Born in London to a Pakistani father and an Iranian mother, Yasmin Khan is an award-winning author, campaigner and cook. World Food Tour caught up with the chef to talk about the culture and ingredients at the heart of Palestinian cuisine.
Q. What’s the best thing about Palestinian cuisine?
Yasmin Khan: For me, the best things about it are both its simplicity and the fact it packs such a punch with the flavours. One of the things that really surprised me when I started travelling there, about 10 years ago, was it’s a real celebration of vegetables. And it’s not overseasoned or over-spiced. So the vegetables are really given an opportunity to shine. Traditionally, Palestinian food is pretty plantbased; it’s a lot of seasonal vegetables—and local ones, depending on where you are. Meat is traditionally only used for special occasions.
As a result of that, it really fits in with modern food trends. People are looking to eat more plant-based or vegetarian food. One of the main things I love about it is it’s not a cuisine where you need to go off hunting for some specialist spices or anything—it’s using vegetables and ingredients that you probably already have and just cooking them in a different way.
Q. What’s different about the way you cook these ingredients?
YK: Like lots of Middle Eastern cuisine, Palestinian food uses loads of fresh herbs, like parsley and mint, but instead of just using them to sprinkle on the top for a bit of garnish, it’s about using these ingredients as the main component. So the abundant use of herbs is one way it’s different. And then there’s a lot more roasting and barbecuing vegetables so they get this lovely smoky flavour—most famously in the burnt aubergine dips. One of the things I found really interesting, and I do it all the time now, was that they use allspice a lot in savoury dishes. So we would traditionally use allspice in Christmas cakes or cookies, things on the sweeter end of the spectrum. But in Palestinian food, they use allspice in tomato sauces or in stews. It’s so nice with spinach! So now I just do that all the time; it’s been a lovely thing to pick up actually. And it’s a good way to use a spice that you may only pick up one time of year; it’s become an everyday spice for me.
Q. How do the food and the culture of Palestine marry together?
YK: Like everywhere in the world, Palestinians use food to celebrate and to comfort. The big feasting occasions are Easter and also Eid. A lot of people don’t know this, but 30 percent of Palestinians are Christian. So Easter is a really major celebration and a lot of the famous sweets that are used that we eat at Easter are the same as the ones we eat at Eid. I have a recipe for one of them actually: Maamoul, which are these beautiful, little crumby shortbread cookies which are stuffed with spiced dates. It was really important just to show a different side to Palestinian culture, and I think food enables you to do that.
Generally, when you think of that region, there are never any positive stories coming out of there. So, for me, a big mission with this book [Zaitoun, Bloomsbury] is to celebrate the commonality and the normalness of Palestinian everyday life, and food is just such a great way to do that.
Q. So it’s about trying to open people’s eyes to the realities of a place often perceived in a negative light?
YK: Exactly. It’s an area of the world that a lot of people are curious about, but the information about it is so hard to digest, isn’t it? I know because I was a campaigner on these issues with NGOs for about a decade, so I’m really used to talking about the subject. I realised people just get confused or put off by yet another news report of an attack or a blockade and actually, once you strip away from all that and just show how people live their ordinary lives, the food they use to celebrate with each other, the food they use to make someone they love something on their time off, that’s a much better way of understanding the world, I think. And that’s the power of food, because it’s such a great leveller, you know?
Q. What are the essential ingredients in any Palestinian larder?
YK: It all starts with olive oil. It’s the bedrock of Palestinian cuisine. So that’s why I called my book Zaitoun, because that means ‘olive’. Palestinian olive oil is really incredible. It’s quite peppery and it’s got quite a strong flavour; it’s not like a fruity, Spanish or Italian olive oil. It’s got more of an affinity with Greek olive oil. So, it’s got really quite a pungent flavour and it’s incredible. Palestinians use olive oil as a seasoning really, because it’s so flavoursome. So finishing a dish with a good old drizzle of olive oil is such a great way to lift its flavours. Often, you start a meal with bread and then pour little bowls of olive oil and then another bowl of za’atar, which is a gorgeous wild thyme, sumac and sesame spread. And you tear bits of bread and dip it into the oil and the za’atar and that’s all you need. So, it all begins with that.
