Joudie Kalla cooks to preserve memories. She learned to cook from her Palestinian parents, whose families fled Lod and Safed during Israel's War of Independence. From them, Kalla absorbed the memories she is now trying to preserve.
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Kalla was born in Qatar and grew up in London, where she lived with her three sisters and one brother, as well as aunts and cousins. Her mother cooked for all of them.
“She showed love through food so she cooked five to six different things every day. She cooked to remember home, to keep it alive,” said Kalla.
Kalla is now a caterer and a restaurateur in London. She had a Middle Eastern restau-rant in Chelsea named Baity, which means “my house” in Arabic and in Hebrew, from 2010 to 2013.
Now she is seeking to preserve her family's culinary memories by documenting her mother’s and aunts’ recipes, presenting them to the public via a beautiful and inspiring app called Palestine on a Plate. In her app, traditional Palestinian and Middle Eastern dishes such as fattoush (a salad of chopped vegetables with day-old toasted or fried pita bread), freekeh soup (smoked green wheat soup) and masabaha (chickpeas in tahini sauce) sit comfortably next to more modern creations such as a scrumptious looking banana, medjool date and chocolate cake, and tahini brownies. All recipes are accompanied by gorgeous photos, and a touch of politics: In our region, politics is part of everything, even food.
Kalla's favorite dishes include sayadiyeh, a lemon- and cumin-infused cod that’s served with cumin rice and tahini-yogurt sauce. “It’s ridiculously good,” she told me. “I mean, you want to cry sometimes while eating it.”
And then there’s maqloubeh, a lamb, rice and fried eggplant dish that many people consider to be the Palestinian national dish. Kalla serves hers with yogurt.
Her favorite dessert is mutabak, a very thin pastry stuffed with haloumi cheese, quickly cooked and then drizzled with sugar syrup. “It’s delicious, it’s simple, it’s only four ingredients, but you feel like you’ve eaten an explosion of flavors,” she said.
“These dishes take me back and bring memories of places I’ve never been to. It takes you to these type of places where it’s warm and you can see the sea and hear people having fun. This is what I feel when I eat my food,” said Kalla.
She says she hasn't been allowed to enter Israel.
“I just saw it [Palestine] from the edge of the Dead Sea and Jordan, and that’s as close as I got,” she noted. But now that she has a British passport, Kalla is “desperate to visit.”
“I’m very Palestinian”, she said. Having grown up in a family where food played an im-portant role in keeping the family’s identity, it’s natural that her blog, which is part of the app, gets a bit political from time to time, as do some of the discussions that follow her posts on Instagram.
But Kalla sees her work as a labor of love, her love for food, love for Palestine - the app includes a very touching photo she took of a map of Palestine made of dried roses. And yes, it goes all the way to the sea.
She blogs about a theater in Gaza, a film festival, and about trying to show her love for her mother.
“I know she’s proud of me for being a chef, and I did it really for her, because I love her a lot and I wanted to honor her. She’s given me all these recipes, it’s a gift from her to me and then from me back to her,” said Kalla.
Nevertheless, she had to delete some of the comments she got on Instagram, including hurtful ones written in Hebrew alleging that she stuffs her food with explosives, that there’s no thing as Palestine, and no such thing as Palestinians. These comments just make her sad.
“We all come from this background where we have hot blood and we want to fight about everything,” she said, laughing, “but sometimes you just need to cool down and just enjoy the falafel and hummus and be happy.”
Adapted from Palestine on a Plate. Recipe and headnote by Joudie Kalla.
I love za'atar, but as much as I love it, it can be a little overwhelming. If you have good zaatar then you have no worries, but unfortunately in the U.K. [and in the U.S. as well] if you don't buy it from a Middle Eastern shop, you are not going to be doing your dish any justice. You are in fact going to make your food taste woody and bitter.
Go for the best you can find.
This dish came about when I ran my Deli Baity kitchen. I had some chicken legs in the fridge and needed to do something with them and wanted something punchy and colorful.
This dish became a staple in my deli for 3.5 years. Never changing, and with an ever-increasing crowd who would reserve a piece every day. I loved that food could make people feel like that. I make this all the time. It gives me good memories, good feelings and most of all explodes in my mouth with several opposing flavors.
