FALASTIN, a colourful and fascinating look at the food, place and people of Palestine, is out on 26 March 2020.
What prompted you to write the book?
SAMI: This is the book that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s the sister book to Yotam and my Jerusalem, published eight years ago, and is a zoom-in on the people and place and food and recipes of Palestine. I left my home town many years ago: this is my love letter back to the family and place I may have left, geographically, but for whom I still cook for every day.
We’re also really excited to get people cooking more Palestinian food and getting to know and love Palestinian produce: their beautiful olive oil, for example, or big Medjool dates or Maftoul, the large round couscous.
Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?
The person we’d love to read and cook from our book is a hungry one! Hungry for the over 110 recipes we have in the book, of course – a mix of traditional Palestinian dishes and our less-traditional take on Palestinian cuisine – but also hungry to find out more: to read more and talk more and see more and ask more about the people and place of Palestine. The table is big and full and everyone is welcome!
How do you come up with recipes which cater to vegetarians, vegans, people with food allergies, and of course carnivores? What’s your failsafe vegan or veggie meal?
We cater for all sorts of diets and all sorts of occasions. The food of Palestine is veggie-rich so there are no barriers for those not eating meat or fish. Vegan-wise, tahini is the ultimate vegan ingredient – it’s rich, nutty, creamy – and is something we use a lot in our cooking and baking. It’s such a versatile vegan ingredient: either as a condiment to serve alongside all sorts of dishes – roasted vegetables, grilled meat or fish – or drizzled over leafy greens. We also bake with it – either in sweet cinnamon buns, for example – or else to enrichen a dish like our baked kofta.
Much of the food is also naturally gluten-free, for those who have a gluten allergy and we also make suggestions in the intro when something like quinoa (gluten-free yes but Palestinian certainly not!) could work instead of the more traditional use of bulgur or freekeh or mograbiah in a Palestinian dishes or whether a spoonful of yoghurt, for example, can be replaced by a squeeze of lemon for those who don’t eat dairy.
Our failsafe vegan dish would be the aubergine and chickpea bake: it’s so comforting and hearty and you make it a day or two in advance, if you want to get ahead (or if you want to benefit from leftovers!).
How did you decide which recipes went into the book?
It was a real process or journey, we should say. Initially Sami had a very long list of every single possible recipe which could be included in the book but we soon realised a few things. One is that we did not want to include exactly the same recipes readers can find elsewhere on on-line.
Yes, we have the classic Palestinian dishes – the chicken Musakhan, for example, or the upside-down rice cake Maqluba – but we didn’t want to have another recipe for a completely traditional tabbouleh, for example, which readers will be able to read up on elsewhere.
Instead, we offer a couple of tabboulehs which have a different riff put on them: one that uses leftover rice, for example, or a winter tabbouleh full of purple cabbage, chopped kale and pieces of orange. Another thing we realised was that we also didn’t want to have recipes full of ingredients that people can’t get hold of outside of Palestine or recipes which require techniques which take half a day to see through.
Recipes for cored-out carrots, for example, are not ones we imagine people to be getting going with when they get home from work on a Monday night. Ditto seeking out something like Kishek – disks or fermented yoghurt in which lamb, in a dish like mansaf, is traditionally cooked.
Falastin is written for the busy home cook. We have both big, celebratory dishes to be saved for weekend feasts but, also, a great many recipes for meals which can be made, practically, day-in, day-out.
The ultimate decider on whether a recipe went into our book, however, was deliciousness. Did we think it was completely delicious, did it work and would we want to make this time and again for family and friends at home. If it was a triple tick then in it went! We tested all our recipes in the Ottolenghi test kitchen so the process each recipe goes through is an exacting one. Everyone has to be very happy!
Food styling is very visual and Internet-friendly. Did you do all your own food design and styling in the books?
We did our own food styling, yes: Palestinian food is very much homely and unstyled so it would have been incongruous to go down this route, we felt. We take a lot of pictures in the test kitchen so we’re not new to making the food look very delicious.
We had a hand with getting bits and bobs for the shoot, though, from Wei Tang who we’ve worked with on previous books (Ottolenghi Simple, for example). Her remit was to find props for a book that we didn’t really want to ‘prop’ – no tapestry tablecloths, no superfluous napkins, not too many wooden spoons! – and we think she did a great job.
The sections about life in Palestine are fascinating. What would you recommend as a place to visit for someone who has never been to that region before?
Thank you so much. We’re really happy to have had space to include these in our book. FALASTIN is first and foremost a cookbook but, also, food is a great way ‘in’ for a reader who wants to find out more about a place and a people they might not know too much about. Rather than telling our story or even just Sami’s story, we wanted to be able to tell lots of different stories, about the lives being lived in Palestine today.