Za’atar is the name of a wild herb but also the name of a spice mix. I was lucky enough to go and visit some women who work on a cooperative in the north of the West Bank who grow their own za’atar and make it. So it was really incredible to see the process. It’s just a really aromatic spice mix, which is great on everything from roasted meats to roasted vegetables. It’s a great addition to salad dressings; it’s my all-round favourite spice rub at the moment. Tahini is a really central one, too. So tahini is the nutty, sesame seed paste and it’s used to make sauces. So you mix it with a good squeeze of lemon and a bit of garlic and water and you get this lovely, thick, creamy, nutty, tangy, sauce. It’s a key ingredient in hummus; it’s just such a great addition for any table. And then you have sumac, which is a type of berry. The powder we get in the UK is the ground down, dried version of that. That adds a wonderful citrus stringency to dishes.
So anytime you want a bit of lemon, but you don’t necessarily want that liquid element, you just add a good pinch of sumac. The oils, the za’atar, tahini and the sumac, for me, sum up Palestinian food overall. But what’s really interesting is that it’s really regional. So there are three main regions of food. The Galilee and the West Bank are quite similar. But in Gaza, for example, the food is totally different. It’s much more influenced by the food of the African states. It uses so much chilli, red chilli and garlic and dill, and they’re like the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Gazan cuisine.
Q. What about the bread?
YK: Bread is a really central component of Palestinian food. There’s an Arabic phrase, which says: ‘The bread and salt between us,’ which refers to a bond that is built between people based on respect through eating together. So, the act of breaking bread with someone is a real symbol of connection and friendship. Palestinian bread is fluffy, yeasted flatbread. And it is traditionally made in taboon ovens. So the classic Palestinian flatbread is what we think of as pita, which is the Greek word. But in Palestine it’s called khubz and they are those soft, chewy flatbreads that are used as a utensil at the Palestinian table, where you use them to scoop up small dishes.
These Arabic flatbreads are really easy introductions into baking bread, because you’re not messing around with trying to get them to rise or needing them to prove for a really long time. So you just knead the flour and a bit of yeast and water together and you just do that for about 10 minutes until the dough springs back, once you give it a poke. Then you just let it rise for an hour.
Or until it’s doubled in size, it depends on the heat in your kitchen. And once it’s doubled in size you just cut it up into little round pieces like a pitta bread and just roll them out a bit. And then just whack them in the oven.
My big tip, when people are baking at home, is to invest in a pizza stone. They make such a difference when you’re baking bread—especially when you are baking these flatbreads. They just distribute the heat in a different way. If anyone is starting out baking bread at home, I always recommend it.
Q. How would you describe Palestinian cuisine to someone who has never tried it?
YK: I would describe Palestinian food as vibrant, really colourful and a real celebration of vegetables. I’d call it fragrant and aromatic, using gentle, soothing spices, like cinnamon and allspice. And I would describe it as incredibly accessible. The recipes in this book, they’re straightforward; they’re perfect for the home cook; they’re unfussy; they’re the kind of thing you can whip together on a weeknight after you’ve come home from work. So that’s what I really like: the fact that you can be transported to a place through these incredible recipes, but they’re pretty straightforward to make.
Q. How important is seasonality?
YK: It’s all so seasonal. When it’s cauliflower season, everyone will be roasting cauliflowers or making stews with them. When it’s aubergine season, then it’s like, ‘Let’s get the old aubergine dips going.’ So it’s incredibly seasonal. And I think that’s really a wonderful thing for us to incorporate in the UK, because not only does it make the food you eat more affordable, but produce always tastes better when it’s in season.
