Cooking Palestinian Food: on Indigenous Herbs, Craft, and Community


This discussion between Karim Kattan and his brother, Chef Fadi Kattan, attempts to illustrate, sometimes with humor, several political dimensions with which one has to negotiate when owning a restaurant in Bethlehem and cooking Palestinian food.

KARIM KATTAN: I’m really happy to have the opportunity to interview you for this issue of The Funambulist, which focuses on food politics. Full disclosure: I am your brother, but we luckily tend to disagree on a lot of subjects so I hope this conversation won’t be too complacent. Fadi you are, among many other things, a chef and the founder of Fawda, a restaurant in the old city of Bethlehem. First of all I would like to ask you to introduce yourself and your work. I would love to hear you speak about the way you came to food but also what cooking means to you as a chef but also as a Palestinian living in Bethlehem.

FADI KATTAN: Thank you, Karim. Well, full disclosure: yes, you are my brother, it is very bizarre to be doing this interview over Skype and in lockdown in Bethlehem when you are only a couple of kilometers away! 

I come from an old Bethlehem family. We’ve been around for a very long time and I was brought up in the world of food without being in the world of food. On my mother’s side, I had a fantastic grand-mother who not only cooked a ton of great food but also set up the Arab Women’s Union. One of their projects was creating jobs for women in food production. As for my grand-father, he would take me by the hand when we were in Paris and had me try things like tête de veau or jambon persillé when I was a kid. On my father’s side, my grandparents traveled the world and lived in India, where my father was born, Sudan, Japan. Though I sadly didn’t get to meet my grand-mother, we would go every week-end to my grand-father’s and we ate a mix of traditional Palestinian food and Italian recipes that had filtered across the family because, in his generation, quite a few of the family members were married to Italians. And then a bit of Indian influence: we still do an impressive shrimp curry as a family dish. All of those influences came together. 

Coming from a business family, I was not set to study hotel management and become a chef. I studied in France and after that, I came back to Palestine in 2000. I started working in the Intercontinental hotel in Bethlehem, before it closed at the start of the Second Intifada. So I did eventually join the family business. We sell industrial kitchens and laundries, so in a way I stayed in the sector, not as an actor but as a supplier. 

Kattan Funambulist (1)
Fadi buying herbs from Um Nabil at the Bethlehem market.

I used this position to create the first Palestinian Culinary Competition. In the first edition I was shocked because, although we gave the chefs free reign, all the finalists — except for one — cooked things that had nothing to do with our local cuisine and terroir. So we had coquilles Saint-Jacques, we had sushi, we had some kind of frozen salmon dish, quite the chamber of horrors! And this one guy did dala’a which is stuffed lamb ribs. Fantastic! He stuffed it with courgette and vine leaves. But then he goes and puts so many Palestinian paper flags on the dish that it also felt wrong! And that idea stayed in my brain. What do we do? How do we use those amazing produces we have? They offer interesting, different types of cuisine, and not for the “Black-Skin-White-Masks,” totally colonized cuisine that people want us to do. And without falling on the other end, by being picturesque Palestinians, like we’d want to participate in the International Colonial Exhibitions of the 20th century, during which people from the “colonies” were put in cages and their food habits were examined by Westerners. 

We are in a very particular space now. Five years ago I started Fawda restaurant. It is just two minutes away from the Bethlehem market in the old city where we still have amazing farmers that come from the villages around us. It seemed only natural to create a local and locally-sourced cuisine. I have a young team of predominantly women both in operations and in the kitchen who each has a bit of the inheritance of their family stories and family kitchens. I put all of that together with my identity and came up with a modernized Palestinian interpretation of local dishes.

KK: So you’re talking about the fact that your restaurant is near the market, and that your work stems from the very local culture you’re located in. You just said “Palestinian food,” you also mentioned these two dangers we face: on the one hand, the possible appropriation of one’s food, one’s culture and on the other, the way we ourselves commodify our identities and self-orientalize. Going back to this locality: would you call your menu Palestinian food or food from Bethlehem?

FK: I would say it’s Palestinian food because I do use recipes that are not necessarily from Bethlehem. I interpret them differently. Something like the national dish like musakhan, a dish made of onions, sumac, a lot of olive oil and crispy chicken. It is not really a dish from here, it’s more from the north of the West Bank. But I play around with it because north of Hebron, not far from Bethlehem, you have the best sumac trees that I’ve come across. So it’s really Palestinian. And it is also food from Bethlehem in a sense: I mostly use fresh products that come from a 20 km radius around Bethlehem. For the non-fresh products (salt, sumac) they come from further away. 

