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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Taking Hitler off the menu

 
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By Khaled Diab

Was Belgian television justified in pulling an episode of a cooking programme featuring Hitler’s favourite dish?

October 2008

Although I’m not particularly big on cookery programmes, we have been watching Plat Préféré, hosted by Flemish celebrity chef Jeroen Meus, which features the favourite dishes of famous people whose one common characteristic is that they all happen to be dead. 

The episodes on Freddie Mercury and Salvador Dali were fascinating, not so much due to the food that was cooked, but more because of the intriguing insights they afforded into these iconic figures’ lives.

Last week, we were surprised to learn that the following episode would feature not an artist or an actor but Adolf Hitler, one of history’s most destructive figures and one of the most horrendous mass murderers the world has ever known. Although dismayed by the choice, I was looking forward to seeing how the programme would approach Europe’s most-hated figure, and whether I would learn anything new about this most-analysed of political leaders.

Alas, I never got to find out because – faced with outrage from some Jewish, resistance and political prisoner groups – the Belgian television channel VRT decided to pull the episode which was due to air on Tuesday evening.

“Everyone who has lost a loved one to Nazi barbarity or the concentration camps felt unsettled by [VRT] dedicating space to this,” said Francois De Coster, president of the Union of Belgian Political Prisoners, last week. Michael Freilich of Antwerp’s Joods Actueel, a Jewish community magazine, denounced the programme as “trivialising” Hitler and turning him into a “simple man of the people”, claiming that it sent “the wrong signal” to the younger generation.

But I wonder if the revelation that Hitler’s favourite dish was trout with butter sauce would actually change any young person’s views of the man’s politics. In fact, the suggestion is an insult to young people’s intelligence.

Is Freilich really suggesting that someone might switch off their TV after the show and think: “Although he started a world war and killed millions of people, Hitler ate trout, which makes him a regular bloke like us!” With the exception of neo-Nazis, who will look favourably on Hitler no matter what, I don’t think this show will make anyone think better of the Nazi leader.

While I appreciate that any programme that deals with Hitler or the Holocaust is bound to trigger painful memories for those who suffered and their families, I do not accept that this programme trivialises his bloody legacy.

Of course, a case can be made that the inclusion of Hitler among all the artists and celebrities featured on the show was a bizarre decision, probably conceived as a ratings-grabber, given the endless public and media interest in the second world war and the Nazis. In fact, the broadcaster admitted to having made a poor call by featuring the Nazi dictator in “a series in which all other protagonists are famous in the positive sense of the word, such as Roald Dahl and Jacques Brel”.

Nevertheless, thanks to the effective bid to dictate what we can or cannot watch, viewers will never get the chance to make up their own minds about the appropriateness of the programme. But based on the trailer, it would appear that Jeroen Meus makes no attempts to whitewash history when he visits Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest hideaway in Southern Germany to cook the favourite meal of an “atrocious man”, as the chef described him.

“Speaking as someone who almost didn’t exist because of Hitler, I don’t see an issue with [a] television show discussing his favourite meal,” commented one perplexed culinary blogger. “As a Jew, I find that the young chef did nothing offensive at all, and can’t understand the mindset of those who are raising a fuss,” agreed a poster.

The fuss stirred up by this programme reminds me, albeit it to a smaller scale, of the controversy sparked by the German film Der Untergang a few years ago because it explored Hitler’s humaneness – such as his love of dogs and affection for Eva Braun – amid his madness.

But does exploring the person and personality of Hitler – and not depicting him exclusively as a dehumanised monster – actually belittle the memory of his millions of victims and give succour to extremists? At the time of Der Untergang, I found not: I emerged from the cinema just as horrified by his actions but with greater insight into the man behind them.

Besides, there have been literally thousands of books, TV documentaries and films that have explored the minutest details of his life and political career. Max, a film starring John Cusack, not only moves away from the Hitler-as-monster formula, but goes as far as to depict the young Adolf as an artist and his friendship with a Jewish art dealer.

The film speculates about what would have happened had the future Führer found more success as a painter and, hence, stayed out of politics. Is the implication that, had circumstance been different, Hitler may not have become a hateful, bitter and murderous tyrant also sending out the “wrong signal”?

It is my opinion that it is the people who gagged this essentially harmless cookery programme who are sending out the wrong signal by curbing freedom of expression and inquiry. As long as they do not represent a danger to others, everyone has a right to express themselves and, as I’ve argued before, even to offend.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 29 October 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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