Putting Palestine on the culinary map

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By Raya Al Jadir

The most delicious way to a society’s soul is through its stomach, believes the creator of Palestine on a Plate.

Freekeh soup. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla

Freekeh soup. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla

Monday 29 June 2015

JoudieConflict Kitchen is an eatery in Pittsburgh with a political message: uniting people through food. It serves food primarily from countries which are in conflict with the United States, hence its name.

One recent guest chef at Conflict Kitchen was Joudie Kalla, who was born to Palestinian parents but has spent most of her life in London.

The acclaimed Palestinian chef also has her own personal project which aims to reclaim Palestinian identity by spreading its cuisine. Palestine on a Plate is a cookery application that has been making gradual but noticeable progress over the past few months, already clocking up 12,000 likes on Facebook. The app offers food lovers the chance to taste the beauty of Palestine through its best-known dishes.

Kalla says her love for food was ignited when, at the tender age of four, she would sit in the kitchen with her three sisters and watch her mother cook several dishes at a time. “I loved baking cakes with her and bread stuffed with different fillings. I knew then that I wanted to be a chef,” she says.

Like many little girls, Kalla’s obsession was with Barbie dolls but food came a close second. When she started school, she chose to study home economics which is “sadly not offered to children these days,” she says. She used to rush home from class to see what was for dinner and to see if she could help in any way to prepare the food. Kalla admits it made her a little anti-social, as she loved to be behind the stove more than with other people. “All I wanted to know is if someone liked my food. I felt comfortable in the kitchen and really blossomed there,” she confesses.

Although Kalla has a degree in art, architecture and design and holds a master’s degree in French culture and civilisation, she changed her direction at the age of 21. Her father did not fully approve of her decision to become a professional chef because he was “exceptionally difficult to please… but he was tough on me for a reason. He wanted me to be the best I could be and true to myself.”

In contrast, her mother was very supportive and encouraged her. “She really felt and feels that I am living on through her with my food, which is actually true,” explains Kalla. Cooking for Kalla is a combination of a hobby, a profession and a lifestyle: “It makes me happy. Happy to cook and happy to feed.”

Zaatar chicken: ©Joudie Kalla

Zaatar chicken: ©Joudie Kalla

Kalla goes on to describe how food evokes the taste and aroma of nostalgia, reminding you of “home”. Food is sometimes a practical way of connecting you to your past and to your identity. “My recipes were a way to become closer to [my mother], as I felt very far away when I moved out of London and went to France. I had never left home and being away made me miss all of my comforts,” Kalla recalls.  Intrigued by the creativity of the kitchen, Kalla explains that cooking “allows me to paint on a plate, so to speak. My mind goes into a totally different world as it closes off to everything else and frees me to just focus on what I wanted. I love creating things and finding a way to put my feelings on a plate.”

As a Palestinian woman striving to be a chef, Kalla had her work cut out. She often found herself to be the only woman in the kitchen, making it harder to be taken seriously by her male peers. The only time she felt like she was offered any real guidance was at her last job: “My chef guided me in the right direction to find my way and begin my own catering company and then later to open my own place. You really need support in this field to keep motivated when times are tough.”

Kalla went to Leiths School of Food and Wine, a prestigious cookery school in London. She has worked in Pengelly’s, a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, Daphne’s and Papillon, with Michelin-starred chef David Duverger.

After closing her deli at the end of 2014, Kalla took some time off but many of her old customers called and e-mailed her asking for recipes for dishes such as makloubeh, fattet djaj and sayyadiyeh. This inspired Kalla to document the recipes and Palestine on a Plate was conceived.

The application began its life with the help of Kalla’s friend Steph Ansari, also of Palestinian heritage, who helped build it. Kalla describes the venture as “a labour of love and it still is as it needs constant nurturing”.

Sumac tomatoes. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla.

Sumac tomatoes. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla.

She says she feels a special bond to the application not just because it is her own venture but she believes it has “benefited me because it made me learn more about my background and investigate my history. It has made my mother and I even closer and made me more proud to be, not only an Arab, but specifically a Palestinian.”

