An Exquisite Taste of Palestine, From Far-away Brooklyn

The first cookbook by Rawia Bishara, of NYC's much-lauded Tanoreen, is a feast of traditional Palestinian home cooking.

For Rawia Bishara, writing her first cookbook, "Olives, Lemons & Za'atar: the Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking" (Kyle Books, 2014), was about "honoring my mother and her recipes."

Rawia, a Palestinian who grew up in Nazareth, moved to the United States when she got married, some 40 years ago. As a young bride far from home, she tried to recreate her mother's excellent cooking, the way she used to prepare food for her family every day. "The cauliflower stew, okra, mlookhia [jute leaves] soup, shishbarak [meat dumplings in yogurt] and maftoul [large couscous in pearl onions and chicken]."

In 1998, Rawia opened a restaurant in Brooklyn, Tanoreen, featuring those same home-cooked staples, as well as some of her own interpretations and creations. It wasn't long before the restaurant got rave reviews from the New York Times and Zagat, which declared it the best Middle Eastern restaurant in NYC.

Rawia's late mother's recipes, and also her own, are now collected in this beautiful, excellent cookbook. For Rawia, the book is also about "being proud about all those recipes that nobody knows."

The reason not many people know about Palestinian home cooking is that there are so few Palestinian cookbooks. 

In 2012, "The Gaza Kitchen" cookbook was released, describing home cooking in the coastal territory. Put together with Rawia's recipes, which are mainly of the Galilee, the two books cover a wide range of the fascinating Palestinian home cooking. But the books couldn't have been more different.

"The Gaza Kitchen," a collection of recipes and stories, appears to have developed out of a political idea: To get people informed about the situation in the Gaza Strip through the eyes of the people who have been living there under siege for many years.

But for Rawia, writing a cookbook was first and foremost "about the culture, just like art, and you don't want to discuss politics."

So much so that when I asked Rawia why the words Palestine, or Palestinian cuisine, do not appear on the cover of the book, her answer was that "Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, it's all Levantine, it's all Mediterranean and it's all fantastic cultures and beautiful foods. And every time you mention a name of a specific country – it becomes about politics."

Rawia's brother is Dr. Azmi Bishara, former member of Knesset who fled Israel in 2007 after being accused of passing information to the Hezbollah during the second Lebanon war. But she seeks to avoid any political connection.

Running away from politics was also her publishers' idea, who talked her out of mentioning even Nazareth or the Galilee in the book title. It's not just a Palestinian thing: Israeli chef Einat Admony's Balaboosta cookbook also avoids mentioning Israel on the cover, although the book is so very Israeli. Is it really impossible for publishers to believe that readers will be curious about these unique and wonderful cuisines instead of being drawn to yet another Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cookbooks?

Rawia is trying to remember and collect each and every recipe her mother used to make and right now she has about a hundred of them, which she cooks herself every day at Tanoreen. "Olives, Lemons and Za'atar" includes well-known Palestinian classics such as tehina dip, hummus, tabbouleh and fattoush, along with less familiar home-cooked dishes such as okra stew with lamb and pomegranate molasses, lentil noodle soup with kale from the West Bank, and freekeh soup.

It also includes some of Rawia's own recipes, inspired by local ingredients and Palestinian cooking techniques, like panko Brussels sprouts in tehina-yogurt-pomegranate-molasses sauce and eggplant Napoleon of pesto marinated eggplants and smoky babaganoush.

More than the excellent reviews of both her restaurant and cookbook, Rawia is proud and happy about the phone calls she gets from young Arabs who grew up in America, thanking her for writing the book.

At the restaurant, she frequently gets compliments from people who say her cooking reminds them of their mother's. She especially remembers an old Jewish client, whose family was from Aleppo, who told her the okra she made was exactly like the one made by his grandmother. If there was a need for more proof of the interchanging Jewish and Arab cuisines of the Middle East, there it is.

"Season your food to your liking," Rawia says in the book, "and enjoy the process of preparing it for the people you love." Now she brings memories alive through food for herself and her clients, and for the many generations of immigrants to America. What more could you ask for?

Okra with tomatoes (bamya bizet)

From "Olives, Lemons & Za'atar: the Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking" by Rawia Bishara (Kyle Books, 2014)

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

2 pounds fresh baby okra, fried or roasted
1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus 2 tablespoons if using roasted okra
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
11⁄2 tablespoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1⁄2 teaspoons ground cumin
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
4 cups chopped Jersey tomatoes (about 2 pounds)
4 tablespoons canned crushed tomatoes 1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
Pita for serving

Directions

If using fried okra, leave the frying oil in the pan. If using roasted okra, heat the 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and sauté until golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a plate and set aside.

