TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. A lot of dishes that many of us think of as Middle Eastern or Israeli originated as Palestinian dishes. My guest, Reem Kassis, wrote about the history of Palestinian food along with some of her personal history in her first book, “The Palestinian Table.” In her new book, “The Arabesque Table,” she expands the focus to the cross-cultural culinary history of the Arab world. Both books are beautifully illustrated cookbooks, with each recipe accompanied by historical background and, when relevant, personal stories. Kassis is Palestinian and was raised in East Jerusalem, which is predominantly Palestinian. Her mother is Palestinian Muslim – her father, Palestinian Christian.
Growing up, she learned about food in the kitchens of her mother and two grandmothers. She moved to Philadelphia when she was 17 to study at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received her undergraduate degree and then an MBA from the Wharton School. She lived in London for five years, where she received a graduate degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics. She now lives outside of Philadelphia in Bryn Mawr with her husband and their two daughters. She describes her refrigerator as multicultural. Reem Kassis, welcome to FRESH AIR.
REEM KASSIS: Thank you for having me, Terry.
GROSS: You write that you became interested in culinary history when you realized how many dishes were made of ingredients that weren’t native to those nations. For instance, when we think of Italian food, we think of tomatoes, which aren’t native to Italy. What are some other examples of that?
KASSIS: There’s a lot of fruits and vegetables that actually originated in North, South and Central America. Chiles are not native to our region. They originated in South America. Potatoes as well – you know, when you think of Irish food, sometimes you think, oh, potatoes and their Guinness stews. But potatoes, actually, also originated in Peru and only made their way after the Columbian exchange. A lot of the ingredients, like rice, which are staples in Arab cuisine also originated in Asia and only became staples in the 20th century. So you see it across a wide class and variety of crops and ingredients.
GROSS: What are some of the foods with Palestinian origins that most of us don’t realize are Palestinian?
KASSIS: So I think one of the things that’s important to recognize when we even say Palestinian is the whole idea of national cuisine itself is relatively recent. It came about with the rise of the nation state in the 19th century. Food at its core is very regional. And our part of the world stretches back to the start of civilization. So when we look at countries like Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, you see that they share a lot of dishes and ingredients in common because we are located in the same area geographically.
So often when people ask me, you know, what is a Palestinian dish? It’s easy to point to specific things like maqluba, which is an inverted dish of rice and vegetables, or maftoul, which is similar to couscous but a bit larger. And it is made that way only in Palestine. So those two dishes are considered by many to be the national dishes of Palestine, if you will. But if you look across the Levant, Greater Syria, you see so many commonalities because of the way that our history has transpired over the last several centuries.
GROSS: I was surprised to see that bagels might originate in Arab cuisine. I always associate them with Eastern European Jewish origins. So tell me about the history of the Arab equivalent of the bagel.
KASSIS: So like you, I actually also always assumed it originated with the Ashkenazi communities in Eastern Europe. And then I started doing the research for this book, the new one that just came out. And part of the research involved looking through ancient, mediaeval, Arabic cookbooks. And I’m flipping through one of them from the 13th century. And there in a chapter on bread, I see a section on ka’ak, which is a ring-shaped dough that Arabs used to make centuries ago. And I’m reading. And in there it says, you know, take these ring-shaped doughs, put them on a dowel, boil them in water and then bake them. And that, essentially, is what a bagel is today.
So once you start digging deeper, you realize the bagel can be traced back – and this is done by a lot of Jewish researchers. They trace it back to Poland in the 16th century. In Poland, however, they trace it back to their royal family to the 13th century. And then when you look who married into that royal family, it was a woman who came from Bari, Italy. And Bari, Italy, in the Middle Ages was the principal stronghold of the Islamic empire. And from there, the cuisine of Europe was influenced heavily by Arab traders and the conquest of that region.
So you start to see how the bagel, you know, in its original form traveled across the world. And then you also see very similar versions of it in China where the trade routes also went. And then you realized the thing connecting all those was their origin in those Arabic cookbooks, that fact of boiling a piece of dough before baking it. So I was fascinated just as much as you to learn that its origins go much further back than 16th century Eastern Europe.
GROSS: Do you remember eating bagels when you were growing up?
