Palestine in a Dish

15 March, 2019

How cuisine and culture collide to preserve a people’s history


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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.”

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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.”

Wafa's salads from  Palestine in a Dish

Jordan Elgrably is a Franco-American writer of Moroccan heritage whose work has appeared widely in the U.S. and Europe. He is the former cofounder and director of the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz (2001-2020) in Los Angeles. He founded The Markaz Review in 2020, which he edits from Montpellier. Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordanElgrably.

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