The region that has become Palestine has a varied past and as such, its cuisine has contributions from various cultures. After Palestine was conquered by the Muslims, it became part or province of a Greater Syria under the name Jund Filastin. Therefore, many aspects of Palestinian cuisine are similar to the cuisine of Syria especially in the Galilee. Modern Syrian-Palestinian dishes have been generally influenced by the rule of three major Islamic groups: the Arabs, the Persian-influenced Arabs and the Turks.
The Arabs that conquered Syria and Palestine had simple culinary traditions primarily based on the use of rice, lamb and yogurt, as well as dates. The already simple cuisine did not advance for centuries due to Islam’s strict rules of parsimony and restraint until the coming of the Abbasid Caliphate that established Baghdad as its capital. Baghdad was historically located on Persian soil and henceforth, Persian culture was integrated into Arab culture during the 800-1000s as ideas spread throughout central areas of the Abbasid empire. The Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi said this of Palestine’s foods:
From Palestine comes olives, dried figs, raisins, the carob fruit… from Jerusalem comes cheeses and the celebrated raisins of the species known as Ainuni and Duri, excellent apples… also pine nuts of the kind called Kuraish-bite, and their equal is not found elsewhere… from Sughar and Baysan come dates, the treacle called dibs and rice.
Village oven, taboon, in Palestine. Photo taken 1898-1914 by American Colony, Jerusalem.
The cuisine of the Ottoman Empire which incorporated Palestine as one of its provinces in 1512-14 was partially made up of what had become, by then a “rich” Arab cuisine. After the Crimean War, in 1855, many other communities including Bosnians, Greeks, French and Italians began settling in the area especially in urban centers such as Jerusalem, Jaffa and Bethlehem. These communities’ cuisines contributed to the character of Palestinian cuisine, especially communities from the Balkans. Until around the 1950s-60s, the main ingredients for rural Palestinians was olive oil, oregano and bread baked in a simple oven called a taboon. G. Robinson Lees, writing in 1905, observed that “The oven is not in the house, it has a building of its own, the joint property of several families whose duty is to keep it always hot.”
See also List of Palestinian dishes by region
There are three primary culinary regions in historical Palestine – the Galilee, Gaza and the West Bank (which has its own culinary subregions ranging from north to south). In the Galilee, bulgur and meat (beef or lamb) are primary ingredients that are often combined to form several variations of dishes ranging from a family-sized meal to a side dish. However, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the populations have a cooking style of their own. In the West Bank, meals are particularly heavy and contrast from the foods of the northern Levant. Main dishes involve rice, flatbreads and roasted meats. The staple food of the inhabitants in the Gaza Strip is fish due to its location on the Mediterranean seacoast. Their culinary influences are also strongly affected by traditional Egyptian cooking and chili peppers, dill seeds and garlic the most common seasonings. Although the cuisine is diverse, generally Palestinians are not restricted to the foods of their specific region and there is constant culinary diffusion amongst them. Although, because of Gaza’s isolation from other Palestinian and Levantine Arab areas, their cooking styles are less known in the region.
A plate of kubbi balls with a garnishing of mint leaves
The Galilee is very similar to Lebanese cuisine, due to extensive communication between the two regions before the establishment of Israel. The Galilee specializes in a number of meals based on the combination of bulgur, spices and meat, known as kubbi by Arabs. Kubbi bi-siniyee is a combination of minced lamb or beef mixed with pepper, allspice and other spices wrapped in a bulgur crust, then baked. Kubbi bi-siniyee could serve as the main dish during a Palestinian lunch. Kubbi neyee is a variation of kubbi directly imported from Lebanon, that is served as raw meat mixed with bulgur and a variety of spices. It is mostly eaten as a side dish and pita or markook bread is used for scooping the meat. Since the dish is raw, whatever is not eaten is cooked the next day in either the baked version or as fried kubbi balls.
