Books: The Palestinian Table by Reem Kassis and Mother Land by Paul Theroux
Get to grips with authentic Palestinian cooking
The Palestinian Table by Reem Kassis, photography by Dan Perez, published by Phaidon
WHILE foodies are au fait with Middle Eastern cuisine these days, in part thanks to the likes of London-based Israeli chef and writer Yotam Ottolenghi, and Iranian cookbook author Sabrina Ghayour, how much do you really know about Palestinian food?
Reem Kassis's new book The Palestinian Table is set to fill that gap, with recipes inspired by three generations of her family's cooking traditions.
Who will love it? Anyone interested in traditional, home-cooked family meals and is intrigued by Palestinian culture. Also, those who adore a good flat bread dredged and smothered with tasty toppings.
What is it trying to get us cooking? Palestinian food, and all the nuanced flavours that entails. Reem wants us to see it as a distinct cuisine, rather than just as Middle Eastern food (so much goes by that name these days).
How easy is it? Recipes range from the ridiculously easy (straining yoghurt for labaneh, frying eggs with sumac spice), to making decadent puddings (fenugreek semolina cake, shredded filo and cheese pie), and low and slow roasts and stews (rice-stuffed chicken and lamb, garlic and chickpea pilaf). Some of the spices may require a little hunting out (online spice shopping is doable though), but no dish seems impossible to create.
The best recipe is... The cauliflower fritters. Packed with spring onions, parsley and cumin, as well as Reem's favourite 'nine spice' mix, these are crisp, colourful and apparently great for brunch dunked in labaneh.
The recipe we're most likely to post pictures of on Instagram is... Baklawa; curls of golden filo pastry dusted with bright green pistachios and drizzled with syrup. Like, like, like.
The recipe we're least likely to try is... The stuffed grape leaves. Considered a grand celebratory dish, it looks super fiddly; you have to hand-stuff and roll 500g of vine leaves.
Usability? Not every recipe comes with a picture – when they do, the pictures have a slightly washed-out quality to them – and reading the ingredients lists at times requires a magnifying glass (so tiny), but the recipes themselves are straightforward to follow, if a little wordy.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Mother Land by Paul Theroux, published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton
THIS book is essentially a 500-page rant that could be summarised in a single sentence: "I came from a large, nasty, bitchy family – and my mother was the worst of us." It ought to come out as a confused mix of idle self-indulgence, yet it is, by turns, hilarious, infuriating, poignant and endlessly enthralling.
Jay Justus, the narrator, is a fading writer living out his last good years in the shadow of his ageing and yet indestructible mother, and in close and toxic proximity to his six siblings. Even in advanced middle age, the seven spend much of their time finding new ways to spite, denigrate and upstage each other. 'Mother' – as she is always called – is the cynical charmer of this viper's nest, forever playing favourites, dividing and conquering, and dispensing favours and punishments on a callous whim.
One daughter is secretly bequeathed the family house, one son gets a piece of land, while the self-pitying narrator gets nothing; Mother won't even read his novels. Meanwhile Floyd, the poet brother, writes a bitterly personal attack on Jay in the form of a book review, and Fred, the lawyer brother, accuses Mother's nurse (and Jay's girlfriend) of trying to steal Mother's things and edge her way into the will. "We were most loyal to Mother when we were being disloyal to each other," Jay tells us. "Mother feasted on failure."
Dad dies, Mother eventually enters a home, and the siblings must confront the indignities of ageing in their different ways too. What drives you on is the question: How much nastier will they get?
The scenes are often very funny and always deftly drawn. Mother is a clearly a nightmare, but Jay is spectacularly flawed himself. But he hides none of his failings from us, which only adds to the book's humour and humanity.
Theroux – travel writer and father of documentary-maker Louis Theroux – loves to sail very close to the wind in applying narrative licence to autobiographical detail, and in this book you feel he has really gone for it.
You may experience some initial queasiness at the thought of 500 pages of mum-bashing. But when the nastiness is this entertaining, the feeling soon passes.