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Palestinian Food Preparation: Past and Present

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 18.02.2006:

PALESTINIAN FOOD PREPARATION: PAST AND PRESENT

Palestine’s history is scarred by wars, occupation and suffering. Throughout the ages the people faced a difficult and often poverty-stricken life. Most lived simply. Villagers prepared their meals with home-grown products. The goats and sheep they tended helped them to make butter, yoghurt and white cheese. Rice and corn were part of the basic meal. The poor ate sheep, lentils and chick beans; those who could afford ate lamb meat.

Before the mid-20th century Palestinian food was elementary yet healthy. Vegetables were available only in Summer; women dried tomatoes and grapes for consumption in Winter. Many people cultivated fruit trees in the home garden, especially olives, figs, grapes, pomegranates and lemon. From the fruits they made jam syrup and lemon juice.

Changes

Technology, modern industry and the introduction of the foreign kitchen deeply affected Palestinian food preparation. Modern technology makes it possible to cultivate fruits and vegetables throughout the year. Farmers are no longer dependent on the seasons. Palestinians travelling abroad introduced new spices in the Palestinian kitchen.

The invention of the blender and mixer made the preparation of traditional food easier and less time-consuming. Nowadays women rarely bake their own bread in the traditional oven (taboun) outside the house. They usually buy bread from the bakery or supermarket. Today one eats fresh cheese and yoghurt, and, less often than before, dried Bedouin cheese. New recipes are introduced. You can see different types of restaurants in the West Bank: Italian, Chinese, Mexican, French, Spanish.

Another important factor is the modern life style, which here as elsewhere undermines traditions. Julia Dabdoub from the Arab Women Union in Bethlehem says with regret: “In case of a wedding, people used to prepare a cake called mahune. After the wedding they took it home. This delicious cake has been replaced by a tasteless creamy wedding pie. People do not like it very much but the younger generation prefers a modern life style.” In previous times, some village women were known for their cooking talents. When neighbours smelled a wife’s cooking, they passed by to taste a spoon. However, this has changed as well. A woman from Artas, a village south-east of Bethlehem: “We used to know all people in the village but nowadays the village has grown so much that it is impossible to know everybody. The spontaneous tradition of visiting the neighbour while cooking is nowadays rare.” If somebody in the village died, villagers took care of the family, and prepared meals to support the mourning relatives. Also this tradition has faded away.

Village and town

There are no great differences in food preparation between village and town, except that villagers still eat the basic traditional food. They eat more home-made products such as yoghurt, white cheese or jam. There is however a clear difference between the social classes. In general, less affluent people tend to eat less expensive meat, more home-made products, and more vegetarian dishes such as rice with lentils. Only during occasions they eat dishes with much meat like kibba. Those who can afford eat industrial products and experiment with foreign recipes.

Although Palestinian food habits have somewhat changed, people are still attached to the traditional Palestinian meals. Children ask their grandmothers about old dishes which their mothers do not know how to cook anymore. Palestinians who stay abroad miss the Arabic food very much. It is an important part of their culture and memories. Families send their relatives all kind of products from Palestine, such as za’ater (a combination of thyme and other herbs). By doing so, they give them a product from the homeland with the message not to forget their Palestinian culture and identity.

For visitors too, an encounter with the Palestinian kitchen goes to the heart of Palestinian culture. By learning about food-related folkstories and anecdotes they detect a surprisingly rich heritage of Palestine to which both Moslems and Christians have contributed.

From: “Sahteen: Discover the Palestinian Culture by Eating”, published by the Freres School, Bethlehem, part of the Culture and Palestine series issued by the Arab Educational Institute-Open Windows, Bethlehem, 1999. To order the book, send a mail to aei@p-ol.com

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