You might think a vegan Palestinian pop-up run by two white girls would be culturally questionable. That they stumbled upon pretty photos of falafel on Instagram—hugely popular thanks to the growing meat-free and Middle Eastern food scenes—and thought up a food business that was bang on trend, but not very authentic.
What the Fattoush? is currently located in hip East London bar Pamela. When I arrive to meet founders Jessica Howe and Megan Maule, I have my reservations. As someone of Middle Eastern heritage, I’m not sure how comfortable I feel about non-Arabs profiting from Palestinian food culture. A chat with Howe and Maule, however, makes me see things differently.
The pair have been accused of cultural appropriation (“We get so much shit,” admits Howe), but far from cluelessly Googling “Palestinian food” and hoping for the best, their passion for the region’s cuisine comes from experiencing it first-hand. What the Fattoush? is inspired by the unpretentious yet richly flavoured dishes shared around Palestinian dinner tables every night. The three of us quickly bond over how great it is that in the Middle East, you can have chips in your falafel wrap.
“It’s insane!” says Howe. She goes on to explain that biting into a Palestinian falafel was a game-changer. “It’s bright green because it’s mega on the herbs, whereas a falafel in England is a bit …”
“Beige,” finishes Maule. “I’ll have three of the beige, please!” she jokes, and the two crack up laughing.
Alongside saving British diners from beige falafel, What the Fattoush? has another mission: to encourage people to talk about Palestine.
“It’s a taboo subject that no one wants to encroach on. It’s kind of like feminism used to be, a dirty word,” says Howe. “Even though we’re not ramming politics down people’s throats, having that conversation through food is what we’re about.”
It all started when the pair met while volunteering in the Calais "Jungle" in 2016, and continued in refugee camps around Serbia, Greece, and Palestine. It was here that they learned to cook Middle Eastern cuisine.
“We’ve kind of learned from the best, haven’t we?” says Howe, turning to Maule, who adds: “In Greece, we ran this youth group with young girls. We’d take them to the supermarket, they’d choose their own ingredients, and they’d come back and cook it up. We were supervising but it was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so good!’”
Back home in the UK and determined to raise money for refugee assistance projects, Maule and Howe held their first What the Fattoush? supper club at The Greenhouse cafe in South London. They gave 100-percent of their profits to aid organisation Help Refugees.
The transition to a street food stall and the current pop-up in Pamela came soon after—as did people’s judgements. Both Maule and Howe are quick to explain that they do not want to take ownership of Palestinian cuisine, nor simply make money from it. What the Fattoush? is about celebrating the food and supporting related causes.
One is Zaytoun, a social enterprise that helps Palestinian farmers, and whose olive oil Howe and Maule use in their cooking. Another is the NGO SkatePal, which teaches skateboarding skills to children in Palestine. Ten percent of What the Fattoush? profits are donated to the organisation.
“[Skateboarding] is so new there that it’s not gendered or linked with subcultures, so you’ve got girl gangs who are smashing it,” says Howe. “It’s giving kids an escapism from conflict that traditional aid can’t.”
And it aligns with their image. “When you look at our brand, it very much embodies me and you,” says Howe, pointing to Maule. “The logo is hardly screaming out ‘Palestine,’ it’s kind of skate-y and influenced by clothes we wear and things we like.”
“We never try to pass it off as, ‘Oh, we just discovered falafel, guys!’” adds Maule. “We check ourselves and make sure whatever we’re doing aligns with what we think. All our Palestinian mates would be the first ones to call us out.”
But when What the Fattoush? started out, the pair admit to “Westernising” their menu with dishes like falafel fries and chickpea burgers. They now admit their mistake.
“We realised that’s not what we’re trying to portray for Palestine,” says Howe. “When you’re pushing falafel into the shape of chips it’s like, ‘What are you doing?’”
In the kitchen at Pamela, Howe and Maule show me how they do things now. I see a giant mounds of herbs and vegetables, all sourced from local greengrocers in Stoke Newington (“They’re fresh as fuck,” Maule assures me). The flatbread is baked by Ararat bakery up the road in Dalston, where a huge rotating oven creates crispy bubbles on the surface of the dough. My stomach starts to rumble as Howe and Maule get to work on some of their favourite dishes.
“The kibbeh has made a comeback,” says Howe, filling a potato and bulgur parcel with a flavourful mixture of parsley, sultanas, pine nuts, and onions, before deep-frying it. “They’re these lovely little shells traditionally stuffed with minced meat, but our version is precarious to make.”
Maule starts frying aubergines for imam bayildi, a south Levantine stew made with onions, peppers, tomatoes, and a mix of herbs.
“They’re the simplest ingredients but something happens to them in the process and it just tastes insane!” she smiles.
I try it myself in the bar, along with a bowl of tabbouleh, and the flavours sing on my tongue. In the Arabic way, I soon ditch the fork and scoop up silky imam stew with flatbread. I bite into the crispy shell of the kibbeh and find that it holds the perfect combination of potato, crunchy pine nuts, and sweet sultanas.
What the Fattoush? might not be traditional, but the core flavours are undeniably Middle Eastern—and with no beige in sight.