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Elias Jahshan

Falastin: Sami Tamimi's love letter to Palestinian food

The story of Palestine's food is really the story of its people

Date of publication: 14 May, 2020

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The New Arab Meets: Sami Tamimi to talk about his new cookbook Falastin, a love letter to Palestinian food, the land and its people.

He may be a well-known Palestinian chef with three cookbooks to his name, but Sami Tamimi still has plenty of gratitude for the women who help make sure the traditions of Palestinian food are kept alive.

"When it comes to home cooking, all men in the Middle East are slightly lazier," he joked. "But for women, it's part of their love. Cooking in Palestine is ruled by women – they're very strong and they do it with such passion as well."

Tamimi also acknowledged how almost all cookbooks and discourse around Palestinian food are led by women – like Joudie Kalla's Palestine On a Plate and Baladi, Reem Kassis' The Palestine Table, Yasmin Khan's Zaitoun, and Mirna Bamieh's food history project Palestine Hosting Society. Even Tamimi's new book Falastin, released in March, is co-authored by Tara Wigley, whom he praised for her "wonderful writing".

"All these great cookbooks published before paved the way for Falastin to kind of shine," Tamimi told The New Arab.

Falastin follows on from two previous cookbooks under Tamimi's belt: Ottolenghi: The Cookbook and Jerusalem – both of which were co-authored with Yotam Ottolenghi.

Two years in the making, including a few trips to Palestine, Falastin is a love letter to Tamimi's homeland, people and culture. Even the title is the phonetic spelling of Palestine or Palestinian in Arabic.

Falastin is not just a recipe book, it's also full of real stories of real people

"Falastin is not just a recipe book, it's also full of real stories of real people," he said. Born and raised in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, Tamimi was immersed in food from childhood.

His food memories continue to be strong, and he recalls frequently sneaking into the kitchen to watch the women of his household cook. But it wasn't until he was an adult that he properly learned the family recipes. 

Sami Tamimi's new book Falastin is a soulful journey through Palestinian food. [Jenny Zarins]

Nonetheless, Tamimi was 15 when he left school and started working as a kitchen porter at the Mount Zion, a West Jerusalem hotel. The head chef there saw his talent and soon promoted him to "head breakfast chef" when he was almost 17, a job that saw him wake up at 4am every morning to make scrambled eggs for 150-200 hotel guests. 

He soon moved out of home and undertook cooking jobs in various restaurants around the Holy City, purposely avoiding places that specialise in Palestinian food to broaden his skill set.

By his early 20s, Tamimi was living Tel Aviv, where he ran his own catering business. However, this became too much as he was doing all the cooking at home while also working at the "three or four good restaurants" Tel Aviv had in the 1990s. 

No longer content with the city and seeking a new challenge, he moved to London in 1997 – where he has lived since.

That year, Tamimi started working at Baker and Spice, where he became head chef. Two years later he met Ottolenghi, who famously stopped his scooter one spring day to run in to the bakery and ask for a job. Both being from Jerusalem, gay and fairly new to London, the two quickly became good friends. In 2002 Tamimi left Baker and Spice to join Ottolenghi at his eponymous deli in Notting Hill.

The Ottolenghi business now has four stores, several cookbooks and two restaurants, including NOPI and ROVI in central London, where Tamimi – as executive head chef – has been instrumental in nurturing young kitchen talents and creating innovative menus. 

Although Palestinian food has not been prominent in his professional life, Tamimi always knew he would eventually come full circle and pursue it as a passion project.

I wanted to do this book to say thank you to my country, to the food, to the people, and to my mother - I learned a lot from her

"Palestinian food was always with me. It was my comfort zone. It was what connected me to my country and my people, my family," he said.

"Falastin was within me for a long, long time. I collected a lot of recipes and different kinds of cooking methods but… part of the reason I wanted to do this book is to say thank you to my country, to the food, to the people, and to my mother – I learned a lot from her."

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So what are his favourite recipes? "There are so many that I like," Tamimi chuckled.

"Musakhan is one of them, definitely. It's a really delicious, simple dish and celebrates the Palestinian olive oil and tabun bread – which is a very Palestinian thing – it's full of sumac and cumin and so easy to make and great to share with people.

"My mum also used to do these cauliflower fitters. They're like almost like a pakora, I'm sure they come from Persia or India, but my mum just stuffed them in a pita and gave them to us to take to school for lunch. They're very moreish and delicious.

"And of course, knafeh. We try to do a recipe that is very similar to the Nabulsi style."

Tamimi said the biggest challenge he encountered while working on Falastin was coping with the nostalgia and political situation each time he went back home – especially with the separation wall changing everything, such as the East Jerusalem neighbourhood where his school was located now inhabited by illegal settlers.

"The reason Tara and I joined forces for Falastin is because I was very emotional. Part of going back home is not just writing the book, it's also reconnecting to the place, to the family, to everything," Tamimi reflected.

"A few times I found it a little bit overwhelming. The place changes – everything is kind of not the same as when you left it few years back."

One emotion he has never wavered on is the importance of ownership of Palestinian cuisine, and the need for chefs around the world to give credit when it's due rather than appropriate or erase their Palestinian origins all together.

"I am not over the moon with all these chefs taking our dishes and selling them outside of Palestine and in Israel as their own dishes," he said. 

"It's really ridiculous because they still call them the same name in Arabic, like maqloubeh or musakhan and all these dishes that are part of the whole identity of Palestinians. 

"And they present them as 'oh, I invented this dish. It's called this and that'. They should give some kind of credit to us."

Tamimi said he and Ottolenghi, a Jewish Israeli, agree on this topic and have similar political leanings, but they tend to avoid talking politics in-depth.

"Yotam is very supportive of Palestinians, I don't need to speak for him on that, but we don't get into political discussions between us because we know how bad it is over there," Tamimi said.

"I mean, in our part of the world everything is loaded – whatever you say turns into a kind of mess, including food. We try not to bring that into our business and our life because we are also not there. We left many years back."

The more we talk about Palestinian food, the more people want to learn about it

Politics aside, Tamimi was pleased with the surge in popularity in Palestinian food in western media, as it helped build a bridge with Palestinian people and culture, and break down stereotypes.

"The more we talk about Palestinian food, the more people want to learn about it," he said.

"The more they learn the more they will realise that Palestinian people also live a normal life like me and you – okay, in an occupied or not-as-nice environment – but they still maintain some kind of normal life: they still fall in love, send kids to school and they cook a lot and celebrate that. 

"My hope for Falastin is for people to want to know more and visit because we have so much bad press. People are really scared to go and visit and they shouldn't be. We're really lovely people, we're very welcoming. 

"Just go there and enjoy it. Try the food and if you're lucky to be invited to somebody's home, you're going to love it."

Falastin is available now through Ebury Press. Click here for details.

Elias Jahshan is a freelance writer based in London. He is a contributor to Arab, Australian, Other: Stories on Race & Identity, out now through Picador.

Follow him on Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan

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