'Food can mean more'

‘Falastin’ cookbook opens Palestinian kitchen to home chefs

Jews around the world are avid consumers of this offering from Sami Tamimi, business partner to Yotam Ottolenghi, who spices his recipes with a sprinkling of politics

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Sami Tamimi in a London bakery he co-owns with Yotam Ottolenghi on December 18, 2012. (AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Sami Tamimi in a London bakery he co-owns with Yotam Ottolenghi on December 18, 2012. (AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Twelve years ago, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi took the London culinary world by storm with the publication of their cookbook “Jerusalem,” bringing the tastes of their shared hometown to eager home chefs.

Last year, with epicures suddenly having to find a way to cook for themselves as restaurants shut down, Tamimi published his own cookbook, “Falastin,” co-written by Tara Wigley.

The long-awaited tome brings the rich, vibrant world of Palestinian cooking to life for eager home culinarians cooking their way through the pandemic.

By now, home cooks have had months to work their way through its 351 pages, discovering Tamimi’s scrambled red shakshuka and sweet tahini buns, the complicated but worthwhile chicken shawarma pie, and labneh cheesecake piled with apricots.

The beautifully crafted cookbook includes well-honed recipes, personal stories and poignant accounts alongside mesmerizing photos of Palestinian farmers and expert cooks, portraits of the people who shared their family recipes and histories with Tamimi and Wigley over the course of multiple trips to the region.

Chefs Yotam Ottolenghi, right, and Sami Tamimi try freshly baked breadsticks at their company’s bakery in London on December 18, 2012. (AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

It is also carefully crafted around the politics of a region that Ottolenghi, an Israeli, and Tamimi, a Palestinian, left behind to pursue their culinary careers.

In 1997, Tamimi left for London after working in a Jerusalem hotel and in Tel Aviv’s renowned Lilith restaurant.

The cover of the Falastin cookbook by Sami Tamimi, the Palestinian Jerusalemite business partner to Yotam Ottolenghi (Courtesy Penguin Random House)

Though both are from Jerusalem, Tamimi did not meet Ottolenghi until both were in the UK. In London, the two Jerusalemites melded their takes on Middle Eastern food into the Ottolenghi empire, which now comprises six restaurants and eight cookbooks. Tamimi co-wrote “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook” and “Jerusalem.”

“Falastin” — Palestine in Arabic — is Tamimi’s personal, carefully calibrated approach to Palestinian food and the broader situation, his “love letter home,” said Wigley in an interview with The Guardian.

Tamimi, currently living in Italy, wasn’t available to speak to The Times of Israel about “Falastin.”

Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley, who wrote the ‘Falastin’ cookbook together (Courtesy Jenny Zarins)

He is, however, regularly available on his Facebook group, Palestinian and Middle Eastern Dishes, where he often posts recipes or answers questions from readers about recipes from “Falastin.” (He also sometimes comments on another Facebook group, The Yotam Ottolenghi-inspired Cooking Housewives, which has 29,100 members).

Among the many fans of the book are Jewish Americans, Israelis and Europeans who are accustomed to preparing big family meals and were familiar with Tamimi through Ottolenghi’s raft of cookbooks. And while there are sections of “Falastin” that may give some of them pause, it doesn’t stop them from using and delighting in it.

Ottolenghi and Tamami fan Ruth Katz showed off her salmon skewers with parsley oil on Facebook, ‘I want to put chopped lemon segments in everything. Another amazing recipe from @sami_tamimi #falastincookbook’ (Courtesy Ruth Katz)

“I did hesitate about buying ‘Falastin,’ but I didn’t debate it for that long,” said Ruth Katz, a Colorado-raised foodie who lives in the large West Bank settlement of Efrat, geographically close to but ideologically distant from the Tent of Nations farm that Tamimi writes about in “Falastin.”

“It was something I read in ‘Jerusalem’ that made me pull the trigger on ‘Falastin.’ It’s about how food is above politics and the ultimate thing is that it brings people together,” said the marketing professional and mother of five kids under 11.

Katz, whose maternal uncle is the owner and executive chef of the storied Oyster Bar in New York City’s Grand Central Station, was attracted to the rich profusion of 30-ingredient recipes in “Falastin,” many of which require only 15 minutes of preparation. (Definitely not all of them, however.)

She now regularly makes the scrambled red shakshuka (or the leek green version from Ottolenghi’s “Simple”) and Tamimi’s fish kebab recipe has become a regular on her menu rotation. She’s also a fan of his recipes for mixed spices.

“There are nuances in the writing that bother me, but it’s not going to stop me from cooking through it,” said Katz, referring to some of the book’s politically tinged passages. “I can read these stories and know who the writer is and respect that narrative.”

Home culinarian Sophie Sacofsky with her Ottolenghi beetroot loaf, one of many recipes made and posted on social media by the avid home cook (Courtesy Sophie Sakofsky)

It was Tamimi’s style and level of cooking that drew Sophie Sacofsky — a lab technician and avid home cook who uses all of the Ottolenghi cookbooks — to “Falastin.”

A Mancunian who has lived in Israel for the last decade, she hadn’t given much thought to the politics of the cookbooks or their authors, except for an initial appreciation that “Jerusalem” was written by two men from different sides of the city.

But Sacofsky began thinking about the politics and sensitivities of Palestinian cooking while reading through Tamimi’s Facebook group.

She watched a Van Leer Institute online panel in June about the cultures of Palestinian and Israeli food, featuring veteran cookbook author Claudia Roden, Ottolenghi, Berlin-based chef Gal Ben Moshe and Palestinian cookbook writer Reem Kassis.

