A Palestinian Pomegranate Cake to Celebrate Life

A Palestinian Pomegranate Cake to Celebrate Life

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Yasmin Khan—longtime Food52 contributor, food and travel writer, and author of the beautiful new book, Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen—is no stranger to telling stories. (If we had any doubts about this, she quashes them by tailing her name with the word “stories” in all of her social handles.) This emphasis on narrative is what makes Zaitoun such an important book in its telling of the kitchens she visited on her travels to Israel and the West Bank.

“The thread running through all my work is a fundamental belief that humans, wherever we are in the world, have more to unite us than to divide us,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “Celebrating this commonality is my passion, inspired by the old Jewish adage that ‘an enemy is just a person whose story you haven’t heard yet.’”

To hear more of her stories, I asked Yasmin to trek through the polar vortex to the Food52 offices, where we sat down to chat.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

ERIC KIM: Tell us about yourself. What did you do before food?

YASMIN KHAN: Before I came into the food world, I did a law degree and worked as a human rights campaigner for charities and nonprofits. I did a lot of grassroots community work on all kinds of issues. I think the thing I’m most known for in the U.K. is my work on deaths in police custody. I also worked for trade unions on employment rights and for an anti-poverty human rights charity, and that’s what kind of sparked my interest in Israel and Palestine.

EK: How do you see human rights playing into the way you write about food? Are they related?

YK: What drove me when I was a human rights activist was this realization that the best way you could effect change would be by sharing people’s stories, by connecting people to others in a really human way. And I feel like that’s what I do in my cookbooks, as well. I travel around places and I share stories from the people I meet, with the aim and the mission of challenging stereotypes of the Middle East. But also humanizing people and celebrating our commonality, which I think in these troubled times is needed very urgently.

The thread running through all my work is a fundamental belief that humans, wherever we are in the world, have more to unite us than to divide us.

EK: Would you say this a political book, then?

YK: Yeah, the act of witnessing is very important when there are human rights abuses. And I see my role as someone who witnesses those things. I’m not Palestinian, but I did travel extensively around the region, and what I wanted to do in this book is to use food as a way of opening a window into this place that’s more commonly construed through news headlines. Also, I’ve always felt that if you care about a food of a culture, you also have to care about the people.

Photo by Matt Russell

EK: In the book, you write about being detained at the airport in Tel Aviv and interrogated by Israeli officials. Does this happen to you often?

YK: Oh yeah. It’s been really interesting. Even when I used to work for the nonprofits, my boss, who was a middle-aged white man, would walk through fine, and we’d be flying together with our papers from the foreign office saying we’re coming. The reason I included that part of my travels is that yes, this is a cookbook, but increasingly I feel that Israeli food has become so popular, and Tel Aviv is seen as this incredible foodie destination—and it definitely is, there are great restaurants there and a vibrant food scene—but your ability to access it is dependent on your ethnicity. Not everybody can have these wonderful food holidays.

So for me, it was just about saying, “What is this actually about?” Even at the basic level of trying to get in, having gone through hours of detention and interrogation—even though they knew I was there to write a cookbook—I realized that it’s actually just about making you feel vulnerable. The questions are circular, and you’ve not eaten for a while. At one point the interrogator said to me, “You look a lot like your mom, don’t you? You don’t look like your dad?” It’s just very frightening.

EK: It’s cruel and inhumane. I’m sorry.

YK: Yeah.

EK: Well, you wrote: “I should have packed a sandwich.” What kind of sandwich will you pack for the next time? Just kidding…

YK: (Laughs.) Actually, I did! The next time, I picked up an avocado wrap with Parmesan and mayonnaise and pine nuts, and I had a TREK bar.

EK: What’s a TREK bar?

YK: It’s a U.K. thing. It’s got oats and protein—you know, one of those health bars. I was fully prepared.

‘Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen’ by Yasmin Khan.

Photo by W. W. Norton & Company

EK: What is Palestinian food, and what would you say are the most important ingredients in a Palestinian kitchen?

