This cookbook finally restores ‘fusion’ cuisine to a place of dignity
Reem Kassis thought for sure she was a one-and-done cookbook author. In 2017 Phaidon published “The Palestinian Table,” written so Kassis could codify her family recipes and help preserve — or “safeguard,” a word she uses often — an everyday aspect of her cultural heritage.
Eat your way across L.A.
Get our weekly Tasting Notes newsletter for reviews, news and more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
The questions posed to her during interviews for the book surprised and interested her, though. People wanted to know the difference between Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese cooking cultures. They asked her to lay out her position on the emerging notions of Israeli cuisine. Kassis also noticed a recent spate of cookbooks focused on the Levantine swath of Arab countries, sometimes written by authors with no ancestral ties to the region, and that might include things like chocolate-coconut cake.
“There were recipes in a cookbook supposedly about a certain national cuisine, but these dishes are simply not part of the tradition,” she told me in a recent conversation.
Frustrated but also determined to understand the persistent culinary cross-pollination, Kassis began researching the history of Arab cuisine — combing through books written as early as the 10th century — to grasp the through lines that stretch across time. The research reminded her that plants like eggplant and tomatoes, so essential in today’s Eastern Mediterranean diet, aren’t native to the area (they arrived, likely through trade route merchants, hundreds of years ago).
At the same time, Kassis, who was raised in Jerusalem, thought about her two children growing up in Philadelphia. They sometimes eat traditional dishes at home — including maqlubeh, the rice feast flipped upside-down from the pot before serving, and maftoul, tiny bulgur spheres often served spiced with chicken — but they also ask for pizza and sushi.
Recognizing the connections and tensions between past and present became the impetus for her second book, “The Arabesque Table,” published last month. Kassis presents the kind of deliciously unified ideas that might allow us to finally reclaim the word “fusion” in a positive light: za’atar schnitzel; maftoul salad with preserved lemon, pistachios and currants; a merger of two bread-centered Palestinian staples, msakhan and fatteh, into one spectacular dinner-party chicken dish; a variation on muhallabiyeh (a milk pudding that likely preceded panna cotta) stained with hibiscus and set in a tart.
Along with evocative photos by Dan Perez, the recipes come with headnotes full of narratives and background that detail how the dishes came to be. “I realized if I’m going to explore this modern table, there is no way I can do that with integrity if I don’t take this back to the roots — if I don’t try to trace these dishes,” Kassis said. “If I’m going to put in a fusion dish, I better explain why. I better talk about the original. I structured the book as I did [with categorized chapters such as ‘Dairy and Eggs,’ ‘Pomegranates and Lemons,’ ‘Grains and Pulses’ and ‘Roots, Shoots and Leaves’] because ingredients are the easiest way to tell these stories.”
Disseminating and confronting issues of culinary appropriation drives hard, necessary conversations these days. Kassis’ work shows one path forward. Here we talk, in a conversation edited for length and clarity, about the nature of culinary ownership, the language used to define Kassis’ native land and perceptions around Arab cuisines in America.
We’ve talked before, so you know I’m a longtime student of cuisines from the Levantine region. Let me jump in with a story: A few years ago I was eating at a Portland, Ore., restaurant, still new at the time, that billed itself broadly as “Middle Eastern.” The owners weren’t Arab. One of the dishes was a stunning arrangement of ingredients — freshly ground raw lamb obscured by minced vegetables, wheat berries and small blue potato chips, all surrounded by a pool of turmeric-stained yogurt and spears of endive.
[Kassis laughs] Yeah, I know where this is going.
The dish was labeled “kibbe naya” on the menu.
Right. Kubbeh niyeh.
You mention the dish in the introduction of “The Arabesque Table” as one of your father’s favorites. It’s ground raw lamb (often beef when made in America) combined with bulgur, grated onion and spices and kneaded to silkiness, served drizzled with good olive oil. Nothing about this restaurant’s interpretation, beyond a baseline inclusion of uncooked meat, resembled its presumed inspiration.
The next day on the phone with my editor I said, “Amanda, if I ask you off the top of your head what ‘kibbe naya’ is, do you know?” She didn’t. And it bothered me because the restaurant provided no context by which to understand the dish. I imagine far more of the dining public would understand, say, a wild riff on pasta pomodoro.
What’re your feelings on all this?
So I’ve spoken specifically before on my views of appropriation: I don’t think we need to limit ourselves to saying if you want to cook from a certain cuisine, you have to be from that culture. And this extends to everything — to arts, to literature, to music. If we start to silo ourselves, we miss out on the options to learn and experiment and discover things new to us. With that said: If you are going to write about or professionally cook something from outside your culture, the onus is on you to know as much about the subject as a native would.
My view on appropriation may be different than the average person because of the Israeli-Palestinian case, where Israeli restaurant menus might credit the tagines as Moroccan and the salads as Tunisian but won’t ever call the hummus Palestinian. So these questions of ownership are never really purely about the dish or the food itself. It’s about what they signify and what the activism signifies, right? Are you a white chef being offered more privileges than newly arrived immigrants? Is there something you can do to correct that? You start to see it isn’t the act of a white chef cooking, say, Thai food, as the issue. It’s because of the underlying injustices and inequalities that exist; the particular action of opening up this restaurant and cooking this food highlights them.
If someone asked for advice on how to best present an extreme variation on kubbeh niyeh like the one I mention above, what would you say?
I don’t think there’s one single right answer. You’re in a restaurant, so the menu is short and people’s attention spans even shorter. Even if my inclination would be, hey, include a paragraph that explains the history and puts it in context, that probably wouldn’t fly. But also, if you’re going to include it, go to Lebanon, spend the summer there, learn how it’s done. Try to master it, mention that it’s Lebanese at least.
