February 2014

Teri Vlassopoulos


Olives, Lemons, and Palestinian Cooking

When Rawia Bishara moved from Nazareth, the predominantly Arab town in Israel, to Brooklyn, she did as many immigrants do and continued to cook the traditional Palestinian food she grew up eating. She and her daughter eventually opened a restaurant, Tanoreen, and in Olives, Lemons & Za'atar, Bishara collects recipes from both the restaurant and her upbringing.

The book is a thing of beauty, a perfect sun-drenched antidote to this sprawling, monotone winter. On a particularly snowstorm-y day I flipped longingly through the photos: tables laden with flatbreads, small plates of pickled peppers and beets, freshly cut cucumbers and tomatoes, mashed fava beans drizzled in olive oil, creamy labneh, a small bowl of za'atar, the spice mix of oregano or thyme with sumac, sesame seeds and salt. These combined with arid landscapes of the countryside in Southern Galilee or shaded alleyways in Nazareth were good for the soul.

The recipes were immediately enticing as well. The book starts off with breakfast (where many dishes are spiced with za'atar, which is where it's traditionally used most), but then jumps into the best stuff, the mezes and the main dishes. The Whole Stuffed Chicken is a magnificent dish -- a chicken rubbed in allspice, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cardamom, stuffed with lamb, rice, plums, or tomatoes, and then served with lemon wedges and plain yogurt. The stuffed artichokes are also as visually appealing as they taste -- cut open and stuffed with meat and pine nuts, they look like charred, earthy roses in the roasting pan.

There are recipes for foods I'm already familiar with, but with nice riffs on them. In addition to hummus there's also hummus with meat and "my mother's hummus" (lemon juice replaces the tahini and the chickpeas are hand-mashed for texture). But it's the dishes and ingredients I'm not as familiar with that make the book more exciting. As Bishara says in her introduction, her customers are often "surprised by the unique flavors and variety of dishes we serve. Truth be told, Middle Eastern cuisine stretches galaxies beyond falafel and shish kebabs. The food I cook is just varied as, say, Italian cuisine -- the dishes are a reflection of geography, climate, and agriculture." Ingredients in the book include things like freekeh (smoked green wheatberries), mahlab (a spice made from the seeds of the St. Lucy's cherry), mastic (piney resin), and orange blossom water. There are also dishes inspired by her background but decidedly rooted in non-Palestinian ingredients -- for instance, Brussels sprout prepared with panko, tahini and pomegranate molasses.

Idyllic tales from childhood are a common trope in cookbooks, but they aren't too cloying in this book. The references to things like Bishara's grandmother storing olive oil in ceramic urns and her mother making soap with the leftover crude are evocative, and in a recipe for a Palestinian couscous dish made with chicken, chickpeas and two pounds of pearl onions, a sweet story about her mother hand rolling the small pearls of pasta taught me that what is commonly incorrectly referred to as "Israeli couscous" (guilty) is actually called maftool.

After reading and cooking from the book, I found out from a cursory Internet search that one of Bishara's brothers was a prominent politician who was accused by the government of Israel of spying for Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon War. Because of this he can't return to their childhood home without the risk of being killed, nor can he visit his sister's restaurant in Brooklyn in case the United States government extradites him to Israel. Olives, Lemons & Za'atar is infused with the warmth and love Bishara has for her family and I understand why this fact about her brother isn't mentioned in the book, but it did make me think about the narratives that are included in cookbooks and those that are kept out.

Cookbooks are a kind of safe space, a conflict-free state. With the focus purely on food and on what makes up a specific terroir, politics are limited to those that exist within an individual family or restaurant dynamic (a matriarch, a sibling rivalry, etc.) While thinking about the repercussions of this, I discovered Liora Gvion's Beyond Hummus and Falafel: Social and Political Aspects of Palestinian Food in Israel. Published by the University of California press in 2012, it's a fascinating study on the role of food to a minority group, from preparing it to eating it to sharing it. (Further complicating the issue is that Gvion is a Jewish Israeli woman writing about Palestinian cooking, which she acknowledges and discusses in the preface and leads to further questions about who should be writing about what). The book had interesting points about the role of cookbooks to different groups, and she writes, "As cultural texts, cookbooks reveal relations of power by means of the ways in which the dominant group and ethnic groups write, rewrite, and construct their past, their culture, and their public image." I considered this in relation to Olives, Lemons and Za'atar -- the choice of Bishara to write about Palestinian food without bringing politics into it, not as an omission, but to give a different voice, a different focus to a subject that tends to be discussed only in the context of politics and strife.

Food is often thought of as the realm of the non-political, but it is certainly rooted in geographies and borders, displacement and adaptations. Olives, Lemons and Za'atar may be an easy, pleasurable read and is fascinating enough for its recipes and photographs, but it was just as worthwhile to also consider its broader implications.