Dan Perez / Phaidon Press
Growing up in East Jerusalem, the author of Palestinian cookbooks, Rome Cassis, never expected to enter the food industry. For her, the kitchen was a “life sentence” for women.
Instead, Cassis moved to the United States when he was 17, first studying business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and then at the London School of Economics. Only when she has a child does she begin to see the kitchen as a “powerful place” where she can share important food and culture stories with her daughter.
“I started putting together my family’s recipes and stories, almost as a way for her to have a house wherever she was in the world,” says Cassis. “But after I did that and I started to see all those pieces coming together, I realized, yes, these are my family’s recipes, these are my family’s stories, but taken together as a whole, they can be anyone’s story. Palestinian family. “
Cassis says many foods that are considered Middle Eastern or Israeli actually originate as Palestinian dishes. Her first cookbook, The Palestinian table, chronicles the history of Palestinian food – along with part of its personal history. In his new book, The Arabesque table, Cassis expands the focus on the intercultural culinary history of the Arab world.
Highlights from the interview
About her identity as a Palestinian being, which is political in nature
It’s comical because all I need is to use the word ‘Palestinian’ and everything I want to talk about – no matter how far from politics – is suddenly political. But at the same time … as Palestinians, as a people living under occupation, fighting for justice, it is difficult to separate this reality from everything else we do. Everyone copes differently. I am in the world of food and writing and in this way I am trying to deal with or deal with this issue from this angle. And someone else in a different field can handle it from a different angle. … It may be a landmine, but it shouldn’t be. … Food is the lowest common denominator we all have. … No matter where you come from or what religion you are from or what your beliefs are, you have to eat. But do I believe that food can bring people together? I think this is a stretch.
On the dispute over the origin of humus
Hummus itself is controversial abroad because only a few decades ago no one knew what it was. When my husband took him to school, people made fun of him for eating this beige paste. Now, suddenly, in the late 1980s, he has become much more popular and recognized abroad as Israeli. And I think that’s where the contradiction happens. …
This is a dish that is inherently Arabic, and is marketed abroad as Israeli – without any mention of this origin. … When I’m here and I see something that I know is such an important part of my culinary identity, appropriated as Israeli, it feels almost like adding insult to injury and intentionally saying that I don’t exist, that I don’t know I don’t have a past that I’ve never been there or part of the story. So I’ve said this before, it’s not about the chickpeas themselves, it’s not about the dish, it’s more about what this omission means to people like me, who are Palestinians, who see our history being completely circumvented and ignored abroad.
On the Arab bagel
Dan Perez / Phaidon Press
In fact, I have always assumed that he came from the Ashkenazi communities in Eastern Europe. And then I started doing research on this book … and some of the research involved looking at ancient medieval Arabic cookbooks. And I flip through one of them from the 13th century and there in the bread chapter I see a section for kaaka, which is a ring-shaped dough that the Arabs made centuries ago. And I read and it says, “Take these ring dough, put them on a dowel, boil them in water and then bake them.” And that’s essentially what a bagel is today.
So once you start digging deeper, you realize that the bagel can be traced back, and this is done by many Jewish researchers, they trace it to Poland in the 16th century. In Poland, however, it was traced by their royal family until the 13th century. And then when you look at who married this royal family, it’s a woman who came from Bari, Italy, and Bari, Italy, in the Middle Ages it’s … [a] a fortress of the Islamic Empire and hence the cuisine of Europe was strongly influenced by Arab traders and the conquest of this region. So you begin to see how the bagel, in its original form, has traveled around the world. And then you also see many similar versions of it in China, where trade routes also passed. And then you realized that what connects all this is their origin in these Arabic cookbooks, the fact of cooking a piece of dough before you bake it.
What inspired her to start cooking Arabic dishes from her childhood
I think many times you take things for granted – and I definitely did with my mother’s cooking. My daughters do the same with mine. But after I left and arrived in the United States, there was a certain culture shock for me. Part of that was seeing myself eating alone in the dining rooms. There is no such family feeling that everyone eats together and then the food itself. I began to crave. I missed it. I missed not only the taste and flavor, but the whole feeling around it. And then I started cooking and I was going to call my mother and ask her for recipes. So it all started simply.
I remember the first dish I wanted to make was macluba, this inverted dish of rice and vegetables. … I think I called her maybe 15 times in two hours, [and] at one point she said, “It’s cheaper to fly over and cook it for you than to keep answering your questions about how to do it!” But I remember eating it then and it somehow gave me a sense of satisfaction that I was closer to home. And even for a little while, this nostalgia I had was soothed only by eating this dish.
On will be a spice
Za’atar is an herb in itself and belongs to the oregano family. What ultimately happens here is when people say za’atar, they mean the spices made from this herb mixed with sumac, sesame and salt. And sometimes people will call it thyme, but it’s not really thyme at all. It is much, much closer to oregano than to thyme. And the reason it is misunderstood is that people probably do not realize that this is a real plant. So we make a spice from this plant and creatively call it by the same name as the plant, but we also use it in other applications. We use it in the dough, different types of bread and pastries. We also use it to make teas. And of course, the spice is perhaps the most widely used and recognized … mixed with sumac, sesame seeds and salt and is probably present at every table in every Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian household. And this is your decision Breakfast: Dip pita bread in olive oil and sauté and you’re done.
To develop a friendship with the Israeli chef Michael Solomonov (famous for his award-winning restaurant Philadelphia, Zahav)
The first time I ever ate in Zahav … [I had] a dish that reminded me a lot of what my mother makes, freekeh. And I remember that part of me felt happy that I ate this dish with a taste at home, and another part I felt extremely disappointed. Why do I eat the best Palestinian dish since I came to the United States in an Israeli restaurant?
And then fast forward 10 years and I’m writing this book, on the one hand, yes, to protect our culture for my daughter and our culinary history, but partly to show the world that this is our food that we eat from generations before Israel was even a state. So when my book came out, I sent Mike [Solomonov] a copy of the book in handwriting in part to say, “This is our food. This is what we cooked.” … And I think he was very moved by that. I didn’t expect to hear from him when I sent the book, but he reached out and said, “I was very moved by your book,” and he wanted to meet me for coffee. And we did. And I was surprised to realize how many things are lost in translation. You see Mike and you think he’s the face of Israeli cuisine. He must deny the Palestinian origin of the food he serves. He must be anti-Palestinian, etc. And once you get to know someone on an individual level, you begin to realize how many misconceptions you probably have about that person. And this is the beginning of this friendship.
Amy Salit and Thea Chalonner produced and edited the audio for this interview. Bridget Benz and Molly Gray-Nesper adapted it for the network.