Palestine On a Plate has received generally positive reactions. Many have expressed their appreciation of the photos and ideas for the recipes, as well as Kalla’s own personal twists to classic dishes. It is not just the ordinary public who have given it the thumbs up but Kalla has received encouraging comments from culinary experts such as Loyd Grossman, Tony Kitous  and Ian Pengelley, who described her as “the foremost expert in Palestinian food and is by far the biggest contributor to making Palestinian cooking the popular cuisine that it is today”.

Politically, Kalla has been slandered by some Israelis and she has been asked whether she stuffs the food with explosives, yet this has not deterred her from continuing the path she started. “If it angers people, then maybe I am doing something right… I would have thought that food is something that would unite people, but sometimes it can divide too.”

The kitchen has become one battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “If someone wants to try and claim our food, I can’t stop them but I can try to set the facts straight,” says Kalla. “Our food is sensational, who would not want to claim it as their own?”

But Kalla has also received very positive reactions in Israel, such as a flattering feature about her career and app which recently appeared in Haaretz.

Palestine on a Plate covers recipes from all over historic Palestine and is not focused on one area in particular. Kalla is concerned that Palestinians are losing their identity. “People don’t see our food as Palestinian food anymore, they see it as Israeli or Jewish food,” she says. “We need to own this again and empower our culture with our history and background. Not lose it [to] propaganda and the media.”

M'tabak. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla.

M’tabak. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla.

This is the challenge that Kalla has set for herself: to educated people about Palestinian cuisine. “We have enough Italian, French and Chinese restaurants out there, but not many Palestinian restaurants,” she says.

Kalla’s passion for food and Palestine are the main force behind her determination. “I believe in this 100%. I love it and people love it too,” she says, pointing to the +12,000 followers Palestine on a Plate has on Instagram. “It makes it all worth it. I was worried that not all markets would understand the title, because let’s face it, not many people acknowledge Palestine, but I am not going to hide the most important part of me.”

The most popular dish featured on the application, Kalla says, is m’tabak which her mother only recently taught her to make. It is a flaky pastry filled with halloumi and ricotta baked at a high heat and then drizzled with lemon-sugar syrup, topped off with dried roses and pistachios. ““It is sensational… Incredible and simple,” enthuses Kalla. “My own personal favourite Palestinian dish is makloubeh. The combination of lamb, cinnamon scented rice and fried aubergines with yoghurt is a marriage made in heaven. Always a crowd pleaser.”

Kalla’s ambition for the future is to see Palestine on a Plate turn into a cook book, a small deli, and supper clubs throughout the year teaching people how to cook Palestinian food.

“We have so much to offer as a people and as a country,” believes Kalla. “I hope to shed light on that and many other wonders of our homeland.”

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iPhony reality

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By Christian Nielsen

We’re entering a world of augmented reality (AR) which might sound scary to rational-thinking grown-ups but perfectly natural to iPhone-savvy toddlers.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Augmented reality is the place between virtual reality – where you can walk, talk, or act out in alternate worlds, like Avatar – and, well, reality. Reality, to those struggling with the concept, is the place where unpaid electricity bills mean no more computer games, or where kids get up at 6am every Sunday.

While this augmented world might seem a little way out to anyone born in the 1970s or earlier, the millennium generation has no beef with it. They’ve grown up with the sort of hand-held wizardry that their elders only read about in sci-fi books.

Teens and pre-teens nowadays can fire off sweet nothing messages to ‘tweople’, or ‘twits’ if you prefer, just round the corner or on the other side of the world while riding their bike or walking through the mall. Though multitasking mayhem can ensue – watch this twit fall into a fountain while texting. The woman in the video was later quoted as saying, “texting and walking at the same time is dangerous.” She says she could have been walking in front of a bus!

I guess in the augmented world, the tweet or text would go something like … “Bus coming straight for me! LOL” If you don’t want to take her testimony then it’s probably a good idea to become a better multitasker and learn to be tweet smart –sorry about that one!

Of toddlers and birds

Two-year-olds who’ve been allowed to play Angry Bird or other popular apps on their dad’s iPhone or who have become familiar with touch-screen technology now toddle up to the television and start sweeping their sticky little fingers across the screen like the rated G version of Minority Report. When nothing happens they look at you, the Fat Controller, raise their chubby hands and shrug, as if to say “what kind of low-tech rubbish is this?”

