Ahead of her upcoming demo, author, campaigner and cook Yasmin Khan talks about the joy of Palestinian cuisine and the role of food in bringing people together
Portrait: Matt Russell
I’m an adventurous eater and curious traveller, never more at home than when in an unfamiliar food market, captivated by the bustling sounds and scents of a foreign land. Fortunately, my two careers have enabled me to do both. When I was a human rights campaigner I travelled the globe, collected stories from people I met and translated them into campaigns for justice. As a food and travel writer, I travel the globe, collect stories from people I meet, and translate them into recipes for celebration. The thread running through all my work is a fundamental belief that humans, wherever we are in the world, have more to unite us than to divide us.
It was this desire to share stories that took me from my north London home to cook with Palestinian communities in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza for the research for my new cookbook, Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestinian Kitchen. I set out on a culinary adventure through the region, learning about local ingredients and techniques while breaking bread with ordinary Palestinians. On my travels I learned how to hand-roll maftool, the plump Palestinian giant couscous, harvested black olives from the groves of Burqin in the West Bank, and even found time to down a pint with workers at the Taybeh brewery, the first craft beer producer in Palestine.
To my delight, I also discovered how accessible Palestinian cuisine is, with its strong focus on local, seasonal, plant-based food. This makes it perfect for cooks in the warm summer months, when Borough Market is packed with vibrant fresh produce which is just calling out to be assembled into herb-packed salads, crunchy pickles, fragrant soups or tender roasted meat dishes smothered in Middle Eastern spices such as za’atar and cumin.
Spices, flavours, ingredients
Palestinian food is particularly accessible for home cooks like me as for the most part, it is cooked simply and served unadorned, with vegetables and pulses forming the bedrock of most meals. There are three main regional varieties, each with its own unique take on spices, flavours, ingredients and cooking techniques. The food of the Galilee has the most affinity with classic Levantine cookery as we know it, featuring a magnificent array of colourful mezze dishes that make use of the region’s bountiful aubergines, asparagus, peppers, artichokes and green beans.
Food from the West Bank focuses more on meat and bread, drawing its major influences from the cuisine of Jordan to the east and the Bedouin populations to the south. Famed dishes here include mansaf, a rich and hearty lamb stew cooked in a sauce of fermented whey, or mussakhan, roast chicken seasoned with sumac and caramelised onions and served on taboon flatbreads.
The food of the Gaza Strip is the most distinctive, using a flavour palette that embraces fresh dill, green chillies and copious amounts of garlic, and placing fish or seafood as the centrepiece for many meals. What unites all these dishes is olive oil—‘zaitoun’ in Arabic—which flows in abundance in the kitchens of Palestine and is so peppery and pungent that it is used as a form of seasoning.
My travels through Palestinian kitchens were a powerful reminder of how food can bring people together and be a force for celebrating our commonality. Borough Market has always had a special place in my heart as it also does just that—brings together traders, producers, cooks and customers, who are all passionate about good food and community.
I hope you’ll join me on the 20th July, when I’m giving a demo at the Market about Palestinian food—and that maybe, my stories will inspire you to bring a taste of Palestine into your home kitchen.
Join Yasmin for tips, tastings and recipes Friday 20th July in the Market Hall, 1-2:30pm