The Evolution of Palestinian Cuisine

Today’s Palestinian meals based on meat, chicken, rice and tomatoes are profoundly different from original cooking from prehistory until the advent of modern culture – and the Israeli ban on picking wild herbs

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JPEG Sheikh Qassem and his brother behind a za'atar pyramid and a miniature of the Dome of the Rock. Credit_ Yasmin Zaher.jpg
Sheikh Qassem and his brother behind a za'atar pyramid and a miniature of the Dome of the Rock.Credit: Yasmin Zaher
Yasmin Zaher
Yasmin Zaher
Yasmin Zaher
Yasmin Zaher

The Palestinian cuisine of today would be unrecognizable to our indigenous ancestors. Millennia of trade, conquest and agricultural innovation have transformed a mostly green local fare to a kitchen dominated by chicken, rice and tomatoes – three ingredients that are not indigenous to Palestine.

Even signature dishes such as maqlooba, a dish made today with meat and rice, is a contemporary spin-off of something older and itself made of imported stuffs. Chef Izzadin Bukhari, who studies recipes as an “archive of culture,” tells the legend of how the Muslim warrior Salah ad-Din coined the dish’s contemporary name when he ousted the crusaders from Jerusalem in 1187. He was served the dish by the grateful locals and wanted to have it again but did not know its name, so he described it by its serving technique: flipping the pot “upside down,” in Arabic: maqlooba.

Before that, Bukhari says, the dish was called beitenjania, after its main ingredient – which was eggplant.

Eggplant is all the rage in Palestine today, but that wasn’t always the case. The earliest evidence of eggplant in this part of the world is only about a thousand years old; the vegetable therefore only arrived a couple of centuries before Salah ad-Din did. It may not have been embraced easily: its Arabic name, beitenjan, is a derivation of “djinn’s eggs.” That is because eggplant somehow became associated with its botanical relative, mandrake, known as a powerful sedative and hallucinogen associated with magic and dark legends and more recently used as a date-rape aid. In Arabic, the mandrake is still called jinn’s apple, or majnoon apple (crazy apple).

Uniquely Palestinian

Maqlooba is uniquely Palestinian in that it is cooked throughout Palestine while being absent from other kitchens of the Levant, but that is not to say that there is a uniform Palestinian kitchen. The concept of a national cuisine is a by-product of the nation-state, or in the case of Palestine, its lack thereof. “Palestinian” cuisine rather is composed of numerous sub-cuisines, each influenced by geography, climate, ethnicity, religion and socio-economic factors. Perhaps the most interesting influence, however, is time. 

Palestinian women prepare traditional cookies in the West Bank town of Hebron on July 29, 2020 in preparation for the Eid al-Adha celebrations.
Palestinian women prepare traditional cookies in the West Bank town of Hebron on July 29, 2020 in preparation for the Eid al-Adha celebrations.Credit: Hazem Bader/AFP

“The popular conception that Palestinian cuisine is all meat and rice could not be further from the truth,” says Bukhari, who is from the Naqshbandi Sufi order of Jerusalem’s Old City. His cooking is strictly siyami, a word that colloquially means vegetarian, but is derived from the Arabic word for fasting, and describes the vegan and vegetarian sub-cuisine that developed with the Christian lent tradition.

He points that the staples of the daily Palestinian cuisine today are mostly vegetarian: falafel, hummus, lentils, salads like fattoush and tabouleh, and stews made from a variety of legumes and greens like spinach, chicory (illit), gundelia (akoub), mallow (khobeze), Jew’s mallow (mlokhiyeh), cow peas (loubiyeh) and fava beans (ful).

“As a kid, I used to walk through Damascus Gate and see women selling all kinds of produce,” Bukhari says, “It’s not like that anymore. There are less vendors, less variety, and many flavors are getting lost.”

JPEG Izzeldin Bukhari at the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. Credit_ Yasmin Zaher
Izzeldin Bukhari at the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. Credit: Yasmin Zaher

Bukhari’s experience of “disappearing flavors” and a meat and chicken takeover of the local diet reflects global trends in food industrialization and normalization. Perhaps Palestinians feel the change more keenly: agriculture had been is an integral component of Palestinian economic, cultural and social life but the Palestinian people’s contemporary condition – following Israel’s establishment in 1948 – is marked by loss of land.

