Middle Eastern

The Cookbook That Brings Palestinian Food to Your Plate

March 30, 2017

A few years ago, the last time she visited Jordan, Joudie Kalla stared across the Dead Sea and saw home. Born in Damascus and raised between Qatar and London, she had never stepped foot in Palestine, but she felt a strong tug towards it anyway. Kalla’s parents were born there in 1948, the year of the nakba, or catastrophe; from then on, Palestine was no longer recognized as a sovereign state, forcing the family to walk to Syria and begin a new life.

This new home was unfamiliar to the family. But their food, the food of Palestine, sustained them. They would eat ijeh, a fluffy egg fritter, for breakfasts. For dinners, they would make sfiha, strudel pastry coiled like a snail filled with minced lamb, onions, and sumac. These were foods the family had been making for generations, and theirs was a stubborn tradition that could survive transit.

Photo by Joudie Kalla

These memories form the backbone of Kalla’s 240-page cookbook, Palestine on a Plate: Memories from My Mother’s Kitchen, released last year. Kalla has been working as a chef for 16 years after receiving training at London’s Leiths School of Food and Wine. She opened her own deli in 2010 called Baity Kitchen, based on her mother’s cooking. In 2014, she launched an app for sharing her family's recipes, and this eventually evolved into a cookbook.

Kalla was the youngest of five siblings, and, unlike them, she didn’t grow up speaking Arabic. They used to call her ingliziyeh, or “the English one.” This was less an insult than a term of endearment. But it underscored how behaviorally different she was from her siblings, and, more crucially, how different she felt. She spent her London childhood effectively straddling two worlds, sometimes feeling at home in neither.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“My FIL was Palestinian, born in 1945 in Jerusalem and then forced from his home in 1948. Before Alzheimer's took his mind and then him, he shared his mama's recipes with me. I get such joy in cooking them with my now three year old son who knows what sumac is and calls me his "habibii". Thank you for sharing!”
— Kayley N.
Comment

The kitchen was the exception. It became Kalla’s domain, the place where she could be her fullest self, connecting to a heritage the surrounding world told her to shun. Most people she encountered growing up were incurious about Palestinian food, guided by the prejudicial fiction that all Palestinians were terrorists. But she felt at ease under the guidance of her mother’s hands, cooking the same recipes her family had eaten for decades.

Still, the fact that she didn’t even know how to speak Arabic nagged at her. This reached a boiling point when she was 21, in Beirut with her family for holiday. She got lost and couldn’t find her way back to where her family was staying. Though she understood Arabic, she couldn't speak it.

From then on, Kalla grew resolute about learning Arabic, the first step she’d take in starting to feel more Palestinian. Language was inextricable from the way she understood food. “Words that mean so many things in Arabic have no words in English,” she insists to me. “I think, sometimes, we don’t do food justice with translation. Sometimes, things should be left as they are in their own, poetic, original names.” One of the more valuable lessons Kalla has learned through cooking for a predominantly non-Palestinian audience is to resist the temptation to translate, to let Palestinian dishes speak for themselves.

The book honors this philosophy, with recipes that are written out in their Arabic names; for example, a dish of spicy chicken livers with coriander and lemon is called by its native name, kibdet il djaj. Kalla rarely panders to the quest for accessibility that can so often hinder cookbook writers from the global South. The book is also structured to deflect from the inevitable criticism that it’s a non-exhaustive survey of Palestine's cuisine, one that can't be reduced to a single book. Kalla makes it clear that her understanding of Palestine is derived from her family, the women from whom she sourced her recipes. The book is the product of Kalla gathering the women in her family who taught her how to cook, from her mother to her many aunties, and talking to them about which recipes they should put in and which should be omitted, what order these recipes should be in, and the styling of the food. These women became her bibliography.

Makloubeh and Salatet Arnabeet. Photos by Ria Osbourne.