Manakeesh is also a very common breakfast food. It is somewhat like pizza, but topped with a number of mixtures. The most common are homemade cheese and olive oil, oregano with sesame and oil, and onions with spices and hot sauce. They go very well with a cup of tea, fresh vegetables and herbs, olives, and lebeneh (homemade yogurt strained to the consistency of cream cheese) on the side.
Lahm bi ajeen (literally translated: meat with dough) is also similar to manakeesh and is excellent with the slightly sour Arabic yogurt drink.
A special occasion meal in the Galilee consists of Roasted Lamb or any other type of meat complimented by a mixture of rice with chopped lamb and flavored with an assortment of spices, usually garnished with chopped parsley and toasted nuts. shish kebab or lahme mashwi and shish taouk are grilled meats on skewers and are commonly eaten after an array of appetizers known as the maza.
Maza basically is appetizers, and a bunch of them at that which usually include hummus (sometimes topped with meat), baba ghannouj, tabouli, lebeneh, grape leaves (usually stuffed with meat, but sometimes with vegetables) kubbi (as mentioned above in any form), olives and pickles, and many many more.Ackawi, a semi-hard cheese common throughout the Middle East and among the Arab diaspora originated in the city of Acre along the Galilee’s coast. Acre is pronounced Acka, from which the cheese receives its name.
Musakhan is a common main dish that originated in the Jenin and Tulkarm area in the northern West Bank. It consists of a roasted chicken over a taboon bread that has been topped with pieces of fried sweet onions, sumac, allspice and pine nuts. Maqluba is an upside-down rice and baked eggplant casserole mixed with cooked cauliflowers, carrots and chicken or lamb. The meal is known throughout the Levant but among Palestinians especially. It dates back to the 13th century.
A siniyyeh of Mansaf
Mansaf is a traditional meal in the central West Bank and Naqab region in the southern West Bank, having its roots from the Bedouin population of ancient Palestine. It is mostly cooked on occasions such as, during holidays, weddings or a large gathering. Mansaf is cooked as a lamb leg or large pieces of lamb on top of a taboon bread that has usually been smothered with yellow rice. A type of thick and dried cheesecloth yogurt from goat’s milk, called jameed, is poured on top of the lamb and rice to give it its distinct flavor and taste. The dish is also garnished with cooked pine nuts and almonds. The classic form of eating mansaf is using the right hand as a utensil. For politeness, participants in the feast tear pieces of meat to hand to the person next to them.
Maqluba with lamb
In addition to meals, the West Bank’s many subregions have their own fruit-based jams. In the Hebron area, the primary crops are grapes. Families living in the area harvest the grapes in the spring and summer to produce a variety of products ranging from raisins, jams and a molasses known as dibs. The Bethlehem area, Beit Jala in particular, and the village of Jifna are known regionally for their apricots and apricot jam as is the Tulkarm area for its olives and olive oil.
The cuisine of the Gaza Strip is influenced by both neighboring Egypt and its location on the Mediterranean coast. The staple food for the majority of the inhabitants in the area is fish. Gaza has a major fishing industry and fish is often served either grilled or fried after being stuffed with cilantro, garlic, red peppers and cumin and marinated in a mix of coriander, red peppers, cumin, and chopped lemons. Besides fish, as well as other types of seafood, Gazan cooking styles are affected by Egyptian culinary influences. This generally includes using hot peppers, garlic and chard to flavor many of their meals. Zibdieh, is a clay pot dish that consists of shrimp baked in a stew of olive oil, garlic, hot peppers, and peeled tomatoes. Crabs are cooked and then stuffed with a red hot pepper paste called shatta.
A dish native to the Gaza area is Sumaghiyyeh. The meal consists of water-soaked ground sumac mixed with tahina. The mixture is added to sliced chard and pieces of stewed beef and garbanzo beans and then additionally flavored with dill seeds, garlic and hot peppers. It is often eaten cool with khubz. Rummaniyya depends on the particular time of the year and it is made up of unripened pomegranate seeds, eggplant, tahina, garlic, hot peppers and lentils. Fukharit adas is a slow-cooked lentil stew flavored with red pepper flakes, crushed dill seeds, garlic, and cumin, traditionally made during winter and early spring.