KASSIS: Not the bagels that we recognize today in the U.S. is bagels. What I grew up eating was something called ka’ak il qudss. Today here in the West, they refer to them as Jerusalem Sesame Bagels. But they’re substantially lighter and airier on the inside. They’re also much longer and oval-shaped and studded with sesame seeds. And those are probably one of the most prominent things I remember eating as a kid because everybody on the streets walked around with carts selling them. They would stand outside our schools, outside our homes and just, you know, yell off the top of their lungs, ka’ak, ka’ak for two shekels. Come buy it. And that was our snack.
GROSS: A lot of Americans are familiar with hummus, which is a spread of chickpeas and tahini. You describe hummus as the most recognizable and most controversial Middle Eastern dish. What is controversial about hummus?
KASSIS: So hummus itself is controversial abroad because just a few decades ago, nobody knew what it was. You know, when my husband would take it to school, people would make fun of him for eating this beige paste. Now, suddenly, since the late ’80s, it’s become much more popular and recognized abroad as Israeli. And I think that’s where the controversy happens. This is a dish that is inherently Arab. And abroad, it’s being marketed as Israeli without any mention to those origins. And that’s where the controversy arises that I’m referring to in the book.
GROSS: You say that’s true of various Palestinian foods, that the Palestinian origins or the Arab origins aren’t recognized, at least not in America. So I’m wondering how that makes you feel, both as somebody who has become a historian of Arab food, but also as somebody, you know, who’s Palestinian and probably have some personal reactions to that.
KASSIS: So look; for me, I started noticing these things once I left Jerusalem. I think a big part of our identities are formed and shaped once you are out of the place from which your identity arises. You start to see yourself in relation to others. Back home, everyone’s Palestinian. It doesn’t matter. You come here. And suddenly, it’s a defining factor. So when I’m here and I see something that I know is such an important part of my culinary identity being appropriated as Israeli, it feels almost like adding insult to injury and willfully saying that I don’t exist, that I don’t have a past, that I was never there or part of the history. So I’ve said this before, it’s not about the chickpea itself. It’s not about the dish. It’s more about what that omission signifies to people like me who are Palestinian, who see our history being sidestepped completely and ignored abroad.
GROSS: You know, you mentioned that when you lived in a Palestinian community in East Jerusalem, being Palestinian was just what people were. But when you moved to America, it was a defining trait. Along those lines, you say you didn’t appreciate your mother’s cooking until you left Jerusalem and moved to Philadelphia to study at the University of Pennsylvania. So how did her cooking come into a different form of focus after you left home?
KASSIS: So, Terry, I think a lot of times you take things for granted as a child. And I definitely did that with my mother’s cooking. My daughters do the same with mine. But once I left and I arrived in the U.S., there was a bit of culture shock for me. Part of it was seeing how – I’m eating on my own in the dining halls. There isn’t that familial feeling of having everyone eating together. And then the food itself, I started to crave it. I missed it. I missed not only the taste and the flavor, but the entire feeling around it. And that’s when I started actually tinkering with cooking. And I would call my mother and ask her for recipes. So it started out simple.
But I remember the first dish that I wanted to make was maqluba, an inverted rice and vegetable dish. And I called my mother. And this was long before FaceTime and Skype. And I think I called her maybe 15 times in the span of two hours that, at one point, she said it’s cheaper for me to fly over and cook it for you than to have to keep answering your questions about how to make it. But I remember eating it then. And somehow it gave me a sense of satisfaction of being closer to home. And even if just for a little bit, that nostalgia that I had was placated just for – or just by eating that dish.
GROSS: So without giving us a recipe worthy of 15 phone calls, describe the dish and why it tastes so good and why you craved it.
KASSIS: The dish is surprisingly simple. At its core, it is fried vegetables. Generally, it’s either eggplant or cauliflower. Sometimes people use both. And those are layered in a pot between rice that is spiced with several different spices, including turmeric, cinnamon, pimento. And you can use chicken or meat as well, either at the bottom of the pot or, once you’ve taken their broth, roast them and serve it on top. Simple. You cook it. You wait a little bit to let it rest, and then you flip it over. And hence the name, luba (ph) means flipped over. And you serve it with yogurt or a chopped mixed salad. And it’s simple, but it’s just satisfying, at least for someone who’s grown up eating, you know, dishes full of rice and meat and sauce on the side from the salad or the yogurt. It just – it felt like home to me.
GROSS: So what’s on top of the vegetables and meat or the rice?
KASSIS: Well, when you flip it over, you see the vegetables and the meat on top. They go in first into the pot, and then you flip it, and those are at the top.
