I spent my childhood years among three tables: my family’s kitchen table in Jerusalem, and each of my two grandmothers’ tables, one in a village in the north of Palestine and the other in a village closer to the center. The food—even the religion, dialects, and conversations—I experienced at each was different. Everything was delicious, prepared with love, and referred to as “our food.” To this day, I’m still trying to recreate those flavors from memory. But not once while living at home did I really mull on the idea of these foods collectively making up a Palestinian cuisine. It was only when I left home at 17 to start college in the States that I began to grasp the undeniable connection of food to national identity, and the intricacies associated with defining it.
Many years, countries, degrees, children, and a career switch later, I am starting to understand why, as elusive as the notion of a national cuisine may be, it’s still an absolutely vital one. This importance becomes even more pronounced when one is away from their homeland, as many of us here in the US are, and especially when the national identity and connection to that homeland is threatened, as it is for most Palestinians.
Palestinians: A Primer on the People That Call This Cuisine Their Own
As of 2019 there were an estimated 13.3 million Palestinians in the world, 5.3 million of which are refugees. Two of the largest concentrations of these refugees outside the Arab world are in Chile and the US. It’s been almost 75 years—three quarters of a century—since our original displacement during the 1948 War, and many Palestinian descendants still have never set foot in our homeland. Some may no longer be familiar with the language, customs, music, and traditions, but if there is one thing that has survived decades of expatriation, it is our food. Many Palestinians I know who cannot speak a word of Arabic can name every dish on a Palestinian sofra (a table laden with food), and their dining tables regularly include many of the classic dishes, from maqlubeh and dawali to hashweh and the quintessential zeit (olive oil) and za’atar.
After years of writing and working to preserve these dishes and their history for future generations, and after countless conversations with Palestinians across the globe, I have come to a quiet but powerful realization: There is no singular Palestinian cuisine. Palestinian food spans our entire geography, from the mountains of the Galilee to the valleys of the south, from the coast of Yaffa all the way to the West Bank. It is scattered across the globe and built from memories of a time when most of us lived on the same land. It is the grains of freekeh and ever-present bowl of za’atar as much as the connection these dishes provide to a nation out of reach.
So when I was tasked with selecting a collection of essential recipes to introduce Palestinian cuisine, I balked. How do you pack such a rich and diverse history into so few dishes? What’s more, many of the dishes we consider definitive or important to our cuisine—like hummus, falafel, tabouleh, and kubbeh—are shared across the countries of the Levant. So how do I choose these dishes, let alone define a national cuisine?
What Is National Cuisine?
In the context of history, all cuisine is a byproduct of evolution and diffusion and predates the modern nation-state. Think of the Italian tomato, which only made its way to Europe in the 16th century, or the ubiquitous chiles used in Thai and Indian cuisines that arrived in the New World just a few centuries ago. Culinary integration has been visible throughout—and essential to—our history. An honest account of any cuisine admits and celebrates the positive angles of this history, recognizing that no food culture is stagnant, but rather a dynamic force that changes through circumstance, integrates with others, and evolves with the times. This, however, doesn’t negate the fact that some dishes have come to be made a specific way by certain people or that some foods carry significance for national groups.
Yet even those dishes can generate much debate depending on the region, town, or family you come from. I have witnessed arguments so heated you would think they were about bringing peace to the Middle East, only to realize it was two cooks discussing the right way to prepare a certain dish. Is mlukhiyeh made with whole jute mallow leaf or ground? Can mansaf be made with chicken or only lamb? Does adding chickpeas or garlic to qidreh make it inauthentic? Can you include tomato paste when cooking grape leaves, or should you just use lemon? Which of the 1001 ways to make maqlubeh is the right one? And let’s not get started with the spices for each of these dishes.
An Intro to Palestinian Cooking: Why These Particular Dishes?
Choosing a small number of dishes to capture a cuisine may be a useful primer into that culture, but it’s an incomplete one at best. Choosing one dish means you’ve omitted another, and missing entirely from this list are the desserts, drinks, spreads, and countless salads and stews that adorn Palestinian tables across the globe. But there are specific reasons why I chose these dishes to introduce this rich cuisine: They all tell a story.
Though the ascent of the nation-state in the late 18th and 19th century gave rise to the idea of national cuisines, food at its core remains deeply regional; at times, cuisine is more closely tied to more local landscapes, as well as broader categories of language and religion, than it is to a nationality. Looking at Palestine, for example, we see that northern towns in the Galilee might share more dishes—such as kubbeh niyeh, a tartare of raw lamb and fine bulgur—with neighboring villages in Lebanon and Syria than with southern Palestinian areas such as Gaza.