To go back to the issue of self-orientalizing. Sadly we self-orientalize under labels such as Middle-Eastern, Levantine or Mediterranean cuisine, which don’t mean anything, to me. If you’re having a meal in Northern Algeria it has nothing to do with the meal that you could have in South Turkey. And if you are having a meal in occupied Jaffa, most probably the only thing in common with Marseille is that some of the fish are the same, but it stops there.

Look at the countries from the Middle-East exporting their cuisine abroad. When the Lebanese started opening restaurants, they called them Lebanese. But then the countries or nations that could have negative images in terms of marketing, like the Palestinians or the Syrians, they just called their cuisine Middle-Eastern. Hence, today’s appropriation by a lot of Israeli chefs of Paletinian cuisine under the label “Middle-Eastern food.” 

KK: I remember I was in Jaffa a few years ago, a lot of the places that sold chawarma would either advertise themselves as Middle-Eastern or as Lebanese. And it was really mind blowing how these places would bend geographies and histories in order to cater to Israelis without advertising themselves as Palestinians.

Kattan Funambulist (2)
Mujadara cooked by Chef Fadi Kattan.

FK: That’s sadly the same all over the world. Now it is changing but in the past they would either have to call their cuisine Middle-Eastern or Syrian-Lebanese or co-market with an Israeli chef. Very often when a journalist wants to write about my food they’ll tell me: “in Israel they do this and you do that.” If you are talking about a restaurant in the southern Pyrenees in France, you would never dare to tell the chef: “oh I am going to compare you to this Spanish chef on the other side of the mountains.” Cuisine is not a toy. It has its truths, and its limits. But where we are, it is often seen as an element of the conflict and only as that. We’ve seen in the last 20 years so many attempts of creating “coexistence cuisine” or cooking schools around the world. I remember being approached by a school in France with a coexistence program. ”We have an Israeli Jew, an Israeli Christian and an Israeli Muslim, we have a Palestinian Christian and we are looking for a Muslim woman wearing hijab.” It’s like we’re picking actors for a soap opera, it’s a beautiful brand new world and everyone is lovey-dovey! This is not the reality. Of course, I refused to provide them with a name, and they got quite upset. People want stories that make them feel good without having to look at the reasons why things are the way they are. 

That is why I keep saying there are two elements in Palestine that are amazing and we should be very careful when we work with them. One is the farmers because they are the ones that are living the shit of the occupation. I am living the shit of occupation much less. I’m nicely in my little kitchen.The other element is those fantastic women that have preserved our cuisine over the years. It’s our mother, Karim! It’s our grand-mothers, our great-grand-mothers… And now all of a sudden it’s “oh you know what we are not going to recognize any of this and we’re gonna try and make a Palestinian cuisine that is acceptable to the world.” When I try modernizing Palestinian cuisine, I am not trying to make it acceptable to people. When I think of a dish, I don’t ask myself: “Is this gonna please the Europeans or the Americans or the Chinese?” I try to create a dish that is respectful of the flavors, and that has an identity that is very much mine. For instance, I love working with freekeh and I know you hate it. Still in my set menu, I try to force down your throat some freekeh. You know I could make an effort when ì know you’re coming over for dinner and not cook it but if I happen to have a vegetable that works well with it, well I still cook freekeh, whether you like it or not!  

Don’t forget, cooking is a magic act, a sacred moment. This is why I am in the kitchen. I was recently speaking to Paris-based Japanese writer, Ryoko Sekiguchi, and we came up with this concept of “cooking of light,” “la cuisine de lumière”) [”hikari no ryôri”] and she linked it to another concept that she came up with Japanese chef Shûichirô Kobori, namely “cooking of prayer,” “la cuisine de prière” [”inori no ryôri”]. Cooking is a sacred moment of intimacy and of creation, which requires respect. 

We have such particularities in our kitchen, that we should be putting forward and that we should be protecting from all those coexistence and peace initiatives, which are not really about peace and coexistence. Peace is about justice. When sometimes people ask me: “Would you work with an Israeli chef?” I say: “My conditions if an Israeli chef wants to work with me are that she or he has to accept a Palestinian state with the 1967 borders, accept Jerusalem as the capital of two states, accept the right of return of Palestinians refugees. If there is a resolution that is just to our rights as Palestinians of course I will work with an Israeli chef.” But as long as there is no justice and equality there’s no way I could work with an Israeli chef.

KK: What you are also saying regarding this coexistence cuisine, is how the power imbalance is present anyway. We can see this in cuisine, in cultural fields, and beyond. All the projects that have been undertaken under the guise of coexistence, of making an Israeli and a Palestinian cooperate: beyond the immediate political problem, it’s always been made abdundantly clear that the Israeli is the one who retains the voice in the end. The Palestinian is usually forgotten and the Israeli is the one who gains fame, gains money, and so on, from this. 