In a broader sense, however, Bukhari’s experience of “disappearing flavors” is not entirely accurate, because what is available today is still greatly more abundant than what was available to our ancestors, who were dependent on indigenous species until the advent of trade.

Imported obsession with chicken

The original inhabitants of Palestine were of course hunter-gatherers, and they did not live in today’s dry and thorny landscape, but in a bountiful woodland, foraging legumes and nuts and hunting gazelles and other animals.

Long before the Natufian culture made the vital “Neolithic transition” from hunting and gathering to farming communities, they picked wild grains to make flat bread and brew beer. Sickles dating to 23,000 years ago found near the Sea of Galilee do not attest to farming yet: hunter-gatherers were just efficiently harvesting wild grains, archaeologists say.

Palestinian farmers harvest cauliflower at a field in the Jordan Valley in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on February 1, 2020.
Palestinian farmers harvest cauliflower at a field in the Jordan Valley in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on February 1, 2020.Credit: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP

But by at least 12,000 years ago, proper subsistence farming had begun in this region, archaeologists agree. Villages developed in the Galilee and valleys, for instance near today’s Jericho, where Neolithic communities grew wheat, barley, lentils and chickpeas.

Animal domestication seems to have begun around the same time, in Mesopotamia and to have promptly spread to this part of the world. It is a lot easier to slaughter a captive beast than to shoot a deer with an arrow. It seems the initial domestication of goat, sheep and cattle was for their meat. In early agricultural communities throughout the Levant and Eurasia, dairy consumption typically followed livestock husbandry by hundreds or even thousands of years (as people developed lactase persistence – the ability to digest lactose after weaning in infancy).

So in fact, the original denizens of this part of the world were not vegetarian: but meat was likely a rare treat, and the modern obsession with chickens would only come much later.

These early farmers also grew olives. The earliest findings relating to Palestine’s iconic olive oil date back to a Neolithic coastal community living south of today’s Haifa around 7,000 B.C.E. During the following Bronze and Iron ages, olives were a main crop in the region and would become a valuable trade commodity, as was wine - which diminished in prominence with the advent of Islam, though local Christian monks and Jewish communities continued to produce it. 

Offering to Ishtar

Palestinian culinary culture is part of the broad Middle Eastern hospitality and food culture. To this day the peoples of the region, Palestinians included, use cooking techniques described in ancient Mesopotamia. Babylonian culinary tablets describe Arab cooking techniques like stews, kubbeh (stuffed dumplings), kebab, spit-roasting (think shawarma) and stuffed vegetables. They also describe opulent feasts (14,000 sheep is just one of the items on the menu of the inauguration of the palace of Calai), and this culture of generous giving and conspicuous consumption is still very much alive in the Middle East.

In the upper Galilee a 4,000-year-old Canaanite palace was found with a wine cellar which would have held the equivalent of 20,000 bottles of wine. The finding hints at key influences from ancient Mesopotamia - first, because the ingredients in the wine were consistent with winemaking recipes found in Mari (in the modern-day war torn Syrian province of Deir a-Zor) and secondly, because it was a palace of feasting, to “eat, drink, and be merry,” as the booze-goddess Siduri said in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Many contemporary Arabic words describing food originate in Akkadian. One is ka’k from the Akkadian kuku, meaning cookie. Muslims and Christians in Palestine still prepare the ka’k al-eid “holiday cookies” made from semolina dough stuffed with ground dates, which are a close copy of the Mesopotamian new year offering to the goddess Ishtar.

There is a large variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs that are indigenous to Palestine, and many of them are mentioned in the bible. God leads the Israelites to a “land flowing with milk and honey,” the honey likely referring to the nectar of dates, also appearing in the Seven Species: wheat, barley, vines, fig-trees, pomegranates, olives and honey.

Certainly, these seven fundamentals were not always available at the same time and place. It’s a small land, but extremely diverse, and this is directly reflected in the food.