Given our intertwined history and centuries-long acculturation under Islamic and Arab rule, it comes as no surprise that we share many dishes across all the countries of the Levant. Yakhneh is a primary example: The stew is always vegetable based, with meat having a supporting role, and most often features a tomato broth. It’s the staple dish that most Lebanese people, Syrians, Jordanians, and Palestinians eat with vermicelli rice on a weekly, if not daily, basis. This genre of dishes that span multiple national cuisines—also including hummus, falafel, and tabouleh—is glaringly missing from this introduction to Palestinian cuisine. This is not because these dishes aren’t popular in or significant to Palestinian cuisine, but because we wanted to share meals that set Palestinian cuisine apart. (That said, this doesn’t mean that all of the recipes included here are completely exclusive to Palestinian cooking, only that they’re more tightly encompassed by it.)
After much research, I chose recipes that represent the breadth of dishes across our geography and traditions. You’ll find qidreh from Hebron, hashweh from the Galilee, and msakhan from the center and the West Bank, as well as foods that speak to a history that many in the West may not be familiar with. Above all, I wanted to select dishes that gave a glimpse into what it really means to be Palestinian and what sets our cuisine apart from others in the Levant.
You’ll notice the majority of these dishes are mains made for sharing, and oftentimes are labor-intensive. These foods are enjoyed across the country (even if prepared differently based on the exact locale) and are often reserved for special occasions and gatherings. Though if you think of the average Palestinian family with several generations living under the same roof—or within very close proximity to each other—each mealtime is a gathering of sorts anyway.
How We Eat and Assemble a Meal
Many people associate the cooking of the Arab world with mezze and grilled meats because it’s what they have become accustomed to eating in restaurants. But the day-to-day meals Palestinian families enjoy are quite far-removed from these restaurant dishes.
Yes, there are many dips, spreads, and salads in the Palestinian culinary repertoire, and no wedding or celebratory table is considered complete without the presence of these plates. But the average weeknight dinner table consists of one main (usually a stew, stuffed vegetable, or grain-based dish) and possibly a salad or yogurt on the side. Bread and a plate of olives are also generally non-negotiable. This way of eating allows one to eat across all food groups: vegetables and grains take center stage, while meat plays a supporting role.
At larger gatherings, however, the dynamic changes and you will find more options on the table. There is always at least one show-stopping main dish to anchor the table and signal respect to guests, but you will often find several of these larger dishes alongside a selection of salads and spreads. Bread is ever-present and used just as much as a utensil to scoop up food as it is enjoyed on its own.
As a whole, a Palestinian meal usually strikes a fine balance of flavors, textures, and spices, regardless of the occasion and the exact dishes chosen. Maqlubeh and hashweh, for example, are both almost always dotted with fried nuts and served alongside fresh yogurt and Palestinian salad. Kafta is frequently served alongside rice and pickles. Even msakhan, a dish that, like mansaf, was traditionally served on its own with no accompaniments, still sees a table dotted with olives, radishes, pickles, possibly even yogurt. These dishes are all served family-style with the intent of sharing and eating together.
What ties all Palestinian tables together is more than just good food or specific dishes: It is the notion of “home,” the spirit of generosity, the importance of family, and the value of bringing people together. If there is one thing the following dishes introducing you to Palestinian cuisine can help you understand, it is precisely that.
Za’atar (Middle Eastern Herb Blend)
No Palestinian table is complete without za’atar, which is often eaten with bread dipped in olive oil. It can be used in a number of ways: as a topping for manaqeesh (a type of flatbread), mixed into yogurt or labaneh, or even as a seasoning for meat and chicken marinades. The spice blend consists of toasted sesame seeds, dried za’atar leaves (though you can also use dried oregano, marjoram, or thyme), sumac, and a little bit of salt.
Though taboon is the name given to the clay ovens used by Palestinians, it also refers to this flatbread. It’s soft, tender, and dimpled from being cooked on stones. And unlike pita bread, taboon doesn’t open up to become a pocket, but is instead sturdier, allowing it to support a heavier load of toppings. It’s used as the main component of msakhan, but can also be used to scoop up anything from labaneh and hummus to stews and braises. When topped with olive oil and za’atar and heated in the oven, taboon becomes a crispy manaqeesh.
Ka’ak al Quds (Jerusalem Sesame Bread)
I’ve written before about how ka’ak is likely the precursor to the modern day bagel. The oblong sesame breads are synonymous with Jerusalem (after all, “ka’ak al Quds” translates to “Jerusalem ka’ak”), and most Palestinians agree that the ka’ak made in Jerusalem taste better than those made anywhere else in the country. While there are many breads today that are similar, from from Turkish simit to Polish obwarzanki, ka’ak al Quds is distinguished by both its flavor—which comes from being baked in centuries-old ovens heated with olive wood—and its shape. This recipe may not taste exactly like the ones made in Jerusalem, but their crispy exteriors and fluffy interiors make an excellent placeholder to eat alongside za’atar, falafel, or eggs.
