Long Reads

A Palestinian Pomegranate Cake to Celebrate Life

In 'Zaitoun,' Yasmin Khan tells stories from the kitchens of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

by:
February 15, 2019
Photo by Matt Russell

Yasmin Khan—longtime Food52 contributor, food and travel writer, and author of the beautiful new book, Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen—is no stranger to telling stories. (If we had any doubts about this, she quashes them by tailing her name with the word “stories” in all of her social handles.) This emphasis on narrative is what makes Zaitoun such an important book in its telling of the kitchens she visited on her travels to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

“The thread running through all my work is a fundamental belief that humans, wherever we are in the world, have more to unite us than to divide us,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “Celebrating this commonality is my passion, inspired by the old Jewish adage that ‘an enemy is just a person whose story you haven’t heard yet.’”

To hear more of her stories, I asked Yasmin to trek through the polar vortex to the Food52 offices, where we sat down to chat.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

ERIC KIM: Tell us about yourself. What did you do before food?

YASMIN KHAN: Before I came into the food world, I did a law degree and worked as a human rights campaigner for charities and nonprofits. I did a lot of grassroots community work on all kinds of issues. I think the thing I’m most known for in the U.K. is my work on deaths in police custody. I also worked for trade unions on employment rights and for an anti-poverty human rights charity, and that’s what kind of sparked my interest in Israel and Palestine.

EK: How do you see human rights playing into the way you write about food? Are they related?

YK: What drove me when I was a human rights activist was this realization that the best way you could effect change would be by sharing people’s stories, by connecting people to others in a really human way. And I feel like that’s what I do in my cookbooks, as well. I travel around places and I share stories from the people I meet, with the aim and the mission of challenging stereotypes of the Middle East. But also humanizing people and celebrating our commonality, which I think in these troubled times is needed very urgently.

Photo by Matt Russell

EK: Would you say this a political book, then?

YK: Yes. The act of witnessing is very important when there are human rights abuses. And I see my role as someone who witnesses those things. I’m not Palestinian, but I did travel extensively around the region, and what I wanted to do in this book was to use food as a way of opening a window into this place that’s more commonly construed through news headlines. I’ve always felt that if you care about a food of a culture, you also have to care about the people.

The thread running through all my work is a fundamental belief that humans, wherever we are in the world, have more to unite us than to divide us.

EK: In the book, you write about being detained at the airport in Tel Aviv and interrogated by Israeli officials. Does this happen to you often?

YK: Oh yeah. It’s been really interesting. Even when I used to work for the nonprofits, my boss, who was a middle-aged white man, would walk through fine, and we’d be flying together with our papers from the foreign office saying we’re coming. The reason I included that part of my travels is that yes, this is a cookbook, but increasingly I feel that Israeli food has become so popular, and Tel Aviv is seen as this incredible foodie destination—and it definitely is, there are great restaurants there and a vibrant food scene—but your ability to access it is dependent on your ethnicity. Not everybody can have these wonderful food holidays.

'Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen' by Yasmin Khan. Photo by W. W. Norton & Company

EK: What is Palestinian food, and what would you say are the most important ingredients in a Palestinian kitchen?

YK: Palestinian food is seasonal and vegetable-focused, primarily, and uses spices like cumin, cinnamon, and allspice to delicately flavor stews, grilled meats, and fish dishes. And I think the ingredients used most commonly, like allspice, were a revelation to me. We’re used to having allspice in cakes and cookies and pumpkin pie, but in Palestinian food they use it in savory dishes. So now that’s what I do all the time. Sumac and za’atar are very important, as well. Za’atar is an herb that grows wild, but it’s also a spice mix with the herb and sumac and sesame seeds. Palestinians often start meals with tearing a bit of bread, dunking it in olive oil, and dunking that in za’atar. It’s so good.

EK: What does the word zaitoun mean, and what is its significance for the book and for your journey?

YK: Zaitoun means “olive” in Arabic and Farsi and Turkish, and it was, for me, the word that best symbolized the Palestinian table. Any time you have a meal, there’ll be a bowl of olives on the table, and Palestinians always have several bottles of olive oil in their cupboard, normally coming from their family trees. The olive tree and the olive branch are universally known as symbols of peace, but in Palestine, the olive tree also represents connection to the land. So many poems and films and books have olive tree symbolism in them. And when they’re uprooted, olive trees have come to represent Palestinian displacement. It all comes from that one word.

EK: That’s really beautiful.

YK: Yeah.

EK: Your photographer Raya is an integral part of this book, not just aesthetically but in the story too. Can you tell us about her?

YK: I really wanted to work with a woman. And I really wanted to work with a Palestinian woman. It’s important, for me, when I’m doing these kinds of projects to be connected to the community I’m representing. I like to work with women because I feel that, especially in those spaces, in many Middle Eastern countries, women can actually get you better access into other women’s homes. And so it was a real strength to me to have Raya. You get so much more depth and connection when it's a photographer who speaks the language and has got her own food recommendations. She’s a massive foodie and a dear friend.

