“It’s a labour of love,” says Palestinian-Syrian-American chef and restaurateur Reem Assil to me with a sigh. She’s interrupting her long monologue where she’s been describing the joys and troubles of building a name for herself from her kitchen in San Francisco, where she bakes mana’eesh – a food that is rooted in her Arab identity, and what, for her, defines that identity and culture: bread.
It is often considered the glue that holds Arab communities together; it is a word that comprises half of one of the most popular and commonly used Arabic sayings, “’eish w malh” (bread and salt), which holds connotations of a shared history, and deep bond – a testament to the role food plays as an anchor not just of culture, but of friendship, love, and community in the Middle East.
And a labour it is. Kneading and pressing dough to make her trademark man’ousheh, a type of soft flatbread common in the Middle East that comes with different toppings like thyme and ground meat. All while she’s months into her pregnancy, struggling from a disorder preventing her from eating well, going into early labour, and receiving a daily dose of threats and backlash against her bakery, Reem’s, which she opened in 2017 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Assil’s journey with baking and making a home for herself and her staff has been both a mentally and physically arduous journey.
Man’ousheh, a type of Lebanese flatbread, served at Reem’s. Photo courtesy of Luke Beard/New York Times.
The backlash she’s received, which particularly targeted a mural, hanging in the bakery until today, of Palestinian and former American (her citizenship was revoked) activist Rasmea Odeh who was tortured by the Israeli army into confessing to an explosion killing two civilians in Jerusalem, often escalated to racist, derogatory comments. The bakery, however, continued to gain attention from American press, including The New York Times, Food & Wine - which ranked it one of the top 10 restaurants in the U.S. in 2018 - and the San Francisco Eater.
They were asking, ‘what is [Palestine]?’ saying that it doesn’t exist, that I’m not actually Palestinian
Similarly, British-Palestinian chef and author Joudie Kalla is not unfamiliar with such a “labour of love,” as she went from one publisher’s door to another searching for someone who not only appreciated and wanted to publish her cookbook, but was willing to publish one with ‘Palestine’ written on its cover, discovering that that alone, is no small feat. “They were asking, ‘what is [Palestine]?’ saying that it doesn’t exist, that I’m not actually Palestinian […], but I just figured I don’t even want to work with these types of people,” Kalla says indignantly. “I don’t want to work with someone who doesn’t acknowledge Palestine and would tell me that I’m Syrian or Lebanese or Jordanian or Egyptian - not that there’s anything wrong with being any of those, but I am Palestinian.”
Mural of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh at Reem's Bakery. Photo courtesy of the SF Eater.
Food, from this and countless other incidents, presents itself as an inextricable organ in the machine of politics, especially in the context of occupation, oppression, and herbicidal warfare — all integral parts of the Israeli agenda in Palestine. The produce of the land—its seeds, fruits, and grains—are bulldozed, confiscated, and annexed by Israeli occupation forces, taken away from the people who know the land the most—those who know where olive trees and zaa’tar (thyme) crops thrive, when to plant them, and when to harvest them—as a means of controlling the people themselves.
This form of oppression extends beyond the occupied territories, where in other places around the world where Palestinians have settled, Israeli restaurants begin to pop up in their streets, becoming trendy “hot spots”, selling mezzehs (Middle Eastern appetizers), including labneh, a type of strained yogurt cheese made in the Middle East with lots of olive oil and thyme, as well as traditional Palestinian dishes such as maqloubeh, literally meaning “upside down,” which consists of lamb, fried vegetables and spiced rice, flipped upside down to look like a cake — and then branding all these foods as Israeli.
...so much of the custom of eating, and so much of the identity that we have with our food is not just the food itself, but the experience of eating it
Los Angeles-based Palestinian urban planner and designer Daleen Saah, who’s organising a Palestinian supper club event in the city on September 7th, where Assil will be the designated chef, recalled the time she went to one such restaurant, explaining how the aromas and tastes felt right, but everything else felt wrong. There was no mention of Arab roots, let alone Palestinian. She went on popular food review website and forum Yelp to comment on the omission, letting people know that the food was delicious, but noting that the restaurant should pay homage to its Arab and Palestinian roots, and to her surprise, her review got deleted. “I was like, okay, this is not unintentional. They don’t want that voice; they [just] want the food,” she says.
Wall décor in the interior of Reem’s Bakery in San Francisco, California. Photo courtesy of Milky Magazine.
Hosted at Navel, an art organisation and events space in L.A. where Saah works as a creative programmer, the event, called Sofra Daymeh — an Arabic saying meaning both “may your table always be plentiful” and “may we always have this company” — is an assertion of that Palestinian voice in connection to the food of their culture.
This event, which has the tagline of "decolonising food around the sofra [dining table]," combines dining and conversation in an exploration of the relationship between food and politics, particularly in the context of Palestinian food, with the moderator guiding guests through the dishes on the table, and how those very dishes are used and co-opted by larger colonial projects of indigenous erasure.
The general public are most of the people you meet who go to these restaurants and say yeah, “I love Israeli hummus," but they don’t know any better.
