This Book Exposes Palestine’s Little Heard of Cuisine

When you think of Palestinian food, what comes to mind? Few people know the subtleties and nuances that differentiate Palestinian food from other Middle Eastern cuisine. But Reem Kassis is fixing that. Her book The Palestinian Table, published by Phaidon, combines almost 150 recipes of Palestine’s underappreciated culinary culture.


Born as a writer, Reem realised one of her chief projects would be this: “[To] harness the power of food, family and storytelling to preserve the rich history and culinary traditions of Palestinians and share them with the world.” Her book is one manifestation of a story that she has always been in a strong position to tell. Born in Jerusalem to a Palestinian family, Reem has fond memories of her mother’s, grandmother’s and aunt’s cooking.

For cooking enthusiasts, The Palestinian Table offers journey through such little known recipes. But this book is more important than the meals it teaches you to make. For this book is also a unique document of one important facet of a culture that does not get near enough exposure.


We spent time with the author to find out more about her project.

THE PLUS: What is food’s role in culture?
Reem Kassis:
I have long believed that food is more than sustenance. It is joy and communication, it is love and memories and it tells the story of family, history and tradition.

TP: When did you realise that you could combine your love of storytelling with Palestinian cuisine?
I’ve always loved writing and storytelling, but it was only after my first daughter was born that I thought to do something with. You see, a part of me panicked when she was born and soon after her my second daughter, because I realised that my girls were not going to grow up back home the way I did with a large family where food was such an important part of our daily lives. It was normal for us in the spring to go to the mountains to collect za’atar leaves, bring them home, dry them and make za’atar with them. Or in the fall when it was olive harvest season, the whole family would go to our groves and spend days picking olives, the whole family together eating, cooking and baking outside even, before taking the olives to be pressed for oil. It was an amazing way to grow up and one of the reasons I think I have such strong values and also feel so attached to both my culture and my family.

So I knew that if I wanted my daughters to grow up with those same values and that sense of connection to their roots, then I needed to do something about it. That’s when I started going back to the stories and recipes I had grown up with my whole life, hoping to find a way to pass this heritage to my daughters. I started capturing these recipes not only with ingredients and instructions, but also with anecdotes and family tales. While the stories and recipes came from my family, looking at them together I saw they were, in a way, the story of every Palestinian family. So I wanted to share this “chronicle”, if you will, with the whole world, not just with my family, because it was a much truer narrative of Palestinians than the one we are used to hearing. That’s when the idea for this book came to life and when I truly saw the intersection of storytelling and Palestinian cuisine as a way to preserve and share our story with the world.


TP: What’s the first dish you introduce to people who are new to Palestinian cooking? 
For someone entirely new to the cuisine I generally do one of three dishes:
Kafta Tahini Bake: it is basically spiced meat patties cooked in a tahini sauce which is a recognizable concept (meatballs!) but with very different flavors;
Stuffed grape leaves: a quintessential dish across the Levant, it is one of the most unique dishes we cook and visually very impressive;
Msakhan: recognized by many as the national dish of Palestine, I do this for people who really want to get to the heart of our cooking. It is a taboon bread layered with onions (cooked in sumac and olive oil) and roast chickens.  

TP: Did you learn anything you didn’t already know about Palestinian cooking during the making of the book?
I learn new things about our cooking every day, from tips and nuances to historical insights and anecdotes. But if there is one major thing that came across to me in writing this book it was that recipes and measurements can only get you so far. You have to really cook from the heart for your food to reach people the way you intend it to. You can follow a recipe and get a good result, but you have to do it with love for it to truly shine: love for the ingredients (the best you can find), love for the process (taste as you go along) and love for the people you are feeding (serve from your heart and be generous). I realize now that is why the food my mother and grandmothers prepared for me will always taste different in my mind – because of all the love surrounding it.


TP: Do you have any favourite quirks and nuances of the Palestinian table?
One of my favourite parts of the book is the opening picture – an aerial view of my father’s village – Rameh – in the Galilee. It is for me a reminder of my roots and where I come from as well as a testament to how far I have come since those days and what I have been able to accomplish because of the childhood and family I enjoyed back home

TP: Are you planning any new books on Palestinian culture?
Nothing specific in the works right now, but I love writing and I love our culture, so who knows how those two things will intersect down the line.


The Palestinian Table is available on Phaidon.

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