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'Zaitoun': Recipes From The Palestinian Kitchen


The author Yasmin Khan explored a troubled part of the world through its food. Her newest book is part cookbook, part travelogue. It's called "Zaitoun," which is the Arabic word for olive. And both the language and the ingredient are clues to where she takes us. She focuses on the Palestinian kitchen.

YASMIN KHAN: Not in any way to kind of silence the Israeli experience, but just to - well, just to enable a space for Palestinian voices to be heard.

INSKEEP: Yasmin Khan spoke with David Greene.

KHAN: Usually when we might mention Palestine or Palestinian culture, it's in the context of a very specific and quite fraught political context. So it was so incredible for me to be able to access this other side of Palestinian life - one that encompasses beauty and flavor and texture and joy.


What you - as you started to meet people and research this book - at one point you talked about a meal with a Palestinian nurse in East Jerusalem, who said you can't discuss Palestinian food without talking about the occupation. Talk about that conversation and what you took from it.

KHAN: Absolutely. And I think - you know, I know from my years of working in the region that in Palestine you can't separate food from politics. You know, a Palestinian's ability to access food is so dependent on their ability to get through checkpoints or their ability to pass through roadblocks. And I think that fragility of everyday life - the uncertainty and the pressures that that brings on ordinary Palestinians is also something I felt was important to convey in the book. You know, I think so many writers go on travel escapades, you know, and travel is seen as such a joyful thing. Here I am in front of a market in a wonderful place - well, that's true. But what I'm interested in is showing you the beauty that exists in the marketplace but also the reality that people face behind that.

GREENE: What's an example of a dish that is purely Palestinian - that is really distinctive?

KHAN: Oh, there are so many, but I think my favorite is this dish called musakhan, which is roasted pieces of chicken that are marinated in this - in allspice and cinnamon and cumin and then roasted in the oven and laid over bread topped with, like, gorgeous fried red onions and then sprinkled with loads of sumac to give it a really sharp tang. It's a wonderful sharing food. It's just one that you'll find in Palestinian communities wherever you go.

GREENE: Well, how does Palestinian food fit into what we've talked about for so long as Middle Eastern cuisine?

KHAN: One of the things I find very exciting in the food scene at the moment is how we are beginning to break down what Middle Eastern food is. You know, we would never say, oh, well this is European food because we know that European food is filled with all these nuances - German food and Spanish food and Italian food. And we have the same in the Middle East. You know, I'd love us to get to a stage where Middle Eastern food is not just bunched together as one big homogenous bloc but that we get to really get into the nuance of all the different parts of it.

GREENE: If people are reading your book in the United States and want to make some of these dishes, can people access the ingredients, so they can make these recipes, you know, as authentically as possible?

KHAN: Absolutely. All the ingredients can be found in U.S. stores. And, you know, Palestinian food certainly isn't you know unattainable. The ingredients we're talking about things you probably already have, but it's just about cooking with them in a different way. So just last night, I was making this Gazan avocado dip, which is, like, smashed avocados with kind of a thick, strained Greek yogurt, some green chili and garlic and dill. And, you know, these are things that we're all kind of used to seeing in our pantry, but putting them together in this way just, you know, helps you elevate a dish in the most fun way.

GREENE: Am I right? You talked about pickling avocados in the book, right? What does that taste like? And is that a Palestinian tradition?

KHAN: Yeah. I'm all - you know, pickling and fermenting is such a big part of Palestinian food culture. And, you know, we've all had that moment when you kind of have an avocado at home, and it's a bit firm, but you want to eat it. And you're just like, oh, what do I do - that frustrating moment of impatience. So this is a great recipe where it's a quick pickle - where just in a few hours, you can get a hard avocado into a lovely, creamy, sharp pickle. And, you know, one of the things that I try and do in my book is - yeah, I cover the classic recipes, but I also cover, you know, dishes that represent how modern Palestinian food exists today. So I really try to provide a snapshot of contemporary life for Palestinian communities through their food.

GREENE: You know, you always think about food and the table, you know, as a place that can bring people together. Is that overly optimistic to think about cuisine in this part of the world as something that might bring people together in a place where there's been so much tension?

KHAN: I think it's a very good question. Look. I'm not going to sit and pretend that, you know, my books and this work is going to somehow heal all the divisions within the Middle East. But it is undoubtably a universal truth that breaking bread with other people, that sharing food, that sitting round a dining table with people does break down barriers. And now it enables you, from a very human level, just to acknowledge another culture. It enables you to learn about another culture. And it enables you to bring - to humanize another culture.

GREENE: Let me just ask you if there's one memory or one moment or one day or one cafe or one person's home or kitchen that really just stays seared in your memory as you were doing this research.

KHAN: There really is. It comes to me so instantly. I remember one evening I was in Ramallah, and I'd just been to visit this Palestinian yoga school and had gone back with the teachers to one of their homes. And we were all sat outside under a full moon. Our host had brought out this beautiful dish called moussaka. And it's roast eggplant cooked in a garlic and allspice and cumin tomato sauce with chickpeas in it. And we kind of tore off pieces of taboon flatbread and scooped up these morsels of eggplant and tomato, sat outside on this beautiful evening, and it's just a memory I'll cherish forever and a real - you know, something that will always remind me of how Palestinians can find joy and celebrate life no matter what circumstances they're in.

GREENE: Well, the book sounds lovely. And thanks so much for talking to us about it.

KHAN: Thank you so much for having me on.

INSKEEP: And that book is called "Zaitoun" by Yasmin Khan.

(SOUNDBITE OF LE TRIO JOUBRAN'S "CLAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.