In “Falastin: A Cookbook,” Sami Tamimi cooks with tradition, love and politics
Co-authoring the bestselling “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” in 2012 with business partner Yotam Ottolenghi made Sami Tamimi realize he’d someday do a cookbook of Palestinian food. Tamimi, a Palestinian Arab born in Jerusalem, has been with Ottolenghi, a Jewish Jerusalemite, since the beginning, often working as an executive chef. For this book, he has teamed up with Ottolenghi writer and recipe developer Tara Wigley, who had no connection to the region when she was first hired to work with them, but has since become “knee-deep in tahini,” as the authors testify. There’s also a foreword by Ottolenghi. Tamimi answered some questions from The Forward via email. His answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.
When you were working on Jerusalem, did you have in the back of your head that you’d eventually like to do your own book like this?
Absolutely. This is the book I’ve always wanted to write. The book evolved a lot over the two years spent doing it: it’s both a love letter home but it’s also very much rooted in the people and place of Palestine today.
There are quite a few cookbooks on Palestinian cuisine that have come out in the past few years. What do you feel yours adds to the conversation?
There are, you’re right – it’s such a great thing – and I think that your use of the word ‘conversation’ is just the right one. There are lots of things I think make “Falastin” different, though. One of which is that I am a man and, as anyone knows who spends time in a Palestinian kitchen, home cooks tend to be women rather than men. I was always being shooed out of the kitchen as a little boy. “Falastin” is also very much not sepia-tinged. I love all the books which are in the market right now, we are telling about life in Palestine today. We feature the stories of people and places we fell for on our travels. We very much wanted to move away from the idea of one narrative or ‘the’ narrative.
“Middle Eastern cuisine” is so broad and each region/country has its own cuisine. What are some hallmarks of Palestinian cuisine? How does Gazan cuisine differ from that of the West Bank? How is the food of Palestinians living inside Israel different?
Indeed. We really think it’s time we zoom in a little bit and get excited about regional differences. The food of Gaza, for example, is often characterized by a triangle of dill, garlic and chili. Tara and I have become completely addicted to shatta – the Gazan fermented chili paste – which we now spoon on to any egg (or rice or meat or fish or vegetable) dish. In the West Bank, ingredients are often more fermented or there is more bread and meat. In Bethlehem, they specialize in cheese and dairy products, and then Nablus is all about the wonderful pastries and heavenly desserts such as knafeh. And then the fish and fresh herbs and spices up north on the coast make the food of Akka, for example, so distinctly Akkan! So much contrast within such a relatively small geographical area.
Writing a cookbook about Palestinian food is such a big responsibility. How did you decide just how much politics went into the book?
This did feel like a big responsibility. First and foremost, “Falastin” is a cookbook: a book full of 110 recipes which are delicious and winning and work for the home cook and which we hope people will make and devour and love. At the same time, though, everything is political and it would have felt odd not to bear witness to this. This is where our stories and profiles come in: for us, telling the stories of people we met and places we went to is a way of saying ‘look, this is what is happening.’ Most of what we saw and heard was really inspiring and empowering and energizing and some of it made for a really sobering backdrop. These two things – enterprise and energy and food-related action amidst conditions which are not easy – co-existed in every person we hung out with and every place we went to, and we wanted to show this. At the same time as being political in this sense, we also wanted to make a claim for it almost being the opposite of political: when people hear the word ‘Gaza’ we want them to think of the dill and chili and garlic in the food or the pomegranate-cooked lentils and aubergines which we feature and celebrate as a Palestinian dish. Ditto The West Bank and images of refugee camps. We go into Aida refugee camp, yes, but once we get there we are making dumplings and sharing gossip and time with our friend Islam who we are cooking with. That’s what we want people to think of when they think of Aida refugee camp: hope – sumud (steadfastness) – as Islam would say.
Given your association with Yotam, and the cult of people who will buy any book he does, did you think about the fact that your book might reach a lot more Jewish readers than the other books about Palestinian cuisine would?
The person we had in mind when writing the book was the hungry home cook who wants to discover delicious Palestinian dishes which, by and large, do not take half a day to make. This was our focus with every recipe and every story – does this invite everyone to the table and make them hungry to cook and tell stories? If, as we hope, lots of people do come to the table and move beyond the deadlocked conversation, then that would be a great thing indeed. It was not written for this reason, though.
You talk about the tension between making a dish traditionally, and the impulse to modernize it…how did you strike that balance?
It was a real balance and done with a great feeling of responsibility. Very often we would take the ingredients and flavors and essence of a dish but present it in a super practical (and often time-saving) fashion for the busy home cook. Some dishes offer fresh twists on traditional recipes and others take traditional ingredients and put them in an entirely new dish.
You couldn’t have known the conditions we’d be living in when the book came out. With all of us cooking differently than we did just a few months ago, what are some suggested dishes to make now?
There are so many dishes which people are cooking lots of during lockdown. People have two things going on at once: on the one hand, they have more time to make dishes which take a bit longer – things like the chicken shawarma pie – but also have the need to get food on the table three times a day, which they might not be used to. In that case, it’s things like Hassan’s Easy Eggs or the shakshukas which are being made a lot or the aubergine and chickpea and tomato bake.
