Palestine on a plate: The (food) fight for existence

Palestine on a plate: The (food) fight for existence
7 min read
12 March, 2016
Generational identity and memories depend on shared experiences, such as shared cooking and shared meals - and now one new app is staking a place in cyberspace for Palestinian cuisine.
Delicious and traditional, Palestinian cuisine forms an integral part of its culture [PoP/Instagram]

The most delicious way to a society's soul is through its stomach, believes the creator of Palestine on a Plate.

It's a cookery app, soon to be turned into a book, which has been making gradual but noticeable progress over the past few months, already clocking up more than 50,000 "likes" on Facebook, and 30,000 Instagram fans.

The app offers food lovers the chance to taste the beauty of Palestine through its best-known dishes. The force behind it is Joudie Kalla, a professional chef, born to Palestinian parents, who has lived most of her life in London.

Kalla says her love for food was ignited when, at the tender age of four, she would sit in the kitchen with her three sisters and watch her mother cook several dishes at a time.

"I loved baking cakes with her and bread stuffed with different fillings. I knew then that I wanted to be a chef," she says.

Like many little girls, Kalla’s obsession was with Barbie dolls - but food came a close second. When she started school, she chose to study home economics - "sadly not offered to children these days".

She used to rush home from class to see what was for dinner and to see if she could help in any way to prepare the food. Kalla admits it made her a little anti-social, as she loved to be behind the stove more than with other people.

"All I wanted to know was if someone liked my food. I felt comfortable in the kitchen and really blossomed there," she confesses.

Although Kalla has a degree in art, architecture and design and holds a master's degree in French culture and civilisation, she changed direction at the age of 21.

And it's fair to say her father did not entirely approve of her becoming a professional chef. "[He was] exceptionally difficult to please," she says. "But he was tough on me for a reason. He wanted me to be the best I could be and true to myself."
Traditional Palestinian ingredients
evoke a sense of 'home' [PoP]

Kalla goes on to describe how food evokes the taste and aroma of nostalgia, reminding one of "home". Food is often a practical connection to your past and to your identity, she says.

"My recipes were a way to become closer to [my mother], as I felt very far away when I moved out of London and went to France. I had never left home and being away made me miss all of my comforts," Kalla recalls.

Intrigued by the creativity of the kitchen, Kalla explains further: "Cooking allows me to paint on a plate, so to speak. My mind goes into a totally different world, as it closes off to everything else and frees me to just focus on what I want. I love creating things and finding a way to put my feelings on a plate."

As a Palestinian woman striving to be a chef, Kalla had her work cut out. She often found herself to be the only woman in the kitchen, making it hard to be taken seriously by her male peers. The only time she felt like she was offered any real guidance was at her last job:

"My chef guided me in the right direction to find my way and begin my own catering company - and then later to open my own place. You really need support in this field to keep motivated when times are tough."

Kalla went to Leiths School of Food and Wine, a prestigious cookery school in London. She has worked in Pengelly's, a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, Daphne's and Papillon, with Michelin-starred chef David Duverger.

After closing her deli at the end of 2014, Kalla took some time off, but many of her old customers called and emailed her asking for recipes for dishes such as makloubeh, fattet djaj and sayyadiyeh.

This inspired Kalla to document the recipes - and Palestine on a Plate was conceived.

The app began life with the help of Kalla's friend Steph Ansari, also of Palestinian heritage, who helped build the programme. It was "a labour of love - and it still is, as it needs constant nurturing", she said.

Joudie Kalla says the project was 'a labour of love' [PoP]

She says she feels a special bond to her software - not just because it is her own venture, but, she believes, it has "benefited me because it made me learn more about my background and investigate my history. It has made my mother and I even closer and made me more proud to be, not only an Arab, but specifically a Palestinian".

Palestine on a Plate has received generally positive reactions. Many have expressed their appreciation of the photos and ideas for the recipes, as well as Kalla's own personal twists on classic dishes.

And it is not just the ordinary public who have given it the thumbs up - Kalla has received encouraging comments from culinary experts such as Loyd Grossman, Tony Kitous and Ian Pengelley, who described her as "the foremost expert in Palestinian food and by far the biggest contributor to making Palestinian cooking the popular cuisine that it is today".

Politically, Kalla has been slandered by some Israelis and has been asked whether she stuffs the food with explosives, yet this has not deterred her from continuing the path she started.

"If it angers people, then maybe I am doing something right," she says. "I would have thought that food was something that would unite people, but sometimes it can divide too."

The kitchen has become yet another battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"If someone wants to try and claim our food, I can't stop them - but I can try to set the facts straight," says Kalla. "Our food is sensational, who would not want to claim it as their own?"

But Kalla has also received very positive reactions in Israel, with a flattering feature about her career and app appearing in Haaretz.

Palestine on a Plate covers recipes from all over historic Palestine and is not focused on one area in particular. But Kalla is concerned that Palestinians are losing their identity.

"People don't see our food as Palestinian food anymore, they see it as Israeli or Jewish food," she says. "We need to own this again and empower our culture with our history and background. Not lose it [to] propaganda and the media."

This is the challenge that Kalla has set for herself: to educate people about Palestinian cuisine.

"We have enough Italian, French and Chinese restaurants out there, but not many Palestinian restaurants," she says.
Her passions for food and Palestine are the main force behind her determination.

M'tabak, the halloumi and ricotta-stuffed flaky pastry drizzled
with lemon, rose petals and pistachios,
is a Palestinian delight [PoP]

"I believe in this 100 percent. I love it and people love it too," she says, pointing to the 30,000 followers Palestine on a Plate has on Instagram.

"It makes it all worth it. I was worried that not all markets would understand the title, because, let's face it, not many people acknowledge Palestine, but I am not going to hide the most important part of me."

The most popular dish featured on the application, Kalla says, is m'tabak - which her mother only recently taught her to make. It is a flaky pastry filled with halloumi and ricotta baked at a high heat and then drizzled with lemon-sugar syrup, topped off with dried roses and pistachios.

"It is sensational. Incredible and simple," enthuses Kalla. "My own personal favourite Palestinian dish is makloubeh. The combination of lamb, cinnamon scented rice and fried aubergines with yoghurt is a marriage made in heaven. Always a crowd pleaser."

Kalla's ambitions stretch ahead of her. The Palestine on a Plate: Memories from my Mother's Kitchen cookbook will be published in the UK, US and Canada in September 2016. She also plans to open a small deli, and host supper clubs throughout the year teaching people how to cook Palestinian food.

"We have so much to offer as a people and as a country," believes Kalla. "I hope to shed light on that and many other wonders of our homeland."

Follow Raya al-Jadir on Twitter: @carelessrayoon