Falastin, Sami Tamimi’s “Palestinian Modern”

15 October, 2020


Falastin: a Cookbook and an example of malfuf, Palestinian stuffed cabbage leaves, decorated with warak enab.
Falastin, a Cook­book by Sami Tami­mi & Tara Wigley Ebury Press/Penguin UK.


N.A. Mansour


My moth­er teas­es me from time to time, call­ing the way I cook “Pales­tin­ian mod­ern.” She’s talk­ing about the way I could take a clas­sic dish like mal­fuf and exhib­it a des­per­ate need to decon­struct it, mak­ing some sort of nev­er-before-seen rice and cab­bage fry-up, some­thing she tsks at. 

When I first flipped open my copy of Falastin, the cook­book Sami Tami­mi co-wrote with Tara Wigley,  I saw that same exper­i­men­tal ten­den­cy flash­ing even more bril­liant­ly in Tami­mi, exem­pli­fied by the very sal­ad that is on the cov­er of Falastin, a com­po­si­tion of let­tuce and cucum­ber, dressed in chili paste, tahi­ni and yoghurt. Inside the book itself, there are plays on shawar­ma and stuffed grape-leaves.

The day the cook­book arrived, my moth­er was in the kitchen and I took it over to her: my Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can moth­er knows Pales­tin­ian cui­sine bet­ter than I do and I want­ed to know what she thought of this book that might very well be “Pales­tin­ian  mod­ern.” My fam­i­ly and neigh­bors taught her the way gen­er­a­tions of Pales­tin­ian women learned how to cook, tat­too­ing zaa’­tar and sumac onto her tongue in an act of cul­tur­al her­itage. When the day came and I woke up with my own tat­toos sud­den­ly run­ning from my gums onto my wrists, my moth­er gave me a cab­bage and remind­ed me when lunch was. I was still a young child and I had nev­er made mal­fuf before but I had watched my moth­er cook. I took the sharp knife to the leaves, blanched them, and stared in won­der as fin­ger­like cab­bage parcels of spiced-rice filled the pot. We ate them with sal­ad and yoghurt. The last decade has seen Pales­tin­ian cook­ery burst onto the cook­book scene.

I enjoy hold­ing these books, look­ing at the bind­ings and the paper. I like to think about how the way they are designed will affect how they are used, whether or not their pris­tine pages will soon be cov­ered in oil splats. But Pales­tin­ian cook­books have nev­er real­ly been a thing; there are Ara­bic man­u­scripts of court­ly foods eat­en in the impe­r­i­al cap­i­tals of Dam­as­cus, Cairo and Istan­bul, but lit­tle record of the every­day food of the peo­ple born out­side of the rul­ing class­es. My great-aunts find the idea laugh­able when I bring it up on the phone. But decades of under­stand­ing Pales­tini­ans as conflict-stricken—and blam­ing us for most of it—have pro­duced a curios­i­ty in Euro­pean and Amer­i­can audi­ences: what must these peo­ple eat?

One of the first pop­u­lar cook­books doc­u­ment­ing Pales­tin­ian food had to pay an entry toll. It took Pales­tin­ian food and wrapped it in the myth of co-exis­tence: Jerusalem was co-writ­ten by Yotam Ott­lo­gen­hi, founder of the Ottolenghi food empire, with Tami­mi, a core mem­ber of Ottolenghi’s team. Jerusalem fea­tured some of the clas­sics, but also had vari­a­tions on dish­es inspired by Jerusalem as a city. In some ways, Jerusalem was also a way to show­case the style Ottolenghi and Tami­mi had built into the DNA of the Ottolenghi franchises. 

More vis­i­bly Pales­tin­ian, Reem Kas­sis’ The Pales­tin­ian Table is a thick Phae­don edi­tion, although it avoids men­tion of Pales­tin­ian polit­i­cal real­i­ties. Kas­sis’ book focus­es on the clas­sics of Pales­tin­ian cui­sine and a Pales­tin­ian idyll: it’s Pales­tine-lite, although I don’t blame it. In the cur­rent cli­mate, Pales­tini­ans need to be pack­aged in friend­ly box­es in order to be con­sumed by the aver­age Amer­i­can or Euro­pean read­er: we have to make choic­es if we want to give Pales­tine a plat­form at all. Laila El-Had­dad’s The Gaza Kitchen—my per­son­al favorite—is much braver, unafraid to relay the dif­fi­cult real­i­ty that Gazans live through, includ­ing access to food, as it also high­lights how dif­fer­ent Gazan cui­sine is from the rest of Pales­tine. Nes­tled in the spaces between recipes are con­tex­tu­al notes and pas­sages high­light­ing food exper­tise; it’s a glimpse into the Gaza I can­not touch, a Gaza which is warm and human, but kept away by Israel’s block­ade. More recent­ly, the canon of Pales­tin­ian cook­book­ery also includes  activist-lit­i­ga­tor Yas­min Khan’s Zeitoun, which has more of that per­son­al angle, as it doc­u­ments Khan’s time with Pales­tini­ans while research­ing the book. Then there is Falastin.