GROSS: Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Reem Kassis, author of the new book “The Arabesque Table.” It’s a cookbook that’s a follow-up to her first cookbook, “The Palestinian Table.” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Reem Kassis, author of the new book “The Arabesque Table.” It’s a follow-up to her first cookbook, “The Palestinian Table.”
You write that the most meaningful ingredient in the Arab world is olives and olive oil. Does your family have olive trees?
KASSIS: They do. They have olive groves in the Galilee and the northern part of the country, yes.
GROSS: And describe the grove.
KASSIS: It’s huge. I mean, you look and you see olive trees as far as your eye can see. And it’s beautiful in terms of nature, but it’s also – we would go there in the fall when it was the season to pick. And so in my mind, I don’t only see the trees when I think of it, I also see the dome-shaped saj oven that we would take to bake bread on. And I see the blankets we would spread on the floor to sit and eat that bread along with labneh and olives or oil from the previous season. So it’s very, you know, it’s green. It’s homey. It’s welcoming. But it also – it smells very nice, both from the olive trees and the foods that you’re eating while you’re picking things in season.
GROSS: So this is your father’s side of the family?
KASSIS: It is, yes.
GROSS: And did they make olive oil?
KASSIS: So they would pick the olives. And they actually – it varies in different parts of the country when you pick them and when you press them. So in the north, they tend to wait until the olives are almost black on the tree, and then they pick it and press it. So the olive tends to be a bit sweeter and not as sharp as the ones that are picked when they’re green.
GROSS: How does that compare with the olive oil, even if you buy expensive olive oil, that you get in a market in the U.S.?
KASSIS: So the problem with oil that you buy in stores is oftentimes it’s adulterated, especially the ones that you see, even if they’re expensive, if they’re the product of several countries, you often don’t know what it is that you’re getting. In terms of how it compares to ones that are single origin or protected designation and are very good oils, it might vary the way two apples that you buy from two different farmers will taste. I find the one from back home a little sweeter and less peppery when it hits the back of your throat versus the ones that I purchase sometimes from Italy or Greece, which are – the fragrance is a bit more spicy when you eat it. But they’re good. And each is good in its own way.
GROSS: So you describe za’atar as the least understood yet most recognized ingredient of the Middle East. What is it for people who are unfamiliar with it?
KASSIS: Za’atar is an herb in and of itself. And it’s from the oregano family. What ends up happening here is when people say za’atar, they are referring to the condiment made from that herb mixed with sumac, sesame and salt. And sometimes people will call it thyme, but it’s actually not time at all. It is much, much closer to oregano than it is to thyme. And the problem or the reason it’s misunderstood is people probably don’t realize it’s an actual plant. So we do make a condiment from that plant, and we creatively call it by the same name as the plant. But we also use it in other applications. We use it in doughs, you know, different types of bread and pastries. We use it to make teas as well.
And, of course, the condiment is probably the most widely used and recognized. And it’s – like I was saying, mixed with sumac, sesame seed and salt. And it’s probably present on every table in any Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian household. And it’s your go-to breakfast. You dip pita bread in olive oil and za’atar, and you’re good to go.
GROSS: When you were growing up, where did your family get the za’atar from?
KASSIS: We used to forage for it in the mountains. And then there was a period where Israel made it illegal to forage for it. So we grew some in our backyard. But it’s very different when it’s foraged wild versus picked.
GROSS: Why was it illegal?
KASSIS: So it’s a complicated, long story. The claim was that they were trying to – it’s endangered and we’re trying to protect it. But it was for political reasons.
GROSS: So what is the brief version of the political reasons?
KASSIS: So it’s a couple of things. One of them, the first one is za’atar is very symbolic for Palestinians. It is a big part not only of the cuisine, but also, it’s seen as a symbol of the culture. It is one of their – you know, if you ask a Palestinian what represents you from a food perspective, they would say olives and za’atar. It’s our breakfast. It’s our staple food. Even families who have access to nothing will always have that. So there is the one side of it which was preventing them from accessing this herb that is very important to them, so a morale side of it.
The other one was more of a business perspective. There were these families that were trying to grow za’atar and sell it. And so in order to do that, if you prevent families from gathering it for free in the wild, they would be forced to purchase it. And it would be more lucrative. And that family was an Israeli-Jewish family. And I only learned that bit of history this summer when I was there. Someone was working on a research project, and we ended up discussing this.
