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Food writer Reem Kassis on the flavours of the Middle East and beyond

Palestinian food writer Reem Kassis’s latest book weaves together history, memoir and recipes to bring the diverse food cultures of the contemporary Arab world to life.

Published 12 Mar 2021, 08:05 GMT, Updated 15 Mar 2021, 16:28 GMT
Reem Kassis is the author of The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World.

Reem Kassis is the author of The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World.

Photograph by Dan Perez

The Arabesque Table takes a step back to show what a contemporary Arab kitchen looks like.

Photograph by Dan Perez

What was the inspiration behind The Arabesque Table?

I wanted to capture the evolving and cross-cultural Arab table, and I realised that to understand this modern way of eating, one had to understand the culinary history of the Arab world. At its core, food is more closely tied to language and religion than arbitrary political boundaries. I wanted to use the history of our cuisine to demonstrate how food often transcends the boxes we put it in. 

Can you explain the idea behind the title? 

The book weaves recipes and stories to tell a tale of culinary evolution. I wanted a title that would convey this spirit and get across how intertwined the roots of cuisine across the world are. The word ‘arabesque’ is an ornamental design of intertwined flowing lines, originally found in Arab and Islamic art. Just like an arabesque pattern, the cuisine is flowing and intertwined. 

Read more: Three recipes from Reem Kassis' new book

Exploring such an expansive cuisine is an ambitious task. How did you set about tackling this? 

It was about trade-off: figuring out what I could fit in, and what was most relevant and interesting. I did a lot of archival research, reading medieval Arabic cookbooks, food history books and other anthropological research. I then spoke with many people across the Arab world — chefs as well as home cooks — to get a glimpse of what a modern-day Arab kitchen looks like. My personal experience also informed much of what ended up making it into the book. Gathering the recipes included sifting through centuries-old cookbooks as well as eating at many people’s houses and restaurants. Some were childhood favourites reimagined or modified. 

How did the reaction to your first book, The Palestinian Table, influence this one? 

I was often asked in interviews about the difference between Palestinian cuisine and other Arab cuisines, and this got me started digging deeper into the history. So while The Palestinian Table was a personal chronicle through which the world got a glimpse into Palestinian home cooking, The Arabesque Table takes a step back to show what a contemporary Arab kitchen looks like, while tracing the historic origins of recipes.

You wrote this book during the pandemic. Did that affect the process? 

The photo shoot for my book was planned for March 2020 at my childhood home in Jerusalem, but two days before we were due to leave, our flights from Philadelphia, where I’m now based, were cancelled. I also noticed I was cooking meals from my childhood more often. I’d often drive for an hour to a Middle Eastern grocery store to buy certain ingredients. I’d always known food was a vessel with which to relive the past, but the pandemic made me realise just how important that sense of belonging is. 

Which ingredients or techniques are key to Arab cuisine? 

The cuisine is very regional — even within nations, there are many differences. But things that are common are pulses, legumes and bread, and white cheese from sheep’s milk. Another thing is hot sauce. The way it’s made, and the names it’s called, vary (harissa in North Africa, shatta in Egypt and Palestine, harra in Lebanon, bibs fleyfleh in Syria, and so on), but spicy chilli paste is a common condiment. As for techniques, almost every country across the Arab world does something called adha or tiqlaye — frying garlic and spices or herbs in olive oil and adding them to stews at the end of cooking. 

Which are some of your favourite recipes? 

This is like asking a mother to choose her favourite child! But I love the makmoora [a dish of spiced chicken covered with pastry] — it’s an ancient recipe, which I worked very hard to make suitable for today’s cook. The musakhan fatteh and shiitake mushroom fatteh (recipe, p.124) are two other favourites. And I love the grape leaf braised short ribs (recipe, p.125), because it takes the best part of another complex dish (stuffed grape leaves) and extracts the delicious flavour without the work. The tahini cheesecake (recipe, p.127) is always a hit, and an example of using Arab ingredients to lend flair to a Western classic.

Reem Kassis' book, The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World, is published by Phaidon. RRP £24.95 

Published in Issue 11 (spring 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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