Palestinian author Reem Kassis explores the culture and cuisine of the Arab world in her new cookbook
With 'Arabesque,' Kassis highlights the "cross-cultural nature of food, so we can realize how much influence we have on each other."
“Who goes to Wharton to write cookbooks?”
That was her mother’s first reaction a decade ago when Reem Kassis — a soon-to-be international consultant with graduate degrees from Wharton and the London School of Economics — said she was contemplating a project to collect the recipes of her Palestinian family in East Jerusalem.
“It did not start out for political reasons,” says Kassis, 33, who recently moved to Bryn Mawr from Rittenhouse Square with her husband and two girls. “I just wanted to write a cookbook to have something to give to my daughters to show them what Palestinian cooking is, that there is a very different Palestinian narrative [to this food], and to address the frustrations that I had.”
The rise in popularity and media attention for Israeli cuisine, she said, too often left the stories of her people out of the picture: “It’s not about the food. It’s not about the chickpeas or how you serve your hummus. It’s about the history of recipes my family cooked for generations before the state of Israel even existed that [people] are trying to erase, about pretending I never existed.”
That spirit of pride in her family’s traditions filled the recipes, stories, and beautifully illustrated pages of The Palestinian Table (Phaidon), her 2017 book that won the Guild of Food Writers First Book Award and a James Beard Foundation nomination for Best International Cookbook. Every one of the gorgeously photographed dishes, from the za’atar-flecked flatbreads to the tower of lamb-stuffed grape leaves scented with nine spice, was cooked by her mother, Nisreen Kassis.
“Now my mother sees the impact the book has had for Palestinians,” said Kassis, who believes the term “Palestinian cuisine” was rarely, if ever, acknowledged in mainstream Western media before her book’s publication. “I thought it was going to be my first and last book. I didn’t consider it a career. But it snowballed, and I never went back to my ‘real life.’ ”
Kassis’ professional detour continues with the April 7 release of her latest cookbook, The Arabesque Table, which takes a much broader look at contemporary cooking from across the Arab world.
Kassis spoke to countless chefs and home cooks from the Levant to Australia to home in on common recipe themes and creative adaptations. She and her mother cooked the 130 dishes together for the book’s photography during an extended pandemic stay at her childhood home in Jerusalem last summer.
The recipes include modern restaurant creations, like fatteh with shiitake mushrooms from Moona in Cambridge, Mass., to homier favorites like kubbeh burgers, za’atar schnitzel and a remarkably versatile halaweh with multiple riffs, from chocolate and peanut butter to raspberries and rosebuds.
“Before, it took centuries of trade and occupation to transform a cuisine,” she says, “but today with the internet, social media and travel, all it takes is one person in Lebanon with an Instagram account to make a Korean dish but substitute shattah chili paste for gochujang.”
What makes this book even more fascinating, though, is that Kassis roots her exploration of modern Arabic cooking in historical research, with extensive notes on ingredients drawn from ancient texts like the 13th-century Syrian cookbook Kitab al-Wusla ila al-Habib that noted salt-preserved lemons were already so common that a recipe “need not be described.”
These historical details, woven into the writing alongside evocative reminiscences of Kassis’ upbringing, provide deeper understanding of the connections between regional traditions, and feed Kassis’ assertion that Arabic cuisine has developed naturally — independent of borders largely defined by the British.
“The very term ‘Middle East’ is what the British Empire perceived us to be because we were in the middle between Western Europe and its colony in India. It’s an antiquated, Eurocentric term,” she says.
Her goal was to focus on the commonality threaded through Arabic culinary traditions rather than regional differences. “You can use cuisine to define your national identity while at the same time understanding that cuisine is cross-cultural and has evolved considerably over time.”
The subjects of cultural and culinary fusion intrinsic to this narrative are centuries old.