GROSS: Your mother is Muslim Palestinian. Your father’s Christian Palestinian. Do they have different food traditions in their family because of the region that they’re from or because of one being Muslim and one Christian?
KASSIS: Both, actually, Terry. So my father’s from the northern part of the country. It’s much closer to the Lebanese border. And that speaks to the regionality of food. Their dishes tend to be more similar to what you would see in Lebanon. So there is more focus on mezze platters, just smaller plates, things that are often enjoyed alongside arak, which is an alcoholic drink.
My mother’s side of the family are from an area referred to as the Triangle. It’s more in the center of the country. It’s a predominantly Muslim village, so you don’t see much of that. Most of their dishes – rice-based dishes, dishes that feed large crowds. The families tend to be larger. So also you won’t see dishes like kibbeh nayyeh, which is a raw bulgur and lamb tartar. It’s served in Lebanon predominantly. So you see it in the northern part of Palestine, not in the center, which is further south. So you see those differences, like you guessed, because of both religion and geography.
GROSS: I want to ask you about a very simple dish that would be easy to comprehend on the radio that I think even I could make.
KASSIS: Which one?
GROSS: It’s your father’s fried egg recipe.
KASSIS: Oh, I love that one.
GROSS: And it sounds delicious and easy, and I’m really looking forward to trying it. So can you describe it and why it tastes special?
KASSIS: So the dish you’re talking about is probably one of the most simple dishes from my first book. It’s eggs fried in olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar. And I think when you have good ingredients, it doesn’t take much to make them taste good. But what we do is you put a copious amount of olive oil in the frying pan, and you crack an egg in it, and you sprinkle it with za’atar. And so you also – when you serve it, you serve it with the olive oil. So not only are you dipping into a crispy fried egg white with a slightly runny yolk, you also have the olive oil that’s filled with the za’atar flavor that’s all being mopped up with pita bread. So it’s a very simple dish, perfect for a first-timer. And it really is delicious.
GROSS: And you describe taking the oil because you’re using a lot of oil and then spooning it over the eggs as the eggs cook.
KASSIS: Yes. So you don’t want to flip it over and crack the yolk. So what my mother or my father would do in frying it, you would tilt the pan to the side, and you would take some of that olive oil and spoon it right over the yolk. So you’re cooking it from the top because the oil is very hot, but you’re not risking breaking it. You don’t have to fidget with flipping it over.
GROSS: And you also cover it for a while.
KASSIS: Yeah, you can. I mean, that’s the thing with Arab cooking or in general, everything is so forgiving. And this is why I also, you know, wanted to write a cookbook because I asked my mother for a recipe, how do I do this? You know, a pinch of this, a pinch of that, cover it, don’t cover it, do this. And it’s so – just – it’s inherent. It’s something that’s learned over generations. And it’s like an uncodified knowledge, if you will. So sometimes I cover it, sometimes I don’t. And it turns out good no matter what you do.
GROSS: Let’s take another break here, and then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Reem Kassis. Her new book is called “The Arabesque Table.” It’s her second cookbook. Her first is called “The Palestinian Table.” We’ll be right back after a short break. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Reem Kassis, author of the new cookbook “The Arabesque Table.” It’s a cross-cultural history of Arab cuisine. Her first book, “The Palestinian Table,” focused on the food she grew up with in East Jerusalem. She moved from there when she was 17 to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where she received her B.A. and followed that with her MBA from the Wharton School. She worked in the business world before realizing she was more passionate about food – preparing it, researching its history and writing about it. She now lives outside of Philadelphia in Bryn Mawr with her husband and their two daughters.
So Reem, you hadn’t planned on becoming a cookbook author. You went to Wharton; you were in the business world for years. What changed your mind about what you wanted to do?
KASSIS: I think it was a combination of factors coming together at the same time. My first daughter had just been born. And I think, like any new parent, especially one who’s living outside their country, I panicked for a host of reasons. One of it was worrying that my daughter is not going to have the same upbringing that I did or the same connection to her roots, which had grounded me throughout my life. And so I started compiling my family’s recipes and stories together, almost as a way for her to have a piece of home wherever she ended up in the world.
But once I did that and I started to see all those pieces coming together, I realized, you know, yes, these are my family’s recipes, these are my family’s stories. But taken together as a whole, they could be the story of any and every Palestinian family. And that was a narrative that you don’t often hear, especially not in the West. You hear Palestinian, and the first thing your mind goes to is war and occupation and that sort of thing. And I wanted to show a human face to my people. I wanted to show our rich history. And that was how the first book or the idea for it came about.
