"This is a book about Paalestine - its food, its produce, its history, its future, its people and their voices. It is a book about the common themes that all these elements share, and how Palestine weaves narrative and cooking into the fabric of its identity. The two go hand-in-hand. Recipes are life stories, events brought to life and shared in the making and telling." Sami Tamimi
I recently bought this book online. Readings had a special offer, and so I succumbed. I think it was near the beginning of the COVID19 crisis and I was feeling sorry for bookshops, and a bit sorry for me too. It was a treat for me.
Why did I feel attracted to this particular book? Well it is from Sami Tamimi who co-wrote a couple of Yotam Ottolenghi's books, and so I thought this would be really good, because I do like Yotam Ottolenghi's food..
And, you know, it probably is. But somehow or other I am disappointed. In fact it is probably better than good because, as well as being about the food and the usual stuff about wonderful food cooked by wonderful people in authentic ways, as their forbears have done for centuries, in their homes, its also about the awful situation that the Palestinian people find themselves in. So not only is it a classy, authentic food, beautiful travel book but it is also a subtle bit of propaganda for the Palestinian's situation. Which it does with essays about the particular situations of various Palestinian charities, farmers, producers and ordinary people.
The food photography is excellent. Here is an example picked at random - a recipe for some salmon kebabs. Not every dish is illustrated but a goodly proportion of them are. But somehow or other I am not totally inspired to dive in and start cooking. They are either, like this one, not that far removed from things that I would make up on my own anyway or else they are so complicated that I just can't be bothered.
And yet - maybe it's me, because when I look at that particular recipe again - for Spiced salmon skewers with parsley oil I see that the 'secret' ingredient is a spice mix made from 2 teaspoons each of ground cardamom, cumin and turmeric plus 1 teaspoon of paprika. Easy to make and keep in your store cupboard for another day.
And there are indeed other similarly simple but slightly different recipes scattered throughout the book, with, as I said, excellent photographs.
But still on the food I was particularly annoyed by za'atar. It seems to be used in almost every other recipe and yet there is no recipe for za'atar itself. Yes I know one manifestation of za'atar is the herb itself - we've done that on this blog - but the other one, and one which they refer to in their glossary is a spice mix and they simply do not give a recipe for it. And no you can't get it in your local supermarket. Not good enough in my book. Sure I can find one elsewhere but you would think would you not that if you were going to use it so much you would give a recipe.
As I said the photography of the food is excellent. Of Palestine itself perhaps not quite so much.
Here, for example, is a photograph of a Palestinian street. It's placed at the end of an introductory piece for the chapter on fish and takes up a whole page of the book. It's interesting enough, but not absolutely wonderful. I could have taken it and I know for sure that professional photographers can do a whole lot better than me. Besides what on earth has it got to do with fish?
"The West Bank is land-locked, obviously, and entry to Gaza, with its once thriving fishing community, is barred."
So says Tara Wigley, the writing half of the book's authors but nevertheless I do not think this picture is particularly apt for a chapter on fish. If they wanted to show lack of access to Gaza then the border crossing would have been better.
Ditto for the double-page spread introducing the chapter on Meat. It depicts another street scene. A shop selling bananas and some other kind of vegetable or fruit. Not a bit of meat in sight! There were a few evocative landscape shots in the book, but not many, and I know that a professional can make even the most mundane views interesting. The portraits of individuals and various food preparation processes are better though.
And one last thing. The cover and the title page has two authors - Sami Tamimi - the cook and Tara Wigley - the writer. Here and there though and also in the official acknowledgements they acknowledge one Noor Murad, who I think was probably the recipe tester, but who seems in many instances to have gone beyond testing and has tweaked them and improved them. They almost imply that some of the recipes are hers. Surely she should get a little bit more of an acknowledgement?
I really don't know why I am being so critical of this book? Am I just in a bad mood? Well if I am I have been in one since I got it - which could possibly be true. Probably, in spite of my life continuing as normal, more or less, through this crisis, deep down I am, I think, quite anxious about it all - not for my health, but for the future happiness and prosperity of my children and grandchildren and the world at large really.
In some ways I guess it's appropriate to read the tales of the Palestinians' loss of land and independence, of how they are not allowed to move freely about their historic homeland. We too are no longer free to travel wherever we want. And well done for a cookbook not glossing over these difficulties, in fact drawing attention to them. Which, of course, makes me feel even guiltier about my resistance to it.
I must try to make something from it and see if that changes my mind.
But why didn't they tell me how to make za'atar?