Sim­i­lar to Had­dad and Khan, Tami­mi and Wigley spend much of the book high­light­ing Pales­tine, intro­duc­ing us to places in Pales­tine, how ingre­di­ents are pro­duced by experts, and dif­fer­ent food ini­tia­tives in Pales­tine. The city of Nablus has a few pages ded­i­cat­ed to it and its place in Pales­tin­ian cul­ture. Tami­mi and Wigley also spend the day with a group of yoghurt-mak­ing women, as well as a Pales­tin­ian tahi­ni mak­er who toes a dif­fi­cult line in Jerusalem. I under­stand why the reflex to high­light Pales­tin­ian labor and exper­tise is so preva­lent in Pales­tin­ian cookbooks. 

A com­mu­ni­ty is not built upon the indi­vid­u­al’s belief that they can live alone and be self-suf­fi­cient. The key to sur­viv­ing togeth­er is know­ing who can hold your hand when and know­ing they can hold yours; the link in the chain is exper­tise. The bakla­va will taste bet­ter if we buy it. Why take income away from any­one? my moth­er gen­tly explained when I once asked if we could make it at home. But becom­ing an expert your­self is also required when you live in the Pales­tin­ian coun­try­side. The land demands a cer­tain lev­el of respect: to love the land, tru­ly, you must under­stand what it pro­vides for you. And as impor­tant as com­mu­ni­ty is, if you want to sur­vive the oncom­ing storm, you your­self must chase down olives, wild­flow­ers and thyme. Put them in jars. When you add them to the tahi­ni and cheese you’ve bought from the mar­ket, they will keep and keep you alive. But there are recipes for some of these things in Falastin, my moth­er points out; things we would buy when we lived in Pales­tine, like ka’ik before school and a bag of falafel on the way home. There were ven­dors who would bring carts to the mil­i­tary check­point between our vil­lage and my school. There’s that pang, because for all of the access you’re denied when liv­ing in Pales­tine, there’s some­thing about the bready soft­ness of ka’ik—cut through with za’­tar and salt, munched while climb­ing through destroyed asphalt—that I crave, minus the precarity. 

Lat­er, when we became dis­placed and left Pales­tine, we had to learn to make some of these things our­selves and adapt oth­ers. That’s why Tami­mi and Wigley include the recipe sesame crust­ed ka’ik in Falastin because out­side of Pales­tine, even some­thing as every­day as ka’ik is hard to find; I can’t quite put it in my suit­case and have a store for the year, not enough at least to make me feel like I’m at home. I see the recipe and I am unsure if I will make it. I don’t have that mag­ic in my wrists to twist dough into the elon­gat­ed donut-shape ka’ik has; it won’t be the same with­out the oven, my moth­er reminds me of the impor­tance of equip­ment to exper­tise. It would be unnat­ur­al for me to make ka’ik, I feel. But part of the inge­nu­ity of the occu­pa­tion is how it removes you from the com­mu­ni­ty of experts you come to rely on. Hav­ing a recipe cre­ates some new lev­el of exper­tise. I won­der now if it would be unnat­ur­al for me not to try to make it. There are oth­er recipes for those types of food here, most­ly street food and some breads. Man­a’eesh is one of the recipes here that sits between being home-cook­ing and street food: some­thing my moth­er and aunts made at home – one aunt in par­tic­u­lar had the oven for it– and some­thing we picked up on a busy day of errands. It’s easy to hand a child a flat­bread with za’atar and cheese spread on it, fold­ed in half and to eat on a street cor­ner. Knafah can be the same way. I look at Falastin’s recipe for it and I see my aunt mak­ing it in the kitchen, with me sat on a stool. But I have also eat­en it as an adult on the side­walk next to sev­er­al hap­py old­er men. They might word­less­ly hand me a cof­fee some­times, too. So I enjoy my food best with a side of memory.