Salata Falahiyeh (Farmers Salad)
So many cultures, from Mediterranean and Balkan to Central and South Asian, have some version of a salad made from cucumber and tomato. The Palestinian iteration features finely diced tomato and cucumber cubes no larger than a dry chickpea; mint—fresh or dry—is commonly incorporated, and occasionally a sprinkling of parsley; and onions are a must. The dressing is nothing more than olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and salt. And while my recipe includes measurements and weights for those who want it, this is a salad that can—and should—be adjusted to your tastes.
Maqlubeh (“Upside Down” Meat, Vegetables, and Rice)
Maqlubeh or maqlubah, which simply means “flipped over,” is traditionally made by boiling either lamb or chicken, frying one or more vegetables (historically just eggplants), then layering the meat, rice, and vegetables in a stew pot and cooking it with some stock. Today, there are countless variations, but all of them result in a dish that’s flipped over to reveal a complete and festive meal. It’s a dish that can serve as a celebratory meal or a weekly family one, and is often accompanied by fried slivered almonds, yogurt, and chopped Palestinian salad.
Hashweh (Spiced Rice and Meat)
Hashweh simply means “stuffing,” and that’s what Palestinians call this dish even when it doesn’t function as an actual stuffing. While stuffed dishes are often reserved for guests and special occasions, the stuffing itself is more commonly served as a meal in its own right. It consists of simple ingredients, which means the quality of those ingredients are especially important. While it’s possible to make this meal using ready-ground beef and store-bought broth, hand-diced meat and homemade broth is preferred. These small details will ensure a superior flavor and texture that complement the spices in the dish.
Dawali (Stuffed Grape Leaves)
While dawali is one of our most common meals, it’s primarily a celebratory one. The one-pot dish consists of grape leaves stuffed with a mixture of rice, spices, and meat, which is then placed on top of lamb ribs (though other cuts of meat can also be used), cooked on a stovetop and flipped over for a beautiful presentation when serving. The process of preparing this dish is time consuming, but well worth it for the results, and something to get the whole family involved in.
Kafta bi Bandora (Ground Meat Patties in Tomato Sauce)
A mixture of minced meat and spices, kafta can be found in many iterations across the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Europe. In the Palestinian kitchen, it’s usually made with minced lamb, but it can also be made with beef, goat, or any combination thereof. Some common mix-ins include onions, garlic, parsley, spices, nuts, and other herbs—every family has their own version. It can be shaped into sausages or patties, baked or grilled, served with rice, potatoes, or bread, or all three…the possibilities are endless.
Qidreh (Bone-In Lamb With Spiced Rice)
Qidreh is the hallmark dish of the Palestinian city of Hebron, and one that’s commonly served during the month of Ramadan, as well as weddings, funerals, and special occasions. It’s consists of tender bone-in lamb atop fragrant spiced rice, and is almost always served with a side of plain yogurt and chopped Palestinian salad. It primarily gets its flavor from the neighborhood wood-fired oven where, in Hebron, it’s sent to finish cooking. Without that oven, it’s hard to impart the same aroma, so here I’ve added ingredients other cities have been known to include like chickpeas and whole garlic cloves.
Maftool (Wheat Pearls in a Vegetable, Chickpea, and Chicken Stew)
A distinctively Palestinian dish, maftool are caviar-sized pearls made of whole wheat. The most traditional way to serve maftool is with a brothy stew that includes onions, chickpeas, and chicken, and frequently seasoned with caraway. It can be common to include butternut squash or pumpkin cubes; some people add tomato paste to the broth, while others cook the pearls directly in a tomato broth and serve it up similar to a risotto. Homemade maftool takes time, patience, and practice, but you can purchase dried maftool to make the process easier.
Mansaf (Spiced Lamb With Rice and Yogurt Sauce)
Mansaf is not only known as the quintessential dish of the Bedouins—the nomadic Arab people that live across the Middle East and North Africa—but is also considered one of the national dishes of both Jordan and Palestine. Today’s preparation of the dish has evolved from its original, exclusively using jameed to make the sauce and baste the flatbread in, before including rice or bulgur on top of the bread. As for the meat, either lamb or goat is nestled on top and scattered with toasted nuts, and the remaining yogurt is usually served on the side.
Msakhan (Flatbreads With Onion, Sumac, and Spiced Roast Chicken)
A celebrated and essential meal to the cuisine, many refer to msakhan as the national dish of Palestine, although there are probably three or four more dishes vying for the title. It’s made by slowly cooking down onions with tart sumac, which gives them their notorious purple hue and balances out the sweetness of the onions, before adding taboon and topping with crispy chicken and pine nuts. The dish offers a satisfying contrast of textures and flavors made with very simple ingredients.