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Za’atar u Zeit, Fettuccine, and Indomie

The Development of Palestinian Cuisine

By Ali Qleibo

Archaeologists inform us that our Amorite forefathers in Megiddo, six thousand years ago, had a sweet tooth for bananas imported from East Africa, and for sweets whose dough was spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, turmeric, and coriander from India, and soya oil and fava beans from China. Their daily diet included proteins and a varied range of cereals such as chickpeas, lentils, and sesame seeds. Our cosmopolitan Amorite ancestors also enjoyed pomegranates, grapes, pistachios, and almonds. Bread was their main staple: they kneaded the dough and baked their bread. According to orthodontic archeologists, the fossilized calculus on the teeth of the unearthed men in Megiddo’s burial site does not contain traces of either zeit or za’atar (olive oil and a mix of herbs and sesame seeds), they were not yet in fashion. Olive oil, then, was used exclusively for ritual anointing!

Al-taboon is the traditional Palestinian peasant outdoor oven from whose name the round whole wheat baked bread derives its name. The conical-shaped small room barely exceeds two meters in diameter. Dry patties of sheep dung are used as fuel, imparting a special aroma in our mountains.

Against all odds, modern Palestinians bear the same looks as our Amorite ancestors who in turn had Caucasian and Natufian dominant phenotypes in the male’s Y chromosomes. These inherited allele clusters underlie commonly shared traits that include fair skin, light smooth hair, and colored eyes. The isolated Yatta and Samu’ Palestinian communities evince the light complexion, auburn-colored eyes, and smooth hair as depicted in ancient Egyptian temple engravings, while the Bedouins of Al-Naqab, through genetic drift, display Natufian Amorite allele clusters that, among many other traits, include swarthy facial hair and pointed chin that geneticists are well-trained to isolate and define as representing our inherited genetic phenotype.

The genetic continuity we bear in relation to our founding ancestors belies the myth that Palestinians have always shared identical lifestyles, types of dwellings, or culinary traditions. Cultural identity is not fixed but, rather, tangible and intangible heritage are dynamic products of continual ecological adaptations to ever shifting resources. In fact, the uniformity of present-day Palestinians, especially in the kitchen, is a rather recent modern development. Modern, by the way, does not exclude authenticity. Identity is a by-product of social life; it is a dynamic and environmentally linked process. To hold a static view of cultural identity is to expect the Palestinians to live their lives in a cultural heritage museum in Megiddo, Debir, or Aijalon six thousand years ago, in Yebus or Gibeon four thousand years ago, in Gaza, Beit Jibrin, or Subeita two thousand years ago, or in Nablus and Jerusalem two hundred years ago! Locating a place and time as a point of reference to which Palestinian identity may be fixed is a conundrum in terms of which the nostalgic, romanticized quest for the ideal dissolves.

Throughout history, Palestinian kitchens were a collective domain administered by the matriarch within the phratry, of which the hamula, the four-generation extended family, formed the social unit. In the cave dwellings, until the Nakba, a number of hamula from the same phratry, shared the same cave. The kitchen was collective, the stored food and the cooking were controlled by the mother of the siblings and their three-generation offspring who shared the individual cave. Each hamula on its own allotted elevated sahwah (dais, an elevated platform), surrounded by the sheep, goats, donkeys, and camels below. Within the sub-phratry, the matriarch supervised the cooking and administered the wood gathering and water transport. The recipes then had little bearing to the food consumed in the cities. Moreover, in the Mamluk and early Ottoman periods, Jerusalem, Cairo, or Aleppo take-away food was common practice, with special markets where cooks set up their enterprises. Only rich merchants, ulama (the guardians, transmitters, and interpreters of religious knowledge in Islam, including Islamic doctrine and law), and emirs could afford the space for a kitchen and the cooking utensils. The same applied to bathing, hence the plethora of public bathhouses in the Arab cities!

Al-saqifah is a room with a distinctive flat roof made of clay mixed with hay that sets it apart as the pantry. Food is kept in this room under the vigil of the matriarch who administers the cooking process, the fetching of wood necessary for the cooking fire, and the transport of water from the source.

The Palestinian kitchen, one of the most sacrosanct family symbols, has undergone great change to achieve its contemporary modern status. From its traditional spatial exclusion outside the living/sleeping space almost on a par with the “outhouse,” it has moved into the living room as the American dream overwhelmed the Palestinian imagination. The kitchen/living room has become a popular, modernist, contemporary architectural feature of many local homes. This is a far cry from the kitchen of the first half of the twentieth century when the cooking space, the kitchen, was relegated to a remote, almost separate part of the house next to the bathroom. Both toilet and kitchen were designated as “impure,” and entering and leaving required slipping into special slippers (hence the survival of the hand-wash sink outside the bathroom, a relic of the traditional binary opposition of the raw/cooked and the pure/impure (tahara/najaseh). One could wash one’s hands without entering the bathroom. Returning from the marketplace (impurity) or from a funeral (greater impurity), the father had to enter the house through the kitchen door. He would wash his hands in the sink and then proceed to the living space.