Reem Kassis, a food writer from Jerusalem whose father is a Chrisitian from Rameh and mother is a Muslim from Jaljuliya, maps the influences of the modern Palestinian cuisine.

Reem Kassis flipping Maqloobeh. Credit: Dan Perez
Reem Kassis flipping Maqloobeh. Credit: Dan Perez

The north, she says, is more lush, features more greens and is closer to the cuisine of Lebanon. The coast has more seafood of course, and Gazans use a lot of chilli and dill - an influence from Egypt. Jerusalem and the central West Bank - closer to the desert - cook more Bedouin-inspired dishes like lamb stews and yogurt.

Some dishes are even hyper-regional. Hebron, for example, which specializes in vine-growing and is one of the few places to receive snow in the winter, is the only place where one can find malban (a grape, sesame seed and pine nut fruit roll-up) or buqsuma (a simple dessert of snow topped with grape molasses).

Palestinian cuisine is also touched by the magic of human diversity. Hareeseh, for example, is a berry wheat stew cooked across the region, and even in India, but not in Palestine. There is only one Palestinian town in which hareeseh is popular - Rameh. According to Kassis’s family, her great, great grandmother brought it with her when she came as a bride from Syria.

Dark and handsome emmer wheat

The region’s natural fertility was extended by irrigation, upon which some of today’s agriculture and food production continue to depend. The West Bank village of Battir, recently designated a UNESCO world heritage site, still utilizes a Roman-era irrigation system composed of man-made terraces and sluice gates, and is still harvesting the same Seven Species.

The ancient terraces of Battir.
The ancient terraces of Battir. Credit: Michal Fattal

Palestinian seed conservationist, Vivien Sansour works in Battir to preserve ancient crops and undo the damage of the 20th century Green Revolution, which she says “fed people, but it didn’t feed them food. It fed them lies and bullshit.”

In the The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library in Battir, she is propagating “dark and handsome,” rain-fed Abu Samra emmer wheat, and local zucchini, cucumbers and watermelons. Battir is the antithesis of industrial farming, because its crops evolved according to real conditions: topography, microclimate, water, and most importantly for Sansour, people.

“Social cooperation kept Battir alive for thousands of years,” she says, explaining that the spring water in Battir is collected and diverted between plots according to an eight-day week representing the village’s eight clans, and that interpersonal relationships are a big part of everyday labor: “When I am working down in the valley near the train tracks, I am dependent on someone else to hear me shouting to open the water.”

Today, Battir is best-known for its Battiri eggplant: long, slim, not bitter because it is heavily watered and widely described as so sweet you can eat it raw. Its thorny stem is not thrown away but cut and cooked until the “crown’s thorns” are soft. The eggplant, a staple today, exemplifies the evolution of Palestinian cuisine. 

The earliest eggplant remains in Palestine date back to the early Islamic period, about a thousand years ago, and were found by archaeologists in a garbage pit underneath the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. It was around the time when Buran, the wife of the Abbasid Caliph Ma’amoun, popularized the eggplant in the Islamic world. A tenth century Baghdadi cookbook, “The Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchen,” translated and edited by Iraqi scholar Nawal Nasrallah, describes how some people, particularly physicians, approached the eggplant with suspicion, while others like the poet Kushajim, absolutely adored it: “Eggplant has a taste like saliva a generous lover freely offers.” 

A seismic change to the diet followed the European colonization of the Americas, and the introduction of tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and cacti to Europe. A Scottish traveler by the name of Alexander Russell described a tomato in Aleppo in the 18th century, allegedly introduced by an Englishman who used to reside in Spain and Portugal. The Arabs in Aleppo called it a “Frank eggplant,” meaning “European eggplant.” The tomato became a star of umami sauces, replacing the muri made from fermented barley. 

Cactus plants on the ruins of the Palestinian village of Huj, identified with the ancient Philistine town of Oga. It is now part of the family ranch of the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Cactus plants on the ruins of the Palestinian village of Huj, identified with the ancient Philistine town of Oga. It is now part of the family ranch of the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The prickly pear made its way not just into the diet, but also as an architectural feature. Cactus hedges came to mark land plots in Palestine and later the plant became both an Israeli and a Palestinian national symbol. For Israelis, it describes a native-born Jew, the Sabra.
For Palestinians, it symbolizes the post-Nakba values of sabr (patience) and sumud (perseverance) for seeing a random prickly pear in the wilderness in Israel can indicate the site of a depopulated Palestinian village, its houses destroyed but its cactus hedges “persevering.”

