Fadi Kattan cookbook 'Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food' Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food is a love letter to Kattan's boyhood home — and the scents and flavors that made it a special place to learn how to cook.

Chef Fadi Kattan's new cookbook is 'Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1252925897/nx-s1-f68c29ee-3aa1-4554-bdad-353d0cebcabd" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


When the war started in Gaza, Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan could not cook, not when he had friends and family trapped, not when people didn't have food to eat.

FADI KATTAN: The conditions there are unimaginable. I don't have the tools to be able to understand what they're going through.

FADEL: Nor could he think about his upcoming cookbook.

KATTAN: How can I even imagine releasing a book? But, you know, my publisher is of Jewish faith. And she said, you know, now the book even has more significance.

FADEL: So now his book is out. "Bethlehem: A Celebration Of Palestinian Food" is a love letter to his hometown, to the food and the flavors of this city in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank.

KATTAN: So I started food tours in Bethlehem, and I would take people along with me to the market - very unorganized, spontaneous. It was really that energy. And then, in the book, I really wanted to be able to transmit this to people and say, look, you're actually coming on a visit of Bethlehem with me through the recipes.

FADEL: The book is also a glimpse into the way annexation and the occupation of Palestinian land has impacted Palestinian cuisine. For example, take wild thyme - or zaatar in Arabic.

KATTAN: We were forbidden from picking wild zaatar. That changed a lot of what people did at home. And there's many, many of those examples of how things have impacted our cuisine.

FADEL: Because it's become illegal to pick certain plants and to...

KATTAN: Exactly. And it's hypocritical because it's illegal for Palestinians to do so in the West Bank, but it's allowed for Israelis in Israel.

FADEL: It's interesting because it's almost - it's not front and center of your cookbook. You know, you're seeing these cities. You're going into markets in Bethlehem. But then there's just hints of it. Like, you describe the sea salt from the Dead Sea, which you say is the sharpest and the purest form of salt. And then almost as an afterthought, you're like, by the way, Palestinians have very little access to the salt mines anymore. There's only one left that we can go to.

KATTAN: Yeah. But, you know, it's on purpose it is a bit of an afterthought, because what I do is cook and I celebrate Palestinian food. Whatever horror is happening because of the occupation, I try and channel it into what I'm cooking. I try channeling it into a positive. Wherever you are in the world, when you're cooking, it is a beautiful moment. It's a moment that is so sacred that I also refuse to let occupation be the leader of that.


FADEL: The simplest recipe in his cookbook is a bright salad.

KATTAN: You get a fig, you cut it in four, sprinkle some olive oil on it and a dash of sumac. For me, this is, like, the purest essence of what Palestine is in summer. It's like those three ingredients are just magic.

FADEL: There's sayadieh samak, a spiced rice with fish, flavors of the coast, a Christmas fruitcake, too. And Kattan guided me - amateur chef over here - through one of his easier recipes, the lentil soup. It was something he always ate as a child during Lent.

So this recipe is your - this is something your mom used to make for you?

KATTAN: It's something my mom still makes for me. It's not really her recipe 100% because my mother loves being cheeky with her recipes, so she changes it all the time. My mother is a fantastic cook. I still call my mother every couple of days and I'm like, so how'd you cook this? And she laughs. She's like, oh, are you going to try doing a twist on this? So it's as close as I can get to hers, but it's not really hers.


FADEL: I start by chopping a couple onions I saute in olive oil, of course, which Kattan describes as a symbol of Palestinian resilience.


KATTAN: You know, olive oil is - traditionally has been extremely part and parcel of Palestine. You know, we still have olive trees that are 3,000, 4,000 years old in Palestine.


FADEL: I add garlic, turmeric, cumin and ginger.

I saw ginger in your lentil soup. I've never put ginger in my lentil soup.

KATTAN: Well, you'll have to try it.


FADEL: Oh, my gosh, this smells so good.


FADEL: OK, so now what do I do?

KATTAN: Now you drain the lentils. You put them in the pot, give them a stir, you cover with stock.

FADEL: OK, so I'm doing 2 1/2 cups.


KATTAN: Decrease the heat to medium and we forget about them for 20 minutes or so.


FADEL: Kattan says every Palestinian, all faiths, rich or poor, eats lentil soup.

KATTAN: It's something you will see all year round in Palestine, either when people don't have anything else to cook or when they're fasting, the different fasts. And that's the beauty of Palestine with its diversity. You know, it's the Christian tradition, the Muslim tradition and different types of fasting, where people will very often break fast or during the day, if they're Christians, during Lent, will have very light vegetarian recipes. Can you taste the lentils to see if they're soft?

FADEL: Yeah, they're soft.

KATTAN: They're soft?

FADEL: They're good.

I squeeze a couple of lemons, give it a blend and it's creamy and comforting.

Now I'm gonna put ginger in mine. You convinced me.

KATTAN: Oh, thank you.


FADEL: Are you able to cook again?

KATTAN: I have forced myself to cook again. You know, the person who forced me to cook is actually somebody from Gaza who said, look, time is running out. We need to preserve those recipes. We need to share them with people. I think, actually, people buying the book will preserve Palestinian cuisine more than me, because they're going to be cooking Palestinian recipes in their homes. Cooking the lentil soup with ginger, I mean, what you're doing right now, you are preserving Palestinian cuisine more than me because I'm not cooking right now. You're the one cooking. You're the one preserving it.


FADEL: Fadi Kattan is a Palestinian chef out with his new book, "Bethlehem." Thank you so much.

KATTAN: Thank you so much for having me.


Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.