And I always thought, OK, I’m going to publish this book, and then I’m going to go back to my real life afterwards. But the book did surprisingly well. And on top of that, I started to see that the kitchen, this place that I had always said I will never end up in, was not a life sentence for women like I had previously assumed. If anything, it was a powerful place from which to be able to share important history and information and effect change in the world that I wanted to leave behind for my kids.
GROSS: Growing up as a Palestinian Israeli, what rights did you have, and are there rights that you didn’t have that Jewish Israelis did?
KASSIS: So on paper, the rights are equal. You’re an Israeli citizen. The only difference is you don’t serve in the military. In reality, it wasn’t the case. For example – I mean, on a day-to-day living, you live in Arab neighborhoods. You pay the same taxes, et cetera. You don’t get the same services.
In terms of travel, that’s where – for me personally, that was the biggest nightmare. Going through airports was – you would always get pulled aside. You would always get interrogated, strip-searched. I still remember my first strip. When I was working for McKinsey, I was traveling with my colleagues, and I’m the only Palestinian Israeli in the office in Tel Aviv. And they all passed through security, and I get pulled aside. And I get, you know, interrogated, and I have to take my clothes off, and they have to go through my bags.
And eventually, they wrote a letter, and I was not supposed to go through that again because I was traveling with the company. But you start to see how it’s racial profiling. It’s not about the threat that I pose. And that was where you see, in spite of having citizenship, you are a second-class citizen in the country.
GROSS: Your husband is American of Palestinian descent. You’ve said that you don’t travel with him often to Israel because of the stress at the airport.
KASSIS: So part of the reason we moved to London when we decided to get married was that stress. I was living in Tel Aviv. He was living in Lebanon. So I cannot visit him naturally because my passport is Israeli. And for him to come visit me, you know, we’re doing long distance. We’re seeing each other on the weekend. He would spend five to six hours in interrogation on the way in and same on the way out, so you’re spending half that time basically at the airport.
We ended up deciding that if we were going to get married, we have to live somewhere else, and that’s where London came into the equation. Nowadays – it’s funny. You know, when we traveled back when we were first married, it was still difficult. Once we had kids, we walked through the airport. And one lady asked him in Hebrew – he doesn’t speak Hebrew; I had to translate – she goes, do you remember what we did last time? And he said yes. And she goes, now you have a kid; go through.
And it’s comic. You know, I’m telling you these stories because it’s ridiculous to see how much of what happens is not for security purposes. It’s not for political reasons. It’s – I don’t know, to be perfectly honest with you, Terry, why it’s done that way other than to almost discourage people from going back. There’s this fear that Palestinians will come and stay and not leave. And that’s the question we’re asked every time at the airport – do you intend to stay?
GROSS: When you were growing up in East Jerusalem, were there periods that were especially difficult? For instance, it’s like the second intifada. I think you were 13 during the second intifada. What was that like for you?
KASSIS: It was sad because the news is on 24/7. School was canceled for weeks at a time. And you sit at home, and you just watch TV with people basically getting shot and killed. And during that time, other than feeling sadness for what was going on, it didn’t maybe affect me much. Kids are resilient, and they just – they don’t think as deeply about things.
In hindsight, when I think of it, it’s a very traumatic experience for someone at that age to go through, to see that and assume that that is just day-to-day life. You know, I see what just being home during COVID has done to kids nowadays, and I think that experience is not a pleasant one for a teenager to go through. But it also is part of the reason why I think you mature and you grow up quicker.
GROSS: So during the period when schools were closed, could you go out of the house at all?
KASSIS: You could, but you would end up going to visit family or friends. In periods of very high tension, you would not leave.
GROSS: Did food play an important part during that period when you couldn’t – there was so much you couldn’t do?
KASSIS: I think so. I mean, when you’re sitting at home (laughter) and you’re not going anywhere and there isn’t much to do, you eat. And you also end up spending time with other people. Your neighbors, your friends are coming over, and food is a way to spend the time and pass the time. I remember we would have relatives and friends who would come over, and you would make cakes together or pastries. If it was the summer, you might sit outside and eat watermelon seeds.
And it was just – that’s why it’s so hard to juxtapose the positive angles of it. You know, I have memories – and very fond memories – of the time that was spent with close friends and family and relatives. And I think of that, and it was a happy time. And on the same hand, it was during those times that there was so much brutality going on as well. And I think it’s an interesting juxtaposition to see that you can have the good and the bad happening at the same time.
