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“We were not trying to tell ‘the story’ of Palestine”: A Conversation Between Yotam Ottolenghi, Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley

In certain corners of the Internet, the cauliflower renaissance is being celebrated. This is the result of a sustained culinary campaign waged by Yotam Ottolenghi, a part of his wider project popularising Middle Eastern food in the UK. The Ottolenghi brand is ubiqutous, popularised not only by that Loyle Carner song named after him, but also sustained by a group collaboration with other Palestinian food writers such as Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley. The Hay Literary Festival gathered these friends together (online) last week to talk about Tamimi and Wrigley’s new project: a cookbook called ​Falastin, after the country they grew up in​.

Tellingly, the cookbook’s title stays true to its origins; as the Arabic alphabet does not contain a ‘P’ equivalent, the authors found a more suitable title that blends the English name with Palestinian inflections. Writing the book itself, Tamimi explained, was a process of going back to his own origins. Over a series of trips to different regions of Palestine – some to the area where Tamimi grew up – they slowly began to collate recipes from different regions. Tamimi and Wigley visited his family, and Wigley describes the lavish meals which she was treated to, “great piles of food, all on one table, and that was just for starters.” As an outsider to the culture, she found that food was a key tool of hospitality. “I’m the same,” she explains, “I need to make sure that my guests are full when they leave the table. But this amount of food…” She trails off and shakes her head, still confounded by the experience years later.

Ottolenghi, who clearly is familiar with his friends’ project, knowingly asks them what their largest disagreement was. “Largest argument.” Wigley corrects him, and Tamimi nods his head. “It was definitely an argument.” They had argued about the degree of authenticity to maintain in the book. Understandably, Tamimi wanted to reproduce the recipes from his childhood – his family’s recipes. But Wigley, with an eye on the market, argued that the project was to make Palestinian food accessible to a British readership. Ultimately, Wrigley (and the market) won, and ​Falastin​ is marketed as ‘suitable for a modern home kitchen’.

Tamimi also stresses the fact that the book is not just filled with recipes, but with the stories of the people – mostly women – who shared the recipes with them. Palestinian cuisine varies greatly from region to region, and they tried to capture this diversity by contextualising these recipes within stories. Ottolenghi takes up this point about stories, particularly a story about a woman running cooking lessons in a refugee camp, and asks what ​Falastin ​means politically, to write about a country under occupation. Reticent to discuss politics on a publicity tour, their answers are hedged and Wigley says “We were not trying to tell the story of Palestine, but many stories”.

As a collaboration, ​Falastin​ is an effort to connect with another culture in a way that does not obscure its own origins. It is not, Tamimi stresses, not just a collaboration between the two authors, but a far wider project drawing from the efforts of an entire nation.