Interpreting Food According to Your Faith: Holiday Culinary Traditions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in Palestine


For Bethlehem chef Fadi Kattan, the Christmas holiday season is marked by two culinary traditions: the first burbara dish, a wheat sausage commemorating the flight of the 3rd century martyr Saint Barbara, and the second a fruit cake, a A culinary ode to his paternal grandmother, Julia Dabdoub Kattan.

It is the richness and faith behind these traditions that engages him, he said.

The local tradition of Saint Barbara, “Burbara” in Arabic, recalls that she escaped from her disapproving father, a Roman general, after converting to Christianity and seeking refuge in the wheat fields of what is. today the Palestinian village of Aboud. The wheat miraculously grew back around her to hide her trail and protect her from pursuing soldiers, but in the end she was captured and beheaded by her own father.

Other local traditions say that Saint Barbara fled to Egypt or Italy. However, her story is remembered, according to Mr. Kattan, the wheat dish to commemorate her on her feast day has its origins in pre-Christian fertility rituals celebrating the winter solstice.

Catholic communities in the region celebrate Eid el-Burbara on December 4, while Greek Orthodox people celebrate it two weeks later.

The wheat dish to commemorate Saint Barbara on her feast day has its origins in pre-Christian fertility rituals celebrating the winter solstice.

“What fascinates me is the way Mother Earth protected her people. For someone who is a chef, that’s pretty important, ”said Mr. Kattan, 43. It is one of the oldest Catholic families in Bethlehem, with a presence dating back to at least the mid-1700s.

Muslim tradition offers a similar wheat dish known as ashure, commemorating Noah’s wheat cooked just after the Flood, while Jews and Christians in Lebanon celebrate a birth or the first tooth of a baby with another. pudding dish called meghli. While each is somewhat different, all three dishes are flavored with anise and fennel and adorned with sweet candy – in the burbara pudding, this includes sweet chickpeas and little fennel and anise seed candies. – and nuts.

“It’s a fantastic thing that you can see through the traditions,” Mr. Kattan said. “These are the three monotheistic religions which interpret it according to their own faith. It is something to see the food used to celebrate different events, sharing the heritage of the Old Testament.

What these culinary celebrations have in common, he said, “is truly sacred to me because it also reminds us that we are part of the reality of this land. These are millennial traditions readapted to coincide with religious holidays, where you take something very raw and very primitive and turn it into a [not-so-] sweet pudding, preserving that deep earthy taste.

What these culinary celebrations have in common, said Fadi Kattan, “is truly sacred to me because it also reminds us that we are part of the reality of this land.

It is this diversity of local Palestinian cuisine and tradition that he aimed to highlight as the host of an online cooking series, “Teta’s Kitchen,” produced by the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, and his own monthly YouTube show, “Fadi Cooks”.

“Teta” means Grandmother in Arabic. Both series are presented primarily in English or with English subtitles.

“Grandmothers are magical,” Kattan said, as he sat on the second-story balcony overlooking the enclosed courtyard of his house. It was built by his great-grandfather in 1738. “They have the advantage of being able to only be kind and caring, even if you are a rotten child like I was. Grandmothers are still there in this space where you are still very close to your mother but in a different relationship.

The “Fadi Cooks” series is an offshoot of a podcast he started at the start of the pandemic, cooking up traditional Palestinian comfort food.

“Palestinian comfort food is all you can do during a lockdown: stuffed zucchini, hummus – I never thought I’d write a hummus recipe until the lockdown,” he said.

In “Teta’s Kitchen”, Mr. Kattan seeks out the magic of local dishes, prepared by grandmothers considered to be the best cooks in their community. The first 10 episodes are already available on YouTube, and each one highlights a different regional culinary tradition as well as favorite Palestinian street food.

In “Teta’s Kitchen”, Mr. Kattan seeks out the magic of local dishes, prepared by grandmothers considered to be the best cooks in their community.