Q. What about desserts?
YK: Like a lot of Middle Eastern cultures, Palestinians don’t have a dessert eating culture in the same way we do. But they have a lot of sweets, which you might have with a tea of coffee in the afternoon. The traditional sweets are sticky pastries drenched in sugar syrups with honey. Whether it’s pistachio-filled baklavas or kanafeh, which is a really famous Palestinian dish. I always call it the love child of a baklava and a cheesecake. It’s like filo that’s shredded and then a layer of Palestinian cheese—ackawi cheese—which is somewhere between a mozzarella and a ricotta, and you put that in the middle and you put another layer of the pastry on and then you bake it and drizzle it in syrup. And you can’t move after you’ve eaten it, but it’s just so delicious.
But, one of the things I wanted to do with the book was to celebrate Palestinian ingredients in lots of different desserts that I like eating. So there’s a recipe for a spiced pumpkin and olive oil cake, which is one of my favourites. There’s a pomegranate passion cake, which is a really dense and sticky almond cake, topped with mascarpone and pomegranate. There’s a fig and almond tart. So what I’ve tried to do is take Palestinian ingredients and celebrate them in desserts and puddings that we would eat here.
Q. And drinks?
YK: There’s coffee and cardamom—that’s how they have it: short, little shots of coffee and cardamom. And then there are all sorts of teas; black, often with a bit of sage. I visited the Middle East’s first microbrewery, in the West Bank that makes incredible, really cool, artisanal Palestinian beer. And they have an annual Oktoberfest.
So you get really incredible, local beer. Then there are also incredible wines. I visited a great winery in the Galilee, which felt very symbolic, as Jesus turned water into wine there. And they just have really great grapes. The region is so fertile and abundant in that way for produce. And the other thing that is obviously very unique to the region is arak, which is an aniseed spirit. They often serve it with mezze platters; it’s common throughout the Levant. And that’s really yummy, too. Bethlehem does some really great ones.
The other thing is: on a hot day they make this incredible lemonade, but flecked with loads of mint, and it’s just really gorgeous and refreshing. There are some sections that are religious and don’t drink, but I know lots of people of all faiths there that enjoy a drink and it is very easy to get.
Q. How easy it is to completely reproduce Palestinian food in the UK, considering our ingredients aren’t as fresh?
YK: I just think we get the sun. When you go on holiday and you wonder, ‘Why does this salad taste so good?’ It’s just because of that. But we can’t help that. And I think it certainly helps to try and buy things like tomatoes when they are in season. When I was a kid I always thought I didn’t really like tomatoes. But you start travelling and you’re like, ‘They’re amazing!’
Q. How did food help you to deal with the things you saw while in the West Bank?
YK: I think it’s really hard for anyone who visits the West Bank and Gaza not to be affected by what you see. For me, the things that I saw that were the most uplifting were when I’d see Palestinian producers, such as olive farmers, battling water restrictions, curfews, encroaches on their land, still going out and farming. Or beer producers whose bottles of beers get stopped at check points, and sometimes end up spoiling in the sun because soldiers are checking over them, continuing to say, ‘We make great beer and we want to promote Palestinian produce,’ and there’s this real sense of pride in the land and what the land can create. And I think that’s what I found the most inspiring, because it’s so easy, I think, to see people in that part of the world as either victims or terrorists. And when you start engaging with food producers who are passionate about their produce, you see that there’s so much more to them than that.
Q. What can food do to lift the mood in a place plagued by conflict?
YK: In Gaza, people don’t have food. Eighty percent of the people there are dependent on food aid just to survive—and that’s huge. What us exploring food culture here in the west can do, is it enables us to connect with a culture and that, I think, in today’s world is so important. To really be able to connect with people’s humanity and celebrate our commonalities and be able to appreciate the positive attributes of Palestinian culture while also acknowledging the fact that Palestinians are really just struggling quite hard at the moment to be able to survive.
This feature was originally published in the Winter 2018 edition of World Food Tour, available to read here.