Palestinian cookbooks’ challenge: Shedding light on a cuisine without a country

Quick Pickled Avocado. (photos: Tom McCorkle / food styling: Lisa Cherkasky / The Washington Post)
Talking about Middle Eastern food is like talking about ‘European food. It doesn’t do justice to the differences between the cooking and traditions.

By Jane Black | The Washington Post | Feb 4, 2019

‘[Food] is a way to share our narrative with the world. It helps people to get to know Palestinians as humans, as mothers, as cooks. Not just as people in a war. When you know someone, you’re less likely to be afraid of them.’
— Reem Kassis, author of The Palestinian Table

It was a food-world fairy tale come true. In 2013, Yasmin Khan decided to write a cookbook. She was 32 and burned out from her work as a London-based human-rights campaigner focused on the Middle East. She made a pitch on Kickstarter, promising a Persian travelogue and recipe book that would explore her heritage — Khan is half Iranian — and highlight “a side of Iran that never makes the headlines.”

Unknown and untested, Khan nevertheless quickly raised the money she sought, and then some. Three years later, she published “The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen,” which won rave reviews and plaudits from such boldface culinary names as Nigella Lawson.

No wonder, then, that Khan decided to follow her winning formula for her second book, out this week. In “Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen” (W.W. Norton & Co.), she visits, cooks and eats with Palestinian Arabs to open a window to another place in the Middle East that is widely misunderstood.

This book should have been easier. Khan had traveled widely in Israel when she worked in human rights, and she had contacts throughout the region. She also had a track record as a writer and a publishing house behind her. But writing about Palestinian food was thornier than even Khan had imagined. Where do you draw the lines for a country that doesn’t technically exist? So many words, such as “barrier” and “wall,” were loaded. If readers couldn’t find maftool, a traditional Palestinian couscous, would the more widely available Israeli version be an acceptable substitute? Some surely would say no. If there is anything more likely to spark an argument in this region than land, it might be food.

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