Palestinian Cuisine

January 16, 2006 IMEU
Palestinian Cuisine

Palestinian cuisine is similar to the cuisines of neighboring Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and to a lesser extent, Egypt, although it has its own distinctive dishes and variations on regional delicacies.  There is also variation within Palestinian cuisine — between city and countryside, coast and interior, and northern and southern regions.   Palestinian urban cuisine is more delicate and refined than village cooking, draws on a wider range of ingredients, and has been more directly influenced by the outside world. 

Nablus, in the northern West Bank, is one the few Palestinian cities that sustained elite classes, fostering thedevelopment of "high cuisine," as in Damascus or Baghdad. Food in Gaza is more likely to be piquant, incorporating fresh green or dried red hot peppers, and reflecting the culinary influences of Egypt.  Most Palestinian food, in contrast, is spicy but mild.  The coastal region generally relies more heavily on fish and vegetables than the interior, where lamb is the main protein.  In the north, close to Lebanon, many dishes are prepared with yoghurt-based sauces (usually reconstituted from a dried form of yoghurt called kishk or jameed), while those in the center and south of the country favor tomato-based sauces.

However, food is at the center of Palestinian social life, and is always prepared in quantities that permit the spontaneous invitation of whoever may drop in close to meal time.   Most home food preparation is performed by women.  As elderly Palestinians commonly reside with their children (often the eldest son), three generations of women often work together in cooking and processing food, and the many hours spent in the kitchen provide for the passage of both culinary and other forms of wisdom from one generation to another.

Breakfast: Typically quick and casual, breakfast may consist of fried or boiled eggs, black or green olives, fresh cut tomatoes and cucumbers, and labneh (strained and thickened yoghurt) drizzled with olive oil, and jams (such as safarjil or quince). Virtually all meals are accompanied by khubz an Arabic bread (often misnamed "pita bread" in the West; pita is a flat but pocketless Greek bread) which is a food in itself, and often takes the place of utensils.  Diners tear the round loaves into bite-size pieces, crook them into a scoop with their fingers, and scoop up other foods and eat them with the bread.  Hummus bi-tahini, the garbanzo bean dip now popular in the West (although known simply as hummus), is served plain or with meat, pine nut, or other garnishes, and scooped up with khubz torn into bite-size pieces by each diner.  Another breakfast possibility is foul mudammas, or stewed fava beans, dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. Breakfast is typically accompanied by hot tea.

Many busy Palestinians catch breakfast on the run from street vendors, who sell manaqoosheh (pl. manaqeesh), flat bread topped with either za'tar (the Arabic word both for oregano and for a spice mixture frequently made with it and also including toasted sesame seeds, sumac and salt) or jibna baida (white cheese).  Jerusalem is famous for its ka'k bi simsim, a ring shaped bread studded with sesame seeds, and often sold with a satchet of za'tar and a hard-boiled egg. 

Lunch: The main meal of the day, lunch is typically taken around two in the afternoon.  Many offices shut down so employees can eat at home with their families.  The basic ingredients for many dishes include rice, lamb, chicken, fish and vegetables, and common spices include cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, nutmeg and black pepper.  Olive oil and samneh (clarified butter or ghee) are the most common cooking oils.  Some broad categories of foods include yakhneh, meaning, generally, lamb stewed with a vegetable (green beans, spinach, various kinds of squash, etc.), and mahshi, meaning stuffed vegetables or meats.  Grape, cabbage, and chard leaves are stuffed with either rice and meat or rice and vegetable, as are peppers, artichokes, turnips, a special kind of carrot, squashes, cucumbers and other vegetables.  A widely eaten favorite is kousa mahshi (kousa is a local squash that resembles a plump and light-colored zucchini).  Waraq 'ainab, or grape leaves, is also a favorite, often reserved for honored guests due to the amount of labor involved in preparing it.  A third general category are dishes baked or roasted in a large round baking pan with a two-inch rim, called a saniyeh.  Finely-ground lamb is mixed with parsely, onions and spices, formed into thin patties, and baked over potato and tomato slices.  Kibbeh bi-saniyeh is pounded lamb meat mixed with onions, spices, and burghul (bulgur wheat), then baked in the oven.

Fish, widely appreciated in Gaza and other coastal areas, is often served simply grilled or fried, and accompanied by taratour, a sauce made from tahini paste, lemon juice, and garlic.  As in Arab countries, fish is never prepared with dairy products, as this is believed to be unhealthy.

Savory foods - rice with stew or mahshi - are often accompanied by unsweetened yoghurt, either plain or with finely chopped cucumber, mint and garlic, which is spooned next to or over the main course.  This provides a cool, creamy contrast to the flavors of the main course.

One of the most distinctive Palestinian dishes, said to originate in the Northern West Bank, near Jenin and Tulkarms,  is musakhan — roasted chicken smothered in fried onions, pine nuts, and sumac (a dark red, lemony flavored spice), and laid over taboon - a flat bread that takes its name from the free-standing village ovens in which it is baked.