What top five staple ingredients do we need to cook from the book?
Arabic tahini: tahini which is runny and creamy and nutty and pourable and good enough to eat with a spoon from the jar. Palestinian olive oil – it’s a finishing oil (rather than one to be roasting your aubergine with): it’s grassy and green and delicious. Za’atar – za’atar which just has the following ingredients in it: za’atar, sumac, sesame seeds, salt. Sumac. Fresh chilies.
Chicken Shawarma Pie
Spiced, marinated chicken thighs, slow-cooked until meltingly tender, layered with baked potato slices and rich tahini sauce, all wrapped up in thin-as-a-feather butter-brushed filo. This is a wow of a pie. Serve it either warm or at room temperature, with a crisp green salad and some pickles alongside. Playing around: The layer of potatoes at the base makes this pie comforting and hearty but, for a slightly lighter version, you can leave them out. You can also just make the chicken part of the dish. As it is, it makes a delicious stew, served with steamed rice or piled into a pita or wrap. If you do this, keep the tahini sauce—it’s always a welcome addition.Getting ahead: The chicken can be made a day or two ahead of assembling the pie. Keep it in the fridge and just bring it back to room temperature before putting the dish together.Serves six
1 lb 10 oz/750g chicken thighs, skinless and boneless
4 garlic cloves, crushed
¾-inch/2cm piece ginger, peeled and finely grated (1½ tbsp/15g)
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
¾ tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp ground turmeric
¾ tsp ground cinnamon
⅛tsp ground cloves
6 tbsp/90ml olive oil
2 tbsp cider vinegar
Salt and black pepper
2 russet potatoes (1 lb/450g), unpeeled and cut into ¼-inch/6mm-thick rounds
3 tbsp unsalted butter1 onion, thinly sliced (1¼ cups/150g)
¾ cup plus 2 tbsp/200ml chicken stock
¼ cup/5g parsley leaves, roughly chopped
¼ cup/5g cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
3 tbsp tahini
1/3 cup/80g Greek yogurt
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp water
1/8 tsp salt
8 (12 x 15-inch/30 x 38cm) sheets good-quality filo (6 oz/170g)
1 tsp black sesame seeds
¾ tsp Aleppo chile flakes (or ½ tsp regular chile flakes)
Put the chicken into a large bowl with the garlic, ginger, ground spices, 1 tbsp of oil, the vinegar, 1 tsp of salt, and a generous grind of black pepper. Mix to combine, then let marinate for at least 30 minutes (or overnight in the fridge).
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Mix the potatoes with 1½ tbsp of oil, ¾ tsp of salt, and a good grind of black pepper. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and spread out so that they are not overlapping. Bake for 20 minutes, then increase the oven temperature to 450°F. Remove the sheet from the oven, carefully flip over each potato slice, and return to the oven for another 10 minutes, or until golden. Remove from the oven and set aside until needed.
Decrease the oven temperature to 400°F again.
Put 1 tbsp of butter and 1½ tbsp of oil into a large sauté pan and place over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened. Add the chicken and cook for about 10 minutes, until lightly brown, then add the stock, ¼ tsp of salt, and a good grind of black pepper. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat to medium. Simmer gently for 25 minutes, or until the chicken is just cooked through. Increase the heat to medium-high and continue to cook for about 8 minutes, or until the liquid has thickened and reduced to about ¼ cup. Remove from the heat and let cool for about 10 minutes, then use two forks to shred the chicken into large chunks. Stir in the herbs and set aside.
To make the tahini sauce, put the tahini, yogurt, garlic, lemon juice, water, and salt into a bowl. Whisk together until smooth, then set aside.
Melt the remaining 2 tbsp of butter and combine with the remaining 2 tbsp of oil. Line the base of a 9-inch/23cm springform cake pan with parchment paper and lightly grease the sides with some of the butter mixture. Lay a sheet of filo out on a clean work surface and brush with some butter mixture. Transfer this to the pan so that the base is covered and the filo rises up and over the pan’s sides. Repeat with the next sheet of filo, brushing it first with butter mixture, then arranging it in the pan, rotating it slightly so that the excess hangs at a different angle. Continue in this fashion, brushing each piece generously as you go, until you have used up 6 pieces of filo in total and the base and sides are all covered.
Next, add the potato slices, overlapping slightly, so that the base of the pie is completely covered. Top with the chicken mixture and gently push down to even out. Last, spoon in the tahini sauce, spreading it gently to coat the chicken layer. Brush a piece of filo with butter mixture and fold it in half horizontally, like a book. Place this over the tahini layer, tucking in the filo around the filling. Brush the top with the butter mixture, then repeat with the last piece of filo, angling it to cover any exposed areas. Now fold over the overhang, crinkling up the filo to create a nice “crumpled” effect on the top. Brush the top with the remaining butter mixture, sprinkle with the sesame seeds, and place on a baking sheet. Bake at 400°F for 1 hour, or until deeply golden.Let cool for about 15 minutes before removing from the pan. Sprinkle with the chile flakes and serve.