A Book Review
Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen
Getting to read the book, Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan was a revelation for me. I did not know what to expect but I thought it would simply be a cookbook with a few bon mots about travel in it. Little did I anticipate the depth and breadth of this work and how much the content would come to influence me.
As a lover of food, I tend to read a lot of cookbooks over time, and I enjoy many of them for various reasons. Sometimes cookbooks are merely utile and can be used for what recipes you can glean for your own usage. Zaitoun is a bit of a different animal. More than just recipes (and there are many of those) there is a bit of the history of Palestine and the attitudes and thoughts of the people of this country. Parts of the book are poignant and informative while other parts of the book are travelogues describing the people of different regions of Palestine. Throughout, Khan’s narrative is sharp, with no excessive verbiage and clear insights that bookend the recipe chapters.
I’ve known little about Palestine growing up. My biggest touchstone to this region culturally was when at the Academy Awards in 1978 Vanessa Redgrave was up for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film “Julia.” Because Redgrave was a supporter of Palestine, the Jewish Defense League protested the nomination. Luckily Redgrave got the Oscar anyway.
As I grew to adulthood, I would begin to work with Middle Easterners, some of them from Palestine. They would talk to me about the conditions there and I was horrified that people were being treated so badly. I helped organize a cultural festival here in Northern California a few years ago and I was able to talk to people from all over the globe. During this time a Christian Missionary group had a series of slides shown displaying the horrible living conditions that many of the people lived through who were citizens of Palestine and I was shocked that so few people knew about this. Since then I have read a lot about their current events and politics in the news and learned by way of discussions with people from there. I have been able to learn a lot and know more than we normally see in our news media.
One the map, Palestine is located at a strategic location between Egypt, Syria, and Arabia. The Region that is Palestine has a long and tumultuous history as a crossroads for religion, culture, commerce, and politics. The boundaries of the region have changed throughout history and today the region comprises the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories in which the State of Palestine was declared.
It is of note that Khan in her writing does not preach or proselytize, but allows the people of the region to speak in their own voices and to portray their culture on their own terms. This open format allows the reader to better glimpse an understanding of the richness of this culture. Khan has said,
“It’s very interesting to me that the concept of talking about equality and human rights for a people — somehow in the U.S.A. this issue is seen to be controversial, whereas in Europe it isn’t. That’s something I really wanted to do with the book. Food is such a great way to start a conversation, to bring people in over something and connect with, like, beautiful breads and olives and pickles and sensory things that make you feel happy and alive. And from that start kind of weaving in some of the backstory. Because I think America needs to have this conversation.” — Yasmin Khan
About the Cookbook
Vegetables are a key point in Palestinian cooking and if you are a vegetarian you would eat well in this region. With the clever way many vegetables are cooked even resolute meat-eaters would have their mouth water by reading the recipes and noting the clever way many foods normally considered boring are displayed for best effect.
The book has quite a cadre of interesting ingredients I was able to learn more about: Freekeh (a smoked grain integral to Middle Eastern cooking), fruit molasses (date or pomegranate), za’atar (a favorite spice blend of mine that I have started to use a lot in my weekly cooking), yogurt (very underrated in our culture, but very versatile I’ve been finding), bulgur, flower waters and other things I’ve been finding lately in local markets.
Hummus features here in the mezze section of the book, and there are some versions where I have smacked my head and thought, Why didn’t I think of that?! The Hummus with Spiced Lamb (pg 25) is something I want to try very soon. Hummus with Lemon and Green Chili Chickpeas (pg 26) could well be a hit at the next potluck you attend. Labneh, an easy to make yogurt cheese, I’ve dabbled with it in the past and have started making it again. There are three versions of this easy to use staple (pg 30), which would have you viewed as a culinary god in your household. The Labneh with Peach, Thyme, and Pistachio looks lovely and very much delicious (pg 31).