The kitchen moved into the house only in the fifties when the houses became bigger and when sleeping rooms became architecturally separate from living rooms. As the standard of living rose, the kitchen was assigned its own architectural space inside the house. My friend, Abd el Latif Bargouthi, explained that even then, his father would tolerate neither kitchen nor bathroom under the same roof in his new home in Kufor Ein, built in the late 1950s. Both were relegated to a space adjunct to, but outside, the living/sleeping quarters and had their respective separate doorways from outside. In the sixties and seventies, the kitchen and the bathroom moved into the living/sleeping space, but two pairs of special shoes were de rigueur, one for the bathroom and one for the kitchen. By the eighties, the entire binary opposition of pure and impure collapsed. The introduction of the American-style kitchen/living room silently marked the passing of the old world.

Yalo’s picturesque water source dates to the Roman period. Life in the village, once an Amorite stronghold, was abruptly interrupted during the Six Day War when its residents were forcefully evicted by the Israeli army.

Though all Palestinians shared the common categorical separation of the pure and the impure, the recipes they used differed between the Anomadic, rural, and urban populations. Though the “kitchen” was conceived differently, the basic symbolic categories defined the symbolism of the space according to function. In rural Palestine there was no specific room where plates or food items were washed, no running water, and no plumbing; food preparation and kitchen-utensil cleaning were performed in the courtyard of the house. Traditionally, the taboon (peasant oven) was a small, circular construction of rough-hewn stones covered in clay, built in the backyard, the size of which did not exceed two square meters and whose fuel consisted of dry sheep-droppings. All cooking took place here, and khubiz taboon (bread), the daily staple, was baked in it. In fact, the taboon may be viewed as a baking oven and is inextricably linked with musakhan, chicken that is baked in olive oil and caramelized onions, seasoned with sumac, and served on taboon bread. An open fire, in the open air under an old, huge tree, served for making the various stews.

My first insight into the radical difference between past and present peasant, Bedouin, and bourgeois Palestinian cuisine and the diversity of Palestinian social groups was triggered by the nostalgic memories of my friend Yasmine. Totally Parisian in image, language, and culture, she recalls fondly her early childhood. Ramallah was a small, dusty, poor village. She remembers “waiting for that special delicacy, the kebab sandwich, that father [the mukhtar of Ramallah eighty years ago] would bring from the big city. He would return from Jerusalem astride his donkey late in the afternoon, the kebab already cold and stale, but I would eat it with great relish. Meat,” she added, “was reserved for festive occasions, for weddings or special holidays when a lamb would be slaughtered.” There were neither falafel nor hummus vendors then. Za’atar, olive oil, and olives were available in abundance. Everyone baked bread in the taboon in the courtyard of the house.

In Yasmine’s dusty village, the daily meal consisted mainly of stewed vegetables and/or cereals served in one big wooden platter (batieh), into which were dipped morsels of taboon bread. The staples that dominate contemporary Palestinian cuisine, namely, yakhanee (stewed meat with vegetables in various sauces) and mahashee (stuffed vegetables), were typical of bourgeois cuisine and had developed under Turkish influence. The Turkish recipes were passed down through intermarriages between local notables and the Ottoman ruling elites and adapted to local taste. These standard urban staples were relatively unknown in the countryside. Yasmine further explained that in Ramallah, “they did not know marmalades or any preserves. These things came with time and money.” Peasants ate the local produce of the land. The stews were made of lentils, whole-grain wheat (freekeh), or dried beans that were cooked together with onions, leeks, squash, or pumpkin, but they did not know tomatoes.

Tomatoes, nowadays an essential ingredient in Palestinian cuisine, not merely in salads but providing the base for most mahashee or yakhanee, were not introduced into Palestine until the 1870s! Brought to Europe by the conquistadors from South America in the sixteenth century, they flourished in the Italian garden as a colorful decorative plant with little golden balls. The original tomatoes, pommo d’oro, were golden yellow. Only after decades of experimentation did they acquire the size we now are familiar with, the red color, and become edible. Eating tomatoes in a period when plates were mostly of pewter was also dangerous, they oxidized and the mix was venomous. Tomatoes did not arrive in Palestine as an edible plant until the late nineteenth century. They came to replace prunes, apricots and quince that were used in making stews.

Modernity implied the dissolving of categories underlying traditional aesthetics. My generation witnessed the homogenization of Palestinian culture and, corollary to that, the nostalgic reminiscences of the way life used to be. Social economic development in Palestine paralleled the urbanization of the Bedouins and peasants and the standardization of Palestinian cuisine. The process of change rapidly increased following the political and economic upheavals in the second part of the twentieth century. The Nakba, the Palestinian diaspora, the Arabian Gulf, the Americas, and the corollary influx of cash dissolved the traditional, distinctive consumer lifestyles. In the desert, in the countryside, and in the city, every home cooked in the same type of kitchen and every family ate the same food!