There are so many places people should visit: The Banksy Walled-Off hotel in Bethlehem is a must, we think, as is a cookery lesson with Islam in the Aida refugee camp. Go to Nazareth for a wander about a good meal and then go to Hip Haifa for a night out.
Unwind on the coast in Akka, eating fish whilst watching the local boys jump off the high cliffs into the sea below. Go to Nablus, for some city bustle (and sweet Knafeh). There are so many things to do, places to go, meals to eat…
Some people cook to relax - how do you like to unwind?
SAMI: I go home at the end of the day and also cook to relax; I love making a meal at home, for Jeremy and I. It’s the only time we eat together during the day. We are also prone to the odd weekend nap.
TARA: My ‘me-time’ is swimming and running and cycling. I have three kids at home so the unwind windows are not enormous, I have to confess. I absolutely love the outdoor lidos of London: I sometimes feel like the only time I truly breathe properly is, paradoxically, when I am underwater.
What’s your go-to meal for when you have people round for dinner?
TARA: Ooooh, it completely depends on the time of year and the reason and the season. I love a spread of dishes and dishes which I can prepare well in advance so this will always shape my menu planning. Last weekend I had a dinner for eight and we had the chicken musakhan along with a spread of other dishes: the fattoush salad, the pomegranatey-lentils and aubergines (rummaniye) and muhammara: the red pepper and walnut dip. Too much food, always, I can’t help myself. I’m a real batch cooker so I will always make more than needed and plan to keep some left over for the days to come.
SAMI: I am much happier bringing one dish out of the oven when my friends are over: I don’t put on such a big feast like Tara! I like all sorts of comforting this: the pasta bake in FALASTIN, for example, or the pulled-lamb shwarma which people can then pile into their own pittas.
How would you advise a first-time cook to start with these recipes?
With just one or two exceptions, the recipes in FALASTIN are all really straight forward, easy to do and very much written for the home cook. Possibly save the maqluba for when you are feeling punchy – it requires a deft inversion of the contents of the pan onto a platter before serving – but everything else is super homely and easy and comforting.
Start by getting your ingredients: some good, nutty, creamy tahini, a bowl of lemons, a lot of olive oil, fresh herbs and spices – allspice, cinnamon, cumin, sumac, za’atar, ground cardamom – and take it from there.
If you can read you can cook and if you taste something and think it is delicious then, chances are, everyone else you’re cooking for will think it delicious as well.
Your note on clingfilm is interesting - are you making a conscious attempt to move away from single-use plastics in general?
Absolutely. So often we default to these things through habit and it’s just a matter of changing habits, one at a time. With clingfilm, for example, very often a clean tea towel or even plate can do the job of covering or sealing what’s in the bowl just as well.
Who’s your go-to cookery writer or recipe book? Which authors or food writers are on your go-to bookshelf?
TARA: I’m a bit of an Ottolenghi clone and feel like I am having am being unfaithful if I cook from anyone else. That being said, the babaganoush in the Moro cookbook really is very good. I love reading Nigella and Alison Roman and Nikki Segnit and Felicity Cloake. I have a couple of staples from Anna Hansen’s The Modern Pantry, as well, and also Skye Gyngell’s first book out of Petersham Nurseries.
SAMI: I tend to look at cookery books for interest and inspiration but I don’t tend to follow them.
What do you always have in your kitchen cupboard?
TARA: Olive oil, tahini, preserved lemons, capers, tins of (nice!) tuna, dark chocolate and – I have kids! – tomato ketchup!
SAMI: olive oil, tahini, preserved lemons, jars of labneh balls and absolutely no tomato ketchup!
What was your favourite book as a child? Do you prefer paper books or e-books?
TARA: So many! Mr Gumpy’s Outing, Amos And Boris, Leo Lionni’s Frederick, Phoebe and the Hot Water Bottles! Paper books all the way, for me: I spent so much time looking at a screen when I am working and writing that books will always mean bath time and bed time and paper, for me.
What are you reading at the moment? What book(s) would you recommend to a friend?
I’m reading Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again. It’s tooooo good! Line for line magic. I love books which make me laugh. Standard Deviation was brilliant and last summer was all about Fleischman is in Trouble, for me. I have to confess that the books I love to read and recommend are those which reflect the world I recognised rather than those which take me on a fantastical journey. Is that my limitation?!
Thank you very much for answering our questions. We wish you every success with your book!
Pleasure! And thank you!
Sami and Tara (c) Jenny Zarins