GROSS: Living in East Jerusalem, which is the Palestinian side of Jerusalem, were you able to cross over to the other side, the Jewish side of Jerusalem?
KASSIS: Yes. It’s – West and East Jerusalem, again, it’s a geographic distinction, but it’s very intertwined. So when I look outside my bedroom window, I actually see a Jewish settlement across the street. And then, you know, if you go to the left, you drive for 15, 20 minutes in Arab neighborhoods before you hit a Jewish one again. So you’re definitely able to cross into it if you’re in Jerusalem, and people often do.
GROSS: When there was a suicide bombing, how would that affect your daily life?
KASSIS: I think it would just make you a little more scared. So in periods where suicide bombings were more rampant, my parents would not allow us to go to the mall or to the town center or to restaurants, even to supermarkets. So it would kind of just be a hunker down and wait for this wave to pass.
But also, I mean, you would see it. You can’t escape it. You know, my father was behind a bus that was blown up at one point. And he just got home, and he looked frazzled. And we asked what was wrong. And he said, the bus in front of me blew up, and I had to take a different route home.
GROSS: So who blew up the bus? Do you know?
KASSIS: I don’t know the exact faction, but one of the Palestinian factions claimed responsibility for it. Might have been Hamas, might have been Islamic Jihad – I don’t remember
GROSS: What was it like to be the possible victims of other Palestinians?
KASSIS: It’s a very difficult position to be in ’cause, on the one hand, you look at the situations that Palestinians live through. You see the despair. You see the death that they see. And you understand why they look at their lives, and they think, I do have no outlet. I literally have nothing to live and look forward to. So there is that sense of pity and sympathy that allows you to understand why they’re doing something, even if you disagree with it. And so on – so there’s that one hand. On the other hand, I don’t think violence is ever the solution or the answer. And we’ve seen now that that has pretty much subsided and died down.
And it kind of forces you to think – you know, what is the solution? – when you see these things. Yes, it’s scary. I could be the victim as well, which is why you avoid going out. But then to me, it was, it’s not about protecting myself today. It’s about, well, what do you do to make sure this doesn’t keep happening?
GROSS: So us talking about Israeli-Palestinian issues is a land mine. And I can confirm that it is because of the feedback we get whenever we touch on those issues. Does it feel like a land mine for you living in the U.S. and being Palestinian and writing about Palestinian culture and writing about Palestinian food?
KASSIS: A little bit – it does sometimes. And it’s sometimes it’s comical because all it takes is for me to use the word Palestinian. And anything that I want to talk about, no matter how far removed from politics, suddenly is political. But at the same time, it’s hard to separate the things. You know, as Palestinians, as a people that do live under occupation who are fighting for justice, it’s hard to separate that reality from anything else that we do. But I try to go about it – and you know, every person goes about it in a different way. I am in the food and writing world, and that’s how I try to address or deal with that issue, from that angle. And someone else in a different sphere might deal with it from a different angle. But yeah, it can be a land mine, but it shouldn’t be.
GROSS: And food is something everybody can enjoy.
KASSIS: Food is the lowest common denominator we all have. It’s the one thing that, regardless of where you come from or what religion you are or what your beliefs are, you have to eat. But do I believe that food can bring people together? I think that’s a stretch.
GROSS: Let’s take another break here, and then we’ll talk some more. Let me reintroduce you. My guest is Reem Kassis, author of the new book “The Arabesque Table.” It’s a follow-up to her first book, “The Palestinian Table.” We’ll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Reem Kassis, author of the new cookbook “The Arabesque Table.” It’s a follow-up to her first cookbook, “The Palestinian Table.” She grew up in East Jerusalem and has lived in the U.S. since she was 17 and came to study at the University of Pennsylvania. For five years, she lived in London.
You developed a friendship and a professional relationship with Michael Solomonov, who is the founder and chef at Zahav, which is an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia. And so that’s been a kind of cross-cultural food relationship and friendship. How did you end up developing a friendship?
KASSIS: So the first time I ever ate at Zahav, I was an undergrad student. And I remember going to that restaurant – and again, I was young. My mind wasn’t in politics or food or any such thing, but I was nostalgic, and I missed home. And I ate at his restaurant a dish that very much reminded me of one that my mother makes, freekeh. And I remember part of me feeling satisfied that I had eaten this dish that tasted of home, and another part had felt extremely frustrated. Why am I eating the best Palestinian dish I’ve had since coming to the U.S. in an Israeli restaurant?