The rupture with the traditional way of life and the emergence of the modern national Palestinian identity find their full expression in our kitchens: we all eat the same food prepared in an almost-uniform kitchen. From Khan Yunis in southern Palestine to Ein al-Duke in the Jordan Valley, all Palestinians cook and eat the same food. A contemporary suburban way of life has superseded the three strict cultural systems: Bedouin, peasant, and urban.

The caves of Yalo had been inhabited from the early Natufian period. Palestinians continued to use these dwellings until 1967 when they were forced to leave their ancestral homeland.

The Bedouins have become sedentary. Bedouins have moved into cement houses with modern kitchens. The tents have come to assume a decorative value, a matter of prestige. The tannour, the open fire on which is placed a metal wok-like pan for baking bread, is glimpsed here and there. Animal husbandry thrives. Shepherds and sheep dot the landscape. Bedouin women still prepare traditional cheese, butter, and dried yoghurt balls (jmeed) for cooking mansaf (lamb meat cooked in a thick yogurt sauce and served over thin bread, sprinkled with roasted pine nuts or almonds). One may still see Bedouin women waiting for public transportation on the highways as they carry their domestic products to sell in Jerusalem, Jericho, Ramallah, and Nablus.

Nowadays in Al-Naqab, Bedouin women work alongside the men. Both consume much time commuting. To fill the need for the daily hearty meal throughout Al-Naqab, take-away food has become commonplace. Moreover, many local women have set up special kitchens to provide freshly cooked traditional meals for the working couple. The same enterprises abound in Jerusalem and Ramallah, Gaza, and Nablus. In some households, the wife wakes up early in the morning and prepares the ingredients of the meal that she puts together and cooks as soon as she returns home from work. Frozen products also help save time; maftoul is sold frozen as are most vegetables. Alternately, new foreign products have become commonplace – pizzas, frozen schnitzel and hamburgers, Indomie noodles …. In restaurants, fettucine and lasagna, sushi and ramen, and Kentucky Fried Chicken have found their place on the Palestinian palate. Espresso has its clients as more and more espresso bars sprout throughout. The penchant for sweets continues unabated in the cravings for cheesecakes, chocolate cake, and in the plethora of crepe stands. In the footsteps of our globalized Amorite and Edomite ancestors, Palestinian taste and cuisine continue to widen and develop within the contemporary globalized market. Our palate remains flexible and open to new flavors, textures, and aromas!

Artesian water wells abound in Dura, an Edomite stronghold and a roman satrap. The Edomite chieftains vied to win the Caesar’s favor and Herod the Great hails from one of their tribes. The water well is topped by the characteristic Dura arch.

As we drive through our mountains, the aroma of the taboon still lingers. In the cool evening breeze at the end of a hot summer day, the smell of the dry sheep-dung has a magical, soothing effect: We are home. The villages have become sprawling suburbs. Contemporary Palestinians watch the same satellite soap operas and access the same Yahoo and Google. We live in the same houses, furnish them with the same furniture, and most important, we all eat the same food. The urbanization of Palestine has become complete. A totally new, vital Palestinian identity has been produced. Against all odds, the Palestinians, sha’ab al-jabareen, an eponym for the Amorites, are here to stay.

  • Dr. Ali Qleibo is an artist, author, and anthropologist. Born in Jerusalem and educated in the United States, his books and artwork have taken him all over the world. Dr. Qleibo has lectured and held senior positions at Al-Quds University, conducted a fellowship at Shalom Hartman Institute, and served as visiting professor at Tokyo University for Foreign Studies and Kyoto University in Japan. At The Jerusalem Research Center, Dr. Qleibo developed the Muslim tourism itinerary in Jerusalem, encompassing tangible and intangible heritage. A specialist in Palestinian social history, he has authored the books Surviving the Wall, Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and Mamluk Architectural Heritage in Jerusalem, and published a plethora of articles locally and internationally

1 Comment

  1. Rami Meo

    Very informative issue.

    Ali Kleobo’s very well researched rarticle attracted my attention.
    He notes : “Archaeologists inform us that our Amorite forefathers in Megiddo, six thousand years ago, had a sweet tooth ..”

    Thank you . Now I know where my sweet tooth comes from and how much it developed over this period of time.

    PS In 6000 years from now orthodontic archeologists will certainly find traces of either zeit or za’atar🌻

    PPS I certainly hope that modern Palestinians have much better looks as our Amorite ancestors 1000s of years ago. 🌻

    Interesting fact :
    In the Mamluk and early Ottoman periods, Jerusalem, Cairo, or Aleppo take-away food was common practice,


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