Qidra is a rice dish named after the large clay vessel and clay oven that is used baked it. In the oven, the rice is cooked with pieces of meat, often lamb, whole garlic cloves, garbanzo beans, cardamom pods, and various other spices such as, turmeric which gives it a yellow color cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cumin. Plain rice cooked in meat or chicken broth and flavored with mild spices including cinnamon is known as fatteh ghazzawiyyeh. The rice is layered over a thin markook bread known as farasheeh, smothered in ghee (an Egyptian variation of butter) and topped with stuffed chicken or lamb. The meal is eaten with green peppers and lemon sauce.
Types of meals
See also List of Palestinian breads
Palestinians bake a variety of different kinds of breads: they include khubz, pita and markook and taboon. Khubz is an everyday bread and is very similar to pita. It often takes the place of utensils; It is torn into bite size pieces and used to scoop various dips such as hummus or ful. Markook bread is a paper-thin unleavened bread and when unfolded it is almost transparent. Taboon receives its name from the ovens used to bake them.
A Palestinian woman baking markook bread in the village of Artas near Bethlehem
There are several types of sandwich and pizza-like foods eaten by the Palestinians, including manaeesh, sfiha, fatayer and shawarma. Manaeesh is a baked flat bread, usually topped with za’atar and olive oil. simboseh and fatayer are baked or sometimes fried doughs stuffed with minced meat and cooked onions or snobar (pine nuts). Fatayer is usually folded into triangles and unlike simboseh, it could be filled with spinach or za’atar.
Sfiha is a baked miniature flatbread, topped with lamb and cooked red peppers or tomatoes. Shawarma is mostly served in a long folded roll of khubz wrapped around shaved lamb or chicken accompanied by pickled turnips and cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and tahina. Shawarma could also be served as lamb slices on a plate with tahina as a side dish. Falafel are fried peppered fava beans or sometimes chickpeas, parsley and onions fried together into small patties. They’re usually served and eaten wrapped in khubz.
A family-sized serving of waraq al-‘ainib
Mahashi dishes are composed of stuffed vegetables such as, eggplants, baby pumpkins, potatoes, carrots and marrows as well as a variety of leaf vegetables, primarily grape leaves, cabbage leaves and less often chard. Mahashi requires delicacy and time the main reason it is prepared before the day it is cooked and served. Many female family members participate in the rolling and stuffing of the vegetables, relaxing the amount of individual effort required.
Waraq al-‘ainib (grape leaves; known as dolma in Western and Balkan countries), is a mahashi meal reserved for large gatherings. The grape leaves are normally wrapped around minced meat, white rice and diced tomatoes, however meat is not always used. It is then cooked and served as dozens of rolls on a large plate usually accompanied by boiled potato slices, carrots and lamb pieces. Kousa mahshi are zucchinis stuffed with the same ingredients as waraq al-‘ainib and usually served alongside it heavy meals. If made with a large number of zucchinis it is known as waraq al-‘ainib wa kousa.
Dips and side dishes
See also List of Palestinian dips and List of Palestinian cheeses
A plate of hummus, garnished with paprika and olive oil and pine nuts
Bread dips and side dishes such as, hummus, baba ghanoush, mutabbel and labeneh are frequented during breakfast and dinner. Chick peas are commonly served as hummus bi tahini, boiled and ground beans mixed with tahini (sesame paste) and sometimes lemon juice. It is often is slathered in olive oil and sometimes sprinkled with paprika, oregano and pine nuts; the latter are especially popular in the West Bank. The town of Abu Ghosh west of Jerusalem, is a popular hummus destination for Israelis and tourists. Chick peas are also be mixed, boiled or cooked with ful (fava beans), resulting in a entirely different dish, mukhluta, with a distinct flavor and brownish color.
Baba ghanoush is an eggplant or aubergine salad or dip with several variants. The root of all the variants is broiled and mashed eggplant and tahini lathered with olive oil, which can then be flavored with either garlic, onions, peppers, ground cumin seeds, mint and parsley. Mutabbel is one of the spicier variants that receives its zest from green chili peppers.