Kalla’s ultimate aim is to educate people on the granularity Middle Eastern cuisine, to edge them towards greater specificity. Too often, she finds that the region's cuisines are lumped together. Not everything is Lebanese or Syrian food; Palestinian dishes with Arabic names tend to become mislabeled as Israeli. “It’s like saying all European food is the same,” she says. “It is obviously not. The same goes for us.”

Kalla sees herself as part of a recent wave of Palestinian chefs who've ushered this more nuanced understanding to Western readers, along with Laila El-Haddad, author of The Gaza Kitchen and Rawia Bishara, who wrote Olives, Lemons & Za’atar. Kalla wanted to make her voice heard, too. Still, inculcating her new audience to this understanding has been slow-going, and merely existing as a Palestinian woman in public has made her catnip for abuse. She's heard it all.

“When I first started my Instagram, I had so many people calling me anti-Semitic and racist, with people describing ways they would like to kill me,” she remembers. “I’m not going to lie to you. It really broke me at one point.” This abuse continued unabated for nearly a year. Fending off harassment became sewn into her day-to-day experience, nearly deterring her from going on.

Bamyeh and Sumac Za'atar Monkfish. Photos by Ria Osbourne.

Slowly, though, these harassers began to disappear as Kalla got more popular online. Her newfound fans took it upon themselves to answer these trolls and leap to Kalla's defense. Gaining this support allowed her to focus her energy solely on her writing.

“I have been shushed many times,” Kalla reminds me. “But I come back louder.” She tells me she has plans to write a second book. Half of the proceeds from the U.S. print of her book go directly to the House of Friendship, a Palestinian children’s center. It is a decision guided by a simple principle, taught to her by her mother: No Palestinian should ever do something without giving back to her home.

Palestine on a Plate: Memories from My Mother’s Kitchen is now available for purchase.

Tags:

31 Comments

Saima April 3, 2017
Whilst Food should be simply shared and enjoyed, it is enriched with the backdrop of history and how it came to be. I don think the future is being political it being factual about how Palestinian Food has travelled and become a part of this particular persons life. Stating history and evolution of ones history and food isn't political or racial, it simply explaining the traditions of past, present and hopefully the future.<br />
 
Mike S. April 3, 2017
Precisely. Well said.
 
Diane April 3, 2017
Sorry, snowflakes, but focusing on food and culture, not politics, is not an act of violence. Do you seriously, in our very dangerous world, not understand what real violence is? You minimize the true suffering of millions of people when you suck the real meaning out of the word.
 
Diane April 3, 2017
Sorry, snowflakes, but focusing on food and culture, not politics, is not an act of violence. Do you seriously, in our very dangerous world, not understand what real violence is? You minimize the true suffering of millions of people when you suck the real meaning out of the word.
 
Allison April 2, 2017
I just bought the book! We had an exchange student from Gaza and she changed our lives. I'm excited to learn more about her and your culture history and culture!
 
joudie K. April 3, 2017
This is wonderful news! Thank you so much for writing this.... It means a lot to hear that. j x
 
dweiss11 March 31, 2017
This site has always been a place to find great recipes and learn about the food of other cultures. Politics have no place here. The terms "nakba, the catastrophe" are entirely out of place here. I hope the editors will be more careful in the future.
 
Mike S. March 31, 2017
Shame on dweiss11 for this comment, which I hope the editors will remove. Denying someone's history and culture and narrative is an act of violence in and of itself and should always be condemned.
 
Lauren March 31, 2017
But the catastrophe is part of the history of the food. If it upsets you so much, then go somewhere else. I am thankful that food52 has included that part of Joudie's story. <br />I agree with the sentiments of the commenter above me, michael.sidman.5, leaving out parts of stories is incredibly violent.
 
