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Christiane Dabdoub Nasser

Christiane Dabdoub Nasser

Born in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, with a French mother and a Palestinian father, Christiane Dabdoub Nasser, is the author of Classic Palestinian Cuisine. Christiane is a dynamic and creative cultural heritage professional who currently works for Euromed Heritage in Brussels. She holds a BA in English Literature (University of Bethlehem, 1980), a post-graduate degree in French Literature (University of Paris X Nanterre, 1996) and was Director of the French Cultural Centre in Bethlehem for five years.

Paulette Dabdoub Nasser
Paulette Dabdoub Nasser in her kitchen in Bethlehem

the Interview

Bethlehem Market - October 2011

This marketplace was opened during the British Mandate. The marketplace was before, done by the Church. They opened this marketplace, and they...in the year 2000, the Swedish Government refurbished it. So what we see now, is a refurbished area.

It's a very busy part of town, where you get meat. You get fresh meat. And you get all sorts of fruits, vegetables, and this is where I like to do my shopping.

There's a saying in Arabic about gargir, which is arugula. That if a woman knew the effect of gargir, she would put it under her bed...under the sareer.

What is gargir?

Gargir is arugula (rocket). So if a woman knew the worth of gargir, she would put it under her sareer...under her bed, if you know what I mean?

So you were saying before, that a lot of these, it's all disappearing. Can you talk about that again, and the impact on Palestinian traditions?

Well, first of all, tomatoes are very important in our food. We stick them in everything...in the stews, in the sa...we have all sorts of salads to go with tomatoes. And there was a time when tomatoes were very...smelt much better than, than they do today. And they only came from the cultivated area, the cultured lands around.

Most probably, these tomatoes here came from Israel. And hence, you know, they have no aroma, no perfume. And this of course, has affected the taste of our food. And I mean, the fact...another problem is the fact that people now go for quick meals, you know. Now, women work, which is a good thing. But the impact on the food is not so good. And they also marinade, they cook lasagne, they cook...they make hamburgers.

They, they become sort of, more eclectic, which is also good, because, you know, after all, cooking...I mean there's no hard and fast line between Palestinian food, between Italian, between Lebanese. We're all Mediterraneans.

So in a way, it's good for this osmosis and all this mixing?

We have a lot of imports, of course, and that also affects how we cook. The thing is, Palestinian food is traditional food, simple, what we call in French, la cuisine du terroir. It's not gastronomy. Why? Because we are a poor nation.

We don't have,you know...the economy is very bad, and gastronomy comes with certain c...with comfort, with, with prosperity. And we don't have that.

So, what we have, is pretty much the same. People cook the same way. They don't buy cookbooks. And it's a transmission. And this is very important. The transmission. I got my cooking from my Mum. She got it from her Mum. I give it to my children, and so on, and so forth. So transmission is very important, yeah.

When we buy cucumbers here, unlike the supermarkets, they don't have this waxy texture, because they're not, they're not made to last, you know. You buy them, and you put them in your fridge. They're not supposed to be, to stay two weeks until they're hard. So...and this is very important.

Interview Continued

At Her Bethlehem Residence Whilst She And Her Mother, Paulette, Made Hummus For Lunch

So what does it take to make a good hummus?

It takes eternal...no, I'll tell you what, there are many ways to prepare hummus. So, today, I'm going to do...to serve it in...to serve it, you put...I will prepare it. I just took it out of the fire. So I'm going to mash it, and add the salt. And then, you can do a lot of different spices. You can put cumin in it, or not. You can serve it warm, or not. You can serve it with...mashed with, with some chickpeas inside.

The whole chickpeas, and, and, and parsley or not. And you can do it with a very nice sauce. So I'm going to serve it in two ways today, because it would be a very good idea.

So I will serve the part where you have whole chickpeas in the well, with the oil, and another part, where you have a tagine...lemon, lemon sauce with hot peppers. So we'll have both today. Of course, I don't know how they did it before, but today, we do it with a machine, you know, I mean...

This is tahina, which is made from sesame seed. The most famous tahina comes from Nablus. And add some lemon rind.

