Middle eastern cooking

This Palestinian Chef Puts Pita Before Politics

“People often ask me what ‘Palestinian food’ is. I say, this is what my grandmother cooked before she knew there was another country other than where she lived. She taught my mum. My mum taught me. That’s it.”

by Johanna Derry
04 January 2017, 11:10am

Where is Palestine?

I Google it to double check and get multiple answers. In the Christmas story, it was the Roman region where Jesus was born. More recently, it was the part of the Middle East carved up between European nations following the First World War. It's a state recognised by 136 UN members. It's the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It's not the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In short, the answer is tricky. So, bearing my confusion in mind, I ask Joudie Kalla, a chef whose speciality is Palestinian food: "What exactly do you mean by 'Palestinian food?'"

After all, I've sampled enough hummus, vine leaves, and pita in Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian, and Israeli restaurants to have begun to suspect that it's more accurate to describe them all as Levantine with a local twist than to stick a national label on it.

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London-born Palestinian chef Joudie Kalla in her home kitchen. All photos by the author.

"People often ask me that," Kalla replies, patiently. "I say, this is what my grandmother cooked before she even knew there was another country other than where she lived. I don't think she knew there was a world beyond Palestine before she had to leave in 1948. She cooked all this stuff, even though maybe it originates in Lebanon or Jordan or Iraq or somewhere else. It's Palestinian because she was Palestinian. She taught my mum. My mum taught me. That's it. It could be an egg and it would be a Palestinian egg because she cooked it. I don't like to get into the politics."

RECIPE: Makloubeh

Which is fair enough. Politics don't make food particularly palatable, particularly not the kind of politics we're living through at the moment. But talk about Palestine and inevitably politics features.

"Food is something that brings joy so it defeats the point to get negative or angry. I want to show that Palestinians are normal," says Kalla. "That we eat and drink and cry and love. We're the same as anybody. Except we call ourselves Palestinians!"

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Aubergine, peeled and sliced.

Though she has lived nearly all her life in London, Kalla is very proud of her Palestinian heritage. Her book, Palestine on a Plate, is an ode to that heritage, passed down to her from childhood through her mother's cooking.

"I was the fourth daughter in my family and then my brother came four years later. I became very clingy so I hung out with my mum in the kitchen," she explains. "When I was older, I told my dad I wanted to make my living by cooking but he wanted me to get my A Levels. Then Nigella showed up on TV and eventually he gave in."

Kalla describes a childhood filled with food.

"We'd have a selection of different things at every meal—chicken stew, fattoush, pastries, and a yoghurt and cucumber thing on the side," she remembers. "I realised it was different when my English friends came over and would look at the baked aubergine and broad beans smashed with garlic, hummus (which wasn't cool back then), and salads and say, 'What the hell are you eating?' I'd go to their houses and their food was like a pie and that was it. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but I was always waiting for other things to come out."

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Egyptian rice.

Kalla is chatting away in her kitchen while preparing one of the key dishes that featured in her household as a child, maqloubeh. It's a sort of upside-down cake of rice, vegetables, and lamb, cooked over the course of several hours.

"My mum loves cooking still and spent all her time in the kitchen," she says. "I would tell her that people didn't know how to eat and she would say, 'Tell them to come!' I told her if she were a dealer she'd be the most successful one ever, because she's always pushing. 'Just eat a bit more. Have a try of this.' The more you eat, the more you like the food. The more you like the food, the more it means you love her. She knows it's true. That's our culture.'

If there's a quality that defines the style of cooking Kalla learned from her mother and her grandmother, it's joy. Take the maqloubeh, for example. You layer the bottom of a deep pan with tomatoes that caramelise. Then you put rice flavoured with cinnamon and pepper, and golden fried aubergines, more rice, more aubergines, then a layer of slow poached meat and more rice.

"When it's done, you say a little prayer and flip it out in one piece," she says. It's a huge dish and epic in preparation that I assume is only made for special occasions, but Kalla shrugs. "It is a celebratory thing, but that still means we eat it quite often. You can make anything a celebration."

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The maqloubeh ingredients.

Nothing is too much trouble.

"My mum makes rolled vine leaves all the time. To me they are 'Palestine.' They'll be on the table at least once a week, but they're really time-consuming to make. Hours to prepare, seconds to eat."

Yet there is so much pleasure to be had, not just in the food itself, but in seeing people eat and enjoy it, that putting time in to make something is well worth it.

As well as inheriting her mother's skills and culinary culture, Kalla has something of her mother's feeder spirit, which makes the book more than just a collection of her mother's and grandmother's recipes.

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Kalla flips the maqloubeh.

"I learned the way my mum taught me, with a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. I had to work out the measurements to write them down, though I never cook that way either. I love cooking for people and feeding them. I might stink of onions or meat from being stood in the kitchen all day but I don't care."

Some of Kalla's tweaks were to make recipes gluten free, and her mother was the first to spot the absence of even a teaspoon of flour from a recipe.

"She's very passionate but not critical," said Kalla. "Still, she made it clear about how these dishes work for her! But we all have different ways of making things."

READ MORE: How Falafel and Vegetarian Shawarma Bring Arabs and Jews Together in Montreal

Which brings us back to what makes something particularly Palestinian.

"It's like shakshuka. Someone accused me of cultural appropriation, but I'm not claiming that it's anything more than my version of it. After all it's just tomato and egg!"

With eyes raised Kalla murmurs a quick prayer and then, in one swift motion, the maqloubeh is flipped out onto a serving platter, steaming and smelling incredible. She hands me a fork and invites me to dig in.

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The finished maqloubeh with aubergines, spiced lamb, and rice.

"If an Israeli restaurant serves maqloubeh, I can't get annoyed," she says, gesturing to the plate. "Maybe that's what their parents and grandparents ate too. We have the same history and similar backgrounds. Food should make people forget about everything else."

Filling my face with forkfuls of savoury rice and soft chunks of meat, I'm inclined to agree. Politics, schmolitics. It's impossible to eat food that tastes this good and feel anything other than peace and goodwill to all mankind.