Reem Kassis' Lockdown Life
Our Palestinian Table author has become a fan of The Great British Baking Show, pasta making with the kids, and has been reminded of her own teenage days of shuttered schools in Jerusalem
Almost all cuisines are made for sharing, yet Palestine’s culinary culture is especially communal. “Our food, after all, is about sharing and enjoying different dishes together,” says Reem Kassis in her multi-award-winning book, The Palestinian Table.
That joy of sharing food in a communal environment has obviously been somewhat compromised in recent weeks. Yet as you'd expect from a woman whose childhood was spent on the streets of Jerusalem Reem Kassis is not really one for buckling under when faced with adversity.
“After my daughter was born and I became pregnant with my second, that’s when I started going back to all the recipes I’d been collecting for over a decade," Reem told us when we published the book a while back, and it's parly to her two children she's turned for inspiration and focus in recent weeks.
“Two days before I was set to go back to Jerusalem to do the photoshoot for my upcoming cookbook, the world went into standstill because of the Coronavirus and my trip had to be cancelled," Reem tells us.
"It was quite distressing, especially since my two young daughters were now also out of school, my husband was working from home, and the little quiet time I had to work had all but disappeared. We tried different schedules, we tried to keep a semblance of normality, but in the end, the only thing that helped was letting go and accepting it was not a normal situation.
"Food has taken a central role, even more than it normally does, in our household. So when the weather is nice, we leave the city and go to our house in the suburbs (it’s under construction so we can’t live there yet) but we can play in the land around it, and we barbecue and eat outside.
"When we’re at home, the four of us have taken to watching The Great British Baking Show together and craving different desserts. The girls help me with cooking and baking, (and consuming!) all the desserts. It’s undoubtedly a trying and difficult time, but accepting this fact and letting go of unrealistic expectations of ourselves has made it a lot easier and fun when spending time locked down together.”
For Reem, it has brought back memories of her relatively calm childhood until the age of 13 when the second intifada, a wave of Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation, shook her early family life. Schools were shuttered indefinitely, suicide bombs became a weekly occurrence, and she left home only for essentials: "a situation I’m reminded of now as we all shelter at home from a threat, perhaps less violent but equally unpredictable.
"Over the last few weeks, recollections of my childhood, and of those times, have flickered in and out of my mind. The parallels are striking. My 6- and 4-year-old girls are going through an experience that no parenting book has a chapter on. They don’t understand why a year long awaited trip to visit their grandparents in Jerusalem had to be cancelled two days before leaving. They don’t fully grasp why they have to see their teachers on a screen and why they can’t meet their friends and chase them around.
“Why can’t we visit Seedo and Teta?” they ask repeatedly about their other grandparents, who live 20 minutes away. I hear them playing with their doll house and the tragedies that strike their dolls are “dying from coronavirus,” much like my dolls “died from missile strikes” when I was their age.
"So what do I do? I don’t do worksheets or math problems - I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am neither a good nor a patient teacher. Instead, we cook. We use a pasta maker - one girl rolling, the other catching - to make udon noodles and fettucine. We make curries (“chica mika masala” as my 4-year-old calls it) and bibimbap like my older daughter’s best friend’s family introduced us to.
"We make Palestinian holiday cookies - not the semolina ones eaten across the Levant around Easter but the very particular ones made with aniseed, fennel and nigella seeds that remind me of Ramadan at my grandparents’ house - and my daughters roll the date paste and put the “eyes” on the snake-like rings with chopsticks. We FaceTime our friends and family as we cook; we reminisce about good old times and plan for future ones. Even as we are isolated from each other in the same streets and towns and certainly isolated from each other across the world, the food somehow brings us together.
"Yes, we have more free time and are bored. But like nothing else, food gives us the immediate sense of satisfaction and comfort - the one that bubbles in our bellies up to our hearts, because we have satisfied a specific need such as hunger, or because it has quelled our boredom and loneliness. But that kind of happiness, as we all know, is short-lived.
"But it seems to me we cook during these times because it gives this senseless time meaning. It connects us to a past we are afraid we may never recover. It reminds us of our childhoods, of friendships we have built, of countries we have visited and foreign cultures we have embraced. Most important, it shows us that there is still beauty in simple things - like watching our children experiment in the kitchen, savouring a cookbook (or any book) rather than swallowing it, and cooking alone or with others (even if virtually) for the sake of it, not just to get a 30-minute dinner on the table.
"When the heaviness of current circumstances is shared with others, its weight is divided instead of amplified. Cooking shows us that we are all connected, that for the first time in our living memories, everyone in the entire world is facing the same problem. It shows us that we are not alone.
"It is this sense of connection, which we can build through food, that gets us through the day, because really, each day is the only guarantee we have.
"The bleach stain from the time of the Gulf War remained on my childhood bedroom carpet until we moved out of that apartment five years later, a reminder of how we are always one step away from disaster. But the food of those days, the dishes I reach for today, is also a reminder of how even during the scariest times, we can find a sense of connection with others, a sense of meaning and purpose, and sometimes, even if only for a fluttering moment, that feels enough."
The stories and recipes in The Palestinian Table are Reem's family stories and recipes but really, they’re the story of every Palestinian family. In creating the book Reem captures a small piece of Palestine in food. The Palestinian Table details the nuances and subtleties of the cuisine, offering personal recollections, historical context and easy-to-follow recipes; every one of them delicious.