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Palestinian women and food preparation

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 18.02.2006:

With modern equipments entering the Palestinian kitchen, the preparation of food has become easier and less time consuming. But do women therefore spend less time in the kitchen?

Hanan, from Artas: “On the contrary. In the past the mother had to work in the fields. She fed the cattle and besides she took care of the children. Life has become much more comfortable for the woman. She has modern tools and works no longer in the fields. Now she has more time to prepare the meals. She knows more recipes as well. My grandmother knew just five or six recipes. My mother knows about hundred. She has more spices and products to add to the dishes.”

This may apply to those households in which the man earns enough income to take care of the family and the wife can afford to stay at home. However, there are nowadays increasingly more women in Palestine who daily go to work outside the home and therefore do not have time to spend many hours in the kitchen.

Nevertheless, it is still a great asset for a woman to be a good cook and to know the Palestinian-Arab recipes. In the old times a woman’s cooking skills would count when a husband chose a woman for marriage. Hanan: “Some men even divorced their wives when the cooking was not well done, for instance when the guests found a hair in the food. This would affect the wife’s reputation and a man could divorce her for that reason.” Julia Dabdoub relates a sad food-related story from more than 100 years ago, about her grandfather. She said that once she visited a shop and the lady in the shop asked her: “Who are you?” She said: “I am Julia Kattan.” The lady said: “Oh, your grandfather is so-and-so; he used to beat his wife.” It came as a great shock. She asked my grandfather: “Did you ever beat my grandmother?” He looked at me, he was already 90 years old and he didn’t see well. I still remember his eyes. He said: “Yes, I beat her two times in my life. Sit down, I want to tell you why.” He said: “You know, we used to take men to work in the field. At that time, there were people so poor that they worked in exchange for food. So I took five men, and I told my wife: “Prepare the food.” I brought her meat, and I told her to prepare rice and meat. At two o’clock in the afternoon they came back and I found that she had cooked very little meat. I felt ashamed, we had made them work all day, we had to feed them well. So I left and took my men downtown to a restaurant where they ate kabab. When I came back, I said: “Where is the meat?” She said: “I only used half of it.” At that moment I beat her.” This must have happened in 1890.

Women can still gain a good reputation by being able to prepare difficult dishes like mansaff and musakhan. The more products the cook adds to the dishes, the more generous she looks. Hanan: “A Palestinian husband likes the Arab food. When you would ask an Arab man whether he prefers to marry a woman who is well-educated or a woman who is less educated and a great cook, he would choose the latter.” Girls learn from their mothers how to cook early, when they are teenager. Hanan: “When I was twelve years old, my mother let me make the bread. I always watched her doing so, how she kneaded the dough and how she put it in the oven.”

Putting on weight

If you come to Palestine in the hope of losing weight you have come to the wrong place. You will be invited at dinner many times and the mother of the house will do her best to prepare a copious meal. She will insist that you eat as much as you can.

Many Palestinian dishes, like maklouba, are traditionally made with pure butter. To show how much she appreciates her guest’s visit, the hostess will add some extra meat and nuts to the meal.

While being thin is the beauty standard in the West, people in Palestine do not care to have some flesh on the bones. You are considered prosperous when stout. You show that you come from a good family who can afford luxurious food. It used to be that girls at their wedding were very thin while afterwards they became fatter. They had to taste the food while cooking. Of course the man’s belly grew as well. It is still tacitly assumed that when a woman wants to make her husband happy, she will cook for him very well. But nowadays people are becoming more aware of the need for a healthier life style. They replace butter with olive oil and reduce fat and sugar in the meals. The younger generation wants to be in good shape.

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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