Merrill S. April 2, 2017
Mayukh was entirely correct to include relevant details in the recounting of Joudie's experience. This is not a political statement or stance. As some commenters have noted, politics is part of everything, including food. If we were to sanitize personal narratives by removing details like this, it would be hard for us to justify covering such stories at all.
 
sakalee April 2, 2017
Love this article by Mayukh Sen on Joudie Kalla: what could be more enriching and true to both history and culture (and these thru the lens of food!) than a narrative without erasure (yes, as Merrill Stubbs says, without "sanitizing" such personal narratives). I feel inspired to purchase Joudie Kalla's book: thanks food52 for featuring this for your readership!!!
 
Author Comment
Mayukh S. April 3, 2017
Thanks for chiming in, everyone, before I could. dweiss11, I'd also direct you to the following letter penned by Merrill and Amanda earlier this year that directly refutes your suggestion that politics have no place on this site: https://food52.com/blog/18961-our-answer-to-politics-don-t-belong-on-food52
 
joudie K. April 3, 2017
Yes!
 
joudie K. April 3, 2017
Thank you Sakalee for the support! j x
 
joudie K. April 3, 2017
Yes indeed some politics are intertwined with a people for all eternity! I think this is a very relevant thing to recognise and glad that you and many others think so. <br />J x
 
joudie K. April 3, 2017
Thank you for the support. it is a very huge and important part of our life and shaping of our future.
 
joudie K. April 3, 2017
i think the editors should keep this post up as it shows the ignorance and silencing other people always want to have on us Palestinians and it just shames them really. And the general support of this amazing article is what counts most! Thank you! j x
 
joudie K. April 3, 2017
Sorry Dweiss but i think you are 100% mistaken in your comment. This Nakba catastrophe is what created a surge of people like myself, children of refugees kicked out of their own home to fight a resistance through any art form, be it cooking, poetry, art, music etc etc to change the narrative that has been long stamped on us and it is part of our fabric. Life and everything with it is interconnected with politics and history and if it offends you then you should not read such things. I think taking that away from who i am is insulting for all those in my family who lost their lives and the many other who continue to do so since this Nakba has continued for the last 70 years. Dont be so closed minded, and dig deeper please.
 
Meera J. April 4, 2017
Dweiss you're completely ignorant in your assessment of the situation. By trying to silence the palestinians and those that recognize the catastrophe that is the Nakba you are trying to erase history and all that has happened since Palestine was so brutally divided up and its people expelled. Your comment shows your lack of understanding and comprehension of the situation and the underlying culture of the palestinians. shame on you.
 
Azora Z. March 31, 2017
huge fan of joudie and her work!!
 
joudie K. April 3, 2017
Thank you Zoe, i am happy to hear that! j x
 
vevericka March 31, 2017
Cannot wait to get my own copy. It looks amazing.
 
joudie K. April 3, 2017
Thank you! Please let me know what you think! j x
 
Matilda L. March 30, 2017
Just ordered my copy! Can hardly wait until my copy arrives.
 
joudie K. March 30, 2017
Thats so fabulous to hear. I hope you will love it and share what you have cooked with me. <br /><br />J x
 
Whiteantlers March 30, 2017
Ah! Adding this one to my WANT list.
 
joudie K. March 30, 2017
Thank you. I hope you love it. When you do get it please let me know what you think<br /><br />j x<br />
 
Kayley N. March 30, 2017
Buying this lovely cookbook! My FIL was Palestinian, born in 1945 in Jerusalem and then forced from his home in 1948. Before Alzheimer's took his mind and then him, he shared his mama's recipes with me. I get such joy in cooking them with my now three year old son who knows what sumac is and calls me his "habibii". Thank you for sharing!
 
joudie K. March 30, 2017
Thats so lovely to hear! Im so glad he managed to share them with you. What a cute little boy you have. I hope you teach him all about your dads recipes one day <br />J x
 
Mike S. March 30, 2017
Palestine on a Plate was BY FAR my favorite cookbook of the year! So thrilled to see this profile as well as Joudie's recipes!
 
joudie K. March 30, 2017
THANK YOU! jx