Haifa Zaitoon: Tahini and the Cuisine of Palestine

Bringing the diversity of black and white Tahini from Palestine in her Taste Workshop All the Colors of Tahini, we spoke with Haifa Zaitoon to hear her thoughts on the importance of tahini, Palestinian cuisine, and Food for Change.

On Food for Change and how she became interested in Gastronomy:

Food plays an important role in one’s life, our body and mental health is affected deeply by the kind of food we have, by the quality of its ingredients as well as the portions we consume. For me cooking is a very personal matter, in my family, my mom was a very busy tailor and because of that my father, who happened to be a baker, was in charge of food and I was his little girl, the youngest and the closest to his heart, hence I loved all he did and that included cooking.

I started cooking after getting married and after moving to Kuwait, I was away from home and it was a challenge to learn on your own, at the time when there was very little documentation and no internet of course, but providing healthy options to my kids was enough motivation to learn. I also lived in a multi-cultural environment alongside other expats and showing off your own cuisine was also as important.

Palestinian cuisine is very diverse and the ingredients are numerous and, in many occasions, meals take long times to prepare. There is always a mix of herbs, vegetables, meats, dressings and spices in every meal. Reinvigorating traditional food with its rich ingredients is in my opinion one the main reasons why farmers are still growing some of these herbs that are not used at all in the fast food diet, it is also one of the reasons that helped protect some of the traditional industries such as that for sesame paste and oil (Tahini and sirej) and grape sweet syrup (Debs) and numerous others.

In eating healthy and in sticking to our heritage, young couples have been encouraged to go back to organic farming and into building small vegetable and herbs gardens around their houses in a trend that I believe will culminate one day into a stronger attachment to the land and in a healthier diet for generations to come.

Why do you believe tahini is so popular and what is one way to use tahini most people would not imagine?

Since tahini was available in Palestine we got used to it as part of our cuisine,  and tahini dishes became special for us as they enrich the diversity of dishes served at the table. Tahini is available at Palestinian houses around year long, it is easy to store and can be added to various kinds of dishes; appetizers, cold and hot, main courses, and even sweets.

Sesame Palestine

Palestinian Sesame seeds.

I don’t know how they first started adding it but it is because Palestinian used to have sesame seeds and produced tahini (sesame paste) and Sirej (sesame oil) oil for a long time. It is worth mentioning that Sirej oil (sesame oil) was used for a long time before vegetable oil was introduced to the Palestinian kitchen. I think tahini is very common here, maybe people outside Palestine and the Middle East, in general, wouldn’t expect to have it in sweets, like having tahini mixed with honey and added to fruits. A sweet mix of Tahini and Debs (grape sweet syrup)  is a great example of this, it is a very common- even a must-have for breakfast especially in Hebron where I was born and raised. Hebron is very well known for growing grapes and making Debs.

 

What do you think is the most representative dish of Palestine and why?

I  think every city in Palestine has its own special dish, they differ from one city to another based on seasonality and culture. For example, Hebron is well known for Kidreh, a traditional dish with rice and sheep meat served with cold yogurt, these ingredients were available in Hebron because they had more Bedouins raising livestock and making yogurt in the surrounding areas. Jerusalem is well known for Maqlouba, it is more of a city dish that combines veggies rice and meat. Northern cities and villages are known for Musakhan, because they have more olive oil.

I think Musakhan is the most representative dish in Palestine. It gained importance by having olive oil as the main ingredient and importance of the olive tree for the Palestinians as a symbol for their presence and resistance.  Musakhan can be cooked all year round as wheat flour and olive oil are available around the year. It is more popular in fall and winter, and mainly during the olive picking season when the oil is fresh. It is also easy to carry, people cook it and take it to the fields to feed those who are picking olives. Palestinian dishes are mainly related to the availability of ingredients, in the summer some popular dishes are made with fresh veggies grown during the season. however, in winter dishes are made of ingredients that can be stored.

What is your relationship with Slow Food and when did you first meet them?

I got to know about Slow Food through some friends from Palestine who were members of the Palestinian delegation in previous years. I was introduced to them as a food blogger, as I had my own blog and previously I was active in a couple of social media groups posting about Palestinian traditional food on weekly basis. I always showed my interest in preserving Palestinian cooking traditions. I am really excited about this opportunity and think it will be a great experience for me to bring Palestinian food and traditions to the world in an international event.

What do you hope people will learn and take away from your taste workshop?

I would like to people to see some of the Palestinian traditions. To know more about how Palestinian cuisine is rich with ingredients and ways of cooking. The recipe I am bringing to the laboratory will have many ingredients and cooking steps. I would like them to know how cooking is part of our way of living, and we really invest time into bringing a unique dish to our tables. Cooking and food parties in Palestine are a place to connect and meet with your family and sharing meals is one of the most important traditions.

 

Recipes

Zucchini Casserole

4 cups Zucchini pulp (you can use whole peeled zucchini), Bread cut in small 2 cm cubes, 1/4 cup Lemon Juice, 1/3 cup of Tahini, 3/4 cup of Yogurt

 

For topping:   

Garlic for topping, Pine nuts or almonds (peeled and halved), Parsley, Tomato, Pickled cucumbers, Olives, Olive oil

Extra: minced meat or striped chicken

 Directions

Cook the zucchini pulp in 2 cups of water until it is done (20 min). Cut the bread in small pieces and spread it on the bottom of the casserole. When Zucchini pulp is done, sieve the pulp into an extra bowl. Use some of the water to soak the bread in the casserole to have a zucchini flavor and so softens.  In the mixer add the cooked zucchini pulp with the lemon juice, tahini, and yogurt. The mixture is spread in the casserole over the soaked bread.

For topping

Chop one garlic clove into small pieces. Heat the oil and gently roast the garlic with pine nuts or almonds, then spread it over the casserole All other topping and olive oil can be used to decorate the casserole.

 

 

Eggplant Tahini PalestineEggplant Tagine with Tahini

 Large eggplant, White rice (Basmati rice if available), Ground meat, Parsley, Onions, Black pepper, Meat spices, Turmeric, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Salt, Tahini, Yogurt, Lemon juice, Salt, Water

For garnishing (Optional)

Onions, Chopped parsley, Pine nut, Arugula

Directions

 The Kebab 

Mix ground meat with chopped parsley, onions, add black pepper, spices, cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, and salt. Make into balls (table tennis ball size) then fry them-

 Preparing the eggplant

Slice the eggplant into circles (1.5 – 2 cm), add some salt and leave them for some time to let the water come out, dry them with a kitchen paper towel and fry them.

 Preparing the Sauce

Mix the tahini, with the yogurt, add some lemon juice, salt, and water, heat up the mix in a pot until it boils, you should get a thick, running and smooth sauce.

 

Bringing everything together

Put the fried Kebab and Eggplants in a serving pot that can be used in the oven, this can be random, no need to arrange them in the pot. Add the sauce. You have the choice to put them in the oven, for sometimes to mix the flavors, or you can garnish and serve directly, if the sauce was warm enough when added and all other ingredients are precooked.

 Garnishing

Slice onions into thin slices. Fry them in olive oil until they are caramelized. Add them to the pot after taking it out of the oven and add the chopped parsley, pine nuts, and arugula.  Serve warm with white rice, either have Egyptian rice or basmati rice.

 

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