And then you fast-forward 10 years, and I’m writing this book on the one hand, yes, to safeguard our culture for my daughter and our culinary history, but in part, also, to show the world that this is our food that we’ve been eating for generations before Israel was even a state. And so when my book came out, I sent Mike a copy of the book with a handwritten letter in part to say, you know, this is our food; this is what we’ve been cooking. And I told him about the freekeh incident. And I think he was very touched by that. I didn’t expect to hear from him when I sent the book, but he reached out and said, you know, I was very moved by your book, and he wanted to meet for coffee. And we did. And I was surprised to realize how many things get lost in translation.
You know, you see Mike, and you think he’s the face of Israeli cuisine. He must deny the Palestinian origins of the food he serves. He must be anti-Palestinian, so on and so forth. And once you get to know someone on an individual level, you start to realize how many misconceptions you probably hold of that person. And that’s the beginning of that friendship.
GROSS: So you and Michael Solomonov of the Israeli restaurant Zahav held an event at his restaurant. It was a dinner with dishes from your first cookbook, “The Palestinian Table.” And then after that, you both faced some criticism. What was that about?
KASSIS: So one thing I always say is important to keep in perspective is how much criticism did we face? You know, by and large, people were very supportive of that event. The criticism that we faced was this idea – you know, people were saying, for me at least, you’re normalizing. And for those who are not familiar with the term, normalization refers to a Palestinian doing an event with an Israeli person whose mission is not purely to discuss the occupation and ending the injustice that’s happening right now on the ground in Palestine.
And I think part of that criticism was a result of misunderstanding the context of what was happening. You know, to me, I wrote this cookbook in part to show that this is Palestinian cuisine. And Palestinians have always said we don’t care if Israelis cook or eat our food, we just want them to recognize that it’s ours.
And here is Mike, who, for all intents and purposes, is the face of Israeli cuisine in the U.S. saying, I want to shut down my restaurant for the first time in the 10 years that it has been open to recognize and celebrate Palestinian cuisine and to acknowledge the role it has in the food that I cook. And to me, I saw that as a win for what I was doing. And so that’s why I say the criticisms were largely – you know, A, they were a minority. Most people were supportive. And I think the criticisms that I faced were largely a result of misunderstanding of the context of what was happening.
GROSS: And I should mention that Michael Solomonov’s restaurant, Zahav, I think it was in 2019 won the James Beard Award for Best Restaurant in America, so it’s considered a very important restaurant.
KASSIS: It’s very well recognized in the U.S. I’m sure it’s recognized abroad and in Israel, too. And for me, it’s – I want people to recognize what our food is. And I’ve always said this, and I think my stand on the issue is very clear. I’ve written extensively on this. The issue is not about the food when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians. The issue is about the occupation and the injustice. And if that issue were to be resolved, then we would cease to see this contention when it comes to the food.
You know, you don’t see Lebanese and Syrians and Palestinians fighting over who invented hummus or who owns it. I mean, OK, we argue over who makes it better, but we’re not fighting about ownership of it. With Israel, it’s seen as why are you willfully rewriting and denying the past? Basically, it’s a willful omission of any Palestinian connection or contribution to this food because it is – it forces a reckoning with a narrative that has long been sold abroad of a land without a people for a people without a land. And acknowledging the Palestinian place in that history negates that narrative.
And so for me, I think it is important when you see someone who is so recognized for Israeli cuisine saying, hey, I actually recognize that this is Palestinian food and a big portion, the majority of what I am making, or at least used to make in Zahav when it first opened up, is inspired by Palestinian cooking.
GROSS: Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Reem Kassis, author of the new book, “The Arabesque Table.” It’s a cookbook that’s a follow-up to her first cookbook, “The Palestinian Table.” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Reem Kassis, author of the new book, “The Arabesque Table.” It’s a follow-up to her first cookbook, “The Palestinian Table.”
I think your father’s family’s land was confiscated during the 1948 war. Do I have that right?
KASSIS: You do.
GROSS: And that your parents ended up buying a house on the land that was confiscated from their family?
KASSIS: Yeah. So my father is from a village in the Galilee. And they owned a lot of olive groves in the surrounding area. In 1948, much of the land – and it wasn’t just them, it was all the families that live in the north had the same issue where land was confiscated. And, you know, they’re offered payment for it. Obviously, they refuse to accept payment, and the land is just taken.
