Palestinian cuisine is more than what’s on the plate

Smiling young woman seen waist-up standing behind kitchen counter while stirring pot on a stovetop

Joudie Kalla, author of Palestine On A Plate

Many Palestinians will already be familiar with Joudie Kalla’s deliciously gorgeous cookbook, Palestine On A Plate: Memories from my mother’s kitchen, the printed successor to the popular app and Instagram feed of the same name.

But few are likely to know the backstory.

Like most Palestinians, Kalla’s upbringing took place in the diaspora. It took her from Syria to Qatar and Germany before she ultimately settled in London. Palestine was always close to her heart, or – as she might prefer to put it – her stomach.

“We didn’t eat for fuel, we ate for pleasure and everything has a memory connected to it and a feeling and a thought,” she explained. For Kalla, who sees herself as championing Palestinian cuisine, this book was a self-described love story: about Palestine, about her family, about the food she grew up with and the memories that food created.

Laila El-Haddad, contributor to The Electronic Intifada and co-author of The Gaza Kitchen, sat down with Kalla for a one-on-one interview about cuisine, identity and what she wants to cook for the world (hint: it’s green and gooey!).

Photo shows aerial view of two slices of cake on dishes

Joudie Kalla’s freekeh fig cake

Laila El-Haddad: How did this all start?

Joudie Kalla: I lost my business. I started working in a real estate agency. I didn’t know what to do. A friend suggested I post things about what I was cooking. Within a few weeks, he set up an Instagram account and I had 7,000 followers. I didn’t even know what it was! It sort of escalated from there. I was surprised in a nice way that people were actually interested.

LH: I have to ask about the freekeh [a roasted grain made from green durum wheat] cake! I was totally intrigued.

JK: I basically wanted to create a cake that had all the little elements that I think are very Palestinian, like the figs, the pistachios, and the freekeh, of course, and lemon, and all the other citrus, spices … I think it’s nutty and has a savory texture, but then with the sweet figs and the salty pistachios it just all came together.

LH: I was really curious about the fennel, apple and pomegranate salad as well as the pomelo and shrimp salad. I had never heard of those combinations before in connection with Gaza.

JK: My grandmother used to make these dishes for us. The rumman [Arabic for pomegranate] and fennel and dill are very much part of that culture and that area. It was more inspiration from her salads and dishes. And she was very creative. Let’s be honest: All the dishes came from her and my tata and then to my mom and so on.

LH: Can you tell me a little bit about your family?

JK: My mom’s mother was born in Jaffa and married my grandfather and moved to Lydd. My dad’s mom was from Safad and my dad’s dad worked in Nazareth as a policeman. They were there until they had to leave [forced out during the Nakba of 1948 when more than 750,000 Palestinians were dispossessed during the creation of Israel] and went to Syria individually and met and had 20 kids between them. Syria was home for my parents until they moved to Qatar.

LH: A sort of quintessential Palestinian experience.

JK: Absolutely.

LH: It’s interesting that food was always present in your life. Speaking about your grandparents and siblings – I feel like I know them through your book. I had a very different experience. My grandmother had a firm belief that a woman’s place was in the workplace, not the kitchen, even though she was an excellent cook. She hated the notion that people thought that’s all she was good for and resented being asked about food!

JK: Yes, I think like you said we had the opposite side. We were very lucky because my mom was very generous with her cooking. My sister Maya doesn’t eat chicken, Lara doesn’t eat lamb. I eat everything and Tania likes everything with lemon. And chili. There was always something for somebody.

After school, we’d all sit together and if we weren’t all there, we wouldn’t eat. And it wasn’t about strictness, it was more about family time. Dinnertime was always about being together and talking about whatever. Anything goes.

LH: At a certain point you note how you developed a curiosity for your Palestinian history and talk about Palestinian food being an identity.

JK: I didn’t really know anything about Palestine and my identity. I knew we were Palestinian and my parents were very proud of it and they told us stories and their parents’ stories. I just wanted to go through it with the food. I felt a lot of things when I ate. We didn’t eat for fuel, we ate for pleasure and everything has a memory connected to it and a feeling and a thought.

Honestly, the book was not written to be published, it was written for myself. I really feel we need voices like yours and Rawia Bishara’s [chef and owner of Tanoreen restaurant in Brooklyn, New York] and myself and Dima Sharif’s [author of Plated Heirlooms]. Voices of people who are making a positive dent in the food world and giving an identity to the food.

LH: That’s very kind. You’ve said that you want “to champion our cuisine and recapture it.” You sound like a woman on a mission. Do you consider this a political book?

JK: It’s obviously not a political book and yet, it is, by default, because of the title. And I really wanted it to have an identity. Like The Gaza Kitchen. I didn’t want it to be “lemons and roses.” It would lose the whole point of the book. But the identity was to be captured in this.

Fatet djaj — a baked dish made with chicken, pita and yogurt.

LH: You talk a lot about food as identity. Would you consider cuisine a locator, a key to connect with one’s homeland in the absence of that homeland or in the face of displacement when there is no physical space we inhabit at once?

JK: Yes, I think so. This all started by default. I didn’t write the recipes to say “all these are just Palestinian.” It’s just what my grandmother cooked – and made them her own – and passed on to us.

LH: Do you feel there is more urgency to this sentiment when it comes to Palestinian cuisine? Does our food risk becoming more symbolic than simply something we can embrace for what it is? Can it be both?