And is the most important thing, the maker or the ingredients, or the Nafas? Maybe you'd like to talk about that?

Well, it's a bit of both. You need to know basic, you need, you need to know about food, and you need to know how to prepare it of course. But, but there's, you know, there's this extra thing. We believe it, you know. I mean, many people believe in it.

You know, you would go to a dinner, and, you know, and then will...people will comment, 'Oh God, this food has not been prepared with nafas', you know. 'She went through a lot of trouble, but there's no nafas, so...' it's this extra thing.

What is it?

Nafas is love. You do things with love. But it's also soul. But it means that you do it with love, yeah...with love. And the love of sharing, of course. Of course, now we have machines to do the...

Now I think I'm going to add some cumin.

As you see, I don't measure. When I wrote the cookbook, I had to cook everything, and measure, and write down things. But I usually don't kind of...

So how do you do it without measuring?

This is mainly where the salt comes in. I don't know. I just know...I been cooking...you know, I have a big family. I have four children. We had a very busy social life. We entertained a lot. Lots of lunches, and brunches, and dinners, and parties. So, I guess, you learn. I don't know. I'm going to serve it in a very nice dish, that my Mum brought me from...gave me as a gift, traditional gift. So, as a traditional dish, yeah.

And is the quality of the chickpeas important?

I don't think so. It's the seasoning really.

Paulette: But there is something you forgot to say about...before cooking the beans...the peas...we have to soak them for, for...

Overnight, with some baking soda.

Yes. Yeah. That is in order to save the cooking time, which...she's right, yeah.

Who makes the best hummus? Is it you or your Mum?

I'm not going to say anything. I think they come out pretty much the same, finally.

Paulette where did 'you' learn to make hummus?

I learnt it here in Bethlehem, because I, I'm originally from France, you see. And...but I used to like it, and I learnt how to do it in Bethlehem, when I got married.

She's more Palestinian than a Palestinian, my Mum. And she has the best Palestinian kitchen. Trust me. The best recipes.

Can you talk about the Palestinian food tradition, because one of the things that we've heard, is that there is no such thing as a Palestine, and therefore there's no Palestinian food. How can there be Palestinian food if there's no Palestine?

Well as long as there are Palestinian people, you will have Palestinian food, of course. I mean it's people who make the culture. I don't need a territory with borders and boundaries to confirm my identity. I really don't. I am Palestinian, whether I have a culture or not.

So the culture is very strong, and it's very much anchored in the Middle Eastern culture. And...for example, the food culture revolves...is a home practice, you know. Cooking is, is part of living in the home...as an extended family, where all the women chipped in.

The mother-in-law, the daughters-in-law, the...and married women in the family, everybody chipped in. And it was a communal activity, and if neighbours po...the neighbour popped in...pops in...and she will join in.

We talk about extended family. It's a lot of children and grandchildren, and aunts and whoev...and you always have to have extra, and just in case somebody drops in. You 'have' to have...otherwise it's ruined. So you have to make sure there are leftovers, you know, from the food...

...which can be eaten then, later in the day, you know...in the evening, for the evening meal. But this is important. And it's also...it connects with our culture of hospitality, you know. You know, treating your, your host, your guest is...there's a whole protocol, and a whole way of, you know, behaviour, that is very, very important.

And one of them is cooking extra, just in case. Of course, now, it's not the same, you know. Now, I need somebody to call me, to tell me, 'I'm popping in to visit', you know, otherwise I won't be ready. It's not the same.

So tell me, where did you learn to make hummus? How did you learn to make hummus, and who taught you?

My Mum taught me how to make hummus, you know.You know, we learned to cook from our own Mothers. Usually from the Mother, and the Mother-In-Law. But I preferred my Mother's recipes to my Mother-In-Law's recipes. God rest her soul. She's not here to...

Yeah. I mean, people here don't buy cookbooks. And there are hardly any cookbooks on the sale of food. And people just...it's transmission, you know. You learn from Mother-In-Law, you get a recipe from your neighbour, and you collect a whole bunch of recipes in a notebook from...that you pick here and there.