It is a reminder that food and the voice and the culture that accompanies it go hand in hand: food, in most Arab cultures, is not at all a means of survival, but an experience and a communal event. For most of us, food reminds us of our grandparents, our mothers, the aromas and tastes of our childhood, and the gathering of countless extended family members in one dining room, often not constructed to take up that many people.
“Anyone can go to the store and buy a Tupperware of hummus and eat it in their car, and okay, you’re eating, but so much of the custom of eating, and so much of the identity that we have with our food is not just the food itself, but the experience of eating it,” says Saah. “When you’re consuming the food, you’re also taking in other senses that inform your experience; what you see, what you’re hearing, what it smells like, who’s around you, what the climate is, what it feels like. It’s context.”
...that’s where the danger lies, in not properly educating and letting a misnomer, as little as it is, a misnaming of a food, have that ripple effect
This is where her role in the Sofra Daymeh event as a designer comes in—unlike most supper clubs, which feature dining and discussion at whatever space, home, or room is available, this event is held at an art space, and the goal is not only to provide the guests with a taste of Palestinian cuisine, but of Palestine itself. Saah will be transforming the space into a contemporary Palestinian garden.
The location of California also lends to the creation of a little piece of Palestine thousands of miles away from where it actually exists; Assil and Saah both explain to me how similar its terrain is to their homeland. “My father wanted to live in the bay area [in San Francisco, California] because the climate is Mediterranean and the land reminds him of Palestine; it almost looks exactly the same,” says Saah. “He’s really into gardening, planting, and growing fruits and vegetables, so we have a huge yard and that’s very much part of our continued [Palestinian] culture here.”
19th century illustration depicting a lush Palestinian garden with vines of gourd fruits.
In creating that space, Saah will be drawing on her own experience visiting Palestine, lounging in its gardens and outdoor restaurants, where Arabic music and aromas of food fill the air. “It’s important to create the space to serve this food, because [you’re saying] ‘this what it feels like to be in one of our gardens.’” Beyond that, the event, like most supper clubs of the kind, attempts to target every other person, from "Joe from down the block to Mariam and her husband Ahmed," as Kalla explains, drawing on her own experience with holding supper clubs in the past.
It targets people who are subject to misinformation and to simply never receiving any information about Palestine at all. "The general public are most of the people you meet who go to these restaurants and say yeah, “I love Israeli hummus," but they don’t know any better. They’re not necessarily Zionist, they’re not necessarily with an agenda, they just simply don’t know. So I feel like that large pocket of misinformed, innocent general public – that’s where the danger lies, in not properly educating and letting a misnomer, as little as it is, a misnaming of a food, have that ripple effect," says Saah.
Another essential element of Palestinian cuisine and the experience of cultivating it which this event is shedding light on is the indigenous practice of farm-to-table cuisine, which is the use of local produce rather than shipping from afar or buying processed foods and ingredients. This aspect of the event is a way to provide context and history to the now overly commercialised and consumerised Israeli versions of the cuisine. However, Assil notes the problematic aspect of that term and the reason she doesn’t refer to her own practices at Reem’s as such.
Reem at her cafe and restaurant in San Francisco, ranked one of the top 10 restaurants in the U.S. in 2018 by Food & Wine magazine. Photo courtesy of Milky Magazine.
“I feel that the term ‘farm-to-table’ is something that eliminates the story of the people. [The food] is not really farm-to-table; it’s tied to the worker’s hand, to the person who’s pulling it, to the person who’s shipping it, to the worker who’s cooking it, to the server who’s serving it. It’s like farm-many-hands-between-the-farm-and-the-table, so we don’t use that terminology because we think it erases the work and the labor [that goes into the making of] that food.”
This is especially vital in the context of workers who are refugees and already at the margins of a certain place and culture, where their labor can be—and certainly often is—very easily erased and exploited. Reem’s, in that regard, has served as much more than just a café and a bakery for the Bay Area – and not just to the many Palestinians in the region. As a community organiser, Assil has unionised workers from across different marginalized groups in the region at her café. It has thus become a community spot where activists gather and where social justice is a core value; a safe haven for disenfranchised communities.
A lot of us are keeping some of these dishes alive that Palestinians who are actually living in occupied territory cannot keep alive, because they’re confined by the limits of occupation
The same way that Assil refuses to shy away from speaking her truth, Joudie Kalla’s insistence on publishing a book with ‘Palestine’ written on its front cover in big red letters, is part of that movement of resilience—and the similarity between both women carries through their mutual use of the phrase, “existence is resistance.”
Kalla has also hosted countless supper club events in her past, and besides Palestine on a Plate, her cookbook, she had also launched an application by the same name offering original, homegrown recipes of Palestinian dishes, before having to shut it down due to copyright issues in conflation with her book. She has also published another cookbook, Baladi: Palestine—A Celebration of Food from Land and Sea, connecting her recipes to the land of Palestine itself, from its markets and villages to its hills, orchards, and rivers.
Chef Joudie Kalla. Photo courtesy of Kalla.