JK: Both. It should be a symbol. Food gets people together. It’s delicious. It should also be symbolic to us in a nice but not fanatical way. I think it’s important to have the identity, definitely.

LH: How have you dealt with the issue of cultural appropriation of Palestinian cuisine?

JK: I gave the manuscript to my agent and she sent it out to most publishers. It was rejected by every single one of them because of the title. A lot of them came back and said, if she changes the title we might consider it. I told my agent, I’m not living to write a cookbook. I have my life, I have a job, I make money, I’ll survive. If you’re going to change the title, then you’ve basically deleted the book already.

So this was the first challenge … trying to delete the most important word that makes the book what it is.

LH: It’s not even remotely controversial!

JK: I asked the agent to ask why they rejected the book. She said some had answered that people don’t know where Palestine is, it’s not recognized as a country, and how can they publish a book about a country that’s not there? I said, Listen, you are treading on thin ice. You just said a whole group of people – millions of us – do not exist because the country is not recognized on a map.

In the past few years, every single Middle Eastern restaurant is Israeli. It’s musakhan [caramelized onions and sumac chicken served on taboon bread], msabaneh [a dip similar to hummus, often with a combination of fava beans and hummus], maqlooba [a spiced rice, vegetable and meat casserole that derives its name from the fact that, upon completion, it is flipped “upside-down” onto a serving tray] in Israeli restaurants.

LH: It’s a slap in the face.

JK: Actually a kick in your teeth. And I got upset. And I wanted to show that there is a history to all this food. And yes, it’s very cool to have zaatar [Arabic for wild thyme] sprinkled on everything, but the stuff came from somewhere. I just think people should know there was something and a people before Israel, and that these foods were not created by Israeli chefs popping up restaurants all over London and globally and this Palestinian cuisine was, in fact, alive long before this happened.

LH: There is this urgency to protecting our identities and culture.

JK: I feel people want to take things away from me and from us. I’m not here to convert people. I’m here to be me and write what I know and what I lived and how I remember things and the stories my mom told me. I never remember her saying one negative story about my grandparents living in Palestine except when they were kicked out and left their homes and only had their keys like everybody else. They spoke about their memories, but didn’t want to live [or] relive the trauma. Their life was poetry about home.

Photo of serving bowl containing julienned leaves, caramelized onions and pomegranate seeds

Hindbeh — dandelion leaves with caramelized onions, pomegranate and sumac — another dish from Palestine On A Plate.

LH: Can you share some food-related memories with us?

JK: Most are about my mom. She is a very beautiful woman inside and out. The house would feel like four walls and empty when she wasn’t in town. And she’d suddenly be there and nothing would have changed in the house except for her being there, and the smells would suddenly come out, and the food. If I’m missing my mom or I’m hungry, I won’t make an omelette, I’ll make fasooliya bil lahma [green beans with lamb meat] … my freezer is full of it!

I associate the good things that are happening in my life [with that time] and replicate them because I remember only good things when we had these moments. It’s not only about the food, it’s also about the people.

When I’m feeling down, I cook mulukhiya [a soupy dish made with boiled jute leaves]! It makes me feel safe! I don’t even know what that means, but I feel like my whole family is in my stomach and we are all sitting together and everybody is there and I could be eating it by myself with my dog, watching TV and I feel everybody around me.

LH: So you’d like to cook the world … a bowl of mulukhiya?

JK: Basically! Cooking takes my mind off everything!

LH: Is it cathartic?

JK: Totally! When I starting cooking in my 20s, I was suffering from a massive depression. It took a long time to get out of it, but I found that the only time I didn’t feel this panic and blackness was when I was in the kitchen cooking stuff. I ended up in the kitchen all the time. It makes me happy and I felt like while cooking I could switch off the world and I recommend it for everybody.

My mom has lots of sisters: Dunia, Shahla and Lamya. They traveled in a group of three and my mom was the fourth. Auntie Shahla had a sfeeha [mincemeat pies] recipe in the book.

All I remember about her was her laughter. They would cackle about stupid things. Someone’s rip in her tights and so on. Time would pass and it would be 300 sfeehas later and you open the fridge and see that food and you see them laughing and chuckling and rolling. I don’t see lunch. It sounds crazy, but I think it’s a connection to people and life and memories and laughter.

LH: It’s also a connection to a place that they are now forbidden from. And 50 or 60 years later they continue to make the dishes in the same way they made them in their villages and towns.

JK: It’s so important and it should keep going on. It’s something that we need to keep doing. If I have a kid, I would love them to know about this.

LH: I couldn’t help but notice the book steered clear of anything overtly political – except for a mention to paying homage to family born in Palestine before the borders were “changed and shifted.” Is this narrating the experience in the way you want?

JK: My publisher told me we had to cover a lot of things, and talking about Israel and Palestine and territories and [border] lines was off topic. I didn’t want to get into the sadness of Palestine. I’m proud “Palestine” stayed in the title. That was also a negotiation.

And the book is really a love story. To my mom. To my grandmothers. To my aunties and sister and brothers and to a Palestine I don’t know. I know Palestine through my family and I think I’m happy to know her that way because it’s a beautiful image she put in mind. That’s the point of the book. For people to love it and enjoy it and see what they want to see in it. And hopefully they will.

All photos by Ria Osbourne.

Listen to the full interview on The Electronic Intifada podcast.

Laila El-Haddad is a Palestinian freelance journalist, documentarian and co-author of The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey (Just World Books). She frequently writes about the intersection of food and politics. Twitter: @Gazamom. Website: