusive one but rather part of a mosaic of Middle Eastern and Levant cuisine. It is the underlying message and attempt to erase Palestinian and Arab claim to these dishes that is infuriating. “The controversy about Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian food has nothing to do with Jews eating Arabic food, but rather with a systematic approach to disappear Palestinians in all their details.” (Steven Salaita) It would be trivial and immature not to recognize that Arab Jews did exist and that they cooked and ate the cuisines of the countries and regions they lived in. But to attribute without the slightest recognition those dishes to Israel is nothing short of blatant, outright theft. Forget appropriation and call it exactly what it is, theft.
Palestinians recognize that their cuisine is part of a broader regional cuisine. What the world needs to recognize is that this region is the cradle of all civilizations, and the land of Mesopotamia cooked different versions of dishes now pictured on Instagram and Twitter and dubbed “Israeli” long before Israel ever existed as a political entity.
I am aware that people are agitated when talking about culture and food appropriation. That is not appropriation, they might claim, it is fusion. But what we have here is not cuisine fusion, because fusion, much like interdisciplinary approaches in education, may very well be asymmetrical, where one cuisine contributes more to the fusion dish than the other. However, both cuisines are properly recognized, respected, and celebrated. While fusion is a celebration of cultures coming together, food appropriation and theft occur when one culture simply steals the food of another without any recognition of the existence of the other.
Palestinians do not eat food only to survive. Our cuisine is a product of a long-standing relationship with our land: mahashi(vegetables, mostly zucchini and eggplant, stuffed with rice and minced meat) are enjoyed in the winter to warm your heart and give you energy; watery spinach, rich in iron, is just what you need at the end of a cold day; khobbaizeh(malva parviflora) grows abundantly in late winter/early spring and is full of vitamins and nutrients needed to revitalize us after the cold season. And in the spring, there is fool akhdar biz-zeit(green beans with olive oil) and za’atar akhdar(“green,” i.e., fresh thyme) for salads and salty pastries. The intrinsic connection we have with our land brings to our table colorful dishes and into our kitchens and cuisine intricate techniques of preparation and preservation: kneading, baking, stuffing, rolling, drying, pickling, and much more. Our food is a representation of the villages we lived in, the land we farmed, the olives we harvested, the weddings we danced in, and the funerals we walked in. Dishes connected to destroyed villages still make their way to our tables as we cook to remember a lost land and threatened existence.
For Palestinians forced out of their land in 1948, food is in the past tense, only to be brought into the present when dishes from their villages are made today to bring back a glimpse of the colorful squash, herbs, and crops of village life. For those who live in Gaza, food in the refugee camp is unwholesome, an unfinished puzzle with pieces missing.
So when The New York Timesclaims that Israeli sahlabis the new latte, or when international food bloggers visiting Jerusalem claim that they enjoyed Israeli delicacies in the Old City and post pictures of themselves with Abu Mohammad making halawehin the background, our stomachs will turn in pain and rejection. It is quite ironic that as Rachel Ray tweeted colorful photos of “Israeli mezza” that featured baba ghanoush(eggplant dip), hummus, and tabbouleh just a few days before Christmas, Christian Palestinians were making that exact same mezza for Christmas Eve. To claim that this mezza is exclusively Israeli is no different from white American churches hanging photos of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus Christ. That is not appropriation, whether intentional or not; those who do it are participating in the theft and disappearance of a culture.
In recent years, Palestinian food enthusiasts, bloggers, writers, artists, and anthropologists have started to gain momentum. Laila El-Haddad, Rula Bishara, Joudie Kalla, and many more food enthusiasts are making a splash on the food-culture scene and are reclaiming Palestinian dishes with superb recipes and riveting family stories. If you ask most of them, they would tell you that they write to keep a record for themselves, that their books began mainly as memories they wanted to preserve. Many of these writers reside outside Palestine.
I think the challenge of being a food writer in Palestine is quite obvious. How can we write about food and the richness of our cuisine when we are surrounded in every direction by land confiscation, child prisoners, unemployment, and poverty? How can we talk about food when hunger strikes are on and off in Israeli prisons? I myself haven’t reconciled this jarring difference, but I know that if we do not move to make our presence known on the food-culture scene, we will continue to watch our favorite childhood dishes be hijacked. Perhaps if we continue to cook together, always connecting our dishes to the land we came from, it stops being food-writing for the sake of pleasure but rather a conversation on identity and existence.
A new project called Palestine’s Hosting Society began last August by the artist Mirna Bamieh. The collective has several projects from food tours to family dinners to restaurant takeovers where Palestinian ingredients are reimagined in fusion dishes and restaurant cuisine. It is dynamic as more people join and reinvent and rejuvenate the collective so that it may tell a broader story. The family dinner project documents the food traditions of Palestinian families as people cook and invite others to their dinners, and tables become a space to explore food and hospitality politics, share experiences, and reconstruct people’s relationship with food, place, and space. In Haifa, Suzan Matar, hosted a dinner with the theme Min Moonet Sitti(From My Mother’s Pantry), where she featured dishes made from the typical Middle Eastern pantry with things like sun-dried tomatoes, homemade maftool(hand-rolled tiny pasta pearls), pickled vegetables, and home-dried labaneh(strained yoghurt). While her grandmother is Lebanese, those items and techniques are staples in any of our kitchens. More projects like this one are needed as Palestinians living in Palestine reclaim their dinner tables and with them, their connection to their lands. Another family dinner featured the Gazan kitchen with such dishes as rummanieh, originally from Yafa, which became part of the Gazan kitchen as refugees brought it with them. Rummaniehhas now been nearly forgotten in Yafa, but that night people were able to rediscover Gaza through the smells and tastes of the dishes served. (www.palestinehostingsociety.com)
Our struggle is uphill; dishes we have known and loved since our childhood will continue to be claimed as Israeli. Musakhan(glazed onions served on a special bread with chicken, roasted pine nuts, and freshly pressed olive oil, spiced with sumac and allspice) will most probably be appropriated as holiday food in Israel, and knafehwill take different shapes and forms as its theft continues. As you dip your bread into yet another “Israeli dip” and tweet pictures of it from the heart of Ramallah, Nablus, or Jerusalem, I hope you taste in the ripples of the olive oil the confiscated groves and their burnt trees, I pray you feel the dispossession that afflicts Palestine and Palestinians, but also their resilient spirit and determination to continue to exist.