Salads and pickles are among a few of the recipes featured here that had surprising inclusions. Turnip pickles, avocado pickles among others were here as well as the colorful freekeh with butternut squash and kale (not dissimilar to the buddha bowl but better looking), red pepper, lentil, and tomato salad something that while it would be easy to put together, looks stunning at the finish.
Flatbreads with za’atar are something that may look hard to make but are very easy and something you could get your family making. Try this wonderful flatbread with oil and spices and you may find it slowly becomes a weekly part of your family's meals. Recipes like the simple yet elegant roasted red peppers with olives and capers that take very few ingredients and makes them look like something fit for royalty. Lemon and chili roast potatoes take a lowly tuber and turns it fancy for a side dish that you could eat as a main dish.
Both delicious and delightful to look at, Seared Halloumi with Orange, Dates, and Pomegranate (pg 53) is something I must try, and Gazan Smashed Avocadoes is again, simple and elegant and takes something I’ve taken for granted in California and made it international. Even eggplant, something I normally hate, is made tempting by its treatment in these pages. Several of the eggplant recipes in this cookbook serve the vegetable much better than I have seen elsewhere.
Soups and salads are everywhere in these cookbooks and some are very elegant and simple. The Roast Pumpkin, Sage, and Maftool (a type of pasta) Soup is earthy and simple but also elegant and majestic with its orange, red, and green contrasting for the perfect fall dinner. Roast cauliflower soup sounds staid in its American inception, but in a Palestinian kitchen is given star status worthy of a show-stopping main dish. Cauliflower paired with garlic, cumin, coriander turmeric, and almonds is divinely inspired.
Meats are not ignored as lamb, chicken, and fish all get star treatment. Sea Bream with Tahini Sauce, Lemon Cumin and Green Chili Sea Bass (pg 162) are just two examples of incredible fish dishes, as well as chicken dishes like Warm Maftool Salad with Za’atar Chicken and Roast Chicken Stuffed with Raisins and Pine Nuts (pg 172).
The author closes the book with a host of wonderful desserts: Pomegranate Passion Cake (pg 209) is as amazing to look at as it is delicious to eat, and Apricot and Rosewater Rice Pudding (pg 210) are among a host of delightful ends to any meal.
Recipes like the ones in this book are a wonder and make one look at how they cook, shop and plan meals for the future. I know that this cookbook will influence the way I cook for my family in the coming year and possibly the rest of my life.
About the Author: Yasmin Khan
“I’ve had close family members persecuted by the Islamic regime, imprisoned, tortured, executed. That was always my motivation: to not let other families go through what we went through.” — Yasmin Khan
Yasmin Khan is an award-winning, best selling author, podcaster and human rights campaigner, who shares the stories of people through the lens of food.
Khan has trained in Law and has for many years been a human rights campaigner organizing international campaigns on poverty and human rights.
Khan is the author of The Saffron Tales and this reviewed work Zaitoun.
Khan is featured on many podcasts and news shows, on her website is a directory of the many places she can be found. She is as wonderful a speaker as she is a writer.
- Yasmin Khan Website: http://yasminkhanstories.com/#section-podcasts
- In conversation: Reem Assil and Yasmin Khan on food as a gateway for activism and what Arabic food means in 2019: https://www.sfchronicle.com/food/article/In-conversation-Reem-Assil-and-Yasmin-Khan-on-13615284.php
Thank you to my wife Jenny Jones, for editorial Help. ❤
Dean Jones is a Librarian, Cookbook Reviewer, and writer. Originally from San Diego and having lived his teen years in the Pacific Northwest, Dean has lived for over 20 years in the lovely but barely affordable San Francisco Bay Area. Dean has graduated with an MLIS from the University of North Texas and has a BA in Liberal Studies from JFK University in the Bay Area. Dean is the Library Director for Hurwich Library in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dean can be seen at Book Festivals, Library field trips with the BayNet Libraries Group of which he the Events Director. He can also be seen haunting farmers markets, bookstores, and local restaurants. Dean lives in the SF Bay Area with his lovely wife their six kids and a whole lot of books. Contact Dean at firstname.lastname@example.org