“If you ask an Arab person, ‘What is a staple dish for you?’ nine out of 10 would say rice with tomato-based stew on the side,” says Kassis. “But tomatoes did not make their way into the Arab world until the 19th century, and rice was relegated only to the wealthier echelons of society until the 20th century. ... Our cuisine looked very different 200 years ago when dishes were thickened with almond and soured with vinegar.”
“We serve shakshuka, but that’s Tunisian, which is North African, not ‘Middle Eastern,’ ” she says. “Historically, the thread that ties all those countries and cuisines together is their being Arab and their acculturation under Islamic rule.”
To tell the story of a cuisine that emerged from what are now 22 countries between the Atlantic Ocean and the Arabian Sea, Kassis focuses on key ingredients as the organizing principle. Instead of progressing from appetizers through entrees and desserts, there are chapters on eggplants and tomatoes, za’atar and sumac, grains and pulses, roots, shoots, and leaves.
In a chapter about pomegranates and lemons, use of their sour notes for vibrant complexity can be traced from the 10th-century Arabic cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh to dishes like Kassis’ simple but flavorful flounder with green olives, pistachios and lemons, or her roasted chicken with pomegranate molasses and Aleppo pepper.
Kassis also drew inspiration from her residency in Philadelphia, where she graduated from the Huntsman Program for International Studies and Business at Wharton, and met her South Philly-born Palestinian American husband, Albert Muaddi. They returned to the area with their two daughters, Yasmeen, 7, and Hala, 5, after living in London. “We wanted to be near family, and Jerusalem was not an option,” she said, because traveling in and out of East Jerusalem is too complicated for Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens..
One standout recipe, a salad of whole eggplants that are charbroiled and peeled then topped with sumac-dusted ground chicken and pine nuts, was inspired by a Thai dinner Kassis ate at the home of friend Nok Suntaranon, the chef and owner of Kalaya.
“What we eat at home is often influenced by interaction with other cultures,” says Kassis, who modified Suntaranon’s Thai presentation with the Arabic notes of tangy sumac and a garlicky, bright dressing of lemon and olive oil.
Kassis’ friendship with another star chef — Zahav co-owner Michael Solomonov — has been a defining feature of her Philadelphia existence. She reached out to Solomonov several years ago after a dish of freekeh at Zahav reminded her of home, and they’ve since forged a close relationship between their families. The two cooked together at a 2019 James Beard House event to foster peace and reconciliation in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
On that Beard House menu? A tahini cheesecake glazed with chocolate and edged with sesame that’s one of the showstopper recipes from the tahini chapter of The Arabesque Table.
Her friendship with Solomonov remains genuine, but complicated. Zahav and Solomonov remain one of America’s most visible focal points of modern Israeli cuisine. Kassis’ objections to the term “Israeli cuisine” have not abated, as noted in her 2020 opinion piece for the Washington Post. And while Solomonov does not always agree with Kassis, he believes their relationship has changed his perspective, and he has remained steadfastly supportive of his friend, her platform, and her success.
And yet, Kassis and Solomonov both acknowledge they deal with inevitable backlash from parts of their respective communities each time they do a public event.
“I would not call myself a moderate voice. My stance is very clear because I’m not saying [Israelis and Palestinians] are on equal footing,” says Kassis. “But my friendship with Mike in the span of one or two years has yielded benefits [in raising awareness for my community].”
Writing The Palestinian Table and “putting a human face on the Palestinian cause by allowing the stories and recipes to speak for themselves” has been key to advancing that dialogue, she says. Writing The Arabesque Table is in many ways a broader extension of her mission.
“In the culinary world right now everyone’s putting a stake in the ground: ‘This is mine.’ But part of the reason we have these conflicts is a misunderstanding of the context and history,” she said. “What I was trying to do is start a conversation about the cross-cultural nature of food, so we can realize how much influence we have on each other, and be willing to learn from each other while at the same time showing the respect of recognition. We can really benefit from interacting with each other.”
Register for the free April 5 virtual event at the Free Library of Philadelphia as “The Arabesque Table” author Reem Kassis is in conversation with “Smitten Kitchen” author Deb Perelman.