And then years and years down the line, we live in Jerusalem. We want a house in the north in the Galilee because we visit the family more. Everyone’s kids are grown up, families are bigger, you need more space. The town itself is too small. It’s very difficult to build or buy. So we decide to buy a house in the nearest Israeli town, Karmiel, which is an Israeli settlement built on the land that was confiscated from the north. So my parents ended up buying a house that’s on land that was confiscated from their town.
And (laughter), you know, it was an interesting process to see because the man they bought from was a very kind, you know, nice person. The neighbors said, why are you selling your house to Arabs? You shouldn’t do this, et cetera. And it’s funny because now those same neighbors are good friends with my parents. And I think it speaks to what we discussed earlier, how when you get to know someone individually, many misconceptions that you hold go away.
GROSS: I see. And your family managed to hold onto its olive grove.
KASSIS: A portion of them. I mean, what they hold onto now is a very small portion of what they had historically.
GROSS: Did anyone on either side of your family become refugees and live in refugee camps?
KASSIS: There were many that became refugees, but not in the sense that you think of today where they’re in camps and they’re in tents and whatnot. Many of them were forced to flee. And they could not come back. So for example, before my father was born, my oldest uncle fell ill in 1948. And my grandparents were forced to leave Haifa because it had fallen to the Jewish forces. And they returned to their village. Their son was sick. They could no longer take him back to the hospital there. They had to travel to Lebanon to have him treated. He unfortunately passed away there.
My grandmother gave birth to another son that she was pregnant with. And by the time she was a couple of months old and they could travel back, Israel was a state. And the borders were closed. So in the cover of night, they had to basically be smuggled back into their country because they had left another son there. And the man that helped smuggle them back was called Philip (ph). And so when my father was born a year after, that’s where he got his name from. So my grandparents would have been refugees had that man not smuggled them in. But their cousins are refugees in Lebanon now.
GROSS: Do you think about that a lot?
KASSIS: I do, and more so recently. You know, since I started writing, I feel like a lot of these stories are ones that I don’t want to get lost. So I think about it because I write about it. And I haven’t done much with it. But I – you know, I published a short story that was based on not this particular example, but another story that happened with my family. And I think writing is my way of preserving these in a way that, in spite of the pain that you see coming through them, you can also still find some beauty in it, something that’s worth sharing.
GROSS: I’ve seen pictures of your kitchen. It’s a beautiful kitchen. It’s a modern kitchen. It looks so clean. And there’s jars of all kinds of things and cookbooks.
GROSS: And it just looks like such a lovely kitchen. But I was thinking about…
KASSIS: Thank you.
GROSS: …How different your kitchen is from your paternal grandmother’s kitchen.
KASSIS: Oh, yes.
GROSS: Make the comparison for us.
KASSIS: So I think the scale of things in the U.S. just doesn’t compare to the scale of things back home. You know, my parents and my paternal grandmother probably had more land than what our house sits on. And yet her kitchen was much smaller. And she was able to put out feasts from it. So my grandmother’s kitchen is basically a single wall of cabinets and – right? You know, there’s a refrigerator there. I don’t remember the days way back when refrigeration wasn’t common and she was cooking on a single burner.
But it’s funny when I think of that. I think that kitchen was filled with so much love and almost like a patina of human history that mine lacks. You know, mine is fresh and clean and new and modern and big. But it has not been lived in. It has not been broken in yet. It doesn’t carry the history in its walls or the smells that hers did. And yes, it’s easier to cook in it. But there’s a sense of warmth I feel in her kitchen that mine has yet to develop.
GROSS: Well, it’s been a pleasure to talk with you about food and about your life. Thank you so much.
KASSIS: Thank you, Terry. It’s been a pleasure for me, too.
GROSS: Reem Kassis is the author of the new book “The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes From The Arab World.” Her first book is called “The Palestinian Table.”
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Twyla Tharp, one of the most acclaimed and innovative dancers and choreographers of our time. Her choreography demands incredible flexibility, speed, power and stamina and draws from ballet, modern dance, jazz, tap, vaudeville and everyday movement. She’s the subject of the latest PBS “American Masters” documentary. I hope you’ll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL RIESMAN’S “IN THE UPPER ROOM: DANCE II”)
GROSS: FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Engineering today from Al Banks and Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today’s show. I’m Terry Gross.
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