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This Chef Is Bringing the West Bank to a Texan Town

Denton, Texas, might be the last place you'd expect to find iconic Palestinian dishes, but step inside an inconspicuous restaurant called Jasmine's Cafe.
August 21, 2015, 9:00pm
Photo by the author

Sitting inside Jasmine's Café, the Denton, Texas restaurant—adorned with shisha pipes, pillow-laden seating, and low hanging lights—looks like it could have been airlifted from the streets of the de facto Palestinian capital Ramallah.

Logan Luster, a 27-year-old chef, looks at the restaurant's menu. "I can prepare every dish on the menu," he says with a tinge of surprise. This includes a wide range of Palestinian staples: lamb kabob, shish tawook, hummus, falafel, kufta kabob, fattoush salads, and others. The main courses are offered as a sandwich or a plate, both of which come with little flair. But the simple presentation shouldn't fool you, according to Houda Abu Sada, a 26-year-old North Texas resident of Palestinian descent: This is some of the best Palestinian food money can buy at prices that are beyond fair.

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"To be honest, the quality of food [at Jasmine's] is much better than most of the restaurants in the West Bank," Abu Sada tells MUNCHIES.

You wouldn't expect it, coming from the chef. Originally from Dallas, Luster would probably catch a few wayward glances if he were in front of an oven in the occupied Palestinian territories. Abu Sada somewhat agrees, saying that the food he prepares is more like Palestinian home cooking. "When I eat at Jasmine's, it's like eating at a friend's house," she tells me.

"I started working at Jasmine's ten years ago, but I've only been cooking for the last three," Luster continues.

The chef spent the first seven years of his tenure working with shisha. His first job at the age of 16 was in a shisha café, and he still admittedly smokes "too much." He remains passionate about preparing the flavored tobacco burned by these water pipes, but he says that cooking has become just as important. His favorite dish to prepare? "The fattoush salad."

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Fattoush salad. Photo via Flickr user Stu Spivack

Consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, romaine lettuce, and a Mediterranean mix of olive oil and spices arranged to fit the tastes of the chef, Luster says it's his favorite because it gives him the most freedom. "I like to be flashy when I cook, and with the fattoush, I can make something that's delicious but also pleasing to the eye."

There is a large refugee community in Dallas. Texas surprisingly leads the nation in refugee resettlement, and many are from the Middle East or the Balkans. Luster says that Palestinians in North Texas are very tightly-knit, and they tend to do business within their own community.

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Over the past ten years, Jasmine's Café has been owned by three different Palestinians, but the recipes go back to the original owner, a man named Akram, and they haven't been tampered with. All the meat is halal. While they don't grow their own spices, they do their own mixing to make classic Arabic combination such as zaatar, a fragrant blend of thyme and other spices important to Palestinian cuisine. The hummus is impeccable, and Luster grinds the chickpeas on-site.

The only thing he doesn't prepare is the kanafeh, a Palestinian dessert consisting of a strange blend of cheese and sugar that is somewhat similar to cheesecake. One of the most repeated phrases a foreigner will hear after arriving in the occupied West Bank is, "You have to try kanafeh from Nablus," a northern city in the West Bank that is said to prepare the most delicious version of the dish.

So who prepares the dish? Yasser Betar, Jasmine's current owner.

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Kanafeh. Photo via Flickr user Guillaume Paumier

Betar is from East Jerusalem, but he seems to take kanafeh preparation just as seriously as any Nablus resident. The owner makes the dish only when he's alone at the restaurant. Luster isn't sure if the reason behind is a well-kept secret, or if Betar simply finds the acting of making kanafeh a cathartic experience.

Palestinians in the diaspora, like most migrants and refugees, are known for their longing to return home. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, more than 700,000 fled war or were driven from their homes, and they remain the only people in the world who can inherent a status of statelessness. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, there are an estimated 5 million Palestinian refugees today.

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When asked if their political situation might play into Betar's solitary preparation of kanafeh specifically or the recipes used by Jasmine's in general, Luster responds that he's not deeply acquainted with the political situation in Israel-Palestine, but has become familiar with aspects of their culture. In particular, he says that family is important above all, and that the Palestinians for whom he's worked "deeply believe in capitalism."

"I'm not sure they want to talk about it with me. They left their homes in a conflict zone, so the stories probably aren't pretty."

Betar fled East Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in 2002. Like many Palestinians, he already had family living the US.

"The story of the Palestinians is well-known, and many people have already decided how they feel," Betar tells MUNCHIES in a phone interview, going to say that he doesn't feel like a political activist, but a business owner.

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Photo by the author

For the Palestinians still living in historic Palestine (currently about 1.26 million in the Gaza Strip and 762,000 in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem)politics place a huge obstacle in the route between farm and table. Gaza has been under an Israeli-imposed blockade since 2007, and farmers in the coastal strip suffer from severe restrictions in order to maintain a buffer zone between the Israeli-built militarized border wall and arable land. Betar fully acknowledged that these limitations have dealt a blow to Palestinian cuisine in its native land, but is sure that his people have and will continue to overcome and adapt to the challenges they face.

At Jasmine's Café, however, anyone can taste the full potential of traditional Palestinian recipes that have been passed down through generations and at least three owners.

After being told that the food he cooks holds its own against the dishes made in restaurants throughout the West Bank, a bit of pride flashes in Luster's eyes.

"That's good to hear, but really, it's all in the recipes. They're from Palestine, they're delicious, so there's nothing that should be changed."