Reem Kassis’ Broiled Eggplant Salad With Sumac Chicken and Pine Nuts
This recipe was inspired by a Thai dinner at the home of Kalaya chef, Nok Suntaranon. It is one of 130 recipes reflecting contemporary cooking from across the Arab world in The Arabesque Table by Bryn Mawr author Reem Kassis.
Adapted from THE ARABESQUE TABLE by Reem Kassis
2 ¼ pounds (1 kg) eggplants (aubergines), about 4 medium or 2 large
For the dressing
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch of sugar (optional)
For the chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
9 ounces (250 g) ground (minced) chicken or chicken breasts/ thighs cut into very small chunks
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
1 tablespoon sumac
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
1 green or red chili, finely chopped (optional)
1 small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
1 small bunch of cilantro, finely chopped
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted
Adjust a rack to 6 to 8 inches below the broiler (grill) element and preheat the broiler to high. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
Pierce the eggplant a few times with a fork all over to avoid them exploding in the oven. Place the eggplants on the lined baking sheet and broil, turning occasionally, until charred on all sides and tender on the inside, 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size. The eggplants are ready when they are collapsing and the outside feels crisp and easily breaks when touched. Remove from the oven and close the foil around the eggplants to hold in the steam. This will make the eggplants easy to peel. Allow the eggplants to rest for 15 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the dressing: In a small bowl, mix together the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, and sugar (if using). Set aside.
Open the foil package of eggplants and with your fingers, carefully peel away the skin, trying to keep the eggplants intact as much as possible. Transfer to a sieve set in a large bowl and let sit for 10 to 15 minutes to allow the liquid to drain.
Prepare the chicken. In a nonstick or heavy-bottomed frying pan, heat the olive oil until shimmering but not smoking. Add the chicken, salt, cumin, and pepper and fry, stirring regularly, until the chicken is cooked through and starting to brown around the edges, 6–8 minutes. Add the sumac, give one final toss, and remove from the heat.
To assemble: Arrange the eggplants on serving platter and drizzle with half of the dressing. Arrange the chicken mixture over the eggplants. Top with the tomatoes, chili (if using), parsley, cilantro (coriander), and shallot. Drizzle the remaining dressing on top, sprinkle with the pine nuts, and serve.
Note: If you have a gas burner, you could also roast the eggplants directly over the flame, but it will be much messier. You can, however, line under the burners with foil for easier clean up. To roast, use metal tongs to hold the eggplants above the flame and turn until charred on all sides. Then place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rest for 15 to 30 minutes. Continue with the recipe as above.
Flounder With Olives, Pistachios and Lemon
For the sauce:
½ cup (½ oz/15 g) tightly packed fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
20 pitted green olives (I usually use Castelvetrano or Manzanilla), finely chopped
½ cup (2 oz/55 g) pistachios, finely chopped or coarsely ground
1 clove garlic, crushed in a garlic press or grated on a Microplane
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed or organic lemon
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
For the fish:
Vegetable oil, for frying
4 thin skinless white fish fillets (see Note), 4–5 oz (120–150 g) each
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Flour, for dredging
2 tablespoons (1 oz/30 g) unsalted butter, chopped into 8 small cubes
1 cup (3 ½ oz/100 g) walnuts, toasted
½ cup (150 g) pomegranate jam (or any other sour berry jam like blueberry, currant, or sour cherry)
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 ½ teaspoons apple cider vinegar
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
Make the sauce:
In a bowl, combine the parsley, olives, pistachios, garlic, olive oil, lemon zest, and lemon juice and mix to combine. Set aside, covered, until ready to use.
Cook the fish: In a large nonstick frying pan, add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan and heat over medium heat.
Pat the fish dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper on both sides. Dredge in flour, then pat between your hands to shake off any excess flour. When the oil is shimmering, add the fillets in a single flat layer (do this step in batches if your pan is small), and cook until golden and crispy around the edges, 2–3 minutes. Flip the fish and top each fillet with 2 cubes of butter. Cook until crisped and browned, another 2–3 minutes. If your fillets are thinner or thicker, you may need to adjust the time, so keep an eye on them and cook until browned to your liking.
