Fadi Kattan

For many around the world, Bethlehem is a religious pilgrimage destination. But to the young West Bankers that call the ancient city home, Bethlehem is an emerging centre of cool. Independent community station Radio Alhara connects creatives from around the world; furniture from Local Industries is turning heads globally; and Franco-Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan is perpetually celebrating the food culture of his home city, primarily through his no-menu restaurant Fawda which is attached to Hosh Al-Syrian, a 12-room guesthouse in the heart of the Old City. These are (some of) the people that hold and protect the traditions of Bethlehem.

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The Diversity of Palestinian Food

Palestine is tiny but very diverse. In Gaza they don’t know what mansaf – a Bedouin dish layered into bread, rice, jameed and lamb meat, then topped with pine nuts and almonds – is. The idea of a communal rice meat dish is there, but it’s a totally different thing. They do something called fattah ghazzawiyah (Gazan fatteh) which also has bread, rice and meat, but it’s served with duqqa, a mix of chili, garlic and lemon juice. In the north of the West Bank, they don’t use jameed because there isn’t a  Bedouin community there. Instead, they use laban n’aj (sheep milk yoghurt). So you have three very different interpretations of just one dish. Here we do the kousa bil laban (stuffed zucchini stewed in yoghurt) with laban jameed. In Jerusalem, eight kilometers north of Bethlehem, I think people would have a heart attack if they ate it with laban jameed  (sheep or goat yoghurt that’s been fermented and dried for long-term storage). They use regular yoghurt. Same thing in Nazareth.

A City Centered Around Its Market 

Bethlehem is considered a city but it’s really a big village. There are 60,000 residents in the town itself but the Governorate of Bethlehem has 200,000 people. It’s not massive but it’s very eclectic. There is tension between our traditions and the international attempts at entering the market. Six years ago, I took over an old building that was renovated by the Italian government for the municipality of Bethlehem. It was turned into a 12-room guesthouse, and attached to it is Fawda, the restaurant I always thought of opening. The building is beautiful and it’s so right geographically: it’s literally two minutes away from the old market, Souk Bethlehem El Qadim, and I live right behind it in my grandfather’s old house which was built in 1938. The market was created by the British Mandate in 1929, initially to control the meat trade, because people used to slaughter sheep in their backyards without abiding by any health measures. Naturally, if you had all the butchers in one place as well as farmers and other producers, then people could come to one place to shop. Since then, it’s become established as the Old City Market. It’s where I shop every day except for Friday when it’s closed. I named my restaurant Fawda, because it’s the Arabic word for ‘chaos’, so big disclaimer: the name has nothing to do with that stupid Israeli series by the same name. I don’t have a static menu at the restaurant. There’s always an amuse-bouche, starter, main course and dessert, and what I cook is shaped by what I find at the market that day. The chaos happens when you come back from the souk with all kinds of products and you have to come up with a menu. Force creation is chaotic but beautiful.

Go-To Producers

I usually start my mornings with Imm Nabil. She sits at the entrance of the market where she’s been sitting for the last 40 years. She used to be a dairy farmer and then sold her cows and started selling herbs and vegetables that she or her neighbours plant. I don’t believe in projects that claim to be helping farmers, because I don’t think farmers want anybody to help them. What they want is for you to buy their produce, and buy it at a fair price. There are two things I don’t do with the farmers I work with: I never pre-order quantities and I never negotiate the price. If what they’re selling is too expensive for my menu costing, I won’t buy it. It rarely happens because usually I end up buying it for my house. Otherwise I just work with the quantity I can find or afford and be more creative about it. Without the farmer and without the butcher, we don’t exist. They are what we call in Arabic nehmah or baraka (a blessing). They’re the ones that are up at four in the morning, in very difficult conditions, and here probably even more than in other places because of the occupation. A farmer wherever she or he is, is having a tough life. It’s a big challenge to be a farmer and we are grateful that they’re there. Same thing for the butcher. I work with Natsheh Butchers who have their own farms and have been in the market since the start of the market, so they’re fourth-generation butchers. It’s not an easy job when you go home at six in the evening smelling of blood and meat and start all over again the next morning at six. One of the first stories written about the restaurant was by a French journalist for the newspaper Liberation. They hired a local photographer to take some pictures. And we decided to print them and give them to the butcher as a thank you. The guy literally has a board of these pictures with me, him and his meat at his shop. It’s because he’s so proud of his meat and that’s really gratifying for me.

