Palestinian chefs proudly tout their heritage as US attitudes change

Restaurant owners credit the shift to social media and growing political support

A spiced beef pastry, or a lahm bi ajeen manoushe, coming out of the oven at Z&Z bakery in Rockville, Maryland. Joshua Longmore / The National
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Below an image of a Palestinian flag, the Instagram page of the popular Haifa Grill in Falls Church, Virginia, shows pictures and videos of shawarma, a staple Middle Eastern street food – and the restaurant's speciality – proudly prepared the Palestinian way.

Each video, short and snappy and paired with popular Arabic tunes, features slabs of chicken or meat being sliced while tahini sauce is drizzled on top of mouthwatering shawarma wraps or bowls. The hashtags say Palestinian food, and many have been viewed and liked dozens of times.

In recent years, restaurants in the Washington area and beyond have been opening up, decked with Palestinian decor and mementos, offering Arabic menus and serving traditional, as well as more modern Palestinian-inspired cooking. Many are seeing great success.

The proud Palestinian vibe marks something of a sea change in the US, where chefs and restaurant owners had long hesitated to serve or identify their food as Palestinian.

The fraught politics of the seemingly never-ending conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, they say, made them wary of identifying as Palestinian, as it felt like a risk to their livelihoods. Many simply called their food Mediterranean, or Levantine.

How a US chef is reclaiming Palestinian cuisine

How a US chef is reclaiming Palestinian cuisine

But business owners say there is a marked shift happening in American society, and Palestinian food is seeing an unprecedented popularity, propelled by food shows on television and on social media, as well as by a growing political support for the Palestinian cause.

“This is a Palestinian restaurant with Palestinian food from the day we opened,” said Mahmud Hamadeh, the co-owner of Haifa Grill, who arrived in the US from East Jerusalem in 2015.

“But a couple of years ago, we started seeing many people coming, especially regular Americans, curious and eager to try our food,” Mr Hamadeh told The National, adding that he is working on opening up two other locations nearby.

Jinan Deena, a Palestinian chef and activist who lives in Washington, says her parents opened a restaurant in Toledo, Ohio back in the late 1990s, shortly after moving to the US. They forwent cooking authentic Palestinian dishes and called their cuisine Lebanese, fearing that any mention of their homeland would elicit a political backlash, at a time when suicide bombings were common in Israel.

Their family restaurant, Fetoosh, shut down after the September 11, 2001 attacks amid rising Islamophobia, and a worsening financial crisis.

Ms Deena has taken on a vastly different approach. In 2021, she created Bayti, Arabic for my home, a pop-up kitchen that has served traditional meals such as maqluba, or upside down, a Palestinian national rice dish that is flipped upside down when served, among others.

All her events have sold out.

“Support for Palestinian human rights has shifted, and that is something that is not to be taken lightly, that is something absolutely huge,” Ms Deena said. “And obviously, we can tie that to the fact that we have so much more pro-Palestine support on the hill.”

She says the shift began in 2021, when, following weeks of protests over the evacuations of six Palestinian families by Jewish settler groups in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Israel launched a massive offensive on the Gaza Strip, killing more than 250 Palestinians. Videos of young Palestinian protesters being detained or beaten by Israeli security forces in Sheikh Jarrah were heavily circulated on social media, drawing significant sympathy from Americans.

“Because of this influx of support, it's not really taboo any more to talk about Palestine or to identify as Palestinian,” Ms Deena told The National. “And then when it comes to food – pun intended or not – it's more digestible.”

Hashweh, spiced rice with ground beef and slivered almonds, served by Jinan Deena. Jihan Abdalla / The National

A March Gallup poll found that 49 per cent of Americans who identify as Democrats sympathise with Palestinians over Israelis, an 11 per cent increase from a year prior.

The development comes as Palestinian Americans have been gaining more visibility. In 2019, the first ever Palestinian American, Rashida Tlaib was elected to Congress representing Michigan.

In Rockville, Maryland, family owned Z&Z restaurant opened in 2021, after several years of success doing pop up events and operating a stand at local farmers' markets.

The restaurant specialises in manoushe, a baked flatbread topped with za'atar, a Middle Eastern herb that is mixed with sumac, sesame seeds, olive oil and other spices.

The Dubbaneh family business has also changed from a generation ago. When their grandfather, Grandpa Fayez, ran his restaurant at the same location, starting in 1982, he served grilled cheese sandwiches and burgers, believing that Americans would not enjoy Palestinian food.

“People are ready for it, the average person today is exposed to so much more food than 20 years ago, who maybe only knew what was on their street or what they grew up eating,” Danny Dubbaneh the co-owner of Z&Z, told the National.

“Every culture has had their wave, and I think Palestinian food is starting to have its moment and we're hoping that that continues,” Mr Dubbaneh said.

Updated: May 31, 2023, 3:00 AM