How cuisine and culture collide to preserve a people’s history
Wafa Shami is a Palestinian who was born in Ramallah and came to the States as a young grad student. We first met many years ago in Los Angeles when she was the director of the Middle East Education Project, run out of the American Friends Service Committee’s Los Angeles bureau, downtown. At the time I was the co-director of Open Tent Middle East Coalition and Wafa’s group frequently was part of our citywide coalition to build understanding among diverse cultural and religious communities who wanted to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with peace and justice. Later, Wafa moved north to San Jose, where she began blogging Palestinian recipes.
As someone who has devoted a good deal of her life to expressing Palestinian cultural values, it makes sense that Wafa would find her way to using food as a kind of common language between people. She says that her “story goes back to Palestine, to Mom and her authentic meals.” As Wafa writes on her blog site, Palestine in a Dish, “I’m a humanist, a feminist and a mother who is passionate about food and loves to cook and share with others. I grew up in a town called Ramallah and moved to the US in my adult years pursuing education and graduated with a Masters in International Studies. I enjoyed working with nonprofits for most of my professional life.”
Wafa credits her mom with inspiring her healthy eating habits. Palestine in a Dish is dedicated to her. “This blog is all about my mother’s authentic recipes that I grew up eating. I never really realized my interest and passion for cooking until I moved to the US and missed my mom’s home meals. So I started experimenting and cooking myself while getting all instructions from my mother over the phone. Food is a big deal in our culture and we come from large families and enjoy eating together with and without occasions. I love to cook and invite my friends over. The feedback I get from my friends has encouraged me to write Palestine in a Dish. And I also thought it would be nice to preserve my mother’s recipes to be carried on and shared with those who love Palestinian food. There are also occasions where I present my own recipes.”
I asked Wafa how she sees Palestinian food helping Americans to understand what’s going on with respect to the conflict.
“I think when you connect with people on a personal level, it shows a completely different perspective. And that’s been my goal in the last few years—how can I highlight a different side of the Palestinians rather than talking about politics and showing Palestinians as victims. We are people full of talent, our culture is very rich including our cuisine, we have so much to offer. And I believe that when Americans see that, it will open the way to connect at so many other levels and open the discussion.”
In recent years, as Israel has tried to battle the negative publicity resulting from its settlement project in the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, it has invested millions of dollars in rebranding Israeli culture, and part of that has meant co-opting Palestinian recipes (including hummous, falafel and shakshouka) as “Israeli food.” Wafa says this concerns her and many Palestinians who already feel that they’ve lost so much, but at the end of the day, she doesn’t expend any energy on Palestine in a Dish defending her and her mom’s recipes, which speak for themselves.
With respect to today’s health-conscious and often vegan culture, Wafa notes that “Palestinians are really close to their land; they all grow up eating lots of fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables. For that reason, I am very health conscious so I always tend to use fresh vegetables but of course, there will be times that I use frozen.”
For now, she says that there are no plans afoot to open a restaurant in San Jose, but if that were ever in the works, Wafa declares that she’d certainly want to include the word “Palestine” or “Palestinian” in its name.
And her favorite recipes?
“I think everything I post on my blog I like,” she says, “but a few favorites include grape leaves, musakhan, harriseh, and all the salads.” And if you’re wondering how to concoct the delicious pita bread that goes so well with Palestinian cuisine, Wafa offers a recipe for baking Arabic bread.
If the images on Palestine in a Dish look so appealing, it’s no accident, for Wafa is a fan of photography and takes great pleasure in styling her dishes and shooting them. “I’m very excited about this work and I’m really enjoying it,” she adds. “I feel that I finally found something that I’m passionate about, in addition to cooking—I’m in love with food styling and photography.”