Dump the oil out of the skillet and discard. Return the skillet to high heat and add the remaining 1⁄2 cup oil. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant and golden, about 1 minute. Add the coriander and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 10 to 15 seconds. Stir in the salt, pepper and cumin and cook for just 2 seconds. Add the cilantro and stir for 1 minute.

Add the chopped tomatoes to the skillet, reduce the heat to low and cook until they break up and release their juices to form a sauce, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and lemon juice and bring to a boil, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the okra to the skillet, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the okra is tender, about 20 minutes, taking care not to let the tomatoes stick to the bottom of the skillet.

Sweet pea and kafta stew (bazella bel kafta)

From "Olives, Lemons & Za'atar: the Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking" by Rawia Bishara (Kyle Books, 2014)

Makes 8 servings

Ingredients

Kafta (recipe below)
1⁄2 cup corn oil
3 shallots, diced
8 cloves garlic, crushed or finely chopped 1 long hot chile pepper, finely chopped
(optional)
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon sea salt
1⁄2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper 1⁄3 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1⁄3 teaspoon cardamom (optional)
4 (16-ounce) bags frozen baby sweet peas 2 carrots, peeled and diced
4 fresh plum tomatoes, chopped (optional) 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 quart stock from Seasoned Lamb or Beef with Stock (recipe below) or low-sodium beef stock or water

Directions

Most Palestinian cooks make this with cubes of lamb and serve it with rice, but my mother made it with kafta (ground lamb mixed with parsley and onion and shaped into small kabobs) and served it with mashed potatoes. When tender whole snap peas in the pod are in season, I use them in place of the frozen sweet peas. if you don’t want to use kafta here, add the lamb or beef from the seasoned stock with lamb or beef, (recipe below) during the last 5 minutes of simmering.

Shape the kafta into 11/2-inch-long by 1-inch-thick fingers. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Working in batches if necessary, sear the kafta fingers just until golden brown, turning once, about 3 to 4 minutes total. Using a slotted spatula, transfer the kafta to a paper towel–lined platter to drain.

To the same skillet, add the shallots, garlic and hot pepper, if using and sauté until lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the coriander, allspice, salt, black pepper and nutmeg and stir until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat, add the peas and carrots and sauté until just softened, about 5 minutes. Add the fresh and crushed tomatoes and the stock. Raise the heat, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the reserved kafta fingers and simmer for 5 minutes more. Serve hot.

Kafta

From "Olives, Lemons & Za'atar: the Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking" by Rawia Bishara (Kyle Books, 2014)

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

1 1⁄2 pounds each beef and lamb, coarsely ground or 3 pounds total of either
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1 plum tomato, finely diced
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper 1 tablespoon sea salt or to taste
4 1⁄2 teaspoons ground allspice
1⁄4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)

Directions

Kafta, is common and popular across north africa, throughout the middle east (kefte or kufta) and in Greece (keftedes), Turkey, Iran, and all the way to India (kofta). the name, in all its variations, is derived from kuftan, which means “ to grind” in Persian. every country, town, village, indeed, every cook, has a version of kafta. it is prepared in myriad ways – it can be baked, broiled, boiled, grilled, fried, steamed or poached or simply spread on a sheet pan, rolled into balls or folded into thirds over a filling like a crepe. many believe kafta is Turkish in origin, but Syrians from Aleppo believe they are the best at making it. If using lamb, select meat from the leg only; the shoulder is too fatty.

In a large bowl, combine the meat with the onion, tomato, parsley, pepper, salt, allspice, nutmeg, and cumin, if using, and mix together with your hands. Transfer to a clean work surface and knead the mixture with your hands until smooth. Shape according to recipe instructions.

Seasoned lamb or Beef with Stock

From "Olives, Lemons & Za'atar: the Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking" by Rawia Bishara (Kyle Books, 2014)

Makes 5 to 6 quarts stock and 3 pounds of meat

Ingredients

1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 1⁄2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper 1⁄3 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 pounds lamb meat from the leg or beef
sirloin, cut into 1 1⁄2-inch cubes
1⁄2 cup corn oil
5 whole cardamom seeds
3 bay leaves
2 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick, halved lengthwise, or 1⁄3
teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 yellow onion, cut in half

Directions

In a small bowl, combine the allspice, salt, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. Place the lamb or beef in a medium bowl and dump half of the spice mixture into it. Using your hands, rub the spice mixture into the meat, coating all sides thoroughly. Set the remaining spice mixture aside.

In a large pot, heat the oil over high until hot. Add the meat and sear on all sides, about 3 minutes. Add the cardamom seeds, bay leaves, cloves, cinnamon stick, onion and enough water to cover by 3 inches. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, skimming the fat from the surface with a slotted spoon, for 40 to 60 minutes for lamb and 60 to 90 minutes for beef, or until the meat is fork-tender. Use meat as desired or place in resealable plastic bags and refrigerate for up to three days or freeze up to two months.