With all of these different avenues where knowledge about Palestinian cuisine, which is inseparable from the land that first bred it, is disseminated, there has arisen a growing movement of Palestinian activism through food. But this does not come without its fair share of backlash and opposition, not only from people who do not recognise Palestine, but from people in the Middle East who fight over ownership of the food that Palestinian chefs call their own.
“There was this Lebanese lady and she was having a breakdown, saying that we’re stealing their food and that this is appropriation […]. I explain every time someone says something to me that they should look at my book, where I explain that mansaf, for example [a dish made of rice, lamb, and fermented dried yogurt], is now traditionally Jordanian, but that Palestinian Bedouins on the borders between Jordan and Palestine eat it too, and the same [crossovers in cuisine happened to] Egyptians with falafel and molokhiyyeh, and Daoud Basha from Syria.”
Fattet hummus, a dish consisting of toasted pita chips and hummus, sprinkled with toasted pine nuts and fresh parsley, is a popular Middle Eastern Dish. Above is Kalla's Palestinian rendition of it as presented through Palestine on a Plate. Photo courtesy of Joudie Kalla.
The point that is missed by most of these people is that the fight is not really over ownership of food, but as Assil also emphasised, over power and privilege. “We use the food to spark a conversation, [to ask] who does this food come from? And who was hurt in order to claim it? Because not doing so is turning a blind eye to history.”
Kalla echoes this as well as she recounts the stories her grandmothers told her when she was young, of a time before the 1948 Nakba when more than half of the Palestinian population was forcibly expelled from the country. “[Jews, Muslims and Christians] would make wara’ ‘enab [rice-stuffed vine leaves] together, and their kids would go to school together, and the atmosphere between them was of shared food and community, and the food was Palestinian.”
[Jews, Muslims and Christians] would make wara’ ‘enab [rice-stuffed vine leaves] together, and their kids would go to school together, and the atmosphere between them was of shared food and community, and the food was Palestinian.
Since after the Nakba, Palestinians fled to nearby countries as well as overseas, and their cuisine began to gather divergent influences, from Lebanese and Jordanian to Greek and even American. As Assil explains, her ingredients are all of Californian soil, but the recipes and practices that go into her baking and cooking, are distinctly her, and that is—all at once—Palestinian, Syrian, American, and even Lebanese by way of her mother. The reality, then, is that ‘Palestinian’, over the years, has come to mean many things at once, and so has its cuisine. The lines of “ownership” are thus extremely blurred and are also arguably irrelevant in the context of cultural appropriation that not only affects Palestinians, but most of the cultures of the Levant.
And for Palestinian chefs like Kalla and Assil, food can simply also be a way of remembrance. “I cook for memories. I miss my mom, I’ll make molokhiyyeh. I miss my sister, I’ll make the yalanji [stuffed vine leaves] that she loves,” says Kalla. “It’s not about the taste, it’s about connections and what food makes you feel. [... And] we have our own way of making our things, and that’s not to say that we forget where it comes from, but I would put the cuisines of all these countries together and say that it’s Palestinian food, in order to defend against the Israeli takeover of our origins, and it’s always so important to acknowledge that things are rooted in history,” says Kalla.
Maqloubeh by Chef Kalla for Palestine on a Plate. Photo courtesy of Bloomberg.
With that history in mind, both Assil and Kalla, as well as Saah as she organises the upcoming event, attempt to breathe new life into the land and food being continuously and systematically suffocated both by Israeli forces, and by a global narrative of silence and complicity that threatens to eradicate both Palestinian food and culture. They do this on behalf of themselves and the people who remain in Palestine but are unable to connect to that essential part of their home—those in Gaza, sieged in a blockade preventing most produce, food, and water from coming through, are stuck in an increasingly precarious situation where they are not able to buy simple ingredients, such as olive oil, except by the shekel’s worth, just enough for one dish.
That is one of the rare privileges of being part of the Palestinian diaspora; having the means to effect change without being in direct immense danger as is the case for Palestinians living in their land. “A lot of us are keeping some of these dishes alive that Palestinians who are actually living in occupied territory cannot keep alive, cause they’re confined by the limits of occupation,” Assil says. Against all odds, though, some in Gaza do, and they continue to spend what little money they have on making one extravagant dish, like the maqloubeh—cooking it to perfection, drizzling it in olive oil, adding the pine nuts for garnish using the spices to add flavor to the rice, because food, for them, is heritage and memory, a memory they do not want to alter.
The food they cooked for their loved ones, they continue to cook, because life did not end for them, even though it may have ended for many people around them—they continue to live by honoring the memories of their lives in Palestine before the occupation. For those displaced or born into the Palestinian diaspora, their roles in keeping their culture alive transcends continents and brings people together to talk, not necessarily about the occupation, and not about Israel, but about their homeland. "We don’t need to speak to [Israelis], we don’t need to speak about them. [At the Sofra Daymeh event,] I want as little mention of Israel as possible because this is about Palestine. It’s not about saying ‘this is not yours,’ it’s about saying ‘this is ours.’"