And of course, it’s just so funny—that pomegranate tattoo she has? In my first book, The Saffron Tales, I wax on and on about pomegranates so much, because being half-Iranian, they’re such a big part of our lives. When I was chatting with her on Skype, she was like, “My leg hurts! I just got a new tattoo.” It was this gorgeous pomegranate half coming up her leg, and I thought, “That’s the photographer for me.”

EK: What’s the significance of pomegranates to you and to Palestinian cuisine?

YK: Throughout the Middle East, pomegranates have always been revered. They’re seen as quite symbolic fruit, because in the midst of winter, when nothing is growing and everything is barren, you have these amazing ruby-red bulbs hanging from trees. In Iran, for example, they used to line the gardens of ancient temples with pomegranate trees because they were said to represent eternal life. And in Palestine, similarly, they represent fertility and abundance. I imagine every Middle Easterner has got a special affinity to pomegranates. They hold meaning and depth and connection.

Photo by Matt Russell

EK: Speaking of pomegranates, can you tell us more about the cake in your book?

YK: That cake is really my kind of cake. I like almond cakes, and almonds are another key ingredient in Palestinian cooking. Almond trees just kind of grow everywhere in Palestine. So what I wanted to do was bring together a couple of key ingredients from the Palestinian kitchen into a sweet cake. This is a dense and quite—what’s the word—squidgy cake. I run pomegranate molasses through it, so it soaks in the top and runs through. And I always like a bit of sharpness along with something sweet, so I top it with a lovely mascarpone-yogurt mixture and sprinkle it with pomegranate arils.

EK: What’s your desert-island dish?

YK: Oh, it would have to be my mom’s ghormeh sabzi, which is this Iranian stew of lamb, red kidney beans, and dried limes, made with—literally—a kilo of herbs. I’d have it with Persian rice, tahdig, torshi (Iranian pickles), and salad… Ugh! I could really eat that right now. (Lies back.)

EK: (Laughs.) I love that question because the answer is always, “My mom’s…”

YK: Is it?

EK: Oh yeah.

YK: Aw, that’s nice.

Recipe and photographs from Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan. Copyright © 2018 by Yasmin Khan. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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23 Comments

Nancy February 18, 2019
What a beautiful message!! I can’t wait to try this cake of celebration!
 
Barak M. February 17, 2019
Cooking is about getting people together and bringing a feel-good atmosphere to the world. I was therefore quite surprised to see that EK and YK (and Food 52) chose to introduce a controversial politics into this otherwise a great piece. YK is talking about "your ability to access [Tel Aviv] is dependent on your ethnicity" and EK is responding by "It's cruel and inhumane". Not only are they both ignorants on the subject, or worth - purposefully dissing Israel, the whole paragraph has no place in food writing and in fact, managed to hurt the feelings of many Jews and Israelis who read those words. I'd really appreciate hearing from Food52 that A) they regret introducing controversial politics into their writings and will do more to avoid it inn the future and B) they Food52 will ask EK to write a few words of apology to those whose feelings might have been truly hurt by seeing their country being described as "cruel and inhumane" in such a biased fashion and C) I'd like to see Food52 banning YK from their site for spreading fake news and hare instead of great cooking and love. This was not a mistake that she made. She knows it and everyone who knows her, knows it. The way to keep Food52 a happy place is to stay away from politics. Editorial failed this time.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 17, 2019
Hi Barak, thanks for voicing your concern. Though I disagree with your stance that food and politics don’t belong together (for me, they’re intertwined), I have trimmed the section to address the bias you and Valerie have voiced. That’s certainly not something I intended. With that said, I stand by Yasmin’s personal experiences, which she has every right to share.
 
Diane February 17, 2019
When someone says politics is not part of (name the topic), you will in fact find the politics in silencing the voice and diminishing the experience of another. Barak and Valerie were allowed to voice their “politics” and denying the experiences and empathy of others. To demand silence is an attempt to exercise power, a political act, by the threat of withdrawing support and the attempt to condemn the author and subject.
I applaud you EK for your thoughtful piece. I am new to Food 52 and you have earned a follower for honest and insightful reporting. Readers are open to agree, disagree, or consider...that is a happy place...to be treated intelligently.
 
Mariuccia February 17, 2019
I am so uncomfortable that loud voices insist on censoring other voices. On a food site, no less. YK gave an account of an experience she had in her own words. She should be allowed to give voice to her own experiences in her own words. She should be allowed to speak freely even though there are those that disagree with her.
 
Mike S. February 18, 2019
I am thrilled to see Yasmin Khan featured here on Food52. Her Palestinian recipes are some of the best we have ever seen, and to try to silence her or erase her would be a horribly shameful act. Erasing Palestinian voices is a crime. Erasing Palestinian recipes is a crime. And for Barak to come on here to slander her and try to wipe her experience and narrative from this website should be enough to prove to everyone else that we must all play a part in making sure that Yasmin is heard. As a Jew, I am ashamed and saddened by Barak's comments; and as a Jew, I will do whatever I can to make sure that people like him do not silence or erase Palestinian voices.
 
Barak M. February 18, 2019
Eric

Thanks for taking out the shameful inaccuracies that were hurtful and unjust. Yasmin has every right to her feelings but it’s just that - her feelings, uncorraborated and possibly biased. I am sure no one comes to Food52 to be thrown into the Middle East conflict. We come here to read about food and get some rest from fake news and hateful politics. So thanks again.
 
