The last few years have seen a plethora of Palestinian cookbooks (The Gaza Kitchen, Palestine on a Plate, and Pop Palestine). Even connoisseurs of Palestinian cuisine may feel a bit overwhelmed, but Reem Kassis’s The Palestinian Table (Phaidon, 2017) marks a welcome addition. Kassis did not go to culinary school and realized belatedly that cooking was her passion and that it could become a career. This makes The Palestinian Table remarkably approachable as a cookbook. This is not to confuse the book with an amateur text; Kassis’s recipes are rich and deep. The Palestinian Table is an ideal cookbook for newcomers. Kassis is a humble guide who doesn’t dazzle with intimidating recipes. She instead welcomes the reader to sit at the table and approach food with respect and love by learning how to really get a feel for a dish, how to balance ingredients, and how to start with the simple stuff.
Kassis is not a trained chef herself. The daughter of a Palestinian Muslim mother from Jaljulya, a village in the center of historic Palestine (Israel), and a Palestinian Christian father from the Galilee village of Rameh, Kassis grew up around the Palestinian table. Nonetheless, she wanted no part of it as a young woman when she set out for college in the United States, promising herself that “unlike the great women in my family, I would never return to the kitchen.” Palestinian culture is “strong and beautiful,” Kassis knew, but too often it consigned women to “traditional” housekeeping roles, and she wanted a professional life. All that achieved – fancy degrees and jobs and settled with a Palestinian husband in London – it was the birth of her daughter Yasmeen that truly inspired Kassis to rethink about what she wanted in life. With no professional training, she came up with a million reasons not to pursue a culinary career before taking the leap encouraged by her husband.
Unlike common chefs marketing Palestinian, Lebanese or so-called “Israeli cuisine”, Kassis understands that food is not a mash of ingredients: “chefs simply sprinkled dishes with pomegranates and za’atar and dubbed them Middle Eastern,” Kassis writes. Anyone who has truly tasted the Levant can sympathize with her sigh at the unimaginative presentation of the region’s culinary heritage. But, there’s also more to food than skilled preparation. Food is attached to identity, family, and history. The Palestinian Table is a “bridge to better understand Palestinian culture, food, and a way of life.”
For Kassis, that starts with three women in her family: Teta Asma, Teta Fatima, and, of course, Mama. Teta Asma’s taste buds were so renowned in Rameh that she was called upon by the neighbors to “sample the food for any big gathering,” Kassis writes. In Jerusalem, where she grew up, people would exclaim, “Nisreen is coming!” It sounded odd at the time that people were so excited over her mother’s cooking, but it took getting used to American university dining halls to appreciate just how special her mother’s dishes really were.
The Palestinian Table consists of more than these three women for “there is no single Palestinian table.” It spans all of Palestine from the Galilee to Gaza, from Jaffa to Nablus, and the Palestinians dispersed around the globe. Her daughter, Kassis laments, will not grow up in the world of “aunts, grandmothers, and family cooks,” but the recipes “can carry our history, our food, our culture, and our home” wherever that may be.
Those recipes will warm every heart this chilly season, but another distinguishing feature of The Palestinian Table is that Kassis doesn’t sacrifice the joy of traditional cooking for the modern day by-the-book gastronomy. At first, she struggles with this. “But mama, it’s a cookbook! I cannot tell people to ‘add flour until it’s soft like your earlobe,’” she relates. She comes to understand that her mother cooked from experience and an acquired sense of touch rather than following precise recipes. Kassis worked back-and-forth with her mother – allowing her to feel different measurements of ingredients – in order to provide readers with “dishes that are as close as possible to the ones I enjoy at home.”
For all that, Kassis admits, Palestinian food is “very forgiving” and more or less a matter of taste. She also provides flavor profile for dishes; how, say, salty or crunchy a dish should be. And she encourages readers to follow their instincts. Before they can do that, however, Kassis cautions, readers hoping to really enjoy Palestinian food must understand what she succinctly calls “the basics.” This includes not only an understanding of tighmess (the use of bread for “dipping”), the Palestinian composition of a meal that often is quite layered with several dishes, or the importance of grinding your own spices and which olive oils to buy. More than all of that, Kassis does something that every cookbook should follow: the “foundational recipes on which many of the dishes are built.” The first several recipes may seem “humble and unassuming” but they serve to instruct the reader in the “immense depth of flavor” in Palestinian cuisine. Since many Palestinian dishes often contain few ingredients, getting the basics right is essential. And whether basic or more complex, The Palestinian Table is an indispensable guide for all those eager to taste Palestine, especially for those a bit too afraid to cook and need a helping hand.