Bringing the deliciousness of Palestine to Beirut – The Daily Star

Bringing the deliciousness of Palestine to Beirut - The Daily Star

Bringing the deliciousness of Palestine to Beirut

December 03, 2012 01:07 AM

By Willow Osgood

The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Almost two dozen women circled around a long kitchen table.
Wearing plastic aprons and gloves, they emptied bowls of onions and
began to chop. It looked like a cooking class, but the professional
chefs were asking questions, not giving instructions.

It was the second day of training for the participants of Atayeb
Falastine, a project of the farmers’ market Souk el-Tayeb, in
collaboration with the Norwegian Embassy and the International Labor

Atayeb Falastine, roughly translated as the “deliciousness of
Palestine,” brings together 20 Palestinian women – 10 from the
northern refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared and 10 from the country’s
largest camp, the south’s Ain al-Hilweh – for workshops with food
industry professionals.

Many of the women already sell their cooking or baked goods, and
just as many said they’ve been cooking since they were little girls.
The project aims to combine their knowledge of Palestinian home
cooking with industry know-how to create the Atayeb Falastine cooking
line and help them sell their products to markets beyond their
isolated camps.

For this training, Souk el-Tayeb founder Kamal Mouzawak and
celebrity chef Joe Barza joined the women to make – and critique –
three Palestinian dishes: maftoul, mhammar djej and msakhan djej.

The group divided into three teams, each charged with one dish.
Maftoul is a version of the Lebanese favorite, moghrabieh, the chewy,
oversized couscous that is usually paired with chickpeas and chicken.
Unlike moghrabieh, however, maftoul is made by hand.

The process began with plain bulgur wheat and two women seated on
the floor. One added olive oil and flour, tablespoon by tablespoon,
while the other vigorously mixed the ingredients with her hand. Ever
so slowly, a dough formed over the bulgur, creating round, soft

“If she’s faster, then it goes faster,” said Mariam, one of the
participants, explaining how long the process can take. “It depends.

“This is art,” she added. “Many women, even from older generations
don’t know how to make it the traditional way.”

Meanwhile on the other side of the table, another team was working
on the msakhan djej, and the piles of chopped onions for the
sumac-laden chicken dish were leaving some in tears.

“You should light a candle,” Barza suggested, to counter the onions.
Wearing a white chef shirt and a silver earring in the shape of a fork
and knife, he bobbed in and out of groups asking questions and
offering advice.

The final group was slicing chicken for mhammar djej, named after
the bright red color of the baked chicken. It took about two hours to
finish everything, enough time for the participants to break into song
three or four times.

Once the dishes came out of oven and off the stove, the tasting
began. The women and the chefs ranked the three dishes on the
appearance of the dish, its taste and smell and the compatibility of
ingredients and overall impression.

Barza had a number of suggestions, including adding a bit of corn
flour to thicken the maftoul sauce, using purified butter for the
msakhan djej instead of olive oil “to make it crisp,” and adding
potatoes to the mhammar djej.

Mouzawak and Barza also offered tips for packaging, including
keeping the sauce separate.

The women have two more training sessions before they introduce a
total of nine dishes to the public at the Atayeb Falastine launch at
Souk el-Tayeb in mid-December.

Having a booth at the Saturday morning farmers’ market is both a way
to introduce Lebanese palates to the flavors of Palestinian cooking
and a way to introduce the Palestinian women to a new market.

“I want them to go outside the camp to see that there are markets
for their products, markets that are more profitable,” said Roy Abi
Jaoude, who heads the ILO’s project on Palestinian women’s economic

That the workshop came days after a cease-fire ended the conflict in
Gaza and on the day President Mahmoud Abbas made his bid for
Palestinian statehood at the U.N. was lost on no one.

“Our message is simple,” said Mouzawak, gesturing toward the women,
busy making their dishes. “You can have Gaza and you can have this.”

The minds of the women, only one of whom was born in Palestine, were
on the impending vote.

“All of us here hope to win,” explained Mariam, who lives in Ain
al-Hilweh. “Palestinian citizens are very poor because we are deprived
of our rights in Lebanon.”

But Mariam, who often makes traditional dishes in the camp, said the
importance of cooking traditional dishes was beyond economic.

“When the older women and men eat the food, they say, ‘With every
meal, you bring us back to Palestine.'”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The
Daily Star on December 03, 2012, on page 2.


Bringing the deliciousness of Palestine to Beirut - The Daily Star

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