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

Published

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.

Article published in The Funambulist 31 (September-October 2020) Politics of Food. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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.