Palestinians may not have a sovereign state to call their own, but they can certainly lay claim to a rich, distinctive, suddenly influential culinary tradition.
Not familiar with the Palestinian kitchen? You will be soon enough.
Its green freekeh grains, brightly herbed meats and rosewater-perfumed sweets belong to the “new” Middle Eastern cuisine that keeps topping all the trend lists.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Jerusalem: A Cookbook. Written by two renowned London-based chefs who grew up in Jerusalem – Yotam Ottolenghi in the Jewish west, Sami Tamimi on the Arab east side – this bestselling foodie bible has been widely hailed (from the New Yorker to chowhound.com) as the hottest cookbook of the year.
If you don’t own the book, or are having trouble stocking your pantry with pomegranate molasses, za’atar, tamarind water and other essential yet still elusive ingredients for this next big food fad, you can get a taste for it at Tamam.
There’s nothing remotely fashionable about this small mom-and-pop restaurant on the shabby fringes of Hastings-Sunrise. The walls are sponge-painted orange. An open, cafeteria-style kitchen struts down the middle of the room, fronted by a roll-top salad bar. Discarded pieces of equipment are shoved into corners.
Owners Sobhi Zobaidi (an auteur filmmaker and university lecturer) and his wife, Tamam (a former theatre actress) inherited the whole ugly kit and caboodle from the previous owner and plan to renovate this spring.
Their customers – an eclectic assortment of peace activists, cash-strapped students and intrepid foodies (the blogs are going wild over this place) – don’t seem to mind the rag-tag ambience. They’ve come to explore the exotic flavours of this little-known cuisine.
But what makes it so new and exciting? How does Palestinian food differ from Lebanese, Turkish, Moroccan or even, say, Jewish cuisine? As the authors of Jerusalem point out in their introduction, there are more commonalities than differences. The Jews and Arabs in their Holy Land hometown all eat hummus – although the origin of that hummus is hotly contested.
Many of the dishes do look familiar, but usually contain some sort of twist. Mutabal, a baked eggplant dip sprinkled with ground sour-berry sumac, is similar to baba ghanouj, but not so finely ground. Mashed by hand, it’s chunkier, heavier and harder to scoop with a thin wedge of whole-wheat pita.
Warak, much like dolmas, are rolled grape leaves. But these are stuffed with minced beef instead of rice and vegetables. Packed with parsley and bow-tied with a sweetly stewed tomato, they’re little gift bags of garden goodness for the mouth.
Fried halloumi bears no resemblance to the Greeks’ flaming saganaki. It doesn’t look like any fried halloumi that I’ve ever seen. The tangy cheese is oven-melted to golden, papery thin crisps and strewn over chopped tomato and cucumber salad. Cabbage rolls baked in saffron are light and delicate.
“Keep eating,” Mr. Zobaidi urges. “This food won’t take your energy and make you want to take a nap. It gives you energy. When you go back to your office, you’re going to feel more alert.”
Raised in a West Bank refugee camp and educated in New York, the effervescent filmmaker-turned-restaurateur is a consummate host who greets everyone with an infectiously sunny smile. While Tamam cooks behind her makeshift counter, and their daughter amuses herself in the kids’ play area, Mr. Zobaidi presides over the dining room taking orders and clearing plates. Well, sometimes. The colourful platters strewn with hot-pink threads of tangy red cabbage often pile up as he lingers tableside, extolling the health benefits of his homeland’s traditional fare.
Tamam’s food is all cooked with olive oil, not butter. They don’t offer any fried foods. The vegetables are fresh, never frozen. The main dishes – roast lamb, chicken or fish – are served with healthy grains. Some days it’s freekeh, a smoky roasted green whole-grain superfood that’s being touted as the next quinoa. Other days, it’s mujadarah, a homey mash of lentils, rice and caramelized onions.
It’s no wonder Palestinian cuisine is the next new thing. It’s healthy, homey, fresh, boldly flavoured and stupendously delicious.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
**Very good, with some standout qualities
***Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
****Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution