MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians spiked this week over the shooting death of a Palestinian man at an Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank. The man who was shot and killed was 27-year-old Ahmed Erekat (ph), the nephew of a prominent Palestinian official. The Israeli military says Erekat drove his car into the checkpoint, injuring a soldier. Palestinians say the shooting is part of a pattern of reckless killings by Israeli troops in the West Bank.
Terrible incidents like that are always in the background as people try to go about their lives in the Middle East. And I spoke this week with Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi about a new cookbook he wrote called "Falastin." In the introduction to that book, Tamimi wrote these words - writing a Palestinian cookbook feels like a big responsibility. All the food and hospitality that a recipe book celebrates must be served in the case of Palestine against a very sobering backdrop. We want this backdrop to be properly painted. Things cannot be changed until they are fully seen. But also, our hope is everyone will come around the table to cook, eat and talk.
I asked Tamimi, who now lives in London, to elaborate, and he told me it's impossible to write about anything Palestinian and not get entangled in the complicated politics of the region. But what he wants to highlight is the people.
SAMI TAMIMI: I mean, you hear news, or you hear - the minute you say Palestine, it kind of trigger this kind of, oh, this is a troubled place where people bomb. And - but actually, when you go down and talk to the people and meet (unintelligible) in a refugee camp, you realize how wonderful and how welcoming they are. And with all the sobering background that they have, they still maintain, you know, some kind of a normal life. And they are ambitious. They are very kind of switched on. They want to do something quite positive.
MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, I was going to say that along with all the recipes, the book is peppered with stories of Palestinian chefs and fishermen and farmers and other people who are working with food. I was wondering, how did you decide who you wanted to profile? And why was it important for you to do that?
TAMIMI: Because we didn't want to tell a story - or definitely not my story. We wanted to tell a lot of stories because - it's important because, you know, these voices are not normally heard, and we wanted to kind of show modern-time Palestine what's happening with, you know, whether it's an older guy that open a restaurant in Nazareth, quite kind of political about everything and anything, or a young guy that have tourist homes, one in Acre and one in Haifa, not interested at all in, you know, even defining what he's - he is.
I ask him, how do you describe yourself? And he said, I'm not interested in that. You know, I just want to cook. But, you know, you have to kind of admire that. You know, people just kind of want to achieve something that, you know, kind of really, really beyond just, you know, the whole kind of - I don't want to say about occupations and, you know, who is strong and who is not, and what side do you want to take?
MARTIN: You know, talking about food from the region, a lot of cuisines are often lumped together as, like, Middle Eastern food...
MARTIN: ...Right? So what are some of the hallmarks of Palestinian food? What would you say - recognizing, as one of your chefs said, I don't even - I don't want the labels. I just want to cook. But, you know, help us out here. What would you say were some of the distinctive features?
TAMIMI: First of all, Palestinians are really, really well known for hospitality. And when they invite you, they don't want to just offer you a piece of meat with a salad and a - I don't know - a carb. They want to offer you everything they have. So they will make a feast for you. And, you know, in a couple of hours, they will make the most beautiful spread.
And it's not to impress. It's more to actually make you welcome and offer you something because they're not sure whether you're going to like this dish or this dish, so they offer you quite a lot of other dishes to sit down and share with you.
This is, like, musakhan, which is - I think it should be the national Palestinian dish, which is a crispy spice chicken with lots of caramelized onion and sumac and lots and lots of new olive oil on a bed of taboon bread, which is like a flatbread. Taboon bread - it's a very kind of Palestinian thing. It's slightly bigger than a naan, and it's named by - you know, named after the whole clay oven that they created with apples on the bottom, and when they put the - they kind of slap the dough on the pebbles. It kind of have these pockets where you can just kind of fill them with all delicious things.
MARTIN: So I want to go back to something you say in the introduction that we just spoke about. You said, you know, it's just food, but it's more than food. It's sharing time, space, ideas.
MARTIN: That's also what defines restaurants. I mean, restaurants are about the food, but they're also about sharing space and time and ideas. And a lot of people are still isolated now. Some countries are reopening, but some are not. And some places are closing back up again because this pandemic is resurging in some places. You know, you've seen a lot of hard things in your life, and this has been devastating for restaurants. Could - just briefly...
MARTIN: ...Before I let you go, you know, what are your thoughts about this?
TAMIMI: I really hope that we kind of learn something out of, you know, this kind of crisis that the whole world's going through. And what really strike me is how cooking and just sitting down and eating, whether it's with your son or your boyfriend or, you know, your family or friends, it's really, really going to connect people together.
In relation to the book, I think if we in the Middle East sit down at the same table and share food and talk about things and not being able to ask question and afraid to kind of suggest things and have a dialogue, then, you know, nothing is going to kind of move forward.
MARTIN: That is Sami Tamimi. He's an executive chef, and he's the co-author with Tara Wigley of "Falastin." It's a new cookbook of recipes from Palestine, and it is out now.
Sami Tamimi, thank you so much for speaking with us. And good luck with everything.
TAMIMI: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.