How Reem Kassis Became the International Face of Palestinian Cuisine

'I swore I would never go into the kitchen and would be a career woman, and in the end I found myself writing a cookbook,' says the author of 'The Palestinian Table'

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The Kassis dinner table.
The Kassis dinner table.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

All the members of the Kassis family take part in the preparation of kibbe nayyeh (kubbeh tartare), a traditional dish of burghul and raw lamb. Preparations begin the day before the festive meal when Philip, father of the family, goes to a reliable veteran butcher to choose the ideal cut of meat. “I prefer a cut from the meat of the leg,” he says. “But in any event, the meat needs to be as free of fat and tendons as possible. Because we eat it raw, it must be extremely fresh and butchered shortly before. I prefer to cut and grind the meat myself at home. I don’t want it even to touch the cutting board on which the butcher handles other meat.”

The ground meat is placed in the freezer for a few hours, then thawed in the lower part of the refrigerator.

“The semi-frozen texture makes the manual kneading of the meat and the burghul easier, and makes biting it more pleasant,” says Nisreen Kassis, mother of the family and one of the most gifted and knowledgeable cooks I’ve ever met. Nisreen, who grew up in the village of Jaljulya in central Israel, learned the recipe for kibbe nayyeh – a dish typical of the northern part of Greater Syria – from her mother-in-law.

Shortly before the start of the celebratory meal, Nisreen and Reem, the firstborn daughter, start to process the mixture for the kibbe nayyeh by hand, and to knead the burghul, after soaking it in cold water for a short time. When it reaches the right texture and temperature (to ensure that the raw meat doesn’t heat up and cook from the warmth of their hands, the cooks balance the mixture with ice and cold water), they add dried red pepper paste, chopped onion, grated lemon peel and spices. The raw meat is the last item to enter the bowl, and their skilled hands continue to knead until flavor and texture are fully blended.

All the family members taste it with respect and argue about the seasoning. Only after Philip, the final arbiter, confirms the final, balanced result with a nod of his head, does Reem shape the red mixture, drizzle on olive oil and place it on the table.

Kibbe nayyeh.Credit: Dan Perez

This is only one of many meals held in the past few weeks in the family’s home in Beit Hanina, an East Jerusalem neighborhood. The occasion is the visit by Reem, who lives in the United States with her husband and two toddler daughters. The table is already crammed with other dishes: pickled olives from Rameh; labaneh with walnuts and garlic; aubergine salad with tahini; a variety of masterfully made small pastries stuffed with cheese, spinach or ground meat; a superb dish of fresh lubia pods, served with yogurt and toasted torn pita; slices of roast lamb with pomegranate syrup and vine leaves. There is also what’s known as a “lamb bundle,” consisting of a rice ball cooked with lamb and almonds, which has been oven-grilled, wrapped in thin saj pita and emits divine scents of home-made samna (clarified butter).

The traditional family recipe for kibbe nayyeh appears in Reem Kassis’ 2017 book “The Palestinian Table” (Phaidon Press). “I was conflicted about whether to put it in the book,” Reem says, “because it’s clear to me that it’s not a dish the American or European audience will prepare at home. You can’t make kibbe nayyeh with meat bought in the supermarket. But my mother, to whom the book is dedicated, along with my two grandmothers, said, ‘You’re writing a Palestinian cookbook? Then kibbe nayyeh has to be in it.’ There’s no wedding in a Galilee village without kibbe nayyah. It’s part of the heritage I grew up with, and this book came into the world after my first daughter was born. I was afraid that this cultural inheritance would not be part of her life.”

Instant connection

Born in 1987, Reem Kassis grew up in Beit Hanina to a father from a Christian family in Galilee and a mother from a Muslim family in the Triangle area of the eastern Sharon plain. Marriages between Christians and Muslims are not widespread even today. “It wasn’t easy at first,” Nisreen says. “We were married in a civil ceremony in Cyprus, and we educated Reem and her brother in the view that religion is of no importance.”

“If it were up to them,” Reem says, “the religion category [on the ID card] would not say ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim,’ but ‘Arab.’ And in any event, it was inculcated in us from an early age that what matters is to be a good human being, and that studies and a broad education are the key to the future and to true equality.”