The four culinary experts talked about the issue of cultural appropriation, discussing whether the Israeli culinary scene has stolen Palestinian dishes and made them its own. Ottolenghi spoke about his long collaboration with Tamimi, noting that the political aspects of their work were not in the spotlight when they first worked on the “Jerusalem” cookbook, either out of naiveté or because they were ducking the problems. 

The panel discussion made Sacofsky consider all those issues.

“But when I cook, I just cook for the fun of it, which includes learning about his family’s roots,” she said. “And it’s delicious.”

Basya Gartenstein appreciates how Sami Tamimi’s cookbook ‘Falastin’ allows her to bridge some of the gap between her longtime Orthodox Jewish friends and newer Palestinian friends (Courtesy Basya Gartenstein)

The cookbook offers far more than just the recipes for Basya Gartenstein, who was raised in New York’s Orthodox world. After earning a degree in conflict resolution, she is now working on her master’s in divinity, which has included studying Arabic, spending time in Oman and developing a circle of Palestinian friends.

A vegetarian, she’s cooked nearly every vegetable-based dish in “Falastin,” (she’s partial to the yogurt-roasted cauliflower with quick-pickled chilies, raisins and red onions, and she cooks a dish called Hassan’s easy eggs with za’atar and lemon twice a week), and found that these recipes feel like a manifestation of all the intellectual and emotional changes she’s made in her life.

Gartenstein now often recommends Tamimi and Ottolenghi’s recipes to friends in the Jewish community as a way to get a glimpse of Palestinian culture.

“I hope it will ultimately be a bridge for them to venture into relationships with Palestinians themselves,” said Gartenstein, “and share these dishes at a table with one another.”

Prolific home cook Danny Magill prepares crepes in his Brooklyn home (Courtesy Danny Magill)

“Falastin” offers the opportunity of virtually visiting certain Palestinian locations, said Danny Magill, a prolific home cook from Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, who regularly visits Israel with his family.

“It’s a cookbook that doesn’t raise your blood pressure, even though it’s about a subject that could raise your blood pressure,” said Magill.

That said, he senses the constraint implied in “Falastin.”

“I understand that people who live in the Palestinian world are much more pressured,” he said. “You hear how constrained they are, you know that in their universe they can’t say what they want to say.”

Maybe they do say it all in their cooking.

As Tamimi and Wigley write in the introduction to “Falastin,” Sami was asked many times about the role hummus could play in the Middle Eastern peace process. He would often say, it’s only food. It’s chickpeas, it’s lemons, it’s tahini.

“At the same time, food can mean more. Sharing food is not just about sharing food. It’s about sharing time, space, ideas and stories.”

Sami Tamimi’s sweet tahini rolls from his 2020 cookbook, ‘Falastin’ (Courtesy Jenny Zarins)

Sweet tahini rolls
Kubez el tahineh

Excerpted from “FALASTIN: A COOKBOOK” by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley (Ebury Press, £27). Photography by Jenny Zarins.

The journey of these rolls can be traced through Lebanon to Armenia, where these kubez el tahineh come from. They are simple to make, impressive to look at and loved by all. They’re a particular favourite with kids. Eat them as they are, or sliced and spread with dibs w tahini, the Palestinian equivalent of peanut butter and jam, where creamy tahini is mixed through with a little bit of grape or date molasses.

Keeping notes: These are best eaten fresh on the day of baking but are also fine for 2–3 days once baked, warmed through in the oven. They also freeze well, after they’ve been baked and left to cool: you can pop them into the oven straight from the freezer until warmed through.

Makes 10 rolls

1½ tsp fast-action dried yeast
1 tsp caster sugar
110ml whole milk, lukewarm
300g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
75g unsalted butter, melted
1 egg, lightly beaten
Olive oil, for greasing
100g caster sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
120g tahini

1 egg yolk, beaten
1 tbsp white sesame seeds

First make the dough. Put the yeast, sugar and milk into a small bowl and mix to combine. Set aside for 5 minutes, until it starts to get frothy.

Meanwhile, put the flour and ½ teaspoon of salt into the bowl of a free standing mixer, with the dough hook in place. Mix on a low speed, then slowly pour in the yeast mixture. Add the melted butter and continue to mix for about a minute.

Add the egg, then increase the speed to medium and leave for 5 minutes, for the dough to get well kneaded. Using your hands, scrape the dough into a ball: it will be slightly sticky and elastic. Place it in a lightly oiled bowl, turning it a couple of times so that the dough gets well greased. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave to rest in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until almost doubled in size.

Put the sugar and cinnamon for the filling into a small bowl. Mix well to combine, then set aside.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a large rectangle, about 35 x 50cm. Drizzle the tahini over the dough, then, using the back of a spoon or a spatula, spread it out evenly, leaving 1cm clear of tahini at both the shorter ends. Sprinkle the sugar mixture evenly over the tahini and leave for 10 minutes, until the sugar looks all wet.

Starting from one of the long sides, roll the dough inwards to form a long, thin sausage. Trim away about 2cm from each end, then slice the dough into 10 equal pieces: they should each be just over 4½ cm long. Sit each piece upright, so that its cut side is facing upwards, then, using your hands, gently flatten out to form an 8 cm-wide circle. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to rest for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 160°C fan.

Transfer each roll of dough to a large parchment-lined baking tray, spaced 2–3cm apart.

Brush all over – just the top and sides, not the base – with the egg yolk, sprinkle with sesame seeds, and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 18 minutes, or until cooked through and golden.

Remove from the oven and set aside for about 20 minutes – you don’t want them to be piping hot – then serve.

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