Palestinian cuisine has inexpensive "fast food" options for workers, travelers, and others who do not have time for a full family lunch.  Fatayer are like an Italian calzone or Cornish pastie - closed pies stuffed with ground meat, white cheese, spinach or other vegetables.  Shawarma is lamb grilled on a vertical spit and served wrapped in khubz with pickles and chopped salad.  Falafel - deep fried patties made from ground beans, parsley and spices – is also served wrapped in khubz. In keeping with its humble origins, Palestinian food has many vegetarian delicacies (meat has always been, and remains, a luxury ingredient). Some are consumed by Palestinian Christian communities during Lent.  

The dishes described above are generically referred to as tabeekh, or cooking.  This is distinguished from mashwi, or grilled foods - usually skewered meats (such as shuqaf, hunks of lamb, or kofta, ground lamb, or shish taouk, marinated chicken). Another common style of eating is maza (which also means "table" in Arabic), which consists of a large number of small plates of salads, pickles, cured meats or sausages, and other appetizers.  Restaurant eating is a relatively recent phenomenon in Palestinian society, and while restaurants commonly offer mashwi and maza, very few offer the more labor intensive tabeekh, which is available almost exclusively in Palestinian homes. 

Lunch and other meals are followed by offerings of fresh fruit: grapes, peaches, plums, citrus, persimmons, figs, apples, and white or dark mulberries.  Palestinians often harvest and enjoy fruits and vegetables at different stages of maturity.  In early spring, for example, plums are eaten when they are very tart but crisp.  Almonds are also harvested early, and the entire fresh green husk is consumed whole, often dipped in salt.  Hummus  (garbanzo beans) are harvested on the stalk, hulled, and consumed fresh, as people in the West sometimes consume fresh peas.

Lunch is often followed by a nap or hours of relaxation and talk.  Professionals and other working people may return to offices in the late afternoon/early evening, and stay at work until 7 pm or later.

Dinner: Consumed anywhere from 8-10 pm, dinner is the lightest and simplest meal of the day.  Omelets, either plain, or with fresh chopped herbs and spices, are a common dinner food, as are hummus bi-tahini, salads, fatayer, and other light snacks.

Drinks: Tea (sometimes infused with mint or sage) and qahwa turkiyeh, or Turkish coffee, is served throughout the day, especially to visitors.  Turkish coffee is brewed by placing water, sugar, finely ground coffee, and sometimes cardamom in a small pot (ibreek), and bringing it to a boil multiple times until the grounds settle.  Arabic coffee, or qahwa 'arabiyeh, is spiced but unsweetened, and is typically served in minute quantities after a meal, or on somber occasions such as funerals.  Occasionally, and sometimes as a remedy for an upset stomach, qahwa beyda or "white coffee" is served.  In fact this is only hot water with several drops of orange blossom or rose water and sugar, and contains no coffee at all.  

Cold drinks - soft drinks or locally produced fruit drinks - are served during hot weather.    Tamar hindi ("Indian dates" and the Arabic name for tamarind), sous (a licorice-flavored drink), and kharroub (carob) are sold by street vendors from large brass pots carried on the vendor's back.   Sharab or sharabat (the English term "sherbet" comes from the same Arabic root) is a category of cool drinks made by adding water and ice to fruit syrups.  Palestinian families produce their own sharabat from an indigenous citrus that is a cross between a lemon and orange called khushhash or in some areas, trunj, toot or mulberries, mishmish or apricots, and lemons.

Consumption of alcohol is prohibited in Islam, but many Christian Palestinians and less stringently observant Muslim Palestinians drink beer, wine, or spirits (Scotch whiskey being the most popular, or the indigenous arak, made from distilled grape juice and flavored with anise, like the Greek ouzo), generally before and with meals.  Both wine and beer are locally produced, the wine primarily by Christian monasteries, and the beer by local franchisers of international brands.  There is one local brand of beer produced in the West Bank, called Tayibeh.

Sweets: Artfully prepared and much loved, sweets are most often served as a late afternoon or early evening treat - or whenever guests appear.  Baklava and many other sweets use very thin philo dough, nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews or pistachios), and honey or sugar syrup flavored with rose water.  Another very distinctive Palestinian sweet, for which Nablus is especially renowned, is kanafeh, made from mild white cheese topped with a crispy layer of shredded wheat, and covered with sugar syrup.  Most of these sweets are purchased from shops, while Palestinian home chefs prepare puddings (such as muhallabiyeh, a rice pudding with milk topped with almonds and pistachios), cookies (such as anise-flavored ghuraybeh), and other simple sweets.  

Some sweets are either seasonal or are associated with specific holidays.  Qatayef, for example, are like thick crepes, stuffed either with mild white cheese or with walnuts, and are typically prepared during the month of Ramadan (see Customs and Traditions).

Sahtein! ("Two healths" or "may your health be redoubled") is the Arabic equivalent of bon appetit!, to which the response is al-'albak - "on your heart" or "same to you." Guests frequently murmur Sufra daymeh - "may your dining room be eternally blessed" - at the end of a meal.

For further reference, see:

May S. Bsisu, "The Arab Table" (while the book covers food from the entire Arab world, the author is Palestinian, and many Palestinian recipes are included.)

Christiane Dabdoub Nasser, "Classic Palestinian Cookery"