When the phone rang early one morning after a sleepless night dealing with the confinement, I heard a friend ask in a panic: “Can I send you a picture of my dough for kmaj? I am not sure it worked!” I laughed hard from happiness. This friend had never set foot in the kitchen before the Covid-19 confinement and now, she was trying to make Palestinian bread.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the severe lockdowns shattered a lot of our eating habits. Some for the best, some for the worst. People started with a frenetic rush, familiar in Palestine from when curfews were announced by the occupation forces during the two intifadas. In March, I walked into a shop just before the first lockdown, and people were behaving in exactly the same manner as I had seen repeatedly, growing up. They were stocking up on flour, milk, oil, rice, dried chickpeas and so forth… and I did the same.
My friend’s call came two weeks afterwards, as I was starting to get idle at home. I reflected on what I had been cooking during the previous two weeks. Not the modern interpretation of Palestinian cuisine that I usually serve in my fine dining restaurant, Fawda, but rather comfort food and traditional dishes, many learnt from my mother and grandmother. I wanted to share this with people. That is how my podcast and radio show, Sabah Al-Yasmine, Ramblings of a Chef, came to be.
I was led by memories and longing, first cooking a baguette and then hummus—symbols of my dual Franco-Palestinian nationality—then moving on to more elaborate dishes. And people started reaching out with questions and requests. I began to alternate my shows between recipes and interviews.
Palestinians around the world from Australia to Paris and Chile—some chefs or cooks, some cultural icons—shared their thoughts on food. Musician and oud maker Wissam Joubran recalled foraging for mouth-watering akkoub in the Galilee;, real estate developer Mohamed Hadid described his mother Khairiya’s exquisite dishes; and London-based chef Sami Tamimi gave a fascinating account of his culinary influences growing up in the Old City of Jerusalem.
International interviews with chefs like Massimo Bottura and Tom Hunt brought reflections on how today we are rediscovering our grandmother’s thrifty methods as we try to counter food waste.
I realized how this lockdown had started changing our relationship to food. For the ones lucky enough to be able to afford their pick of supplies, cooking became a dive into indulgence. For the ones that were going through financial challenges, as I saw increasingly in Bethlehem, it was a jigsaw puzzle of survival.
But a lot came together. People gained more awareness and started buying their produce more and more from small shops and farmers; many cooked, baked and ate at home. Meal times were once again family time.
I had been raving against the switch to some pseudo-international food served in many local restaurants, most of them with horrors such as Fettucine Alfredo (fettucine, cream, mushrooms and chicken) on their menus and now people at home were going for the simple satisfaction of homemade Palestinian food. People who had started abandoning recipes such as stuffed vine leaves and courgettes, warak dawali o mahshi koussa, claiming they did not have time for them anymore, occupied those long, lockdown days rolling vine leaves and enjoying their perfect taste in season. Their palates were winning the battle!
All of a sudden, people had to go back to old techniques and use their pantry’s produce to cook. As the supply of fruits and vegetables coming from elsewhere dwindled, seasonality was back. When I took a walk to the market during the lockdown—one of the few pleasures of my ordinary routine still permitted—the smells of delicious herbs and stews from my neighbors’ kitchens collected in the narrow streets of the Old City. Yakhni, a generic word to mean stew, was back in fashion, from the yakhni sabanegh (spinach stew) to the yakhni beitinjan (aubergine stew).
For those who were suffering the economic impact of the pandemic, old methods were again sustaining their kitchens. Preserving came back in force. Drying vegetables in season, pickling cucumbers, cooking one’s own tomato sauce and delicious jams with fresh fruits and saving up on food expenses.
But the magic also operated in terms of solidarity—the small scale, small town type only dimly-remembered from the first intifada. Particularly during those fear-filled days of the full lockdown, neighbors were again cooking for each other, sharing rice, flour and other basic staples. They exchanged produce, offered generously to those who they knew were worst affected. This reignited a sense of community that was genuine and heartfelt.
Sadly, inevitably, all of this lasted only a short while before turning into our current reality, which is driven by a deep desire to get back to a “normal” life. To a great extent, individualism has again replaced communal sympathies. However, despite that, I take heart in signs of change in the Palestinian food scene. People are continuing to demand better quality produce, more responsible cooking and most importantly, have restored rightful pride to our small farmers and artisans.