But it's mostly the Mum...the Mother, you know. And, and I like that, because it means, it's ...it, it secures the transmission. And of course, hummus is a staple among, you know...in our culture. It used to be the poor man's food. But now, I'm happy to say, it's an international food, you know.

I went to an Italian party, and they had hummus. They call it hummus, you know. We call it hummus. So it's...and there are many ways to do it. And every time you do it, it's not the same as the time before, and you can experiment, which I do. I love to experiment. And yeah, so you can serve it in many, many ways.

Where do you think are the origins of hummus? How far back into history does it go?

Well, there's not much study on Arabic food, and origin of food. But maybe the bean itself, if you call it a bean...the chickpea itself...maybe it came from the Iraq area, maybe. I'm not sure.

But, having said that, Arabic cooking...if I can call it Arabic cooking...flourished to a large extent during the Abbasid Caliphate, which means around 8th, 9th, 10th century. And there was treatise on, on cooking, and entertaining, and so on, that was written by somebody. I can't remember their name.

So...and if you read now, the novels of Amin Maalouf, he's a Lebanese writer, and food is very much part of the novels. How to serve food, and recipes, and...it's amazing.

So we have, we do have this ancient tradition of gastronomy. But we don't have it now unfortunately. So people now cook as, you know, according to their means. And their means are very, very limited.

So just getting back to the hummus, there's no real historical evidence of when it was first made, or who made it, or...?

I don't know. I really don't know. I should have asked Claudia Roden, who's the expert anthropologist on the history of food in the area.

It's been always there. And it was the poor man's food first, you know. And you ate...you, you ate it early in the morning, and then you w-, you went to the fields. And this way, it sustained you for many hours...before the next meal, yeah. So this is good, you know. This was...it, it was important. But it's all over the Mediterranean. I tasted, like a corn tortilla, of hummus, of chickpeas, in, in the South of France. And it's part of the Provencale food. I can't remember the name, but it was delicious.

So it's very much part of the, of the, of the Mediterranean. I mean, you have to, to know that we are a crossroad to the...to cultures. And many, many people pass through here, and many influences came about, so...


We, we...you know, I mean, I can say hummus is Palestinian. But it's also Syrian, it's Lebanese. W...it's, it's, you know...Egyptian. It's Palestinian, Egyptian.

Jordanian, you know. Even Israeli. You know, the Israelis now eat hummus. I don't know how they do it, but they...you certainly have Israeli firms doing industrial hummus, and selling it.

And what do you think about the claim that it's an Israeli food?

No, it's 'not' an Israeli food. No! I mean, no, it's 'not' an Israeli food. It's part of the Eastern Mediterranean, you know. The Israelis have adopted it...very good. But it's 'not' Israeli. You can't put the label 'Israeli' on it. It's impossible.

I can't put a Palestinian label on it, except that we use it so much, it's so much part of our culture, of our daily life, it's more Palestinian than Israeli, in this way. But not...it's not Israeli. Sorry.

[to Paulette] What do 'you' think of that?

My-Myself, oh, I'm sure it is not Israeli, because old Arabs, in their tradition, were talking about hummus, I think hummus, especially in the morning, for breakfast, to keep them...sustained...sustained all the day long. And it was a cheap...it was something cheap. They could afford. Anyhow...No, it's 'not' Israeli.

You know, you know, talking about this Israeli claim that hummus is theirs, I mean, there is some...to use a Yiddish word...there, there is some chutzpah in that.

People share cultures. Culture evolves. Identities evolve. And what I can't stand, is when identity becomes a dead end issue. I can't stand it. Therefore, I don't say, hummus is Palestinian. I say, it's Eastern Mediterranean. And if the Israelis want to claim it, they're welcome to use it.

But it's a false claim. But, you know. It's fine. I don't know if they cook it in their homes...I don't. 'We' do. They don't. I don't think so, unless...they not the Ashkenazi Jews.

They used to come a lot to our restaurants here, before...during the occupation. I mean, this Saturday, all the restaurants were full, and hummus was, you know...one plate after another was passing at the tables, you know.

Of course, now, you know, it's cheap. You make, you make a brunch on Saturday or Sunday, or even Friday. It depends. You make a brunch, and then you serve hummus as part of the brunch. You make also eggs, you make...

