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Palestinian cookbook celebrates a culture without a country

Food writer Yasmin Khan's latest release, "Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen," catalogs 80 Palestinian recipes and delves into the complexities of Palestinian culinary heritage under Israeli occupation. Hari Sreenivasan spoke with Khan about her travels through Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and how conflict impacts Palestinian cuisine and culture.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    News in and around the Middle East these days is usually about conflict. But food writer Yasmin Khan set out to explore the region through food. She collected recipes and tells the stories of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in her cookbook "Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen."

    I spoke with her previously about her book and why she feels food can help foster cultural understanding.

  • Yasmin Khan:

    I've worked in human rights for about 15 years. I trained in law, and in my past career, that was my vocation. And my brief for several years was Israel-Palestine, and it really got me interested in the region. And I'm really interested in sharing people's stories. That's the common thread that I had in human rights campaigning and now in my cookbooks, and food can be such a useful vehicle for exploring places of conflict because, as a neutral subject that everyone enjoys, food can offer a vehicle that we can better understand each other.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Right, the old idea of breaking bread with your neighbor or your enemy, right? Do you find that even food is charged in that region?

  • Yasmin Khan:

    I mean everything is tied in that region. And certainly you know for many Palestinian communities, the food that they eat and how they experience food can't be separated from the political situation, from the wall being built by the Israeli government in the West Bank that cuts off water supplies and cuts through Palestinian agricultural land to their blockade of Gaza that's left over 80 percent of Gazans dependent on U.N. food aid to survive. You know food and the occupation are incredibly linked for the Palestinian community.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And even the word olive, or "zaitoun," it means "olive" right? And you're talking about the olive trees that are in the region.

  • Yasmin Khan:

    That's right. About 80 percent of the West Bank is agricultural land. And the predominant thing that it grows are olives, and I chose "Zaitoun" as the title for the book because olives really represent both the essence of Palestinian cookery — you always have a bowl of olives and then you always finish meal with delicious extra virgin olive oil — but olive trees have also come to represent the Palestinians and their connection to the land and their steadfastness. And when they're uprooted, as the U.N. reported last year they routinely are by Israeli, illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, they've come to represent Palestinian displacement. So olives represented everything that this project was about.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I mean, how do you write? Technically, this is Palestinian food, this is a stateless area. I mean you're talking about a people that don't have a country. But you're talking about that food and that is distinct in some ways from Israeli food. I mean to Americans, it's all Middle Eastern food, which is our problem.

  • Yasmin Khan:

    I mean it's such a funny — I'd love us to get to this state where in the U.S., we can break down the different Middle Eastern culinary traditions. When we say European food, we know that German food is different to French food which is different to Italian food. And it's the same in the Middle East. I mean undoubtedly because there have been Jewish and Christian and Muslim communities living together for thousands of years in that region. There are many similarities, but Palestinian food has its own unique flavor, its own unique recipes because Palestinian identity has a rich culinary and cultural tradition.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So is there something that's quintessentially Palestinian that we just take for granted as Middle Eastern in general? What's a recipe that you might have, that say now if you're eating this, this is actually something the Palestinians have eaten for whatever, thousands of years?

  • Yasmin Khan:

    I think it's Musakhan, which is one of my favorite recipes in the book, and it's pieces of chicken that you marinate in sumac, which is this astringent spice, and red onions, and you roast it and then you get some bread and put the chicken on top and pour the chicken juices on top so it soaks into the bread, and it's a big sharing dish that you'd kind of tear apart with your hands and that is a dish that you'll find in all Palestinian communities. And for me really captures the essence of sharing that is so integral to Palestinian food.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Was it logistically difficult for you to get around when you did the research to talk to all these people?

  • Yasmin Khan:

    It was very hard. I mean as as a journalist and a writer I was detained at Tel Aviv airport when I was entering the country on both occasions. And also just you know —

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Did they believe you that you're working on a cookbook?

  • Yasmin Khan:

    Well, you know they, after six hours of detention, they certainly did, and my interviewer went over and over every aspect of my life, my history, my work, my family and at the end of it I was like, look, if you know everything about me, you know I'm just writing a cookbook — you know, why don't you just let me in or send me back, I'm not that interested. And my interviewer who hadn't introduced himself in the whole time we were talking just looked at me with this dead face and was just like, but do you know anyone in Hamas? And I was like, oh you know, the levels of I think intimidation that many people of Muslim heritage have when they're entering Israel is along those lines of just every bit of their lives questioned.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What about the response from the sources when you're actually having this conversation with them. How do they perceive your attempt to chronicle this?

  • Yasmin Khan:

    Well as an outsider and I think that there is a very important role that travel writers have always played and journalist in bearing witness to situations, and just as in my first book, "The Saffron Tales." I've had a very similar reaction in the response to "Zaitoun" because people in the Middle East are so frustrated at only being depicted as either terrorists or victims. You know the idea that this was a book that was about celebrating Palestinian culture about sharing some of the joy and beauty that exists within this fraught situation was something that, yeah, I mean it meant that we were constantly getting invited into people's houses for dinner — I got invited to a wedding, having just never met the person before.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Hey, there's a feast you should check this out.

  • Yasmin Khan:

    Exactly. But also Palestinians are incredibly hospitable and generous people, and that isn't something you get to hear about very often and that's what I was — it's really driven me to write this book. I mean there was this old Jewish proverb that I learned during the research for the book that is, "my enemy is just a person whose story I haven't heard yet." And that for me really is such a moving phrase and really encapsulates everything that I'm trying to do in my work, just share stories and try to break down this dehumanization that too often happens when we're reporting on the Middle East, and build connection because I really believe that at the end of the day, humans, no matter where we are in the world, have got to do more to unite us than divides us.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. The book is called "Zaitoun." Yasmin Khan, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Yasmin Khan:

    Thank you.

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