What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “Israeli food”? Possibly pomegranates, za’atar, grilled meats. But what if you hear the words “Palestinian food?” For a lot of people, their mind goes blank. Yasmin Khan wants to fill that picture in with phenomenal dishes spicy shrimp and tomato stew or spiced chicken with dried lime pilaf. She went to Israel and the State of Palestine to talk with Palestinian cooks. That journey led to her Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen. It's a book driven by joyful deliciousness, but built on the complex emotions of life in conflict and occupation. Francis Lam talked with her about what writing that was like. He also couldn't let her leave without getting her recipe for Eggplant and Feta Kefe, declicious little double-roasted eggplant and cheese balls.
Francis Lam: Before you started writing cookbooks you had a whole career as a lawyer and as a human rights campaigner. Why'd you switch to writing cookbooks?
Yasmin Khan: One of the things that's always interested me throughout all my careers, of which I've had many, is the power of storytelling and how storytelling can affect social change. Certainly when I was working on legal rights – whether that was working with a family who'd lost a loved one because they'd been shot by the police or if I'd been working with a human rights defender in the West Bank who'd been arrested without charge – the thread that brought both of those elements together was storytelling and telling people's stories. I realized that as a campaigner the way to bring about change is to connect people to their hearts, to cultivate empathy, because that's where you can start having a conversation.
Photo: Matt Russell
In 2012 I went and spent a few months in Iran, where my mom's family are from. I'd just gone through quite a debilitating burnout following this human rights career, and it was there that I immersed myself in my family's kitchen collecting stories of the revolution, collecting stories of everyday life in Iran. When I came back to the UK, I realized I was sitting on this treasure trove of stories that perhaps could shape an alternative view on how Iran is portrayed. That's where the cookbook ideas came from. [Ed. Note: Yasmin Khan is also author of The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen.]
FL: You talked about being burnt out before working on human rights campaigns. When we spoke earlier you said where you felt it was getting toxic for you was when you were working on Israel-Palestine issues. How did it feel then to re-enter that place, even though you were doing it through food?
YK: It felt many things. You have to be pretty privileged in your life to think that food isn't affected by politics. For most people in the world, what they eat, how they grow their food, and where their food is sold is inherently political because our food system is tied up with our political and economic systems. So, the bridge between food and politics has always seemed very natural for me. It did feel very unnatural going back to West Bank and reconnecting with these people that I had worked with six, seven years ago and being like, “Hi, I'm here to write a cookbook!” There were so many reactions to that.
FL: Did it feel frivolous?
YK: I think that to some people it felt confusing. I think to me it sometimes felt frivolous, but then at the same time I think to many of the people I'd worked with who were like, that's quite clever. It’s a bit of a stealthy way to talk about an issue that can be quite indigestible to a lot of people. This is definitely a book that pushed and stretched me in terms of my writing, in terms of my research, because how you find the appropriate tone to talk about Palestinian food and Palestinian culture and the situation in Israel and Palestine as an outsider is a sensitive one.
FL: How did you earn the trust of the people you wrote about?
YK: I'm a big believer in the power of sitting down over a cup of tea and coffee and explaining what you're doing and why. I think my work experience over the last 20 years, in a way, spoke for itself. I was really clear; I was like, “Okay, I'm from the West. I'm a woman of Muslim origin. I want to challenge stereotypes of how the Muslim world is perceived. I want to show the beauty and joy that exists in your community and celebrate it.” Once you say that, actually everyone's really up for it.
The thing is, people in the Middle East, especially in Palestinian communities but throughout the Middle East, feel a lot of pain and frustration and anger about how they're routinely depicted in the West. In the last 20 years the Middle East is never away from the headlines, but always for negative reasons. So, any opportunity that people have to be like, “Great. You don't want to talk to us about Hamas, you want to talk to us about hummus. You want to talk to us about our family's winery. You want to talk to us about this incredible microbrewery that we've just opened up using Palestinian orange peel and cilantro seeds to make an incredible IPA. Fantastic. Let's talk about Palestinian hip-hop.” It was refreshing.
I worked with this wonderful photographer whose name is Raya Manaa’. She was a 26-year old Palestinian woman from Haifa. Pretty punk, red hair, tattooed, and a wonderful young artist. We would be going around together talking about the issues and we shared the same mission, so it was fun. Actually, a lot of it was fun. I think that can get lost sometimes when I talk about the struggles; it’s an incredibly hospitable and warm place, and that isn't talked about.
FL: Even you describing Raya, that's not an image that I associate with Palestine. You imagine what a Palestinian person looks like, and you don’t think of a red-haired, punk, tattooed artist. That's not the image that we get here in the United States. I was so moved by how often people in the book say to you something like, “I'm so glad you are talking about how we can be happy. I'm so glad you're talking about how we restore ourselves at the table.”
YK: Resilience was definitely a big theme for me in the book and also when I was meeting people. The resilience of the Palestinian spirit is simply extraordinary. You saw it time and time again through producers, farmers and home cooks who are every day getting up and choosing to live and exist and cook and eat.
FL: But there's also a moment in the book that I thought was incredibly powerful. It’s sort of an open question that you leave. There's a moment when you are conducting interviews and talking with people and cooking with folks. You write that one woman said to you, “We are not clowns in a circus for you to come and watch and make research notes about and then make your name for writing down our suffering.”
YK: I wrote that and I heard it, and still three years on you read it out loud and I felt like a ripple through my heart. It's a powerful thing and an emotional thing and such a correct thing in so many ways for her to say.
People in Palestinian communities have been so over-researched for 70 years. People keep going from the West asking them to retell their stories, and nothing changes on the ground. So, that woman's anger and indignation was completely right. At the same time, I know as a journalist and as a writer that someone like me with a lot of privilege can actually impact and make a difference and change opinion by sharing these stories. I included that in the book because I wanted this issue to be something that other writers and journalists thought about.
It's so easy in food media, especially in this Instagram world, to travel around and be in a market and say, “Oh, isn't it so beautiful. Here I am drinking some pomegranate juice,” and not really be aware of what's going on around you. I thought it was my responsibility as a writer researching documents not to take away what ordinary Palestinians are saying. Of course, the overwhelming response of people was positive, but I think it's always good when you are an outsider writing about another person's culture to look at it sensitively.
by Yasmin Khan
FL: And to recognize that you're actually asking them to do a form of work by telling you their story. You're asking them to share something with you. Sometimes you deserve it, and sometimes you don't.
YK: But now, I have to say I also think it's very important to realize that there is and always will be, and always should be, a role for serious journalism and travel writing – and that that's okay. Throughout human history that's how the cultures have learned about what's going on around the world; it's by writing about them. So, I'm unapologetic now about the fact that it's also okay to do it.
FL: And you do it beautifully. You mentioned Instagram. I have been following your book tour in the United States on Instagram for five or six weeks. It's incredible. And I have to say I'm in this business, I work in publishing as well, it's really hard. What has that experience been like for you?
YK: It's been incredible. I feel a real honor that people have responded so well to this book. Writing is such a solitary affair; I'm sitting there in my pajamas most of the time typing away at my screen. So, to be able to go out and talk about what I saw, to engage with people. It’s interesting, I expected myself to come out of it all feeling quite exhausted because I was visiting so many places and had so many events, but honestly, I felt so invigorated and energized by what I see as kind of a change that is happening across the USA on this issue. It felt exciting. Like we’re saying, “Yes, let's talk about Palestinian food. It's okay to do that. It's okay to honor Palestine.” It's so wonderful to feel that I'm contributing a small amount to that.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.