In this feature, Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley share which ingredients make Palastinian food so special, and explain how to use each one in different recipes.
Falastin is a love letter to Palestine, written by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley. An evocative collection of over 110 unforgettable recipes and stories from the co-authors of Jerusalem and Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, and Ottolenghi SIMPLE.
Travelling through Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Nablus, Haifa, Akka, Nazareth, Galilee and the West Bank, Sami and Tara invite you to experience and enjoy unparalleled access to Sami's homeland. As each region has its own distinct identity and tale to tell, there are endless new flavour combinations to discover.
The food is the perfect mix of traditional and contemporary, with recipes that have been handed down through the generations and reworked for a modern home kitchen, alongside dishes that have been inspired by Sami and Tara's collaborations with producers and farmers throughout Palestine.
What are the best ingredients for Palestinian cuisine?
The flavours of Falastin
- Palestinian olive oil
- Egyptian rice
- Dill seeds
- Pomegranate molasses
- Ground allspice
- Orange blossom water
Allspice is an essential spice in the Palestinian pantry (as well as throughout the Levant), used in both a savoury and sweet context. It’s made from the dried, unripe berry of the Pimenta dioica tree.
Despite its Latin name, it’s not related to either black pepper or capsicums. It’s called ‘allspice’ because of its ability to conjure up the flavours of many other popular spices: cinnamon and cloves, bay and black pepper, mace and hints of nutmeg. The berries are brown-green when picked and turn to a reddish-brown when dried. It’s used throughout the recipes in Falastin.
Palestinian Olive Oil
This is green, grassy, peppery and delicious. It should be used as a finishing oil rather than to use in great quantities when cooking. Zaytoun do a great olive oil, which we are keen to use and promote.
BaharatBaharat translates literally from the Arabic as ‘spices’. The combination of spices in a particular blend depends on what is championed by each region (and within each household in each region!), so no single flavour tends to dominate.
Generally, though, it’s an aromatic, warm spice made up of a combination of black peppercorns, coriander seeds, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cumin, cardamom and nutmeg. It brings a sweet depth and flavour to all sorts of savoury and sweet dishes.
Baharat is widely available to buy, but if you want to make your own, place the following spices in a spice grinder or a pestle and mortar and grind until a fine powder is formed: 1 tsp black peppercorns, 1 tsp coriander seeds, 1 small cinnamon stick, ½ tsp whole cloves, ½ tsp ground allspice, 2 tsp cumin seeds, 1 tsp cardamom pods, ¼ tsp ground nutmeg. Store in an airtight container, where it will keep for 2 months.
Dill seeds (and dill weed) are widely used in Gazan cuisine, playing a leading role in Gaza’s signature spicy tomato salad dagga, for example. Celery seeds or caraway seeds can also be used as an alternative. The seeds should be crushed in a pestle and mortar before being used in order to release their fragrance.
This looks like short-grain rice but is creamier and holds its shape more. Because of this, it works particularly well in long and slow-cooked dishes or in dishes where vegetables or vine leaves are stuffed. It’s fairly easy to source, in well-stocked supermarkets or specialist stores, but can be replaced by pudding or risotto rice, if needs be.
Freekeh is a Middle Eastern wholegrain or cracked wheat. The wholegrain wheat is just called freekeh. The cracked version sometimes goes by the name ‘greenwheat’. Either way, the wheat is harvested before it is fully ripe and then roasted over an open fire so as to burn off the husks. This gives the wheat a wonderfully smoky and nutty flavour.
This is an Arabic cheese made by hanging yoghurt (with salt, to draw out the liquid) until it’s drained of all its liquid: the longer it is left to drain, the drier and firmer it becomes. If you are rushed you can bring it about in 6 hours: you’ll just need to squeeze the ball of yoghurt a few times during that time to help the process along.
Ideally, it will hang for a couple of days. Once made, it can either be spread as it is on toast, sprinkled with za’atar or sumac and drizzled with olive oil, or rolled into balls which are then preserved in oil.
It keeps in the fridge for up to 2 weeks (if not preserved in oil) or, as balls covered in oil, for about 2 months. Labneh can be made with either a combination of goat’s (or sheep’s or ewe’s yoghurt) and Greek-style yoghurt or, for a less ‘tangy’ version, just Greek-style yoghurt.
Also known as ‘Palestinian couscous’ or ‘giant couscous’, maftoul is made from sun-dried and cracked bulgur wheat which is then hand-rolled in flour. The little balls of pasta – like couscous, but larger – are then steamed and sun-dried.
It is added to soups or stews, to bulk them out, or served as it is, itself bulked out with chickpeas, alongside a piece of meat or fish. It’s fairly easy to get hold of in well-stocked supermarkets but, as an alternative, fregola can be used instead.
Orange Blossom Water
This is a key ingredient in various Arab and Mediterranean cuisines. It’s distilled water made from the macerated blossom of Seville oranges. It can be used in savoury cooking, a teaspoon or less added to a green leaf and herb filled soup, for example, but is most commonly used to flavour syrups which are then used in the making and soaking of cakes, baklava, or to fold into creams used for desserts. There are plenty of good brands around: we use the Cortas brand.
This is made by cooking and reducing the juice of sour pomegranates down to form a thick, dark syrup. It has a sweet-sour flavour which pairs brilliantly with all sorts of marinades, meatballs, sauces, salads, stews, stuffed vegetables and salsas.
There are lots of good brands available: we use either the Arabic Al-Rabih brand or the (more expensive and wonderfully astringent) Mymouné brand, which is made from 100% pomegranate molasses (with no added sugar).
This is the distilled water from the Damascus rose or ward jouri in Arabic. As with orange blossom water, this can be used to flavour milk puddings, ice creams, cakes and other sweets. A little bit goes a long way with these floral-flavoured waters.
Always start with less than you need, with the knowledge that you can add more but can’t take it away. There are various brands around. We use either the Cortas or the Mymouné brand, both of which we recommend.
Made from either fresh or semi-dried green or red chillies, shatta is the must-have spicy condiment to all meals. Chillies are finely chopped, seasoned heavily with salt, then left to sit in the fridge for at least 3 or 4 days before being blitzed up with some cider (or white wine) vinegar and lemon juice.
Made from grinding down the dried sumac berry, this astringent, tangy spice is heavily used in Palestinian cooking. It can either be used as a seasoning – sprinkled over all sorts of eggs, for example, or roasted vegetables, meat or fish – or added to a batch of onions, for example, cooked slowly for a long time before starring in a traditional dish like chicken musahkhan.
This paste is made from grinding sesame seeds. There are no other ingredients, so you’d be surprised how different one brand is from the next. We have a huge bias towards the creamy Lebanese, Israeli and Palestinian brands (rather than the Greek and Cypriot ones, which we find to be a bit claggy).
The Arabic brands we love – Al-Arz, Al-Taj, as just two examples – are creamy, nutty and pourable, easily drizzled over a multitude of things. Roasted vegetables, fish and meat all love tahini sauce and tahini as it is can just be spread on your toast or spooned over vanilla or chocolate ice cream.
This is the name for both the wild herb (a variety of oregano) that grows throughout the region and the iconic Palestinian spice mix (which is a blend of dried za’atar, whole toasted sesame seeds, sumac and salt).
The leaves have a distinctive, savoury aroma and their flavour is complex. There’s a connection to oregano and marjoram but also to cumin, lemon, sage and mint. It’s lovely sprinkled over all sorts of things – eggs, leafy salads, grilled meat and fish – or else served as it is with a little bowl of olive oil alongside, for bread to be dipped into.