- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2008

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - It’s the most talked about conflict in the world — but the food remains a mystery.

Despite decades of attention to the Middle East, Palestinian cooking is all but unknown to a world more familiar with images of angry Palestinians with AK-47s than chefs creating delicate salads or carefully roasted stuffed pigeon.

“We do have [Palestinian] fighters,” said Fadi Kattan, organizer of the Second Palestinian Culinary Competition, a recent effort to raise the profile of the region’s cuisine, “but we also have other things that make us Palestinian.”

One reason so little is known about those other things, Palestinians say, lies with politics: Years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have ravaged the Palestinian middle class, leaving enough patrons for just a handful of high-end Palestinian restaurants.

With so many families destroyed by poverty and fighting — more than 80 percent of Gazans and almost 50 percent of West Bankers live on less than $2 a day — the attention paid to food elsewhere in the world can seem frivolous.

Still, other warring Mediterranean countries have had better luck propagating their cuisines. Thousands of miafter its 15-year civil war have made tabbouleh, a finely chopped salad, a global staple.

Small steps, such as the culinary competition held in the biblical town of Bethlehem in October and the growing popularity of a Palestinian cookbook might signal that the region is ready for its cuisine to be taken more seriously.

“We can’t wait forever,” said Abu Mahmoud, a Jerusalem taxi driver who cheered the idea of a competition.

Palestinian cooking is a regional variation on the Arabic-Mediterranean kitchen. It generously uses fresh seasonal vegetables such as cauliflower, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, onions, carrots, beans and potatoes.

You can count on tasty spiced stews, padded with rice. Chicken or meat tend to flavor dishes, not star in them, except for celebrations, when roasted whole goats and sheep are still served on platters of rice.

There’s also traditional Palestinian fast food — shared with its regional neighbors — such as hummus, falafel and shawarma.

High-profile cooking competitions have been embraced elsewhere in the world, but it’s a fresh concept in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where even the sight of a Palestinian chef is rare.

In conservative Palestinian culture, women mostly marry young and stay home, learning to cook from their mothers and neighbors. There’s no need for cooks to teach them new tricks.

Though food television isn’t unknown — popular Arab lifestyle shows are beamed throughout the Middle East — the superstar chefs who host them mostly are Lebanese, and they stick to a mix of their own and French dishes.

There also is the challenge of distinguishing Palestinian food from other Middle Eastern cooking. Such distinctions can be difficult to translate for the outside world — and sometimes even for locals.

Palestinians and Israelis both claim ownership of some foods, especially hummus. That has prompted an online protest called “Hummus not Chummos,” a dig at the inability of some Israelis of European origin to pronounce the guttural “h” in hummus.

During the culinary competition this year, 11 Palestinian chefs from Israel, the West Bank and Jerusalem were invited to innovate on traditional Palestinian recipes as well as produce a freestyle dish of their choice.

Iyad Jallaf, 28, stood nervously before cool-eyed judges, presenting a slightly tweaked traditional Palestinian dish: grape leaves stuffed with rice and herbs alongside chicken filled with crushed nuts instead of rice or barley.

Meanwhile, George Srour piled small rounds of flat bread topped with fried onions and chicken to create the classic Palestinian dish musakhan. His variation controversially added garlic, which traditionally is never used in this dish because it can overpower the delicate taste and smell of chicken, onion and herbs.

The winner was Johnny Goric, who works at the restaurant of the YMCA in west Jerusalem, with a sampler of his interpretations of musakhan, makloubi (chicken and vegetables with rice) and maftoul (spiced balls of semolina flour).

The event received little attention beyond local Palestinian television and newspapers, but Mr. Goric was pleased.

“This is our first step,” he said of the 2-year-old competition, adding that it shows “Palestinian cuisine is important.”

The competition has inspired new takes on Palestinian cooking, he said. Those approaches already are finding their way to buffets at high-end restaurants — an easy way to introduce fresh ideas to skeptical customers.

Meanwhile, copies of Christiane Dabdoub Nasser’s “Classic Palestinian Cookery,” a sleek, beautifully photographed English-language cookbook published in 2000, is selling at the relatively brisk pace of two copies a week at one popular east Jerusalem bookstore.

Nahed Mona, who works at the shop, says buyers mostly are Westerners looking to re-create meals enjoyed in the region.

The publisher, Saqi Books, attributes the success of the book in part to growing interest in Palestinian food and the lack of similar books on the market. An updated edition of the book is planned, and the company hopes to publish other cookbooks.

Change is slow. Even many Palestinians don’t see the need for paying more attention to their food.

Anthropologist Ali Qleibo says that despite the Palestinian notion that their food has always been the same, Palestinian kitchens have seen dramatic changes during the past 80 years — and should change more.

Mr. Qleibo has found the Palestinian kitchen initially was based on wheat boiled with seasonal vegetables and thickened with bread. Meat was reserved primarily for religious festivals.

As Palestinians have become wealthier, their food has grown to reflect the cuisine of the Turkish overlords who once ruled this region, adding meat and vegetable stews to the repertoire.

Now Mr. Qleibo thinks Palestinian food should be pushed forward again and improved for modern tastes and members of the small Palestinian middle class who want to try new things. “Life is consuming beauty,” he said.

Chickpeas are a staple of the Palestinian diet. In this salad, they are seasoned with a pungent but pleasing blend of cumin, olive oil and lemon juice.

To make the salad more substantial, add crumbled feta cheese and several seeded and diced tomatoes.

Balilah (chickpea salad)

This recipe is adapted from Christiane Dabdoub Nasser’s “Classic Palestinian Cookery” (Saqi Books).

From start to finish, it takes 20 minutes.

3 cups canned chickpeas, drained

3 scallions, ends trimmed, thinly sliced

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1½ teaspoons salt

1½ teaspoons cumin

1/3 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, combine the chickpeas, scallions and parsley. Toss to combine.

In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients, then pour over the chickpeas and toss to coat evenly. Let sit 10 minutes for the flavors to develop.

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