This article is also available in: Italiano
We interviewed Silvia Chiarantini, author of the book “Pop Palestine, a journey into Palestinian popular cuisine”. The book is a fantastic mix of literature, traditions and cuisine; a way to get closer to Arab culture even at the table.
K: Where did the idea for this culinary trip to Palestine come from? Did you plan to write “Pop Palestine” right from the start or is it something that came about after your experience?
S: The idea of Pop Palestine was born from the desire to return to Palestine. I had already been there a few times: first for tourism, then to visit friends, once to play in the streets and in schools with a brass band and another to bring musical instruments to Gaza. I wanted to go back and I was looking for a reason, an excuse, an idea, something to do that was useful and “emotionally light”. The last trip I made with the band had left me with anger and pain, bringing with it the indelible memory of an attack by the Israeli army and of a young woman killed a few meters from us.
The pain of Palestine is great and not always and not everyone has the strength to stay close to it. I wanted to continue, finding my way, to stay close to that land because – once you know its beauty and its reality – it sticks to you, becomes a metaphor for all injustices and takes root in the conscience by imposing action and participation. For some years I have been dealing with the part relating to gastronomic culture for the Middle East Now Festival held in Florence and during this film and culture review I had seen the film “Make Hummus not War”. From watching this film I started thinking about a documentary on Palestinian cuisine that I had already got to know and appreciate.
Then things miraculously formed by themselves: Alessandra Cinquemani, Florentine photographer and videomaker gave her availability, my friend Armando cook rejoiced at the idea and even Stefano, my colleague from the office, joined the group with everything his enthusiasm. Our friend Fidaa, a foodblogger expert in cuisine who lives in Palestine, has joined this ramshackle human agglomeration, bringing all her knowledge and sympathy to her. Indeed a composite group, but amazing for such a demanding journey, given that the goal we had set ourselves was to make a documentary on Palestinian popular cuisine. Then when we returned, during the editing of the documentary, we realized the quantity of recipes and stories we had collected and so we also thought about the publication of a book, precisely “Pop Palestine. Salam cuisine from Hebron to Jenin. Journey into Palestinian popular cuisine “.
K: Your book tells of a “colorful” society which, despite adversity, is joyful to live. Was it something you expected or was there a pleasant surprise?
S: I wanted to tell about that Palestine that lives and resists in everyday life and with the irony (element of survival) that distinguishes the Palestinian people. I wanted to tell about that Palestine that I had known in my travels, but of which I never found a trace in the news and newspapers. And I also wanted to respond to a request that you often hear while traveling in that land: “now that you are here, you have seen with your own eyes – when you come home, speak with your words”.
I thought that communicating Palestine through the colors of its beautiful and delicious dishes could be a way to intrigue and lead people to take an interest in that land, through the flavors of its cuisine. A way to accompany those who know nothing of this people by the hand, reassuring them, also through surprising graphics and images, a manageable publication format, with rounded corners, like children’s books; Palestine should not have been thought of as something dangerous, but a welcoming country to which one can approach without fear. Compared to that distortion lens that is often affixed to communication regarding the Arab world, I wanted to include my personal correction of focus and field of view; compared to black and white communication I wanted to add the many colors that characterize the diverse reality of Palestine.
Thus was born the idea of a Palestine that was PoP. I liked the name “Pop Palestine” for its musicality, because it fits with the idea I had in my head of a story as lively as the colors of pop art and then for this curious acronym of “People of Palestine”. Furthermore, everything related to cooking is part of history that is not found in history books, it is the profound identity of a people, not only because it binds the ingredients to the products of the earth and to tradition, but also because it passes on customs. and the meanings of being at the table, of eating together and of that immense generosity in welcoming guests into their typical Palestinian home. Sitting together and eating is an important time in Palestine, a refuge in which to find peace and leave all the suffering outside for the time of a lunch. And then also cooking or going shopping and continuing to lead a normal life despite the occupation is a form of resistance, a way to continue living in one’s own land despite what happens outside the kitchens.
As Daniele de Michele (Don Pasta) wrote in the preface “This book is so immersed in the stories that the recipes are a moment of respite, of peace before the storm, sweet, melancholy, poetic storm, that these adventurous travel companions they gave as a present. Because talking about Palestine is nonsense, nobody talks about it in these terms, few come to mind to consider it a tourist destination, no one imagines that there is a life beyond the war, that there is a cuisine that is not from the field “.
K: Which cities and dishes have impressed you the most?
S: Palestinian cities are very different from each other and each has something beautiful to showcase. Surely Nablus has remained in our hearts for its ancient Arab and Roman architecture, its markets, the knafe, the typical cheese cake of the city and then the archaeological site of Sebastya where traces of the history of John the Baptist are found and then Jerusalem, the old city and the gate of Damascus where, as Paola Caridi would say, the heart of Jerusalem beats.
Also due to their laborious preparation, the dishes that struck us were the maqlouba, which is a sort of rice timbale and the Musakhan, also a dish for guests prepared with bread that is cooked in special ovens that are they call taboun, caramelized onions and chicken and lots and lots of sumac, a wonderful Palestinian spice with a dark pink color and a sour taste, delicious! You can also find the recipe on youtube:
K: What, if any, is the recipe that in your way represents Palestine most of all and why?
S: Answering this question means sparking fierce controversy. There is no joking about Palestinian food and everyone has their preferences, their recipes (let’s even say those of their mother who is the best chef in the world!) And their granite truths. Personally there are two dishes that I prefer and that compete for the podium of the best dishes: musakhan and maqlouba. Along with these, another much loved dish is mansaf prepared with thin bread, rice and lamb cooked in jameed, a very tasty dehydrated yogurt that is a typical production of the Bedouin communities. I leave you the recipe of the maqlouba, if you want to try your hand, it is very good!
K: Do you plan to replicate the good experience for other countries as well or do you want to concentrate on the development of Palestinian culture?
S: There are some countries that I am studying. It would be nice to continue to tell something unusual with respect to certain places and peoples to undermine prejudices and shorten distances through flavors, to make an exclamation “what goodness” become the magic word to open your mind and find courage and serenity in get to know distant countries … or neighbors. The kitchen is a powerful tool to tell about other cultures.
On my site Pop cuisine I publish recipes of dishes taken from cookbooks from other countries and I see that people, if approached with delicacy (and sometimes sweetness!), are very intrigued and are open and eager to know: if you taste something good you can trust who prepared it, I think! Meanwhile …. followed by churning out towers of musakhan and turning huge maqlouba together with my friend Armando (see photos and video) to continue to make known the wonderful land of Palestine.
We still thank Silvia infinitely for the interview, her culinary journey fascinated us right away and as soon as we saw this great opportunity we took advantage of it. On her Instagram and Facebook pages, you will feast your eyes and discover new recipes, all with their own unique style.
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Credits @photos by Alessandra Cinquemani