Yes, we see you frowning and saying, “Arabic cookbook? It won’t be as good as my mother’s cooking” but even if you really believe that to be true, that’s not the point. It’s essentially a “how to make the greatest hits of Arabic cooking” guide from three generations of one family and an ideal place to start if you want to make authentic Middle Eastern food at home. It’s also a fine travelogue through cuisine of the region.
The collection contains nearly 150 easy-to-follow recipes for Palestinian food – from za’atar filled flatbreads and cauliflower fritters, lamb and yoghurt rice stew, to toasted bread pudding with cream pistachios and walnut preserve, all beautifully photographed. You’ll use it, read it and leave it out on display.
And it’s a cookbook that demonstrates that Palestinian food is simple and fresh yet deeply layered with aromatic flavors. In many way, this is where food in general is at right now. We’re returning to simplicity and moving back to the homely basics. This book presents that well and weaves its recipes in among stories, personal anecdotes and photos from Palestine.
Growing up, the author Reem Kassis spent days in her grandmothers’, mother’s, and aunts’ kitchens observing and soaking up everything there was to know about Palestinian cooking. This is the result of a long journey trying to curate three generations of culinary knowledge into one book.
“If you’ve ever tried to get a recipe from a Palestinian mother or grandmother, you’ll know the agony that is trying to obtain exact measurements,” Reem says. “Often, when I would get together with my mother to test recipes, she would lecture me on why exact measurements don’t work.
“‘But mama, it’s a cookbook!’ I would try to explain. ‘I cannot tell people to add flour until it’s soft like your earlobe, or use a tea cup not a coffee mug.’”
But the result is reassuringly specific. “I want to help you recreate dishes that are as close as possible to the ones I enjoy at home,” Reem says, “so I have meticulously and painstakingly measured out the ingredients to make the recipes easy to follow.”
If you want the secrets of Middle Eastern dishes and a gastronomic journey across Palestine this does it all beautifully.
And as a starter, Reem gives us a taster from the book with this recipe for the weekend:
“Palestinians often make frittatas for weekend breakfasts or as a weekend supper dish. It’s basically eggs mixed with herbs and spices and some flour, but the result can vary tremendously from one cook to the next.
“My uncle’s wife, Ameera, is famous for her ijjeh — the perfect mix of crispy and fluffy, spicy and smooth — and she would never let us leave after a weekend visit without making them for us.
“She would sit in the kitchen turning out one round disc after the another, until we had a plate piled high with these fragrant and filling frittatas. This is her recipe — it’s quite generous with the herbs, but you can add more or less, as you like. A dish definitely worth a try instead of your standard weekend eggs.”
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
4 scallions (spring onions), finely chopped
½ cup (1 oz/25 g) flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
½ cup (1 oz/25 g) fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic, crushed
1 green chilli, seeded and finely chopped (optional)
1 scant teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon all-purpose (plain) flour olive oil, for frying
olives, scallions (spring onion), mint and tomato
Labaneh, homemade or store-bought
Pita bread, homemade or store-bought
Break the eggs into a large bowl and whisk until the mixture is pale yellow and starting to froth. Add the chopped herbs, garlic, chilli, salt, and spices and mix until evenly combined. Sprinkle the flour over the eggs and whisk until incorporated.
Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. You can use one very large pan or a small one and work in batches. I prefer using a smaller pan and making several really thin omelets as they come out crispier this way, adding more oil to the pan after each frittata.
Once the oil is hot, pour the mixture into the pan, tilting it around to get an even layer of eggs. Cook until the edges start to curl and the top is starting to solidify, periodically lifting with a spatula to make sure the bottom is not burning. When the frittata is no longer runny on the top, flip it over to brown the other side. Continue to cook for another minute or two until done, then slide the frittata onto a plate. If using a small pan, repeat, adding more olive oil, until the egg mixture is all used up. Serve immediately with fresh pita bread and a side of labaneh.
The Palestinian Table By Reem Kassis is published by Phaidon