Food has always been a representation of class, time, and power. It creates a unique atmosphere conducive to encounter. Sharing food sets the table with aspects of hospitality, distribution, exchange, familiarity, and pleasure. A shared meal can become a space for reflection on socio-political realities, attitudes, fashions of the time, and even the suppressed elements of history.
In a research project that documents Palestinian contem-porary food practices, initiated by artist Mirna Bamieh and supported by the A.M. Qattan Foundation, a series of five dinners was served over a two-month period to groups of food enthusiasts. This article is the second in a series that describes these dinners.
The first dinner, titled On the Table of Ursula, featured a Christmas menu chosen by May Odeh. May worked with the Abdulhaqs, a Palestinian/German family. Ursula, the mother, arrived in Nablus in 1967, after marrying her husband Abbas. She learned Arabic through cooking with her friends and her husband’s numerous family members.
May has been a close friend of the family since the time they moved from Nablus to Birzeit; she grew up with their children and was always fascinated by this woman who came from a faraway country to be with her beloved husband. May recalls the first dish prepared by Ursula that she tasted at the family’s lunch table – pumpkin soup that was unfamiliar in taste and color to her Palestinian palate. She also remembers the mode of multi-course food presentation that was not at all the Palestinian way of serving all the food at once. Ursula’s cooking always held a story, a story that May wanted to go deeper into through the menu and table she created with Palestine Hosting Society.
Together, guided by Ursula’s recipe book with handwritten German instructions and notes that she has added over the years, and while recollecting stories and incidents, they prepared and cooked a multi-course menu that included Nabulsi lakhaneh, which belongs to a family of typical Palestinian dishes in which spiced rice and meat are rolled up in various leaves that range from grape to violets, and in Nablus, people also use a special plant that is a species of kale.
Krautrolladen are a German variant of this dish that in Arabic is called malfouf (cabbage). This version is less time consuming, as the individual rolls are much larger; a German nickname calls them little frogs. Mock sauerbraten is a German version of Palestinian kifta, a loaf of minced meat that is stuffed with whole eggs and then cooked.
When Ursula moved to Birzeit, May’s hometown, she was far from the city center and learned about some dishes only from the gardener. With this in mind, May included fresh za’atar salad, which reminded her of her fallahi roots, given that it is a simple dish that they, as kids, used to prepare in the mountains from wild thyme. The za’atar salad was presented next to an array of salads that rely on the root vegetables that the German kitchen is famous for, such as kohlrabi with cilantro and carrots, cabbage salad, beetroot salad, potato salad, and pumpkin mutabbal. Ursula’s husband Abbas prepared his famous Nabulsi madluqa, a variation on kanafa that combines semolina, sugar syrup, orange blossom water, and lard, all stirred together over the fire for an hour, then topped with lots of nuts and cream before serving. Unlike its counterpart, Nabulsi kanafa, madluka doesn’t contain any cheese.
The dinner guests consisted of families from various places such as Lebanon, Gaza, Jerusalem, and the United States. They all shared a close relationship with the host family, which created a welcoming and intimate atmosphere within which to recall the stories about food that were used as a tool for exploration, exposure, dialogue, interaction, and belonging.
To be continued.
Mirna Bamieh is an artist, a cook, and a traveler from Jerusalem. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Birzeit University and a master’s degree in fine arts at Bezalel Academy for Arts and Design; she was part of Ashkal Alwan Home Works study program in Beirut. Her works have been exhibited in several renowned local and international shows.For more information, visit www.mirnabamieh.com.
Visit www.palestinehostingsociety.com to watch a documentary film about Family Dinners, and follow Palestine Hosting Society on Instagram and Facebook, for a closer look at its research and future projects.