YK: Palestinian food is seasonal and vegetable-focused, primarily, and uses spices like cumin, cinnamon, and allspice to delicately flavor stews, grilled meats, and fish dishes. And I think the ingredients used most commonly, like allspice, were a revelation to me. We’re used to having allspice in cakes and cookies and pumpkin pie, but in Palestinian food they use it in savory dishes. So now that’s what I do all the time. Sumac and za’atar are very important, as well. Za’atar is an herb that grows wild, but it’s also a spice mix with the herb and sumac and sesame seeds. Palestinians often start meals with tearing a bit of bread, dunking it in olive oil, and dunking that in za’atar. It’s so good.

EK: What does the word zaitoun mean, and what is the significance of the word for the book and for your journey?

YK: Zaitoun means “olive” in Arabic and Farsi and Turkish, and it was, for me, the word that best symbolized the Palestinian table. Any time you have a Palestinian meal, there’ll always be a bowl of olives on the table, and Palestinians always have several bottles of olive oil in their cupboard, normally coming from their family trees. The olive tree and the olive branch are universally known as symbols of peace, but in Palestine, the olive tree also represents the Palestinian connection to the land. So many poems and films and books have olive tree symbolism in them. And when they’re uprooted, olive trees have come to represent Palestinian displacement. It all comes from that one word.

EK: That’s really beautiful.

YK: Yeah.

EK: Your photographer Raya is an integral part of this book, not just aesthetically but in the story too. Can you tell us about her?

YK: I really wanted to work with a woman. And I really wanted to work with a Palestinian woman. It’s important, for me, when I’m doing these kinds of projects to be connected to the community I’m representing. I like to work with women because I feel that, especially in those spaces, in many Middle Eastern countries, women can actually get you better access into other women’s homes. And so it was a real strength to me to have Raya. You get so much more depth and connection when it’s a photographer who speaks the language and has got her own food recommendations. She’s a massive foodie and a dear friend.

And of course, it’s just so funny—that pomegranate tattoo that she has? In my first book, The Saffron Tales, I wax on and on about pomegranates so much, because being half-Iranian, they’re such a big part of our lives. When I was chatting with Raya on Skype for our interview, she was like, “My leg hurts! I just got a new tattoo.” It was this gorgeous pomegranate half coming up her leg, and I thought, “That’s the photographer for me.”

EK: What’s the significance of pomegranates to you and to Palestinian cuisine?

YK: Throughout the Middle East, pomegranates have always been revered. They’re seen as quite symbolic fruit, because in the midst of winter, when nothing is growing and everything is barren, you have these amazing ruby-red bulbs hanging from trees. In Iran, for example, they used to line the gardens of ancient temples with pomegranate trees because they were said to represent eternal life. And in Palestine, similarly, they represent fertility and abundance. I imagine every Middle Easterner has got a special affinity to pomegranates. They hold meaning and depth and connection.

Photo by Matt Russell

EK: Speaking of pomegranates, can you tell us more about the cake in your book?

YK: That cake is really my kind of cake. I like almond cakes, and almonds are another key ingredient in Palestinian cooking; almond trees just kind of grow everywhere. So what I wanted to do was bring together a couple of key ingredients from the Palestinian kitchen into a sweet cake. So this is a dense and quite—what’s the word—squidgy cake. I run pomegranate molasses through it, so it soaks in the top and runs through. And I always like a bit of sharpness along with something sweet, so I top it with a lovely mascarpone-yogurt mixture and sprinkle it with pomegranate arils.

EK: What’s your desert-island dish?

YK: Oh, it would have to be my mom’s ghormeh sabzi, which is this Iranish stew of lamb, red kidney beans, and dried limes, made with—literally—a kilo of herbs. I’d have it with Persian rice, tahdig, torshi (Iranian pickles), and salad… Ugh! I could really eat that right now. (Lies back.)

EK: (Laughs.) I love that question because the answer is always, “My mom’s…”

YK: Is it?

EK: Oh yeah.

YK: Aw, that’s nice.

Recipe and photographs from Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan. Copyright © 2018 by Yasmin Khan. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.



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