Rediscovering Palestinian Cuisine



An (Un-) Professional Culinary History

As with any discussion of culinary or cuisine history, origins, or evolution, it’s virtually impossible to delineate these things with great accuracy for the simple but wonderful reason that food is such a rapidly shared and diffused cultural experience. After all, the Middle East has always been a great geographical nexus, at the intersection of three continents, where trade, empires, cultural contacts, and innovative ferments were historically intensive, the earliest region in human history to domesticate plants and animals and invent much of the foundations of human civilization.

Actually, the essence of Arab Eastern Mediterranean food is that area’s generous utilization of a great variety of vegetables, grains, legumes (especially green legumes and chick peas), fruits, olive oil, white cheeses and feta, and fresh breads, including its offerings of incredibly healthy and tasty vegetarian dishes, prepared with subtle, typically mild spices.

It’s not just dates, yogurt, rice, and lamb.

When you think Palestinian food and basic ingredients, instead think of olives, olive oil, tahina, za’ater, sumac, garlic, red pepper, cinnamon, allspice, saffron, oregano, turmeric, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, parsley, pine nuts, almonds, and pistachios.

Think cheesecloth and freshly made strained yogurt or strained, thickened yogurt called labneh for spreading on bread and usually made into balls and canned with olive oil in a glass jar.

Think of taboon, pita, and saj breads (taboon is a domed clay oven; saj is a convex medal griddle for making flat, thin round bread also known as markouk); and ka’ak bi simsim, a large, round, donut-shaped bread baked with sesame seeds or anise.

Think of falafel, kubbeh, hummus, sambusek, manaqeesh, spinach and sfeehah (meat) pie.

Think eggplant, cauliflower, grape leaves, goat cheese, white table cheese and sweet white cheese, rice and cracked wheat, lentils, lamb, poultry, and fish.

Think wonderful citrus, apricot, grapes, and pomegranates, an amazing diversity of salads, including tabbouleh.

Think string beans, white and green beans, the distinguished okra, and meat and vegetarian stews.

Think rolled and stuffed (mahshi) vegetables, especially the varieties and colors of squash, small eggplant, and zucchini, and of rolled grape and cabbage leaves.

Not to mention the diversity of sweets, especially hareeseh, k’nafeh, qatayef, timriyyeh, and zalabia; sous and kharroub drinks (licorice flavored and carob, respectively), fruit syrups with ice; and the anise-based distilled alcoholic drink ‘arak.

Palestinian cuisine is of course very much Arabic and Eastern Mediterranean. The Arabs before Islam, certainly those towns along the coasts of Arabia, traded spices and other goods from Persia and India to the east, Ethiopia to the south, and larger geographical (Greater) Syria to the north via great caravans.

The Umayyad dynasty from its capital Damascus synthesized the foods of Arabia and Syria and spices and other ingredients from the empire, its territory stretching from the Indus River in the east to Spain in the West. Arabic cuisine was carried through North Africa to Spain, influencing and being influenced by the local cultures and foods. Syria and Palestine had some Egyptian influences and food variations and the other way round.

The Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad, a cosmopolitan, multicultural empire, globally deepened and extended ties and exchanges of trade, learning, and culture, especially diffusion of cuisine, including some mutual influences with Persian and Indian food. The great kitchens of the Abbasids prepared the best, most sophisticated of the Eastern Mediterranean cuisine.

The Ottoman dynasty (originating from Turkic nomadic peoples from the south Caucuses), with its large palace kitchens and cooks collected from all over the empire, heavily borrowed and beautifully synthesized mainly Arabic Syrian (Eastern Mediterranean) cuisine and drink, and general Middle East cookery.  Modern Turkish food and drink is a wonderful fusion of these and other elements.

One thing is for sure: Eastern Mediterranean cuisine, of which Palestinian food shares an ancient, nourishing heritage, has been billed as the healthiest in the world.

Enjoy the treasures in this blog.