Let me tell you the story of this za’atar jar

Image Credit: Stefan Tomic on iStock

Amina Awartani invites you to her table and unveils the magic of Palestinian food as a storyteller.

As a Palestinian immigrant, I was no stranger to finding large canisters and boxes strewn haphazardly across our kitchen floors. “What’s all this?” I’d ask my dad, “That’s our haul for the season” he would respond casually. He would then methodically unpack first the fresh olive oil, then the za’atar, the cheese, and whatever else was sent to us this time. 

Without fail, every time, my dad would excitedly open the canister of olive oil first, grab a freshly baked piece of bread and dip it in to taste. “Nothing beats olive oil from your homeland”, he would say. Like most immigrants, my parents found leaving behind everything they considered familiar to be extremely trying. But amidst all that change, the one thing that had always kept them connected with their home was food. It was important to my parents that the taste of home was never lost, and that we grew up knowing what non-mass-produced olive oil tasted like. I don’t think I fully understood why that was until I left home to study abroad last year.

It was important to my parents that the taste of home was never lost.

For some, food is simply nutrition, nothing more. For others, it is about keeping up with viral food trends. For most, it is about experiencing something that is both flavorful and satisfying. Food, however, carries a weight that many of us take for granted. Food is a storyteller, food is a historian, and food is a peacekeeper. Look at the beloved British snack, Jaffa Cakes, whose name comes from the region of Jaffa (in Arabic: Yaffa) in Palestine. During the British mandate era of Palestine, the British were introduced to the oranges of Yaffa that were at the time one of the main exports of that region. My dad has told me stories about eating some, and he describes them as oranges unlike any other, known for their sweetness. These oranges then made their way back to England, where they were turned into the beloved snack many of you enjoy with your afternoon tea today.

My dad has told me stories about eating some, and he describes them as oranges unlike any other, known for their sweetness.

Take another example, the “simple Arabic Salad”, a dish of cucumbers and tomatoes tossed with parsley, olive oil, and lemon (give or take a few runaway chopped onions) whose sole intention was to provide refreshment to Palestinian farmers as they worked in the fields all day. Nowadays better known to the Western world as “Israeli salad”, this simple Arabic salad - still referred to as salat aravi or “Arab salad” in Israel - tells the story of cultural erasure by the Israeli occupation. 

According to food writer Reem Kassis, the occupation adopted this salad as Israeli, along with other Palestinian street foods like hummus, falafel, or kunafeh, to connect with the land they occupied. This is because the dishes most popular in Palestinian cuisine are the direct result of the ingredients harvested from the land. A land with which the occupation demanded a connection, even if it meant adopting food that was never theirs to begin with.

It is because of this tradition of harvesting ingredients for dishes, that Palestinian cuisine is so diverse. No better example of this can be seen than in the difference between the West Bank cuisine and the Gazan cuisine in Palestine, born out of the lack of proximity of these areas to each other. While traditional Palestinian dishes like Maqloubeh, Freekeh, and Khoubeizeh can be found in both areas (many Gazans are refugees from the West Bank), Gazan cuisine is distinct in its use of spices, tomato bases, and, due to their proximity to the sea, a lot of fish. This comes in contrast with cuisine in the West Bank which relies more so on earthy herbs, ghee, and grains paired with red meat or chicken.

These are dishes I grew up eating daily, never understanding why my mom would joke and say, “This is the taste of Palestine.” I didn’t realize why it mattered to them that we know that, or why it mattered that I took a jar of fresh Palestinian za’atar with me as I packed to study abroad. But as my fellow students and friends ate the pastries I’d made from that za’atar, and listened to me intently as I regaled them with stories about my family’s annual food haul from Palestine, I understood. Food is not just nourishment, food is home.