Preservation The Palestinian Way

I work a bit on food preservation techniques that have disappeared. There’s something called kousa atiq (old zucchini). In the past, people used to core zucchinis, salt and sun-dry them just like we do with tomatoes or okras to preserve them. You only have kousa baladi (fresh local zucchini) for a few months of the year and we make kousa mahshi and dawali (vine leaves) all year long. Dawali is easy because you leave it in a brine, but the tradition of preserving zucchini disappeared although it is very easy to rehydrate and stuff them whenever you want. I still remember eating it this way at a lady’s house when I was a little boy. It’s fantastic because it is still kousa mahshi but has a very different structure and the taste is totally different. And I started making it this way at Fawda.

The Perfect Snack

The bakers at Al-Shweiki Bakery are fifth-generation bread makers and make the best taboon (flatbread baked in a clay oven) in the world. They also make fantastic shrak (large, very thin flatbread). I buy my bread and cross the street to buy jebneh baladiyeh (young, white local cheese) and labaneh (strained yoghurt eaten like a spread) from Samer Daoudi’s pickle and dairy shop. That’s my idea for a snack, with a bit of zaatar (spice blend with oregano, toasted sesame seeds and sumac) and olive oil. Samer Daoudi’s heritage is half-Bethlehem and half-Nablus, so he gets access to the goods of both regions. He gets very good tahini and halawa (halva) from Nablus. Beside the sesame halawa, he sells qizha (nigella seed) halawa and it’s just fantastic because it’s not overpoweringly sweet – it has a tiny bit of bitterness to balance things out and a beautiful colour.

“I Think Bethlehem Makes The Best Laban Jameed”

Laban jameed  is most widely known to be the accompaniment of mansaf. Some people sprinkle parsley on top of their mansaf but I’m not into that. The whole idea of mansaf is that it’s a very intense, heavy meal experience that you eat with your fingers. I buy my jameed from a Bedouin who is weaning his animals, but you can buy soft jameed from Samer Daoudi. I think Bethlehem makes the best laban jameed out there. You can buy it in two different stages: either fresh (the jameed has  been shaped into balls but hasn’t been dried and needs to be stored in the freezer) or dry which is totally solid and can be stored outside for the whole year. I buy it at three stages which includes  the pre-shaping stage when it’s just like a very thick cream.  I don’t use a lot of salt in my cooking but I think jameed brings in just the right saltiness sometimes. I also like adding shavings of it on different plates.

Childhood Memories and Family Gatherings

Up until 20 years ago, we only went out to restaurants to eat mezze. I always went to a place called Abu Eli. His decoration looks like it stopped in 1970 and hasn’t evolved since – It’s not even old enough to be kitsch. I think this guy makes the freshest salads out there with lots of zaatar, thyme  and lots of Bethlehem olive oil. I’ll order fattoush or tabbouleh, and I like his baba ghannouj because he grills his eggplants on charcoal. How I judge a good baba ghanouj is if it still has that piquant taste of the really fresh eggplant in the back of your palate or the tip of your tongue. What other places call baba ghannouj is something that’s been horribly massacred in an oven – not interesting. There’s a funny salad called salata Turkiya (Turkish salad) which is basically sliced onions, a bit of tomato paste, a bit of vinegar and chili. I have a weak spot for the one he does. His mashawi (grilled meats) – kebab, cutlets, chicken tawook and lamb skewers – are fantastic. In Palestine hot mezzes are not really something you have in a restaurant. The hot mezzes you make at home. It means a lot to me to go there, because originally this guy, Abu Eli, used to work in another place where I used to go as a kid with my parents, and that place closed and he opened his own place, then he passed away and his son is there now. It’s transmission.

