Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan dreams of a world where he can share his food with everyone

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Fadi Kattan started making falafel during the pandemic when he couldn't indulge at Afteem's, a restaurant in Bethlehem. Photo by Ashley Lima.

Fadi Kattan is a Franco-Palestinian chef and restaurateur with restaurants in London (Akub) and Bethlehem (Fawda), where he also co-runs a small hotel, Kassa. His mission over the past several years has been to document and share Palestinian foods, traditions, and the work of home cooks. Kattan's roots are in the West Bank. His cookbook, Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food, came out earlier this month. Delving into it and getting to know the people and places he describes, it becomes more apparent how precious a document it is. 

Fadi Kattan: I am in battle. I come from a family that's not uncommon to Bethlehem, where families left in the late 1880s, early 1900s, seeking commercial ventures, seeking safety away from the Ottoman Empire that was building up to World War I. My father comes from such a family where my grandfather and grandmother embarked to Kobe, Japan in 1915 or something like that. Then, they had to run away from Kobe when the Americans bombed Kobe and ended up in Bombay. My dad was born in Bombay. Then, they came back to Palestine. 

That's the story of a lot of families in Bethlehem, that mix between the diaspora and being grounded. I'm speaking to you from my great-grandfather's house where I live. It [was] built in 1886. Every bit of that, every stone in that house, every bit of that land is where we're grounded.

Evan Kleiman: The process of writing a cookbook takes years. When you were working on it, I'm sure you could not have imagined we would be here in 2024, bearing witness to unbearable tragedy and death. It must feel a bit surreal to talk about recipes amidst all this. 

It's very difficult. I started writing two years ago, and being where we are today, I don't even know. When my publisher said, "The book's ready. We have to announce that it's ready, it's coming out," it took me quite a bit of time trying to understand how I am going to tell people that the book's coming out when we're seeing the horror that we're seeing today.

"Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food" fulfills Fadi Kattan’s mission to bring the cuisine to a wider audience. Photo courtesy of Hardie Grant.

I can't even imagine it. Tell us a little bit about your more formal journey to becoming a chef so we can put what you share in Bethlehem in context.

"Formal" is a word that doesn't apply to me. As you know, because you have the book, I come from a family that's been in commerce for generations. So when I told my parents at the age of 17, "I want to become a cook," they rolled their eyes and were like, "What's wrong with you?" Finally, we negotiated. I ended up going off to Paris to do a BA in International Business. I lost that part of the negotiation. But I did a master's in Hospitality and Culinary Arts in Paris. I worked for a short while, different places in Paris, in London, then I came back to Bethlehem in 2000 for the opening of the Intercontinental Hotel.

After living in Paris and London while pursuing a career in the culinary arts, Fadi Kattan returned to Bethlehem and now lives in his  great-grandfather's house. Photo by Elias Halabi.

As you know, [in] September 2000, hell broke loose here. The Second Intifada started and the hotel closed down. I stayed. I joined my dad's business, which was going on the other side of the mirror, so I was designing and selling commercial kitchens. It gave me a total insight into the world of food and Palestine. I used this to organize and create the first Palestinian culinary competition. I was quite taken aback when I saw that most of the contestants were bringing what they associated with quality, which was products that were not local. It was scallops, it was truffles, it was duck. That pushed me towards imposing a dish that was of Palestinian inspiration the year after. Then, years later, so 10 years ago, [I was] opening my restaurant Fawda in Bethlehem. People thought I was totally nuts when I said we're doing a fine dining restaurant in Bethlehem.

Can you talk a little bit about that? Because in the book, you say that there is no public place for great cuisine there, it's held as a secret. What does that mean?

Traditionally, when you eat out in Palestine, what do you eat? There's a few options. You either have Palestinian street food, which is fantastic — falafel, shawarma, arayes, and so forth. Or you have the staple fare, which you get a bit all over the place, which is the mezzes and the grilled meats. Or more or less well done replicates of "international menus" like spaghetti bolognese and a bad club sandwich. But the reality is great food is happening in homes. The best cooks I've ever seen here are very, very often women that cook at home. They do fantastic food. 

When I filmed Teta's Kitchen, which is a series I did during the end of COVID, where I traveled across the country and cooked with grandmothers, it was just magical. You'd walk into a lady's kitchen and she would be cooking a recipe that you know because it's part of your culinary heritage. Every time it would be a bit different, it would be tastier, it would carry the identity of the cook. I would ask these grandmothers, "But what's the secret?" I do the same recipe. And they will all cheekily smile and answer the same thing — nafas. Nafas is a word in Arabic that means breath but it also includes that desire of hospitality, that desire of sharing. I think those are the secrets I referred to when I say, "The great cuisine happens in secrets."

Grandmothers infuse their food with "nafas," an Arabic word meaning breath. It also invokes the desire for hospitality, says chef Fadi Kattan. Photo by Elias Halabi.

The West Bank and Gaza have been cut off from each other for decades. One is along the sea and the other is inland. How different are the food cultures? And maybe tell us one emblematic dish for each.