But hummus is there. And it's very much appreciated, as part of the Sunday brunch. So you can make it very sophisticated, and you can make it very simple, and just pack it for a lunch...you know, for your lunch to the office.

You can have it for breakfast. You can have it for lunch. You can have it for dinner. You can have it for a snack in a sandwich [makes noise]. And you can serve it in many ways.

You can serve it with pickles. You can serve it with hot peppers. You can serve it with a lot of lemon, with less lemon, with tahina, without tahina, you know. So I don't think the Israelis know all these nuances, you know. I doubt they do.

How important is it, as part of the Palestinian cuisine? Is it like the king, is it the prince, is it the queen?

It is the...good question.

It's more useful than the king. No, it's, it's always there. So who is always there in the court? The...it's the Minister who gets things done. I don't know. But it's always there. Yeah. Yeah, the hummus is always there, yeah. And it's...and of course, because...you have to serve it with other things, some, you know...to, to...because it's quite heavy.

So you need vegetable salad, or a moist salad to go with it. And of course, we sprinkle it with a lot of olive oil, because it moistens it, and it makes it, of course, more delicious. Yeah.

You were talking about the impact of the war and the occupation on Palestinian food, the ability to produce it, and the ability to grow it.

Yeah, this is a factor. Plus, the agricultural practices. Israel had a lot of impact on local agricultural practices. We used to be satisfied with having zucchini during the season, the Summer season. We never had it in Winter. And there are ways of preserving it for the Winter. But for one or two meals, you know, and just in case for a...you know, if you crave it.

But when the season came, for example, for...of course, hummus is there all the time...but when the season came, for cucumbers, or for zucchini, or for tomatoes, you know, it was important. It had an important place because we cooked according to the seasons. Now, we have them all year round. Things have changed. So in this way, I don't know if they have, they have changed because of the Israeli occupation, or because things do change anyway...

They all do...in every culture in all the world, with things, you know.

And this is progress, you know, to have all year round, things. And I have a nostalgia for that. Maybe it's not very practical, because it's nice also to be, you know...to have things all the year round. But there is nostalgia.Plus, mass production became the rule. And, and we used to, to, to plant things in season, and not water them, because we don't have water.

Water is very scarce. We would use animal manure, and, and the taste was different, and this is something also, I miss. And this is what the village women used to, to bring with them from the hinterland, from the villages, and bring them to Bethlehem.

And for example, for many years, I remember there was a woman from the village of Irtas, south of Bethlehem, who used to bring her string beans every year, and spinach. And another woman, who used to bring her azeros for the jams. And we have been supplied by the same family, of, of apricots in season. Our apricot season is very short, and we have delicious apricots.So there's a whole network, and there's a whole tradition around it, of relationships...and, and, you know, connections. And so, the woman who used to bring her, her beans, when I got married, she started bringing me my beans, you know. So...and this is all gone. All gone. All gone. Maybe due to the occupation, but certainly due to modernisation.

Classic Palestinian CookingClassic Palestinian Cooking

Okay, what was the motivation for writing your cookbook?

I wrote my book, 'Classic Palestinian Cuisine', because I'm interested in food, I'm interested in food as culture, I love to cook, and also because I was, you know, at a certain...at a point in my life where I was interested in heritage, and traditional things, and issues that have to do with transmission of heritage, and so on and so forth.

So, so it was the right thing to do, and the right time, I think, because it was also around the Millennium, so it be...it was published in 2001, I think, the first edition. And so it was quite appropriate, you know. And it was a slow seller, but a steady seller, which is good.

It was...you know, the whole idea was to share Palestinian cuisine. Everybody knows about Lebanese cuisine. And Syrian cuisine is even better, but they don't know how to sell themselves. We certainly don't know how to sell ourselves.

So a book is a right way of doing it, and not just recipes, but also about the, you know, th-, ...life in our kitchen, in my mother's kitchen, in my kitchen, the way we do things, childhood memories. So it was a bit of, a bit of all these things together, and I enjoyed writing it a lot. I really did.

