Interpreting food to your faith: Holiday culinary traditions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in Israel and Palestine
For the Bethlehem chef Fadi Kattan, the Christmas holiday season is bookended by two culinary traditions: the first dish burbara, a wheat pudding commemorating the flight of the third-century martyr St. Barbara, and the second a fruitcake, a culinary ode to his maternal grandmother, Julia Dabdoub Kattan.
It is the richness and faith behind these traditions that engage him, he said.
The local tradition of St. Barbara, “Burbara” in Arabic, recalls her escaping from her disapproving father, a Roman general, after she converted to Christianity and seeking refuge in the wheat fields of what today is 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 St. Barbara escaped to Egypt or Italy. However her story is remembered, according to Mr. Kattan, the wheat dish to commemorate her on her feast day has origins in pre-Christian rituals of fertility celebrating the winter solstice.
The wheat dish to commemorate St. Barbara on her feast day has origins in pre-Christian rituals of fertility celebrating the winter solstice.
“What fascinates me is how Mother Earth was protecting her people. For someone who is a chef that is quite important,” said Mr. Kattan, 43. His is one the oldest Catholic families in Bethlehem, with a presence dating back at least to the mid-1700s.
Muslim tradition offers a similar wheat dish known as ashure, commemorating the wheat Noah cooked just after the flood, while Jews and Christians in Lebanon celebrate a birth or a baby’s first tooth with another pudding dish called meghli. Though each are somewhat different, all three dishes are scented with anise and fennel and jeweled with sugared candies—in the burbara pudding this includes sugared chickpeas and small fennel and anise seed candies—and nuts.
“It is a fantastic thing you can see across traditions,” Mr. Kattan said. “It is the three monotheistic religions interpreting it to their own faith. It is something to see food used to celebrate different events, sharing the heritage of the Old Testament.”
The commonality of these culinary celebrations, he said, “is really sacred for me because it is also reminding us that we are inscribed in the reality of this land. These are thousands-of-years-old traditions readapted to coincide with religious festivals, where you take something very raw and very primal and transform it into a [not-so-] sweet pudding, preserving that deep earth taste.”
The commonality of these culinary celebrations, Fadi Kattan said, “is really sacred for me because it is also reminding us that we are inscribed in the reality of this land.
It is this diversity of local Palestinian cuisine and tradition that he aimed to highlight as 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 mainly in English or with English subtitles.
“Grandmothers are magic,” said Mr. Kattan, as he sat on the second-floor balcony overlooking the enclosed courtyard of his home. It had been built by his great-grandfather in 1838. “They have the advantage of being able to be only nice and kind and caring even if you are a rotten child like I was. Grandmothers are always there in that 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 began at the start of the pandemic, preparing traditional Palestinian comfort food.
“Palestinian comfort food is anything you can do in a lockdown: stuffed zucchini, hummus—I never thought I would write down a recipe for hummus until the lockdown,” he said.
In “Teta’s Kitchen,” Mr. Kattan seeks out that magic of local dishes, prepared by grandmothers considered to be the best cooks in their communities. The first 10 episodes are already available on YouTube, and each one highlights a different regional culinary tradition as well as a favorite Palestinian street food.
In “Teta’s Kitchen,” Mr. Kattan seeks out that magic of local dishes, prepared by grandmothers considered to be the best cooks in their communities.
The 11th and final episode, which will be released in time for Christmas this year, is a homage to his own grandmother, who passed away 12 years ago, and the influence she had on his cooking. He visits her home, for only the second time since her death, and spends time with the Arab Women’s Union that she helped found, as they prepare quince jam, sambousek (savory stuffed dough pockets) and sabaneh spinach pies.
“The food still tasted like my grandmother’s recipes and that was very special,” he said.
Though intended mainly as a positive show, the series also touches on Palestinian political reality, noting West Bank travel restrictions and encroaching Israeli settlements and their impact on food.
In both cooking series Mr. Kattan hoped to convey a sense of deeply rooted local Palestinian cooking, yet he also traces its connection with other kitchens—specifically the Turkish Ottoman kitchen, which during the 600 years of Ottoman rule in the region meant a great interchange of influences with what today is known as “Levant” cooking.
“‘Teta’s Kitchen’ is…really about how food lives on differently,” he said.
He has explored northern Palestinian cuisine—including the city of Nablus’s famed knafeh, a sweet cheese and semolina pastry, and arayes, pitas stuffed with minced meat and then grilled in an oven and finally rubbed with lamb fat. He traveled to Sebastia during olive harvest season to follow the olive oil production process and with a local “teta” prepared m’sakhan, a chicken and onion dish prepared on a thick pita and drenched in olive oil and sumac.
“All food is based on the reality of the Palestinian territory. It is such a small country and it is fantastic that we have such a variety…so close to each other.”
In Taybeh, the last all-Christian village in the West Bank, and nearby Bir Zeit, Mr. Kattan visited the Taybeh Brewery and Winery and Shepherd’s Brewery. In Bethlehem, he presented stuffed grape leaves, a dish Christian families prepare on Saturday for Sunday lunch following Mass, putting the pot over a low flame in the morning before they go to church so it will be ready when they return.
“All food is based on the reality of the territory. It is such a small country and it is 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 of ghee (clarified butter), while in the south, ghee features prominently in the local food. Hebron cuisine favors copious amounts of ghee and laban jameed—dried yogurt, rehydrated with water.
Though the burbara pudding is not featured in any of the taped episodes, in the first show of “Fadi Cooks,” Mr. Kattan prepared his grandmother’s Christmas fruitcake. While the recipe likely has its origins in a British fruitcake recipe acquired some time during the British mandate, it is deeply rooted in local products with generous portions of dried fruits, including figs, dates and apricots, as well as grape molasses and cardamom.
Since he was a child getting underfoot in his grandmother’s kitchen, the preparation and communal eating of the burbara pudding has been a pre-Christmas symbol of the coming of the holiday, Mr. Kattan said.
“When my local spice seller clears off one shelf for the wheat candies, it represents the beginning of the Christmas season more than those bad imported Christmas chocolates,” he said. “It is that first taste which signals the start of Christmas,” evoking memories of a cozy old Bethlehem living room, “with three or four generations getting together and a lot of chatter. There was always an [unofficial] burbara competition, and each household thought their burbara was the best.”
Reflecting the local cuisine, his grandmother’s kitchen was one of generosity and sharing, Mr. Kattan said. His grandmother would bake “mounds and mounds” of her fruitcake to distribute among family and friends.
Many of the loaves, 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 on her culinary traditions within the family and adapted many of them for contemporary Palestinian dishes in his restaurant.
Though his guest house and restaurant still remain closed in Bethlehem because of the continuing Covid-19 travel restrictions and lack of tourists, Mr. Kattan has been able to travel to London as those restrictions eased and plans to open a restaurant there with his take on Palestinian food in the spring.
“I learned cooking in my grandmother’s kitchen...and also what the real meaning of community is,” he said. “She cooked Palestinian, French, Iranian…a whole celebration of kitchens. That is her legacy to me.”
Correction: Julia Dabdoub Kattan was Mr. Kattan’s maternal grandmother, not his paternal grandmother, and his family home was built in 1838, not 1738.