How it all began
Cooking is a magic moment and we all have an instant where it all began. That memory of the first smells, tastes, emotions in a kitchen.
Like many chefs, when prodded, it began in my grandmother's kitchen. In Julia's kitchen and garden. The taste of her fried eggs with sumac still lingers on today, more than ten years after her passing away. I still strive to recreate her Christmas cake, an exquisite blend of a traditional English cake and Palestinian produce.
My other grandmother, Emily, travelled the world. She lived in Japan and India before coming back to Bethlehem. I never met her but her influence on our home table still lives on. Spices and recipes were sent back in her letters to her sister Julia in Bethlehem. Curry became a weekly meal in our kitchens. The giant Indian okra was replaces by its smaller, more delicate Palestinian version, bamia.
The memories of successful meals and less successful attempts shaped my early childhood passion for the kitchen. It was quite fun to try jams in a cauldron on wood fire even though it became a pate de fruit as Julia and I over cooked it.
One of the most beautiful memories from my childhood was when, in season, the ladies from the surrounding villages came to my grandmother's to sell their freshly picked products.
Fresh saber, prickly pear, peeled on the stairs leading to the house, legendary lettuce from Artas, baladi sheep cheese from the Bedouins, beitinjan, aubergines from Battir, koussa, courgettes from Teqoa, khushkhash, bitter oranges from Jericho, would plunge the house into a frenzy. Setting off efforts to clean, store and cook those delicacies. I learned drying, preserving, pickling and making juices early on. The moment a quiet kitchen becomes a production centre, where the magic of transformation happens and the flavours and smells take over.
When I opened Fawda restaurant in the heart of Bethlehem's old city, I realised that many of those legacies were disappearing. Restaurants had a yearly menu, often with international produce, a lot of farmers stopped coming into the city, selling their crop to the large vegetable merchants, families had less time for preserving, pickling, drying seasonal vegetables and herbs, preferring easy and ready products.
It took some time to find those fantastic farmers and artisans that still brighten our daily lives with their noble produce, their hard work in preserving Palestinian herbs, fruits, vegetables and produce. And it feels great when some of them smile at you and ask: Inta hafeed Um Abdallah? are you Um Abdallah's grandson?