What you have to remember, Gaza is made up of the Gazans and 1.5 million refugees who were sent to Gaza in 1948 by the newly created state of Israel. So the culinary identity of Gaza is a mix of the Gazans who lived on the coast with access to orange groves and dates. If we go back in history, the Roman port of Gaza was one of the most busy ports in the Mediterranean. So the presence of chilies, for example, in Gazan cuisine is very prominent. That comes from the trade of chilies from India to Gaza then onward from Gaza to Europe. 

In the West Bank, we have the same refugees that were made in '48. A lot of them ended up in refugee camps in the West Bank. So the cuisine of the coast ended up arriving to the West Bank but without access to the sea. 

Today, there's not a total distinction of those cuisines but historically, if I would take emblematic dishes in Gaza, one of my favorite dishes is something called zibdiyat gambari, which is a very deep stew of tomatoes, garlic, dill (dill is very much used in Gaza while it's not used in the West Bank), and chili. You take that stew into a pot and cover it with nice big shrimps (prawns) and you stick it back in the oven to finish cooking. It's a beautiful dish. 

An eggplant dish works as a starter or as part of a shared summer table. Photo by Ashely Lima.

In the West Bank, it depends where you're in the West Bank. If you are in Hebron, most probably you will be having stuffed lamb necks. If you're in Bethlehem right now, a few days before the Greek Orthodox Easter, you will be having something vegetarian and most probably you will be having cabbage leaves that are stuffed with rice, tomatoes, mint, and a tiny bit of olive oil oil because people are doing Lent. If you're in Nablus, you'd be following me on the street to go to a butcher that does these fabulous arayes, which are minced meat cooked in a kmaj, a pita bread at the butcher's, and then he takes them out and takes a big, square piece of lamb fat and melts it on top. That's my favorite street food in Nablus.

Do you have a dish that you requested on your birthday and throughout your childhood ? 

Not on my birthday but there is a dish that I'm obsessed with. It's mansaf. Mansaf is a layer of bread, a layer of fries. It's soaked with dehydrated yogurt. That's from the Bedouin tradition, so it's quite intense, and that yogurt is rehydrated to make that dish. Then, you have lamb that's cooked in a broth and you finish cooking it in that yogurt sauce. 

I still wake up sometimes, call my mother, and I'm like, "Are you cooking today?" She's like, "Yeah." "Could you cook mansaf for me, please?" I just love it. I think that's the secret ingredient that I have every time I travel wherever — labneh jameed, that yogurt.

I notice that when I travel, when I'm away from Southern California for more than two weeks, I start to dream about tacos and burritos. You say that you start dreaming about bread. Can you talk about the importance of Bethlehem bakeries to the community and tell us a bit about the traditional breads they bake?

Breads are very varied. What I love about Bethlehem is that most bakeries just do one or two types of bread max. There is, in the Old City of Bethlehem, a bakery that only does ka'ek al-quds, which is sesame bread that's oval in shape, and that's what you would have for breakfast. Very often, [you'd eat it] either filled with oven-roasted eggs or with a bit of labneh and za'atar or even with falafel. That's one bread. And that's a bread, sadly, that's been commercialized by others and called a Jerusalem bagel, which is a total fallacy because a bagel is a boiled dough before we bake it. It doesn't have anything to do with it. 

Then you have the baker that does the taboon and the shrāke. The taboon is a mix of whole wheat and white wheat. It's cooked on little pebbles, preferably from the Dead Sea. Shrāke is that very thin, cap-like bread. And of course you have the pita bread kmaj. Then there's a fantastic bakery that belongs to the Salesian brothers, the monks, that does leavened breads with a hard crust. 

All of these bakeries have a social responsibility and it's very discreet. In some of them, you can pay in advance [for] bread that will be given to people that can't afford bread. In others, it's the baker that gives out bread but it's done in such a way that you still walk up to the baker, you still order your bread, and you get it in a bag, but you just walk away and don't pay. So the idea of the "haves" giving to the "have nots" is not at all present. It's really respectful of people and their situation.

I love that. Can you tell us the story about your family's orange groves?

My family had orange groves in Jaffa. My grandparents were in India when the Nakba happened, when the Palestinians were thrown out of their land. This bit of the world was called Palestina by the Romans 2,000 to a 100 years ago. So whether you were Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Samaritan, or atheist, you're Palestinian. But [in] '48, the world decides to give 52% of our country to create the state of Israel and my parents, my grandparents lost their orange groves in Jaffa. I don't know what happened to it. I don't know if it's given to somebody else or not. I'm sure it has been given to somebody else. You don't walk away from 120 dunams, which is more or less 100 acres of land. 

You know what my dream is? I keep telling this to a friend of mine who is Israeli: My dream is to be able to get that land back and actually drive up there, which I cannot physically do now because there's a 12-meter high wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem so I can't drive to the other side, drive there, open the gate, and actually invite a bunch of friends of mine to come and join me without really caring if they're Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Samaritan, atheist, Hindu or Buddhist, without caring what their skin color is and without caring where their grandparents come from, and just enjoy the Seville oranges and maybe cook a drum of Seville oranges.