Jibneh Arabieh or jibneh baida is a white table cheese served with any of the above dishes. Ackawi cheese is a common variation of jibneh baida. Ackawi cheese has a smoother texture and a mild salty taste. Labaneh is a pasty yogurt-like cream cheese either served on a plate with olive oil and za’atar – which is generally called labeneh wa za’atar – or in a khubz sandwich.
See also List of Palestinian salads
Tabbouleh with lettuce and wedges of lemon
A simple Palestinian salad is salatat bandura (tomato salad), composed of diced tomatoes, scallions and cucumbers combined with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and salt. Tabbouleh is a Mediterranean-style table salad originating in the Levant. The salad is made from parsley pieces, bulgur, diced tomatoes, cucumbers and is sauted with lemon juice and vinegar. In 2006, the largest bowl of tabbouleh in the world was prepared by Palestinian cooks in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Fattoush is a combination of toasted bread pieces and parsley with chopped cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes and scallions and flavored by sumac. Dagga is a Gazan salad usually made in a clay bowl and is a mix of crushed tomatoes, garlic cloves, red hot peppers, chopped dill and olive oil. Its seasoned with lemon juice immediately before being served.
Salatah arabieh or “Arab salad” is a salad used with most meals. Romaine lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers are the main ingredients. Lettuce is cut into long strips, then chopped into thin strands, the tomatoes and cucumbers are chopped into cubes. Finely chopped parsley and mint give it a “particular zest” according to chef Ali Qleibo. A pinch of salt, the juice of a whole fresh lemon and several tablespoons of olive oil are used for final touch ups.
A siniyyeh of Kanafeh
Palestinian desserts include baklawa, halawa and kanafeh, as well as other semolina and wheat pastries. Baklawa is a pastry made of thin sheets of unleavened flour dough, filled with pistachios and walnuts sweetened by honey. Halawa is a block confection of sweetened sesame flour served in sliced pieces. Muhalabiyeh is a rice pudding made with milk and topped with pistachios or almonds.
Kanafeh, a well-known dessert in the Arab World and Turkey, originated in the city of Nablus in the northern West Bank in the early 1400s. Made of several fine shreds of pastry noodles with honey-sweetened cheese in the center, the top layer of the pastry is usually dyed orange with food coloring and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. Nablus, to the present day is famed for its kanafeh, partly due to its use of a white-brined cheese called Nabulsi after the city. Boiled sugar is used as a syrup for kanafeh.
It is common for Palestinian hosts to serve fresh and dried fruits, nuts, seeds and dates to their guests. Roasted and salted watermelon, squash and sunflower seeds as well as, pistachios and cashews are common legumes. Watermelon seeds, known as bizir al-bateekh are eaten regularly during various leisurely activities: playing cards, smoking nargila, conversing with friends or before and after meals.
Palestinian culture and life revolves around food in every aspect, whether it is an ordinary day or a special occasion such as a wedding or holiday. Meals are structured in a cyclical order by Palestinians and span into two main courses and several intermediate ones like coffee, fruits and sweets as well as dinner. Like in most Arab cultures, meals are a time to spend with family and could last 1-2 hours depending on the specific time of the day. Unlike other cultures, lunch is the primary course and breakfast and dinner are lighter in contents.
Iftur (lit. ‘breakfast’) is a term for breakfast, usually consists of fried eggs, olives, labaneh, olive oil or jams. Hummus bi tahini is also eaten primarily during this time the day.
Gheda is a term for lunch, usually late in the afternoon. Lunch is the heaviest meal of the day and main ingredients could include rice, lamb, chicken, cooked vegetables and forms of mahashi.
Asrooneh Derives from the word ‘Aasr (lit. ‘afternoon’) is a term for the consumption of a variety of fruits and legumes after gheda.