Barak M. February 18, 2019
Indeed. And same rights to express my feelings should be given to me no doubt. Do you agree, Mariuccia? In my opinion it’s best to check controversial politics at the gate and only enjoy good food and nice people here. It is as you say a food site after all.
 
Mariuccia February 21, 2019
Sorry Barak, I am not steeped in the Israeli politics. What I see made me uncomfortable is you asking to censor Yasmin Khan's words. I am fine with you expressing your feelings, educating people about your point of view and why you think that Yasmin's words are not accurate, adding what her words leave out. 100% fine with that. I am not fine or comfortable with having
her words be eliminated.
 
Danielle March 2, 2019
Politics do not belong on this site !!! Very very disappointed
 
valerie J. February 17, 2019
I have subscribed to Food 52 since 2012, so I am shocked to encounter biased political comments on this website.
The implication that the author of the cookbook discussed in this article was refused entry to Tel Aviv because of her colour is disgusting and only serves to illustrate the ignorance of Eric Kim in believing this. Half of Tel Aviv is coloured. Why does the article not explain the real reason this lady was detained at the airport there? With a Palestinian father and an Iranian mother, and having spent much of her life in lengthy visits to Iran, together with a constant anti-Israeli stance throughout her writings – facts not mentioned in the article – Israel has no choice but to see her as a possible security risk. Many Food 52 readers are totally unaware of the situation over there. Iran threatens to destroy Israel every other day and now has troops on its northern border. So of course security with regard to anything Iranian, particularly someone known for her anti-Israel views, is going to be very tight as this lady well knows. She is fortunate they let her into the country at all. With such views about the country she wanted to enter as hers, no other Middle Eastern country would have let her in and she would not have dared to even try. The prisons in the West Bank and Gaza are full of political dissidents, put there by the Palestinian Authority.
Why is Food 52 mentioning Israel adversely in an article about Palestinian food? Why is it mentioning Israel at all? Middle East politics are complicated by any standards and no food site should be going anywhere near them. For example, the title of this article, stressing Palestinians celebration of life, could also be called political given that the Palestinians, both in the West Bank and Gaza, are encouraging children from an early age to be martyrs, both in childrens’ television programmes and by actively training them. The leaders brag about the fact that their culture celebrates death while the Israeli culture celebrates life and say that that is how they will defeat the Israelis. This has been said by them many times as anyone living in the Middle East knows. Other Arab countries deplore what they call this ‘death cult’ and I’m very sure many Palestinians do themselves, and without the politics, the idea of making a Palestinian cake that celebrates life was lovely. But shame on Food 52 for bringing in biased political comments as it did.
I have been subscribing to Food 52 since 2011 but if there is no apology forthcoming for the bias in this piece, I shall unsubscribe, and I will not be the only one.


 
Mariuccia February 17, 2019
sorry, I did't mean to hit helpful, and couldn't undo it. I enjoyed the article as written and don't understand the umbrage expressed here or in the other comment above, so certainly didn't want to endorse it as it is not my view.
 
Danielle March 2, 2019
I agree! Valerie
 
Snow February 16, 2019
I just realized why I'm disappointed by author interviews-it's nothing new.
THIS is the interview I've expected but never found. I have a sense of the PERSON, the passion that drove the spark of an idea into something tangible and I'm left wanting to know more-about Yazmin through her writing, about Palestinian food and culture.
I feel like my world just got a little bigger. Thanks so much!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 16, 2019
Wow, thank you so much, Snow.
 
paseo February 17, 2019
As a Jew I really appreciated this interview and am tired of conflating dislike of what goes on in Israel these days with anti Semitism. One can be critical of Israel (like me) and NOT an anti Semite. I also have her book, enjoy it immensely, and appreciate it even more after reading. Thanks Eric K..
 
Barak M. February 18, 2019
I looked carefully and did not find any reference to antisemitism. I found reference to people’s feeling hurt when their country is called Inhumane by a food blogger or references to leaving controversial politics out of an otherwise delightful food blog. Can you point me to the bit that got you upset?
 
Danielle March 2, 2019
I agree Barack with you
 
Molli D. February 16, 2019
Where was this recipe last fall when I harvested, and shared, the bounty from our fourteen pomegranate trees? I spent days lugging them to friends, making juice, making jelly and now I can try a fantastic sounding cake. And best of all thank you Yasmin for sharing your story!
 
Joan S. February 15, 2019
I enjoy learning about foods from different and far away places. One never hears about Palestinian food.
 
Barak M. February 15, 2019
Great interview, amazing cake. I’m fascinated by the serving platter. Is there a chance to find out how/where to buy one?

Thanks
 
Jennifer February 15, 2019
I have been reading Food52 for years. This is my favorite piece, ever. It reminds me of the good food I have eaten in Jerusalem and Ramallah and Bethlehem, in Nazareth and Jericho and Hebron, and about the friends with whom I have broken bread in those places. Thank you for this...
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 15, 2019
Aw. Thank you for reading, Jennifer.