Make sure you get the chicken from your butcher to get the correct piece, and also a good size. Otherwise you will feel utterly disappointed that it ended too soon.
[Pomegranate molasses is available at many health food supermarkets as well as Middle Eastern markets.]
Serves: 4 people
4 large chicken legs and thighs, in one piece, coated lightly in olive oil
4 tablespoons dried mint
5 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
3 teaspoons dried red chillies
4 tablespoons zaatar.
1 tablespoons Maldon sea salt flakes
1 pomegranate, seeded, for garnish
1 red chili, sliced, for garnish
1. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit), with the fan on.
2. Place your chicken on a tray with baking paper.
3. Place the legs skin side down, and season with half of the ingredients, except for the garnish. Flip the legs and season with the other half.
4. Mix the garnish: pomegranate seeds and red chili. Reserve for later.
5. The chicken should now be now facing skin-side down and coated with a generous covering of seasonings. Place in the oven and cook until browned slightly on top.
6. Turn chicken over and cook skin side up until browned.
7. Adjust the seasonings to your taste. I usually add a little more zaatar and a bit more mint. Make sure the chicken is covered in seasoning as it cooks. You want it to have a nice color and flavor. This is supposed to be a tangy, sharp, spicy, slightly sweet dish.
8. Once fully cooked, serve and sprinkle with the pomegranate seeds and sliced chilli.
9. Reserve the sauce that came from the chicken and drizzle generously all over the chicken. It will become a firm favorite for you at home. I assure you.
Za'atar chicken. Photo by Joudie Kalla, Palestine on a Plate
Hindbeh (dandelion leaves)
Adapted from Palestine on a Plate. Recipe and headnote by Joudie Kalla.
During early spring in Palestine, especially near Jericho - thought to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth - you will begin to notice some green plants that almost look like grass growing out of the cracks in the sidewalks, along the mountainside and in some small gardens. These plants have been an integral part of Palestinians' diet for centuries. One of these foraged plants is called hindbeh – dandelion. Ever so popular, you don't usually have to buy this plant – usually you can just pick it from the road.
Dandelions are packed full of flavor and are a super food rich in antioxidants, protein, vitamins, iron and calcium. The list goes on, but these little weeds have a lot to offer - more than one would imagine.
You will find that dandelion leaves are a little bitter, so it's best to soak them for about 10 minutes in water with a squeeze of lemon.
[Dandelion is available during summer in some health food supermarkets and farmers markets around the US. Sumac is available at Middle Eastern markets and some health food markets.]
Serves: 4 people
400 grams hindbeh (dandelion) leaves (if you can't find hindbeh, kale works perfectly)
4 large yellow onions
100 milliliters light olive oil
2 teaspoons Maldon sea salt
1 teaspoon sumac powder
1 teaspoon sweet paprika powder
1 lemon, juiced
2-4 tablespoons olive oil to season
1 whole pomegranate, seeded
flat bread for serving
1. Soak your dandelion in water. Squeeze half a lemon into the water. (If using kale you don't need to soak it).
2. While your greens are soaking, prepare your onions by slicing them into half moons. I know this seems like a lot of onion, but trust me, it's supposed to be that way.
3. Get your frying pan ready, and add the sunflower oil. Get it hot and then add the onions.You want them to color slightly. This should take you 8-10 minutes on full heat, depending on the thickness of your pan.
4. While the onions are frying, remove your hindbeh leaves out of the water and chop into bite-sized pieces. Place them in a pot of boiling water and boil for about 4 minutes. Add salt as the water boils: I would add about 2 teaspoons to flavor the greens.
5. When they are ready, remove and place under cold water so that they retain the green fresh color. Let them drain.
6. The onions should now be ready. At this point add both the sumac and the sweet paprika to the onions. Stir quickly and set aside to cool down.
7. Take your pomegranate and begin to tap out the seeds by placing it cut-side down in your palm. Using a wooden spoon, tap the peel until the seeds start to dislodge. Repeat until you have emptied the fruit.
8. Place your hindbeh in a plate. Drizzle with the remaining lemon juice and season a little with salt, add the caramelized onions, top with pomegranate seeds and repeat. Layer it on. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and serve with flat bread.
Hindbeh (dandellion leaves). Photo by Joudie Kalla, Palestine on a Plate