The Bakery With Grilled Eggs

I go to Abu Fuad Bakery for breakfast to buy my kaek bi semsom (oval-shaped bread ring) and something we call beid mashwi (grilled eggs). In the wood-fire oven where they bake the kaek, they place whole eggs and roast them inside. The final result is something close to a hardboiled egg but with all the smokiness of the woodfire. To me that’s the natural accompaniment of kaek bi semsom.

The Bakery With No Bread

Forn Khaled is very much ingrained as a childhood memory because my grandmother used to go there. I go there for the two things it makes. He bakes qidrah, which is a clay or metal pot of rice with different spices like turmeric, pieces of meat and whole garlic, cooked on-site in a wood-fire oven. This is very typical of the area here and you can even take the ingredients to him yourself. The second thing he bakes in that wood-fire oven is kharouf mahshi, a whole stuffed lamb.

Grilled Chicken 101

Grilled chicken for us is either rotisserie-style or grilled over charcoal, and both are very much in our local tradition. For the whole, split chicken, grilled over charcoal, or what we call ‘farrouj mashwi’, I go to a place called Qabar. They do the best mtawameh (garlic paste) ever. For the rotisserie chicken, I go to a place called Masrieh. The guy does two things and nothing else: he grills chicken and makes qatayef (sweet dumplings stuffed with cream or nuts). His father was a butcher and he was originally one too. He decided to stop, but people insisted that he kept the chicken. Qatayef is very much linked to Ramadan, and actually the best qatayef done in Bethlehem is by this guy and he’s a Christian. For me it’s a strong message that says: “We don’t care about religious differences when it comes to cuisine.” You can excel at something by celebrating somebody else’s feast and that’s fine.

Star of Bethlehem

The best shawarma place in town is Tel Star. It’s a funny name and I have no idea why it’s called that. I don’t even need to order when I’m there: it’s shrak bread with a bit of shatta (hot sauce), the meat, a bit of onions with sumac, and a tiny bit of tahiniyya (tahini and lemon juice mix), and that’s it. Their meat is a combination of lamb and sheep. I don’t like adulterating my shawarma with salads or fries.

Lamb Offal Sandwich

Abu Rami makes sandwiches like grilled hearts, liver, testicles and liyyah (lamb fat). I personally don’t like grilled hearts and I prefer cooking liver myself because I like them rosé with their blood still in. So usually when I go there I have the lamb testicles sandwich. One of my favourite amuse-bouches to make at Fawda is pan-fried lamb testicles flambéed with arak.

More Street Food

For hummus I go to a place that’s been there since 1948 called Afteem Restaurant. They also do msabbaha (whole boiled chickpeas typically tossed with lemon, garlic and olive oil), ful (fava beans), salata arabiyeh (Arabian salad) which is a finely chopped salad and pickles and falafel. I eat my falafel without salad too: just tahini, cucumber pickles and a bit of shatta (homemade hot sauce). These are the places I really enjoy going to because they’re very good at doing one thing, and they know what they’re good at doing. I think a menu that’s 20-pages long is an indication that you shouldn’t be eating there.