Reem Kassis.Credit: Dan Perez

Reem left Israel when she was 17, on her own. “From a young age I had a feeling that there’s more in the world than what there is here. My parents didn’t want me to go, but they said that if I was accepted into one of the Ivy League universities in the United States they would allow me to go, and that’s what happened.” Before leaving, she happened to overhear a conversation between her father and one of their acquaintances. “That person said to my father disparagingly, ‘Why waste so much money on her education? Like all Arab women, she’ll find herself in the kitchen eventually.’ I was boiling with anger, and I was determined to prove that that would not be my fate.”

Kassis graduated summa cum laude in business administration from the University of Pennsylvania, went on to a prestigious master’s program at Wharton, and also has an MSc cum laude, in social psychology, from the London School of Economics. Her professional resume in international companies is equally impressive.

“But I was miserable at work,” she says. “I reached the summit of the aspirations of everyone who dreams of a business career, but I didn’t like that demanding life.”

In 2012, she married Albert (Aboud) Muaddi, an American of Palestinian origin. After a time in London, the couple moved to Philadelphia, where they have been living in recent years.

Credit: Dan Perez

“I swore I would never go into the kitchen and would be a career woman, and in the end I found myself writing a cookbook,” Reem laughs.

I was surprised to see, in retrospect, that “The Palestinian Table” was hardly mentioned in the Israeli press, perhaps because the word “Palestinian” is still considered by most Israelis as a threat to their existence. The book was widely reviewed in the international press (and has been published in French- and German-language editions), though Kassis’ Israeli identity has barely been mentioned.

“I am not ashamed to be an Israeli citizen, nor do I ever try to hide it, but I identify myself as Palestinian,” Reem told me. “Many Arabs look at us as traitors, but what they don’t understand is that the Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are the ones who didn’t leave and held on to their land. So that’s why I am not ashamed, nor do I hide the fact that I’m an Israeli citizen.

“But when people used to ask where I’m from and I would say Jerusalem, they assumed I was Jewish/Israeli, so I started to say “I’m Palestinian from Jerusalem,” because once I left I realized that being Palestinian was what defined my cultural identity, and that given the intricacies of our situation it was not enough nor was it possible to just say where I was from.”

Reem Kassis and Michael Solomonov.Credit: Dan Perez

When the book was published, Kassis sent a copy to Michael Solomonov, the chef of Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia (which this year won the coveted Outstanding Restaurant award from the James Beard Foundation). The person who became the face of Israeli cuisine in America and the woman who became the face of Palestinian cuisine in the world met for the first time over a coffee in Philadelphia, where they both live, and became fast friends.

“Our children connected instantly, and I found in Reem and Aboud’s house a domestic feeling that I don’t always find in American homes,” Solomonov says. He, too, with his father and his two small sons, also attended the festive meal held in the home of Kassis’ parents in Beit Hanina. A few months ago, at the James Beard House in New York, the two friends cooked a Palestinian-Israeli meal together, dedicated to the Forum of Bereaved Families.

Solomonov, whose brother, David, was killed in 2003 on the Lebanon border, spent last Memorial Day in Kassis’ house. “On Memorial Day I’m usually invited to speak to one of the Jewish communities,” he recalls. “That didn’t happen this year, and I was afraid of the feeling of emptiness. Just then, Reem called. I told her how I was feeling, and she said, simply, ‘Come over. I’ll cook a meal and we’ll be together.’”

This is not a happy story about coexistence. That’s actually happening, it’s true, but in Philadelphia, not in Israel, almost like the story of the chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the former born in West Jerusalem and the latter in East Jerusalem, who met in London and became close friends and business associates. “If we’d both stayed in Israel,” Kassis says, referring to Solomonov, “we probably would not have met.” She’s currently doling comprehensive research for another cookbook, scheduled for publication by Phaidon in 2021.

“It’s still hard for me to admit out loud that I write cookbooks,” she laughs. “When I finished the first book I said it would be the only one, but I found myself writing another one. The second book will be about modern Middle Eastern cuisine, and in the process of working on it I’m investigating the origin of recipes and trying to understand the journey they made to the contemporary kitchen and how they were influenced by intercultural encounters.”

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