Yes, Palestine is a complex territory in the Middle East. But for its food and beauty alone, it’s worth a trip. Thanks to influential cookbook authors like Sami Tamimi and Christiane Dabdoub Nasser championing the Palestinian table, its cuisine is having a moment in the sun.
Chef Fadi Kattan of the acclaimed Fawda restaurant in Bethlehem, explains Palestinian food, ‘comes from what the land offers us’. It’s an extremely seasonal cuisine, ‘where a lot of our agriculture defines our produce’.
Knafeh is a pastry Palestinians clamour for. Think shredded pastry rolled with a mild white cheese, caramelised in a dangerously delicious honey syrup. Pistachios are the final component. The city of Nablus is considered the epicentre of knafeh-making.
Palestine’s Medjool dates are obscenely plump and sweet, particularly around Jericho. Date farmers Nakheel Palestine, where the women manage the production side of the 40,000 palm trees, supply hand-picked sticky gems that are the crème de la crème and have won numerous accolades.
‘Zaytoun is the Arabic word for olives,’ explains Heather Masoud, co-founder of Zaytoun, the social enterprise responsible for bringing Palestinian produce to the international stage. And it’s Zaytoun that is hardwired into Palestinian culture. Incomparable olives and olive oil come from the cooperative of Canaan, up around Burqin where the lush hills of the north host ancient olive trees dating 3,000 years. There, the groves are not only sustainable – no pesticides are used – but the Rumi and Nabali olives are coveted; the lighter and smoother nabali oil is the one Palestinians drizzle over hummus.
Freekeh is a green wheat, charred with a strong smoky flavour. If you want to use it like Palestinians, traditionally they mix it with herbs and stuff courgettes, aubergines and vine leaves with it, a process called mahshi.
If you want to cook or eat like a Palestinian, try musakhan. It’s a heady combo of olive oil, sumac, caramelised onions and perfectly roasted chicken on flatbread. ‘It’s generally regarded as our national dish,’ explains Kattan. Although the recipe varies from family to family, the chicken tends to be poached then roasted separately. Then you fry the onions, remove them from the olive oil, dunk the bread in the onion oil and a bit of chicken broth, before returning to the oven with the roasted chicken and some almonds or pine nuts piled on top.
Baked in a special clay taboon oven, this large circular flatbread has squidge, chew and crispness and airy pockmarks freckled across the top. In the West Bank, it’s eaten minutes-fresh, then dunked in hummus. Equally, it can be covered in caramelised onions for musakhan, or nibbled as part of most lunches drizzled in olive oil with a pinch of za’atar.
Hummus is hugely popular in Palestine. The delicious dip isn’t sold in pre-made tubs as it is in the UK, instead, it comes fresh. Head to Bethlehem market for fresh chickpeas in their pods. These are podded, then the skinless peas are left to dry before being simmered and blitzed with tahini.
Za’atar and sumac
Wild herbs have been used for millennia on this primordial land. Sumac berries are ground at home to make ground sumac. Not only is it liberally sprinkled into stews, it’s also sublime rubbed into meat. Meanwhile, za’atar can be both a herb indigenous to the area (origanum syriacum), or a spice blend of dried za’atar and sumac, sesame seeds and a pinch of salt.
Palestinians adore maftoul, sometimes known as giant couscous. Proper maftoul is traditionally made by women from the villages who roll bulgur wheat in wholewheat flour. Simmer in a stew or serve with roast chicken or fry some chopped onions and peppers and simmer the mix in stock.