Ironically, this “native” prickly pear isn’t indigenous. It was imported in the 18th century from the Americas.

Seven spices for seven species 

Today’s Palestinian cuisine relies heavily on spices, made available by Arab merchants who established a centuries-long monopoly on the spice trade. They likely played a substantial role in introducing spices to the Middle Eastern cuisine and to the Palestinian one in particular.

Yacoub Sheikh Qassem. Credit_ Yasmin Zaher
Yacoub Sheikh Qassem.Credit: Yasmin Zaher

Yacoub Sheikh Qassem, a fourth-generation spice dealer in Jerusalem’s Old City, says contemporary Palestinian home cooking relies on seven main spices: cumin, black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric and cardamom. The only one of those which originated in the Eastern Mediterranean is cumin. The others were introduced as early as the Bronze Age. Cinnamon and nutmeg, for example, which originate respectively in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, were found in Phoenician “premium wine” flasks dating back to the 9th century B.C.E. Allspice, indigenous to Jamaica, only arrived in the 16th century

Sheikh Qassem’s great-grandfather left him a notebook with dozens of recipes for spice mixes for various local dishes, from shawarma to maqlooba, to specialized delicacies like the burbara desert associated with the Christian Palestinian celebration of Saint Barbara’s Day. In the notebook are also herb concoctions and remedies. Sheikh Qassem explains that his great-grandfather was originally a pharmacist and only began trading in spices when he was expelled from Lyd to Jerusalem in 1948. 

Criminalizing za’atar

The holy trinity of za'atar, sumac and sesame seeds, as displayed in Shekh Qassem's shop in Jerusalem's Old City.
The holy trinity of za'atar, sumac and sesame seeds, as displayed in Shekh Qassem's shop in Jerusalem's Old City.Credit: Yasmin Zaher

The year 1948 delivered a body blow to the Palestinian kitchen as it had evolved to that point, in that it uprooted a predominantly farming population. In the refugee camps, Palestinian farmers and city dwellers alike went from eating locally sourced ingredients to subsisting on UNRWA food supplies. Foreign food aid contributed to the replacement of bulgur with rice, and sesame oil with vegetable oil, Bukhari says.

Even Palestinians who remained inside Israel lost their land to expropriations, and today live in overcrowded enclaves surrounded by state land. In 2020, it’s Palestinian farmers in the West Bank who face the most aggressive land and water grabs. The Israeli government’s stated plan to annex parts of the West Bank threatens, on top of everything else, to bring a whole new challenge to the Palestinian diet: the Jordan Valley, where the Natufians were one of the first to dabble in agriculture 12,000 years ago, is one of the last remaining bastions of Palestinian agriculture and food security.

Attorney Rabea Eghbariah explains that not only do Palestinians today suffer from “loss of materiality and earth,” but that this is an ongoing process, characterized by the Israeli government’s “daily practices allegedly removed from political questions.”

Rabea Eghbariah and Palestinians harvesting akoub.
Rabea Eghbariah and Palestinians harvesting akoub. Credit: Mati Milstein

An example of how government policies impact Palestinian cuisine is Israel's 1977 criminalization of picking of three important plants in the wild: za'atar (hyssop, related to oregano and marjoram), akoub (gundelia) and sage. Israeli authorities argued that the plants were being exploited at industrial levels and were becoming endangered. According to the Nature and Parks Authority, between 2010 to 2016, more than 780 on-the-spot fines of about $215 were given to people picking za'atar in the wild and dozens of others were tried in criminal court. Eghbariah says that all of the defendants were Palestinian and the great majority of them harvested the plants for personal use to feed their families. 

Together with the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Eghbariah fought a campaign arguing that there is no justification for the absolute ban on picking these plants. Instead, he argues, the ban is a case of colonial oppression of an indigenous population under the guise of “ecological expertise.” 