The eleventh and final episode, which will be released in time for Christmas this year, is a tribute to her own grandmother, who passed away 12 years ago, and the influence she had on her cooking. He visits her, only for the second time since her death, and spends time with the Union of Arab Women she helped found, as they prepare quince jam, sambousek (pockets of dough stuffed savory) and sabaneh spinach pies.

“The food always tasted like my grandmother’s recipes and it was very special,” he said.

While designed primarily as a positive show, the series also tackles Palestinian political reality, noting West Bank travel restrictions and encroachment on Israeli settlements and their impact on food.

In both cooking series, Mr. Kattan hoped to convey a sense of the deeply rooted local Palestinian cuisine, but he also traces its connection to other cuisines, especially Turkish Ottoman cuisine, which during the 600 years of Ottoman rule in the region meant a great exchange of influences with what is today called the cuisine of the “Levant”.

“’Teta’s Kitchen’ is… really about how food lives differently,” he said.

He explored the cuisine of northern Palestine, including the famous knafeh of the city of Nablus, a sweet cheese and semolina dough, and arayes, pitas stuffed with minced meat then roasted in the oven and finally rubbed with lamb fat. He traveled to Sebastia during the olive harvest season to follow the olive oil production process and with a local m’sakhan “teta” prepared, a dish of chicken and onions prepared on a thick pita soaked in olive oil and sumac.

“All food is based on the reality of the Palestinian territory. It’s such a small country and it’s fantastic that we have such a variety… so close to each other. ”

In Taybeh, the last all-Christian village in the West Bank, and near Bir Zeit, Mr. Kattan visited Taybeh Brewery and Winery and Shepherd’s Brewery. In Bethlehem, he presented stuffed grape leaves, a dish that Christian families prepare on Saturdays for Sunday lunch after mass, setting the pot on low in the morning before going to church so that she be ready when they return.

“All food is based on the reality of the territory. It’s such a small country and it’s fantastic that we have such a variety… so close to each other, ”he said, noting that in the north fresh goat yogurt is used instead. ghee (clarified butter), while in the south, ghee figures prominently in local cuisine. Hebron’s cuisine favors large amounts of ghee and laban jameed, dried yogurts rehydrated with water.

Although the burbara pudding does not appear in any of the recorded episodes, on the first show of “Fadi Cooks” Mr. Kattan made his grandmother’s Christmas fruit cake. While the recipe likely has its origins in a British fruit cake recipe acquired during the British Mandate, it is deeply rooted in local produce with generous servings of dried fruits including figs, dates and apricots, as well. than grape molasses and cardamom.

Ever since he was a child and stepped underfoot in his grandmother’s kitchen, the joint preparation and consumption of burbara pudding has been a pre-Christmas symbol of the arrival of the holidays, said Mr. Kattan.

“When my local spice vendor releases a shelf for wheat candy, it marks the start of the Christmas season more than those bad imported Christmas chocolates,” he said. “It’s that first taste that heralds the start of Christmas,” evoking memories of a cozy old living room in Bethlehem, “with three or four generations coming together and a lot of chatter. There was always a [unofficial] burbara competition, and every household thought their burbara was the best.

Reflecting the local cuisine, his grandmother’s cuisine was one of generosity and sharing, Mr. Kattan said. Her grandmother made “mounds and mounds” of her fruit cake to distribute to family and friends.

Many loaves of bread, in true acts of charity, were sent to people they did not even know, he recalled. After his grandmother’s death, Mr. Kattan stepped in to carry his culinary traditions into the family and adapted many of them to contemporary Palestinian dishes at his restaurant.

Although his guesthouse and restaurant remain closed in Bethlehem due to Covid-19 travel restrictions and lack of tourists, Mr Kattan has been able to make it to London as those restrictions have eased and is considering open a restaurant there with its point of view Palestinian Food in Spring.

“I learned to cook in my grandmother’s kitchen… and also what the real meaning of community is,” he said. “She cooked Palestinian, French, Iranian… quite a feast of kitchens. This is his heritage to me.


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