Meanwhile, the Facebook generation are signing up – in some cases not, but that’s a potential legal story – to ‘Locate me’ with gusto, like it is perfectly natural that your every move should be documented, that this phenomenal invasion of privacy is kinda cool because you can meet your friends, like, spontaneously.

And this is where AR picks up an existential tinge. How spontaneity could even exist in a world where every utterance and physical expulsion is scrupulously documented by the world’s best documentary maker – you – is beyond me and beyond anyone who still watches TV at night.

The iPhone is ground zero for the growing class of ‘augmented realtors’. According to the fans at iPhoneNess: “Augmented reality is one of the most exciting technologies around. If you have watched some of those modern Hollywood movies, you have probably seen how our world would look 20-30 years from now. Who knows when augmented applications become mainstream but they are already making their way to the iPhone platform. Augmented reality is the future but thanks to these augmented reality apps for iPhone, you can experience the future today.”

These guys offer up a long list of current apps to prove their point. Everything from golf range-finding gadgets and trekking tools to experimental solutions for colour-blindness. And the thing that strikes this old-school technophile is that a lot of these apps and mashups combining, for instance, satellite geo-location technology which pinpoints your exact location and mobile navigation devices, are not (or perhaps should not be) kids stuff. They are practical applications for grown-ups like me who took up golf when real sports got too hard.

But like the first-wave attempt to make a success of e-commerce and the dot-com bomb of the 1990s, the grown-ups today are just not clued-up or interested enough to fully appreciate what’s out there in the AR sphere. But toddlers to teenagers have no preconceptions about technology. It just is what it is, like milk is quite good on cereal.

Every day new apps are created. Some are very innovative and might one day save your life, some like Angry Birds are simple and a bit of fun for young and old. Others, which combine geo-location technology and social networking, tell us a bit about our society and in particular younger people’s willingness or need to commune in the virtual world. And their disregard for privacy and even safety.

But maybe this notion of privacy and identity is what augmented reality is all about. It brings into question age-old beliefs and many a good philosophical theory. Philosophers tell us identity is what ever makes an entity definable and recognisable. It comes from the Latin identitas or ‘sameness’. Leibniz supposed that two things sharing every attribute are not merely similar but must indeed be the same thing.

So if in this augmented world, whether Second Life or just sophisticated apps on iPhones, if we accept this world without question, and represent ourselves as our avatars or other personas, are we losing or gaining identity? Are we similar or the same? Are we cool or another banal member of the commune?

Perhaps it won’t matter in the end. Perhaps these are ponderings of a generation that is trying to hold fast to two-dimensional formats like terrestrial TV. Of course our kids don’t ask the questions and perhaps don’t need to. All they want to know is why they can’t sweep across to Sesame Street from Dora the Explorer on that thing in the corner of the living room.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Turkey’s eastern promise

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By Khaled Diab

The EU rose out of the ruins of war. Perhaps, with a little patience, a Middle Eastern union is not such a distant fantasy.

18 August 2009

Last week, Tariq Ramadan argued that Turkey was very much a part of Europe and deserved EU membership. “The arguments that locate Turkey outside European history and geography cannot withstand analysis. For more than four centuries the Ottoman empire shared and shaped the political and strategic future of the continent,” he wrote.

In my view, Turkey is both a part of and apart from Europe. This also accords with my ‘mash of civilisations’ theory – that the fault lines separating supposedly distinct societies belie the frequent alliances that cross them and the regular conflicts within them.

But even though Turkey is (at least partly) European, that does not mean it will join the European Union. And there are many reasons for this. One is pretty obvious: religion and the elusive issue of ‘culture’. The EU is seen by enough European leaders and citizens – either covertly or overtly – as a ‘Christian’ club, a secularised version of old Christendom.

That would explain how some countries with questionable records on minority rights, such as Lithuania, or with dodgy economic fundamentals and economies run by speculators and oligarchs, such as Latvia, managed to become members.

It might also shed light on why Greece – the ‘cradle’ of western civilisation – was let into the then EEC without pre-conditions or a lengthy pre-accession period, despite concerns over its “economic backwardness” and its ongoing conflict with Turkey, and how its lacklustre performance since has not raised eyebrows.

But it would be wrong to overstate the influence of Turkey’s Islamic identity. As in so many other instances, religion, civilisation or culture are the cloaks that conceal other more mundane clashes of interests.