‘Asha is a term for dinner, usually eaten anytime from 8-10 pm. ‘Asha is simpler than gheda and some foods consumed include fatayer, hummus bi tahini, a variety of salads and a Levantine-style omelette called ijee.
‘Hilew Sometimes after or just before ‘asha as well as when hosting guests come various sweets. Baklawa is common and is usually purchased from pastry shops instead of made at home like muhallabiyeh.
Shay wa Kahwe Tea and coffee are served in throughout the day in before, after and between iftur, gheda and ‘asha.
A maqhah in Jerusalem during Ottoman rule in Palestine, 1858
Mata’im Offer a brilliant array of cold appetizers known as the mezze. Notably, hummus bi tahini, mukhluta, sometimes nearly a dozen variations of aubergine salad, tabbouleh, fattoush, chili pepper and red cabbage salads and dishes made up by the chef are served. Kibbee balls and sfiha are the primary hot appetizers available. Heavy meals are rarely provided by restaurants, instead however, the entres include shish kebab, shish taouk, rack of lamb and chicken breasts.
al-Maqhah Serve hot beverages and soft drinks and are usually restricted to male customers who take part in leisurely activities like playing cards or backgammon and smoking argileh (Arabic for hookah).
Coffee Shops Found in the newer areas of cities and major towns. Although the English word is used to name these places, the items served are of Middle Eastern flavors. These new cafes are the gathering places of the younger generation of males and females alike, where they can smoke Nargilas and have various types of coffees and teas. Food is rarely served at such locations.
Mahal ‘hilewayet Found in the souks of cities and major towns, they offer a wide range of sweets common with Palestinians, such as, kanafeh, baklawa and anise-flavored cookies. Family-run shops often serve at least one type of sweet that they themselves created.
Mahal falafel Sandwich shops that offer mainly falafel and shawarma with several different contents.
See also List of Palestinian beverages
Palestinian women grinding coffee, 1905
Homemade fruit juices are also a common household drink during warm days and during Ramadan, the holy month for fasting by Muslims. A warm drink made from sweetened milk with salep garnished with walnuts, coconut flakes and cinnamon, is known as sahlab and is primarily served during the winter season.
A widely consumed liquor by Palestinian Christians and many less-stringently observant Muslims is Arak. Arak is a clear anise flavored alcoholic drink that is mixed with water to soften it and give it a creamy white color. It is consumed during special occasions such as holidays, weddings, and gatherings or with the mezze. Beer is also a consumed drink and the Palestinian town of Taybeh in the central West Bank contains the only beer brewery in the Palestinian territories. In addition to regular beer, the brewery produces non-alcoholic beer for conservative Muslims. Soft drinks are also common in Palestinian homes and the city of Ramallah contains a Coca-Cola bottling plant, while Gaza, Hebron and Nablus have distribution centers. A Pepsi-Cola plant in Gaza was shut down in 2007.
Coffee and tea
Two hot beverages that Palestinians consume is coffee served in the morning and throughout the day and tea which is often sipped in the evening. Tea is usually flavored with na’ana (mint) or maramiyyeh (sage). The coffee of choice is usually Turkish or Arabic coffee. Arabic coffee is similar to Turkish coffee, but the former is spiced with cardamom and is usually unsweetened.
Among Bedouins and most other Arabs throughout Palestine, bitter coffee, known as gahwah sadah (Lit. plain coffee), was a symbol of hospitality. Pouring the drink was ceremonial; it would involve the host or his eldest son moving clockwise among guests who were judged by age and status pouring coffee into tiny cups from a brass pot. It was considered “polite” for guests to accept only three cups of coffee and then end their last cup by saying dyman, meaning “always”, but intending to mean “may you always have the means to serve coffee”.
There is a sharp difference of Palestinian courses eaten on a daily basis in comparison to those reserved for holidays which include family and religious occasions for both Muslims and Christians.
In the past, during the fasting month of Ramadan, the Musaher of a town would yell and beat his drum to wake up the town’s residents for suhoor (lit. ‘of dawn’) – usually very early in the morning, ranging from 4-6 am. The meals eaten during this time are light and foods include labeneh, cheese, bread and fried or boiled eggs along with various liquids to drink. The muezzin’s call to dawn prayers signaled the beginning of sawm or fasting.
