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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the salad:
- 2 heads cauliflower, broken into florets
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large red onion, sliced into half-moons
- 2 teaspoons za'atar
- Sea salt
- 1 bunch arugula
- 150 grams (5 1/2 ounces) large green olives, preferably Middle Eastern
- 2 tomatoes, cut into wedges
- 1 red chile, sliced into rings
For the dressing:
- 4 tablespoons tahini
- 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt
- Juice of 4 lemons
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- Four 350-gram (12-ounce) monkfish tails
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 teaspoons sumac
- 4 teaspoons za'atar
- 4 teaspoons lemon zest
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
- 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons dried chile flakes
- Salatet fattoush, to serve (see headnote for link)
Palestine on a Plate: Memories from My Mother’s Kitchen is now available for purchase.