Beyond hummus: Palestinians cook up new food trends

Jerusalem – From the ancient alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City to kitchens around the world, Palestinians are introducing new trends in cooking while still maintaining tradition.

The trend has fueled a growing appetite for specialty books and food tours.

“I think it’s changing for the better. Many Palestinians seek to promote their food,” Nassar Odeh said as the aromas of the oven wafted over a Jerusalem street.

The Palestinian entrepreneur has spent the past few months watching foodies stream in and out of his new Taboon restaurant, named after the traditional clay oven.

Customers tuck into dishes like Armenian lahmajun, a thin pizza with ground meat and spices that Odeh remembers being sold to hungry crowds in the Old City decades ago.

“Armenian dishes are part of Palestinian culture,” said Odeh, whose bar also serves beer and wines from the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“This is extremely important because it highlights the Palestinian presence and entrepreneurship,” he said. “We should be proud of our products.”

– “New concept, new ideas” –

Opened last year in what was once a family souvenir shop, Taboon is part of a string of new Palestinian bars, cafes and restaurants.

Besides those within the walls of the Old City, they have appeared in other areas of annexed East Jerusalem, such as the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood or further afield in Ramallah in the West Bank.

They range from fine dining experiences to fusion menus mixing Palestinian ingredients with European dishes, according to Iszeldin Bukhari, who runs Jerusalem food tours and cooking classes.

“It’s a great start; we’re really at the beginning,” said Bukhari, who plans to offer consulting services to business owners looking to revitalize their restaurants.

“Everybody was kind of doing the same thing, but lately I see people stepping up and doing a new concept, new ideas,” he said.

Showcasing the breadth of Palestinian dishes and produce remains central to Dalia Dabdub, who runs Taboon and owns bars in the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Jericho.

“We want to change the industry by making more foods that people don’t know about,” she said.

A variety of eggplants known locally, which come from Battir, a village in the Bethlehem area, will soon be on Taboon’s menu, while some produce is imported from Gaza.

“I always try to pick the tomatoes; when they come from Gaza, they are really red and they taste better,” said Dabdub.

Meanwhile, Gaza green chilies are especially hot.

The emergence of new eateries is based on the old town’s history of single-dish restaurants such as falafel.

Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi grew up with home cooking, like packed lunches at school with cauliflower fritters stuffed in pitas, and going out for certain foods.

“I remember carrying a plate and going to the hummus guy,” Tamimi said, talking hungrily about favorite dishes including stuffed vine leaves and zucchini.

Such traditional foods and modern approaches have been brought together in the 2020 Chef’s Cookbook: Falastin.

“Just 10 years ago, if you went to a publisher and said I want to publish a book about Palestinian food, they’d say, ‘Who’s going to buy it?'” said Tamimi, who moved to London more than two decades ago.

– “Wonderful Thing” –

The growing interest in Palestinian food abroad is linked to a shift away from presenting Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cuisine as a single set of recipes.

“Nowadays you see more focus on the country or the place and their food … I think that’s a wonderful thing,” said Tamimi, who has a series of cookbooks and runs restaurants with Israeli business partner Yotam Ottolenghi.

Israelis have proven more successful than Palestinians in branding local cuisine, Bukhari noted, including an image of an Israeli flag on falafel at the Tel Aviv airport.

“They’re very good at marketing,” said the SacredCuisine founder. “We’re leaving a gap for Israelis to talk about our food.”

But the Palestinians are catching up internationally, with Bethlehem chef Fadi Kattan opening a restaurant in London later this year.

Tamimi himself is due to return to Jerusalem briefly for a residency at the historic American Colony Hotel in October.

His fortnightly menu follows a previous event there, when the chef saw how much has changed in the city’s culinary scene.

“It was the first time I worked with a whole team of Palestinians,” he said.