And is that generally how you see food? As being a mixture of life and culture, and memory?

Food is, food is, is...of course, we need to eat, of course...but food is, is man-many ways, a celebration. A celebration of life, in a way. But also, you know, in, in the life of a person, you know, you mark your...you mark the high points of life with meals, and with feasts, you know.

Christmas dinners, New Year's luncheons, christenings, marriage...you know, everything revolves around food. And with us, in our traditional culture, we have different foods for different occasions. And so I wanted to share that. And I think it's important, because everything is slowly lost, you know.

It's lost because of globalisation, because of modernisation, because women no longer spend as much time in the kitchen. I certainly don't spend as much time in the kitchen as I used to. My children are grown, and I don't cook as much as I used to. I used to cook a lot [makes noise]...a lot.

When we first met, you talked about the concept of the hummus potentially coming from Bilad Al-Sham...from Greater Syria. So maybe we should just explore that historical idea, and specifically about hummus.

Well, it's a shared past actually, you know. Maybe the hummus, the chickpea, came from east of, of Bilad Al-Sham, east of this area, from the regions of Iraq, maybe. I'm not sure.

But it certainly has been here for ever, you know. Almost forever. And people of this area...when I say Bilad Al-Sham, it's the Greater Syria, which is the, the, the eastern part of the Mediterranean, as it was called, before World War I.

And it was a big space, where people moved seamlessly, sort of, you know...where there was a lot of intermarriages, a lot of exchanges, and, and a lot of cross-fertilisation.

And that's why our cuisine is so similar in this region. And we share a lot of things. We have variations in the spices, in the herbs maybe, in certain cooking techniques. But basically we have the same food.

And, and, you know, this notion of Bilad Al-Sham is something for which I have a lot of nostalgia. I haven't lived it of course. And my grandfather hasn't lived it, but funnily enough, he has transmitted it to me...my father's father.

To him, it was a, a, a special age where...because he didn't perceive the Ottoman Empire as an occupation, and it wasn't...certainly wasn't the same way that the British were occupying other people, you know. It was a different kind of, of occupation, if you want.

And, and it was a very benign one. And, and one of the things, for example, was that the Central Government did not take the resources from the different parts of the, of the empire they ruled, and took them back to the centre.

Maybe you just need to explain the concept of Bilad Al-Sham...that it was the country before the First World War, and that it is the countries of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, etcetera. So just give us that bit of detail.

So the notion of Bilad Al-Sham was...Greater Syria was a huge province in the Ottoman Empire. And the World War 1 brought a stop to all that, because of the splitting of the country by the powers, mainly Britain and France.

They split Syria, and created Lebanon. And then between them, they...France got Syria and Lebanon, and the British got Palestine and Jordan. And over and above that, they promised Palestine as a land for the Jews, with very unclear phrasing, and, you know...unclear phrasing, so much so that even today, we're still of course, contesting the land.

So, this notion of Bilad Al-Sham now is irreversible. Now, we have nation states, instead of this great cultural space. And this loss is very...to me, it's very nostalgic, although I haven't lived it. I've read a lot about it, and I have a nostalgia for something. I don't know. It happens, right. You can do that.

And so it's irreversible now. And the creation of Israel, of course, had its consequences in, in this region. And we're still suffering of...from it, up until today.

Hummus is a...is the staple for everybody in this part of the world. Everybody. Defini...in, in Egypt, less so. In Egypt, they, they have another kind of staple, because Egypt is part of the Middle East, sort of...but definitely, hummus is a staple.

It's something we serve for lunch, for dinner, for breakfast, of course. And, and now of course, we serve it, you know, when we entertain, for brunches, with barbecues. It goes very well with barbecues. And, and I experiment a lot on different ways of serving it, and of spicing it.

I like to see that it has become international. I like to see that. You go to supermarkets abroad, you see hummus.

So...and so...I went to an Italian party, and there was hummus there, as a dip. So it's become international.

And this is how it 'should' be. Sharing. No boundaries, no lines, no, 'this is mine and this is yours', and I mean, we have to have enough self-confidence to share, and to admit that we share. Yeah.

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