Cookbook Reviews

From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free: A review of Joudie Kalla’s “Baladi” and “Palestine on a Plate”

Despite what the news or a map might tell you, Palestine is a real place; it still exists today. To feel the need to state this is simultaneously laughable and also urgently necessary. Of course there is a Palestine, and of course we must state that it still exists in this long moment of Israeli occupation, in this long moment of the violent and ongoing erasure of Palestine. That it is constantly being made invisible only doubles the need to state its existence, as an act of remembering and witnessing, as an act of keeping alive a nation and a people in the face of a global drive to erase it.

Which is what makes Joudie Kalla’s books so important. They are cookbooks, to be sure, but they are also much more than cookbooks. With the recent release of Baladi: Palestine, Joudie builds on her popular earlier book, Palestine on a Plate, by bringing Palestinian cuisine into kitchens around the globe. Not only is Palestinian cuisine fresh, vibrant, comforting, and downright delicious, it is also under represented and appreciated in the global food scene. Part of this under representation occurs because, too often, Palestinian food is folded into ‘Middle Eastern’ cuisine, Lebanese cuisine or even Mediterranean cuisine.

Kousa bil laban (marrow squash stuffed with ground lamb and topped with a yogurt sauce). From Palestine on a Plate.

Regardless if you are familiar with Palestinian cuisine or not, these books have something for you. Having cooked extensively from Palestine on a Plate, and more recently from Baladi, I appreciate both the approachability and expertise in Joudie’s recipes. Many of the recipes from both books come from family recipes, as well as from others that Joudie knows and collaborates with, and these are cookbooks intended to be used in your home. They reward those who dig deep into them and keep them within handy reach in their kitchen. They have transformed how I cook in my house, as well as what I consider staples in my fridge and pantry.

Fasoulia bil lahme, green beans with lamb cooked in a garlicky tomato sauce. From Palestine on a Plate.

Recipes often come labelled with a family member’s name from whose recipe it was created from, maybe a family memory, or a connection to family history. These books are centered on relations. And what Baladi does that Palestine on a Plate didn’t, is move these connections to center  relations to not only family but also place. Family stories are woven into particular places, the photos in the book illustrate not only the dishes but images of Palestine itself, and the book is broken down into sections that emphasize characteristics of the land: the fields and the earth; the farm; the river and the sea; and hills and orchards.

Through the recipes, the books plant an important reminder that Palestinian cuisine exists; and, not just in a historical sense but in an ever evolving, contemporary sense. Joudie’s playful and innovative approach recognizes the historical importance of certain dishes, flavors, and techniques while also refusing to render them static; her books embody the living, changing nature of any cuisine that draws from the past to create anew in the present. This is not a romanticized or fetishized vision of Palestinian food but a living, breathing, moving, real-life version.

Knafeh cheesecake, from Baladi.

And while Joudie makes extensive connections between Palestinian food and other cuisines in the Middle East and the Arab world, make no mistake: Baladi – like its predecessor, Palestine on a Plate – is about Palestine. Joudie tells the story of how, when she initially shopped Palestine on a Plate to publishers, many publishers were interested in the book but with one particular caveat – that she took the word ‘Palestine’ out of the title. She insisted on it being in there. It matters where this food comes from.

Stating that Palestine exists is contentious, even in food media. In the face of a Zionist, settler colonial agenda that seeks to erase all mention of Palestine, merely existing challenges the legitimacy of the Israeli state that resides on top of stolen Palestinian land. Films such as The Village Under the Forest document how whole Palestinian towns were emptied and razed to the ground during the Nakba to remove any trace of Palestinian existence. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced and their homes destroyed. This destruction continues today as farms, towns and homes are bulldozed to make way for more illegal Israeli settlements. Recently, Israel announced the demolition of Palestine’s central wholesale market in al-Khalil to make way for another illegal Israeli apartment block. And, to ring in the new year, more Palestinian olive trees were burned and uprooted, on ongoing ploy to undermine Palestinian economy, culture, and place.

This is not just erasure of buildings and towns and farms. Zionist activists have no problem declaring that, “There’s no such thing as a Palestinian person” (which is happily parroted by American politicians such as Rick Santorum). Palestinian culture and people are under attack.

Lamb fatayer, cauliflower salad with tahini dressing, and batata harra. All recipes from Palestine on a Plate.

In the face of this unrelenting desire to eliminate all trace of Palestine and Palestinians, Joudie’s emphasis on Palestinian existence in the past and in the present is a form of resistance. It resists this erasure and demonstrates a thriving, evolving, historical Palestinian cuisine that is connected to family and place.

And, in her new book, Baladi, Joudie moves not beyond family but to include her family in the context of place. In the context of belonging. In the context of Palestine. Baladi builds on Palestine on a Plate in a way that reveals a growing confidence and vulnerability, a willingness to put more of Palestine on the page and to connect her own family to that place.

Baladi means “my home, my land, my country” and this is is a powerful assertion in the context of Palestine. The creation of the state of Israel promised a ‘right to return’ for all Jews while simultaneously expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who, now living in the diaspora, have no right to return.

To assert Palestine is home through food is to join the ranks of Palestinians who have had to creatively make their own avenues home, as I’ve written more extensively about in the past. Nigella Lawson writes, “Cooking is also, supremely, a creative act,” and this is true of Joudie’s books. Not only does her food draw from an abundant history of Palestinian food to create aesthetic delights in the present, but in evoking a Palestinian past and present she also creates a future for Palestine.

Freekeh, lemon, pistachio and fig cake. From Palestine on a Plate.

There are those who will argue that food should be neutral, that it can be an escape from politics. But food has always been political; everything from its growing and production, to its sale, to its preparation, to the very eating of it has always been political. When markets and olive trees are razed, this is at once political and also about food. It is only certain people who have the privilege of being shielded from thinking of the political nature of food. This is brought into stark relief in Palestine. I am reminded of Larissa Sansour’s short film, Soup in Bethlehem, that illustrates not only the ways in which food is central to Palestinian culture and belonging, but also the material ways in which it is regulated across borders, as well as the ways in which is resists cultural appropriation as a form of erasure.

That food is not devoid of politics is an important reminder in this current era of settler colonialism. Recently, Marc Lamont Hill faced pushback and was fired from CNN for his speech to the United Nations that asserted Palestine should be free and ended with the phrase, “from the river to the sea.” Zionists see this phrase as a call to eradicate the Jewish people who currently reside between the river to the sea, but as my former colleague (we are both no longer in academia) Steven Salaita writes, “The phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ doesn’t connotate a hypothetical genocide of Israelis. It describes an area in which Israeli performed an actual (and ongoing) genocide of Palestinians.”

Halloumi Fried with Green Shatta. Both recipes from Baladi. 

As both Baladi and Palestine on a Plate show us, Palestine’s food comes from the river, the sea, and everything in between. Palestine is home to Palestinian people, Palestinian culture, and Palestinian food despite every effort to deny and erase these, and Joudie’s books proudly lay that claim, relationally tracing the ways in which this is true. They are cookbooks, and you should cook from them. But, like all good cookbooks, they also trace out a picture of home and, for Joudie Kalla, other Palestinians in the diaspora longing to return, and others who might doubt the fact, it is a reminder that Palestine is indeed that home.

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Kalla, J. (2018). Baladi: Palestine (A Celebration of Food from Land and Sea). Interlink Publishing Group. 256 pages.

Kalla, J. (2016). Palestine on a Plate: Memories from My Mother’s Kitchen. Interlink Publishing Group. 240 pages.

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