Each recipe in Falastin includes a short anec­dote, some­times about recipe devel­op­ment, but most of the time, they’re about Tamim­i’s own rela­tion­ship to the food. There’s anoth­er pang, when my moth­er notes how these vignettes resem­ble our own pasts as much as they rep­re­sent Tamim­i’s sto­ry: his father eats boiled eggs with za’­tar. It’s the same dish we named after my beloved grand­fa­ther, Abdulka­reem Eggs, equal parts boiled eggs, za’­tar and mashed with a lit­tle bit of olive oil, mopped up with bread. We would have break­fast and then my grand­fa­ther would hoist me onto his shoul­ders and walk me through his­to­ry and hills.  He would pull me down for chewy melty buza on a cone. I thought of him when­ev­er my broth­er and I bought ice cream years lat­er. Tami­mi has his own mem­o­ries of ice cream after school. On paper, my day job is to write his­to­ry and to dig through archives; it is hard not to see these lit­tle anec­dotes as the doc­u­men­ta­tion of one Pales­tini­an’s mem­o­ry and the hope that it adds to a grow­ing archive of what Pales­tine was and what it will be. My moth­er asks me what I think of Falastin. I hes­i­tate. It is dif­fi­cult to write hon­est­ly about Pales­tine, dif­fi­cult to move—with vary­ing degrees—in dig­i­tal and mate­r­i­al spaces, Pales­tin­ian and non-Pales­tin­ian. I turn back to the index of Falastin, to the sec­tions in between the recipes, and I am caught between praise and critique.

Like Laila El-Had­dad’s work on Gaza and Gazan cuisines, Falastin under­stands that there is no Pales­tin­ian cui­sine with­out pol­i­tics. Ottolenghi wrote the fore­word; a strate­gic move to have an Israeli say the word “occu­pa­tion” first. The index is full of terms and his­to­ry that extend beyond the culi­nary, act­ing as fram­ing devices. There is Nabul­si cheese, as well as mashwi—the term used for bar­beque in Arabic—but also “nak­ba” and “BDS,” terms that are known to those in the know but per­haps not to the aver­age unini­ti­at­ed read­er. My brain does the men­tal gym­nas­tics I do when I do research: what makes one term bet­ter than anoth­er? What does using a cer­tain term say about your polit­i­cal choic­es? And also, how do you rep­re­sent Pales­tine to an audi­ence that might oth­er­wise be hostile?

Being a his­to­ri­an reminds me dai­ly that I am, like Tami­mi, a child of Pales­tine, but per­haps of a dif­fer­ent Pales­tine. I sought escape from one dimen­sion of Pales­tine in anoth­er, a Pales­tine where I could tease olive oil out of the soil and hon­ey came forth from my stom­achs.  Tami­mi and I are also chil­dren of Pales­tine who had to leave. The mag­ic of Pales­tine, in both its harsh­ness and its gen­eros­i­ty, nev­er leaves you, though. When I joined a food co-op in col­lege, I played with the ingre­di­ents I grew up with, know­ing I could ask them to do what I wanted. 

I pro­duced my own dishes—“Palestinian mod­ern”— that would etch them­selves onto my tongue, brain and wrists. My moth­er protest­ed when I put cumin in new places, but she was proud when I paired bul­gur with sea­son­al New Jer­sey kale. While wait­ing for fatay­er to get out of the oven to feed to 30 hun­gry co-op mem­bers, I would also pour over pho­to­copies of his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments from Jerusalem archives, a cup of tea with sage in hand. While in Jerusalem, I often ate break­fast with the archivists: onion-stuffed falafel with ka’ik from down the street. Falastin has a recipe for them. Then there are galettes in Falastin that look like mine, with beet and feta. These are not dish­es inspired by Pales­tine. They are a dimen­sion of Pales­tine, like Falastin. I will nev­er com­pare to Tami­mi as far as cook­ing, but we’re both part of a tran­si­tion in Pales­tin­ian cul­tur­al her­itage: there are Pales­tin­ian cook­books for the same rea­son there are peo­ple like me nos­ing around in archives. What counts as exper­tise is chang­ing in Pales­tine. The future is unclear and we must doc­u­ment what we can when we can for who­ev­er we can.

Pales­tin­ian mod­ern my moth­er warm­ly says of Tami­mi as we close the book. I take it as a win; guess she approves of my cooking.