I also know that it took my grandmother her whole life to perfect kubbeh niyeh, and my mother only started making the dish after my grandmother passed away because it’s so emotionally tied to this woman who made it and the occasions at which it’s served.
It’s not an easy dish to get right!
It’s not. To me, it’s almost a ritual, and that gets lost in translation. So maybe call it a lamb tartare, because that’s what it is in the form you describe. And that doesn’t take away from the worth of what they created! Just don’t call it kubbeh niyeh.
The topics of appropriation, evolution of cuisine and the ways they spiral around each other meet up in your writing. Your first book is full of tradition, your second book is full of innovation …
And those things need not be mutually exclusive. I hope that comes across. But I wanted to write a book that was honest — that calls fusion recipes what they are. It wasn’t “The Palestinian Table, 2.0.” It’s “Modern Middle Eastern,” which was the name I originally proposed to the publisher. Along the way I realized even the term “Middle Eastern” is not accurate.
I went to Galilee with Chris Kimble, who was filming for Milk Street, and he asked me what the book was about. I told him and he said, “When you say Middle East, what do you mean, which countries are you referring to?” I said to him, “Arab countries of course.” Thinking about that conversation later, I saw the answer wasn’t so obvious to everyone. People hear “Middle Eastern” and confuse it with the whole Mediterranean, they conflate it with Persian culture, they call North African cuisine “Middle Eastern.” The term itself is very Eurocentric. It’s a relic of the British Empire’s perception of our part of the world relative to their easternmost colony in India.
Enjoying this newsletter? Consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times
Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Become a subscriber.
What would you prefer that the region be called instead?
I wish I had the full answer. I refer to it as the Arab world, right? But the Arab world is not just the Middle East. It does include North Africa, technically, and sometimes Cyprus is included geographically as is Greece and parts of Turkey. There are parts of the Arab world that are not in the Middle East. So I don’t really know, to be honest. We’re also technically Western Asia as well as the cradle of civilization and God-knows-what-else [laughs].
This is perhaps an impossible question, or one so multi-layered that it might itself fill a book, but why do you think that knowledge of Arab cuisines is limited in America mainly to dishes like kebabs and hummus and tabouli?
To put it in some context: Middle Eastern food, Arab cuisine, whatever you want to call it, until 50 years ago hardly existed outside private homes in the West. A lot of people attribute [Egyptian-born British cookbook author] Claudia Roden’s first book [“A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” first published in 1968] as mainstreaming it, if you will. Chickpeas were difficult to find, and eggplants might not have been as easily accessible in many supermarkets. Now those things are staples. Also, unlike some other immigrant populations, there’s statistical data that Levantine Arabs, when they come to America, don’t work in the restaurant field. I think there can be a negative connotation for Arabs, like: Don’t run a restaurant unless you have no other options.
When Arabs came here they wanted to assimilate, they didn’t want to stand out. There are also the negative connotations of terrorism and war and all that stuff. I think about various restaurant owners and cookbook authors who are of Palestinian origin, but who did not refer to their work as Palestinian and instead would refer to it as “Middle Eastern”, in some cases even “Israeli.” But once my book and several other Palestinian books came out and were well received, you started to see a shift in referring to our food as “Palestinian.” I think part of it has been fear. We’re afraid if we label our food as “Arab” or “Palestinian” that no one is going to buy it, no one’s going to be interested in it. So out of self-preservation, we’re going to call it something else for marketing purposes.
Also for Arabs, there are a lot of issues in our world — the Palestinian issue remains a dominant one — and there’s this feeling that if you want to do something meaningful, you address the political situation. Food is seen as something lowbrow, as a menial, laborious type of thing. You don’t have many people giving time to writing about food and to exploring it from a more intellectual, academic perspective.
I still get people asking me when I’m going back to work [Kassis was previously a business consultant]. I’m like, I am working. What I do is work!
If I had a dream going forward about perceptions of Arab cuisines in America, it would be for Arab academics, writers and bloggers to invest in work that is more long-term and strategic, not just focus on what is reactionary.
And I would like to see consumers be a little bit more invested in what they’re eating — where you realize there’s a person and a culture and a history behind these dishes. Even given these national borders that are relatively recent, there are so many variations between dishes. It isn’t just a random amalgamation of ingredients. If you write about or cook with something as common now as tahini, you should probably know a little bit about Arab cuisines. Take the time to learn.
Have a question?
— Ben Mims’ most recent Week of Meals package showcases the recipes of blogger and cookbook author Jonathan Melendez. Recipes include grilled steak with guacamole salad; black bean and mushroom quesadillas with avocado crema; and paella fried rice.
— Lucas Kwan Peterson uses the Demi Lovato-Bigg Chill feud to weigh in on fro-yo shops, including rating the success of their punny names.
— Novelist Steph Cha has a beautiful story about being sustained on Korean-style marinated salmon sashimi (yeoneojang) with salmon roe (yeoneoal) and other dishes by husband and wife Ryan Lee and Lucy Row, who run SonSoo Kitchen at Cafe Lucy via their Instagram account.
— Times staffers Wally Skalij, Calvin B. Alagot and Kate Kuo take on a photo tour of the booming Avenue 26 night market in Lincoln Heights.
— A Fairfax gelato shop opens serving flavors such as Amarena cherry, saffron with rosewater and fig and mascarpone, and other news of the week from Stephanie Breijo.
— It’s rhubarb season. Julie Giuffrida has recipe ideas for you.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.