Wine of Palestine

Our wine production is picking up. It’s still quite new, though if you look at it historically, it’s actually very old, because the first vineyards here were the first Roman vineyards. Traditionally, the winemakers in Palestine were priests who made church wine which isn’t something you want to drink. I wouldn’t even cook with it. And then, certain families started working their vineyards into wine production, notably Taybeh Winery next to Ramallah. The Khoury family came back from Boston in 1995 to start a beer brewery. Ten years down the road, they started making wine, and honestly they have a couple of wines that are just phenomenal. They use French and local grape varieties including jandali and dabbouqi. They’re not bad, but not there yet. But the family’s cabernet sauvignon and the sauvignon blanc are spot on. I’m not usually a fan of sauvignon blanc but I was stunned with how crisp and fresh their last vintage was. Jancis Robinson who wrote the Oxford book of wine and the Financial Times’ wine column visited Bethlehem and wrote about Palestinian wine and the Cabernet Sauvignon from Taibeh village. They’re doing a bit of vin naturel and unfiltered wines – it’s getting there. I only have Palestinian wines on my menu at the restaurant. It’s a nice surprise when you offer it to people. When you’re doing the pairings right, for anybody with preconceptions about Palestine, it alters something. Very often, I take people on a food tour of Bethlehem. Our famous snack on the tour is at my butcher’s. I usually carve up lamb liver and slice it extremely thin and add a bit of olive oil, salt and lemon juice, and with my fingers, drop it into people’s mouths. It’s funny because you see the reaction of people being like, ‘Wait a minute, this crazy chef is risking his reputation by feeding me raw liver. If I get sick, he’s screwed!’ I do it with confidence because I trust my butcher. Palestinians know how to keep their animals, and know how to keep a hygienic restaurant, so screw whoever tells you to be careful before coming to Bethlehem.

Where to Go for a Drink

Rewined M&D has a large collection of fine liquor and Palestinian wines. Some wines are produced on the other side in Palestinian villages that have been made part of Israel. I enjoy the wines of a vineyard called Mony Estates in Beit Jmal, again French grapes. I also go to Rewined because the owner, Dalia Dabdoub, is the first Palestinian woman to own a bar and I think that’s important. She also happens to be my cousin. I really enjoy the space, because before it opened, the idea of having a bar in Bethlehem was a little taboo, so all the bars would be a little secluded. Rewined has outdoor seating, you’re on the main street of Bethlehem. You don’t feel like you’re doing something wrong.

You Can’t Do Palestine Without Knafeh

The pastry Knafeh is very emblematic to Palestine. You have three types of knafeh. You have the one from Nablus which is the popular one made with cheese. In Bethlehem, knafeh is made of very long vermicelli with cinnamon, syrup and walnuts, without any dairy at all. The knafeh Arabiyah of Gaza is actually spread out nuts and semolina, and also has no dairy. For knafeh in Bethlehem, I go to Al-Qaser Sweets – it’s quite recent. I also go there for the mtabaq which is a feuilletée type of thing, of phyllo pastry sheets with cheese in the middle. For pistachio ice cream, the one with mastic or what we call booza arabiyah (Arabic ice cream) I go to Patisserie Handal.

The Importance of Provenance

There are two things that I think are really important in the food world today: food waste and provenance. Culinary appropriation is a topic very dear to my heart. There is a commercial reality in our industry, and sadly a lot of restaurateurs play along and shy away from calling things by their names. Provenance is very important, because as we were saying, without the farmers, the butchers and the spice makers, we wouldn’t exist. Without distinguishing cuisines and celebrating provenance we lose these people and their culinary traditions. I can no longer hear beetroot hummus, Marmite hummus, chocolate hummus: why doesn’t the world want to understand that “hummus” means “chickpeas”? A mushy purée with a bit of fake tahini doesn’t make it hummus. Similarly, I don’t have a problem if an Israeli chef cooks freeka and says it’s Palestinian. But when they use words like ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘Middle Eastern’ or ‘Levantine’ or a common ground that doesn’t exist, I have to reject it. I have a problem with chefs that cook without acknowledging provenance wherever they may be. I think coming out with the real stories makes a difference. When we talk about traditional Palestinian food, we tend to reduce it to ‘hummus’ or ‘falafel’ when it’s so much more diverse than that. This is why I’m working on a modern Palestinian restaurant in London and aiming to open it at the beginning of 2022. I want every table to see the reality of our food culture and traditions. Palestinians were not all farmers sitting under an olive tree in ‘48. Some were, yes, but we had a classist system, and being Palestinian means more than one thing.

Guide last updated October 2021

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