Remove and transfer to serving plates. Top each fillet with the sauce and serve immediately.
Note: I most often use flounder for this recipe, because the mild taste is a good canvas for the bold flavor of both this sauce and the pomegranate-walnut variation, but any white fish could work including tilapia, bream, branzino, sea bass, etc. You could also use a skin-on fillet of fish, but if you do, skip the flour dredging and cook it as directed in Pan-Fried Branzino with Tahini-Onion Sauce (page 218).
Variation: Pomegranate-Walnut Sauce
Sweet sibagh, or sauces, were very common with fish in medieval times. Another delicious sauce with this fish is a pomegranate-walnut one. In a small saucepan, combine the walnuts, jam, pomegranate molasses, lime juice, vinegar, salt, coriander, pepper, and 3 tablespoons of water and bring to a simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally until the sauce has thinned out. If the sauce is still too thick, (this will depend on the kind of jam you have used), add 1 tablespoon of water at a time until you reach your desired consistency.
Tahini Cheesecake With Chocolate Glaze and Sesame Seeds
For the crust:
1 ½ cups (5 ⅓ oz/150 g) graham cracker crumbs (or a mix of speculoos, digestive cookies/ biscuits, and/or petit beurre cookies)
·1 cup (3 ½ oz/100 g) pistachios or pecans, finely chopped
¾ cup (5 ⅓ oz/150 g) sugar
1 stick (4 oz/113 g) unsalted butter, melted
For the filling:
3 packages (8 oz /225 g each) cream cheese, at room temperature (this is very important to avoid lumps in your cake)
1 cup (7 oz/200 g) sugar
⅓ cup (2 ¾oz/80 g) good-quality tahini
3 tablespoons grape molasses, honey, or maple syrup
2 tablespoons heavy (double) cream
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
For the topping:
Scant ½ cup (4 fl oz/100 ml) heavy (double) cream
3 ½ oz (100 g) dark chocolate (at least 55% cacao), broken into small pieces
2 tablespoons unhulled sesame seeds, lightly toasted
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C/Gas Mark 4). Line a 9-inch (23 cm) springform pan with a round of parchment paper.
Make the crust: In a bowl, combine the crumbs, nuts, sugar, and melted butter and mix until evenly incorporated. Press the crumb mixture evenly into the bottom of the pan, pushing it halfway up the sides (a flat measuring cup/jug helps with this). Bake the crust for 10 minutes, then set aside to cool. Leave the oven on. (This crust can be prebaked up to 1 day ahead and left covered at room temperature once cooled.)
Make the filling: In a stand mixer with the paddle (or in a bowl with an electric mixer or even in a food processor), beat the cream cheese and sugar together at medium-high speed until creamy and smooth, about 1 minute. Add the eggs, tahini, grape molasses, cream, cornstarch (cornflour), vanilla, and salt and continue to beat at medium speed until incorporated and smooth, 1–3 minutes. (A food processor will be much quicker than a stand mixer, so adjust accordingly.)
Pour the filling into the crust, smoothing the top. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake until the cake is set but the center has a light jiggle, about 50 minutes. Turn the oven off, prop the door open with a wooden spoon, and allow the cake to cool inside for another hour. Remove the cake from the oven and set on the counter to cool completely.
Make the topping: In a small saucepan, heat the cream until it’s about to boil. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate pieces, and let rest for a couple of minutes. With a heat-resistant spatula, stir the cream until all the chocolate has melted and the ganache is smooth and shiny. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
Pour the chocolate ganache over the cheesecake and smooth the top. Sprinkle the sesame seeds in a pattern over the ganache and set aside to cool completely. Once cooled, refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. To serve, remove the sides of the springform pan and slide the cake onto a platter.