First, there are the genuine concerns – despite the massive economic progress Turkey has made in recent years – over the impact the country’s large population of rural poor will have on the Union, not to mention the Kurdish question.

In addition, size does matter in the EU. Turkey’s demographic structure means that it would be one of the largest, if not the largest, member state by population, automatically giving it a top seat at the European table, upsetting the German-French axis and threatening the status of other large countries. For that reason, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Albania might become members of the club before Turkey. Similarly, size is partly why Ukraine, despite its keenness to join and its Christian identity, is being offered the consolation prize of closer ties.

Nevertheless, it is not surprising that Turks feel peeved and frustrated after more than half a century of queuing patiently outside the gates of the EU. But rather than wait forever, Turkey should seize the opportunity and capitalise on its recent efforts to strengthen its Middle Eastern ties.

Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk‘s creation of a modern secular Turkish republic, Turkey has effectively severed its centuries-old links with the Middle East.

For their part, the Arabs have also turned their backs on the Turks due to painful memories evoked by centuries of subservience and the intense Turko-centricism that marked the final decline of Ottoman rule, as well as the dream of full Arab independence.

But there are certain things the region lost in the process which are worth rebuilding in a modern, fairer vestige – relative stability, the rule of law, cross-border freedom of movement, and a dynamic multiethnic multi-religious melting pot.

Just as the EU is a voluntary grouping of a region only ever unified through the conquests of the likes of Charlemagne and Napoleon, why shouldn’t the Middle East become a voluntary union between the lands of the former Ottoman Empire and other neighbours willing to join, such as Iran and even Israel once it is at peace with the Palestinians?

Doubtlessly, the challenges involved in fulfilling such a vision are immense. The Middle East is not only one of the world’s most unstable regions, it is also incredibly diverse, politically, culturally and religiously.

The elusive question is what unifying ideal should the Middle East rally around. Language? While Arabic is the most widely spoken, using it as a unifier for the region would alienate the Turks, Kurds and other non-Arabs.

Religion? While Islam is the faith of the bulk of the region’ population, an overt clustering around it might well make life even more uncomfortable for the region’s religious minorities – Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, Druze and others. In addition, it could strengthen the hand of those who wish to impose a region-wide theocracy. Moreover, it is likely to be more divisive than unifying as competing interpretations of political Islam struggle for ascendancy.

Culture? This could work, but only in the broadest sense. After millennia of cross-fertilisation, the region’s peoples share many elements of a common cultural heritage – Judeo-Christian-Islamic, Greco-Roman, Persian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, etc. Another danger is that it could lead to a focus on the past rather than the future.

To my mind, the best unifier is pragmatism fuelled by a sense of common destiny constrained by common challenges: insecurity and conflict, poverty, the youth bulge, water shortages, foreign domination, etc.

Europe’s first pragmatic steps along the road to integration were taken when a core group of six countries set up the European Coal and Steel Community. Similarly, the Middle East could take the first tentative steps by grouping around resources that are vital to the region’s future, say oil and water.

Through this community, they would not only strike agreements on the sharing of cross-border water resources but would also set up a joint fund to develop and transfer affordable desalination technology. With only a few decades of oil supplies left, the region needs to make the most of what’s left and start preparing for the day when the tank reaches “empty”.

A substantial fund should be set up to channel more petrodollars into regional investment and development. A major region-wide R&D effort to perfect and apply affordable alternative-energy technologies, especially solar power, should be pursued aggressively.

Another crucial area in this volatile neighbourhood is security. A mutual defence and non-aggression pact between the region’s countries is a must for future stability – with or without a union. To underwrite human security, efforts should be made to establish an independent Middle Eastern human rights court.

If we take history as our guide, there is the risk that the emergence of such a bloc would be seen as a threat to ‘vital western interests’, and western soft and hard power could be deployed against it. But the presence of Turkey – militarily powerful in its own right, a staunch western ally and an almost EU partner – can help reduce such risks.

At present, a peaceful and integrated Middle East of this kind seems like something of a fantasy. But then who would’ve thought that Europe could rise peacefully from the ruins of two world wars and tear down an Iron Curtain?

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 16 August 2009. Read the related discussion.

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