FK: Not necessarily. I do think we’ve seen cases the other way around where Palestinians have either co-organized or used events which had Israeli participation to promote themselves and their cookbooks and their initiatives and restaurants. It’s not necessarily that the Israeli comes out as the only voice, but what happens very often is the Israeli comes out as the good voice: “I’m being kind to the Palestinian savage.” There’s one thing that keeps perplexing me when people try defending this Israeli position. Putting aside colonization and the state, and the politics of the state, if you were an individual who’s given a cultivated land free of charge — whether it’s olive trees, or oranges or whatever is grown locally here — you are given the keys to a nice building and told you could make a good restaurant here. It wouldn’t require as much effort as anybody else doing a restaurant anywhere else in the world. So when your cost of investment is zero, it’s not fair. And then that chef, that cook or writer who’s an Israeli will be saying things such as: “I like the Palestinians.” Of course you do, you are using their lands and the homes they used to live in to create funky trendy restaurants in Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, or in the middle of a destroyed Palestinian village. 

The best example is a place like Ein Karem, where the whole village has been turned into a series of restaurants held by Israeli chefs. And very sadly a lot of the tourists or expats living in Israel go there and they’re like “the house is fantastic, they are doing great food.” Yes of course they didn’t have to build the house, they didn’t have to buy the house. They just picked it up and gave it a nice renovation and used it as a base for the restaurant. Where do we stop this whole story and what are the voices we need today?

KK: That’s a very important question. To circle back to something you said earlier: Palestine is trendy only when it is made palatable, when it is made in an inoffensive version of Palestine that is extremely sexy, as long as it doesn’t pose any worrying questions. When you talk about the image of Palestine of the the Palestinian farmer as a way of elaborating a sort of story telling, what you are pointing to is the exploitative nature of what we call “collaboration” in culture. A word that tends to erase labor, the cost of labor and social class. You said it is different when you are a farmer and need water to grow your crops or when you are a city dweller whose relationship with water is different.

FK: I am a trendy chef who is lucky to be where I am and where I exercise my trade. I do realize totally, and people have to be grateful for this. I do realize the privilege I am in compared to the farmer who is not getting water because the settlers have turned off the tap.

KK: Yes, and beyond only realizing the privilege, I feel that you and certain other people are also thinking of ways of acknowledging this labor, of actually creating an equal relationship with the providers, with the workers, not just using “collaboration” as a buzzword, as part of a storytelling ploy. If you could talk about this a bit. Also I’d like for you to talk to us about your relationship to herbs — you have a herb provider — especially about the relationship between the occupation and indigenous herbs in Palestine. 

Kattan Funambulist (3)
Pea cream with laban jameed and labneh prepared by Fadi.

FK: The two things you asked me to talk about are interlinked. Um Nabil is a great farmer and reseller of herbs. When you say we try and deal with our supplies and providers on an equal level, it comes from two things for me. One is there is a commercial reality whether we accept it or not. We are selling something, we price it and we buy it. My policy is to never negotiate prices. How can I allow myself ethically to tell a farmer who’s been up since 4am while I was sleeping: “your labor is not worth what you are saying, it’s less.” So I don’t negotiate prices. If something happens to be totally out of price, I will just not buy it because it doesn’t fit in my selling cost of the menu that day. 

The other thing is: I take people around the market to meet the farmers. One of the things that horrifies me is when I see tourism guides doing this same thing: they walk by the farmers and they stop at a distance with their group and point at the farmer with their index. And, in a language the farmer does not understand, they talk about him, instead of listening to him and hearing the true story from him. We are not in a zoo.

In 1948, it was not only the Palestinian villages that were uprooted. It was also the Palestinian cities. Jaffa was not a village. Haifa was not a village. Cuisines traditionally came with an array of class because the affordability of produce was linked to how much money you had. It doesn’t make it less Palestinian. There’s nothing that makes rishtaya (a dish of lentils and pasta) more Palestinian than a roasted lamb with sumac. They are all Palestinian.

As for herbs, you have khobeiza, za’atar, loof, huweirneh, silek, ‘ilek, and I can go on naming them. We have a lot of native herbs that used to be foraged. Israel has this policy of pseudo-protecting the environment by preventing some of the herbs to be foraged either in the West Bank — when, interestingly enough, they are still allowed to be foraged in areas still under Israeli control for Israeli foragers — or across the country. Akub is one of them; it is a thorn called gundelia in Latin, chardon in France where it’s often used. 