The  Sansour laments that Palestinian farmers today buy seeds from Israel and have lost the self-confidence to imagine and innovate. “Farmers were told that their seeds are primitive,” she says.

Other innovations include artificial growing conditions and the adoption of monocrops, on the grounds that permaculture (emulating the natural ecosystem in farming) is uneconomic. Thus outsider “expertise” and modernization campaigns changed farming practices in Palestine, as has happened around most of the world. Leaving aside the risks of monocrops (such as mega-failure), one upshot is the rarity of locally grown variants. “To convince me that fakoos (snake cucumber) is not good, is like convincing me that I’m not good, that I have nothing to contribute, that I should shut up and take instructions,” Sansour says, likening it to “psychological assault” or bullying.

Picky in appropriation

For Palestinians, the dismissal of their material culture as primitive is compounded by another opposing yet somehow complementary phenomenon: Israeli appropriation of Palestinian cuisine. Today’s Palestinian cuisine may be the product of millennia of material and cultural exchanges between peoples from Sri Lanka to Jamaica, but the food writer Kassis insists that there’s a difference between cultural diffusion and cultural appropriation: “Diffusion is a result of people from different cultures interacting with and learning from one another, while cultural appropriation relies on exploitation and erasure,” she says.

Sumac, before it is ground, in Sheikh Qassem's shop in Jerusalem. Credit_ Yasmin Zaher
Sumac, before it is ground, in Sheikh Qassem's shop in Jerusalem.Credit: Yasmin Zaher

Documentation of appropriation was found by Eghbariah during his research on za’atar, when he came across a TV interview from the 1980s with the Israeli Ben Herut family, who dominated the cultivated za’atar market after the 1976 ban on wild picking. Ben Herut the son describes his family’s first attempt at making the mixture - which consists not only of the dried and ground herb but also of sesame, sumac and other spices: “Totally disgusting, it came out all black.” So the father, who happened to also serve in the agricultural department of the army, then went to his Arab friends and learnt the “secret” from the women. When Ben Herut the son was asked what drives his business, he answered: “National pride ... I want people to say za’atar is Israel.”

A za'atar pyramid and a miniature of the Dome of the Rock in Shekh Qassem's shop in Jerusalem.
A za'atar pyramid and a miniature of the Dome of the Rock in Shekh Qassem's shop in Jerusalem.Credit: Yasmin Zaher
JPEG Sheikh Qassem's family recipe book. Credit_ Yasmin Zaher.jpg
Sheikh Qassem's family recipe book.Credit: Yasmin Zaher

Kassis believes there is a certain logic behind which Palestinian foods were appropriated in an effort to galvanize Israeli nationalism. “They appropriated falafel, hummus and za’atar, because these come from the land,” and presumably advance the political claim to it, she says. “They did not appropriate the jewels of the Palestinian cuisine, dishes like msakhan and maqlooba,” which developed from non-native ingredients but are uniquely Palestinian, Kassis says, because they do not appear in other kitchens of the Levant.

Sheikh Qassem feels that industrially cultivated za’atar doesn’t taste right and doesn’t have the spicy punch of the wild variant. In his spice shop in Jerusalem, several za’atar mixtures are stacked in ornate pyramids, varying in flavor and degrees of authenticity. Locally-grown ingredients make the mixture taste “right,” but Sudanese sesame or Indian sumac will make the mixture more affordable.

One za’atar pile in Sheikh Qassem’s shop has a plastic miniature of the Dome of the Rock on top. It is made from the highest quality ingredients. This one also contains the magical buttum (terebinth), a small, colorful pistachio which “people no longer recognize because it’s fallen off the table.”

JPEG Terebinth, in Arabic _buttum,_ as displayed in Sheikh Qassem's shop in Jerusalem's Old City. Credit_ Yasmin Zaher
Terebinth, in Arabic "buttum," as displayed in Sheikh Qassem's shop in Jerusalem's Old City.Credit: Yasmin Zaher

Whenever possible, Sheikh Qassem prefers baladi ingredients, to support farmers and preserve the flavors of his childhood. Baladi is a word that basically means natural, non-GMO, fair trade, locally found, grown or evolved produce. It also means “my country.”

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