Fadi Kattan hopes first cookbook will be 'a bit of Palestinian sunshine'

Comprising 60 recipes, Bethlehem is the chef's love letter to his hometown

Fadi Kattan celebrates his hometown of Bethlehem in his first cookbook. Photo: Fadi Kattan
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When the Israel-Gaza war broke out in October, Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan, who lives in Bethlehem, could not contemplate cooking. “I could not imagine two million people being starved 80km away from here and be cooking,” he tells The National.

“In 1948 when the Nakba happened, Palestinians were under such a shock from being displaced and losing their lands, we didn't focus on things like food, even though it was an essential identity marker for us.

“More so for people who ended up being refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf, food was one of the only few things that reminded them of home,” he explains. “But we didn't realise how important it was, and that's why we have seen 75 years of continuous food appropriation until today.”

There's no better time to celebrate Palestinian food than now, says the chef, who started his culinary journey in his grandmother's kitchen. His cookbook, coming out in May, is a poignant symbol of his hopes and dreams for his people, written in the most personal of ways.

Comprising 60 recipes, Bethlehem is Kattan's love letter to his hometown. More than just a cookbook with step-by-step instructions of passed-down and original dishes, the book features personal anecdotes of family members such as Kattan's mother, who he describes as “a source of inspiration and, very often dissent”.

In one part of the book, Kattan recalls celebrating Christmas at his grandparents' house, where the main event was a Palestinian Christmas cake.

“Beginning December 1, my grandparents’ house would be filled with the aroma of Christmas cake, my grandmother’s adaptation of a traditional fruitcake recipe that includes her personal Palestinian touch,” Kattan writes.

This format allows Kattan to tap into his intimate feelings and memories. “After her passing, it was a while before I had the courage to revive the ritual. Now, not a Christmas passes by without my baking her famous cake,” he says.

Using these anecdotes, as well as the dozens of inventive recipes, Kattan aims to shed light on Palestinian food culture and bring “pleasure to people”.

“I want this to get a bit of Palestinian sunshine in everybody's home,” he says, struggling to hold back tears, his voice cracking in between words.

Other dishes in the book include a musakhan-inspired chicken liver pate, which Kattan describes as his first experimental take on a traditional Palestinian dish. There's also a recipe for cheese-stuffed grape leaves, pickled olives, slow-roasted lamb seasoned with fenugreek and cardamom, as well as fragrant milk pudding.

'Food is familiar, food is home'

Kattan, who also has a restaurant in London called Akub, believes an insight into Palestinian food and drinks could go a long way in changing people's perceptions about them.

“We've seen since the start of this genocide how people see us as less than equals, and I do believe that each of us has a duty to represent in what we can and what we know,” he says. Discovering Palestinian food would allow people to “put an image to the story”, he adds.

“If you have dined at a Palestinian restaurant, cooked from a Palestinian book, or know of Palestinians more, you can relate to the trauma we are going through – you can relate to the inhumanity of this massacre. We are not different. We are just like everybody else. I think that's part of what the cuisine can bring, that global, universal similarity.”

While Kattan is aware of the potential impact of his work, he says it is “important to realise our size and position in the global world, and keep our egos in check”.

“I'm not preserving Palestinian cuisine,” he says. “I cook Palestinian food through my eyes, and every person who cooks Palestinian food across the globe is preserving the cuisine, not the chefs. None of us is a hero.”

Personal anecdotes aside, a major feature in Kattan's cookbook is other people in Bethlehem – particularly food suppliers and traders, who “make it possible”, he says. From farmers and butchers to artisans and street vendors, different personalities in and around the ancient city are highlighted in the book.

“These recipes are not coming from nowhere,” Kattan says. “They are coming from people. I like to take people on an imaginary journey, and potentially see them show up in Bethlehem one day with the book and be like: 'Oh, where's that butcher?'”

One of the people mentioned in the book is market vendor Um Nabil, who Kattan refers to as the “queen of herbs”. In this part of the book, the chef recalls visiting Artas, a food-rich village south of Bethlehem. Um Nabil is a native of Artas and goes regularly to the souqs of Bethlehem to sell fresh herbs.

These stories become even more important in the face of an active erasure of Palestinian culture, says Kattan, who abhors food appropriation “that has become a trend now”.

“I don't want the next generations to go on living in a nostalgia of something that's gone. There's a lot of nostalgia in my book, but there's also a lot of hope in it.”

Kattan's bigger ambition is for Palestinian cuisine to be an intuitive choice for people, similar to the popularity of French, Italian or Chinese cuisines, he says. “I want people to be able to one day, in Dubai, New York, London, Tokyo or Mumbai, have Palestinian cuisine as one of the things you would talk about when going out for dinner with friends and family,” he says.

“I want it to be represented for what it is – a beautiful cuisine from a beautiful terroir.”

Kattan also hopes other chefs with Palestinian roots “who are doing great stuff” be recognised as important members of the cooking world.

Reflecting on the future of Palestinian people, Kattan's hope is rather simple – for them “to be able to go back to their houses, their lawns and vineyards”.

“I hope one day I can go back to Jaffa, to my family's orange groves and invite people over without having to care what your religion or skin colour is.”

Updated: May 02, 2024, 8:56 AM