It’s a wonderful little thorn which for me is very symbolic and I love using it. It is a lot of work to take out all the thorns in it and it has a very delicate taste. But then just to show you how diverse our herbs are, recently one of my friends, Palestinian musician Wisam Joubran, called me up from Paris and said: “It’s mokra season!” He was very excited. “What is mokra?” I asked. “You know this herb we use with labneh.” I had never heard of mokra because it is not native to the Bethlehem region, but to Nazareth, where he comes from. When I started to call people in Nazareth, asking what all the hype was about, somebody was kind enough to organize transport and a batch of mokra was taken from Nazareth to Bethlehem. I was stunned by this herb because it was very close to another herb we use, huweirneh, which is from the mustard family. 

When I see freaking Israeli za’atar, for instance. I’m like “Come on guys, za’atar is Palestinian.” I keep saying this, and I hope people have no problem understanding it: I don’t mind seeing an Israeli chef in London, in Paris, in New York, in Tel Aviv using Palestinian products. But please accept that you have to recognize their origins just like you do with everything else. When you use a truffle from Alba, you say it is from Alba, when you use pepper from Espelette, you say it is “piment d’Espelette” ; when you use salt from Guérande you say it is from Guérande. Why — I mean we know why, there is an attempt to erase Palestinianhood — but why when it comes to Palestinian product don’t we say that it’s Palestinian? Why do Israeli chefs that write in newspapers across the world offer recipes with freekeh, and the world applauds them, and they never once mention that freekeh is Palestinian?

KK: That’s actually a good question. I love how za’atar has become a superfood just like kale. It is always hilarious how whenever it becomes Israeli, all of the sudden it’s very trendy. One last question, could you give us a couple of names of Palestinian chefs and more generally chefs or people who wrote cookbooks, that recommend, that you you read and discover?

FK: You are nasty! You are nasty when you know me. My answer is going to surprise you. Start by listening to Sabah Al-Yasmine, Ramblings of a Chef, my podcast. I have chatted with chefs from all over the world, including quite a few great Palestinian ones. Before you read Palestinian books, follow Mohamed Hadid. He is an architect, real-estate magnate and social media personality and he’s been cooking, quite a lot, in fact. I cooked with him and I just love his attachment to his mother’s cuisine. I think that’s transmission, in such a fabulous way. I just think having somebody like him, not only cook his mother’s maqlubeh but teach it to his children is wonderful. And I love what he is doing on Instagram because it’s not making Palestine acceptable, because he doesn’t mince his words. He is very clear how he was a three year old kid when they were thrown out of their home in 1948. 

Now about cookbooks. There is one cookbook that I really use and love. It is the first Palestinian cookbook ever, written by Christiane Dabdoub-Nasser. She is an important personality in the world of culture, and she wrote her book of what she cooks at home. What I like about it is that it is neither something miserabilist nor does it reduce Palestinian cuisine to a monolithic reality. It is a cookbook, full stop. And it does what it has to do. It showcases of course the communalities between Palestinian and Levantine cuisines — you know Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian — but then, she offers a lot of very Palestinian recipes. That’s a cookbook I like a lot. 

Kattan Funambulist (4)
Farms in the outskirts of Jericho, Palestine. / Photo by Jimmy Granger (2019).

I’m a co-curator of a cookbook forthcoming in 2020, called Craving Palestine. We’ve asked around a hundred Palestinians to contribute a story and a recipe. I am not recommending this book because I co-curated it, but because it is a charitable, not-for-profit book — I should not say “charitable,” I hate this word! The funds will go to ANERA, I am not making money by promoting it, but it’s because there are recipes like people like you Karim, there are recipes from people like Mohamed Haddid, there are recipes by chefs like Moeen Abuzaid from The Broken English, or May Khader from Almond and Fig, but also by actresses and actors, by visual artists, by musicians, by Palestinians from Chile, from the United States, from the Caribbean, from all over the world. There are recipes by Haneen Magadlah from Baqa Al-Gharbiyeh who is a dear friend and by Omar Sartawi from Amman. 

I think the book reflects our diversity. It is very important for us to tackle the subject of the diaspora. I know we don’t have a lot of time left to go into that, but it also allows us to understand where colonialism fits in all of this. Recently I was told by one of the Palestinian food figures: “You don’t know how difficult it is where we are, we are fighting everyday.” I wanted to answer: “Look. Come and live behind the wall and you will see how difficult it is.” Then I realized it’s two different types of difficulties. None of them makes us more Palestinian, none of them makes us less Palestinian. When we talk about food, there are two types of food. There’s the food that is inscribed in its terroir and that is Palestinian food cooked in Palestine. And then there is the cuisine of the diaspora that is relevant to a lot of diasporas across the world. 

Let’s not fall into this easiness of wanting to stick a label on things. Cuisine is a rich, diverse world. It is an important element to preserve an identity, but also to modernize and actualize it; no identity is set in stone and cuisine allows us both to stay true to ourselves and to constantly change. ■