Breaking the day’s fasting traditionally begins with the brief consumption of dates and a chilled beverage. Palestinians make a variety of fruit-based beverages, including the flavors, tamar Hindi or tamarind, sous or licorice, kharroub or carob and Qamar Eddine. Tamar Hindi is made by soaking tamarinds in water for a many hours, then straining, sweetening and mixing it with rose water and lemon juice. Kharroub is made similarly except instead of tamarind, carob is used. Qamar Eddine is made of dried apricots boiled into a liquid and chilled.
The term iftar has a different meaning in Ramadan where it is used to describe the ‘breaking of fasting’ unlike its common meaning of breakfast in the morning. Iftar begins with soup, either made from lentils, vegetables or freekeh. Shurbat freekeh (“freekeh soup”) is made from cracked, green wheat cooked in chicken broth. There is a wide variety of meals served during iftar, ranging from small plates or bowls vegetable-based courses or saniyyehs (large plates or trays) of a particular meat. Common small dishes on the dinner table are bamia a name for okra in tomato paste, mloukhiyeh a corchorus stew or maqali, an array of fried tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes, peppers and zucchini. Pilaf or plain freekeh are normally served alongside the dinner meat. Each household prepares extra food to provide for their neighbors and the less fortunate who must receive an equal version of the food eaten at home.
A common Palestinian dessert reserved only for Ramadan is qatayef, which could be provided by the numerous street vendors in several major Palestinian cities or towns as well as typical Palestinian households. Qatayef is the general name of the dessert as a whole, but more specifically, the name of the batter that acts as a base. The result of the batter being poured into a round hot plate appears similar to pancakes, except only one side is cooked, then folded. The pastry is filled with either unsalted goat cheese or ground walnuts and cinnamon. It is then baked and served with a hot sugar-water syrup or sometimes honey.
Ka’ak bi ‘awja is a semolina shortbread pastry filled with ground dates called ‘ajwa or walnuts. The dessert is a traditional meal for Christians during Easter, however, ka’ak bi awja is also prepared towards the end of Ramadan, to be eaten during Eid al-Fitr – a Muslim festival immediately following Ramadan, as well as during Eid al-Adha. During Mawlid the holiday honoring the birth of the Islamic prophet Muhammad Zalabieh which consists of small, crunchy deep fried dough balls in dipped in syrup, is served. The dough is made from flour, yeast and water.
A special pudding called mughli is prepared for a new born child. The dessert is made of ground rice, sugar and a mixture of spices, garnished with almonds, pine nuts and walnuts. An infant’s new tooth is celebrated with bowls of sweetened wheat or barley and sweets served after a child’s circumcision include baklava and Burma. Christian families in mourning serve a sweet bun known as rahmeh. It is a food eaten in remembrance of the dead and as a gesture of blessing the soul of the deceased person. The Greek Orthodox Church offer a special tray with cooked wheat covered with sugar and candy after a memorial service.
List of Palestinian dishes
Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Cuisine of Palestine
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The rich flavors of Palestine Mai M. Farsakh, This Week in Palestine, Jun 21, 2006
Palestinian Cuisine IMEU, JAN 16, 2006
Hummus, a Palestinian staple by Lailie Ibrahim, Mar. 31, 2006
Ramadan in Palestine at the Institute for Middle East Understanding
Falafel balls filled with French cheese
Christiane Dabdoub Nasser, Classic Palestinian Cookery, Saqi Books, London, 2001, ISBN 0863565484
Christiane Dabdoub Nasser, Classic Palestinian Cuisine, Saqi Books, London, 2008, ISBN 0863566189
Aziz Shihab, A Taste of Palestine: Menus and Memories, Corona Publishing Co. ISBN 0931722934
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Kitchen Meal (Breakfast Lunch Dinner) Wikibooks:Cookbook