Fadi Kattan

Fadi Kattan

London/Bethlehem: A delicious meal is an exchange, an articulation of the care and attention paid by the person who made it—and, before them, by those who have grown the produce needed to assemble each dish. In the company of others, another layer of exchange is added—between family and friends across the table. A shared meal provides rhythmic comfort and a moment of bonding. These layers of exchange imbue food with cultural significance and invest it with a capacity to communicate. A restaurant, then, can be about so much more than just eating well.  

I spoke with Franco-Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan in West London soon after his return from Palestine, where he was photographed at his home for this magazine. We met at Akub, his new restaurant  and the highly anticipated follow-up to Fawda, Kattan’s inaugural restaurant in Bethlehem, which he opened in 2016. It was clear that his passion for cooking comes from a deep understanding of how food connects people with tradition and with the natural world—and how culture is intricately bound with politics and the environment.

Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan

What are some classic dishes you love?

I have a passion for mansaf. Mansaf is served with a layer of bread, rice, rehydrated lemon juice, lemon. Laban jameed is a dry yogurt that comes from the Bedouin tradition. It’s salted and dried and you rehydrate it. And then large chunks of lamb meat that have cooked in a broth. And then, in that, yogurt. I think I could have that a few days a week without a problem. I love stuffed cabbage leaves and stuffed courgettes. Molokhia is an herb that’s called Jew’s mallow in English, because it came to the UK with the people of Jewish faith from Alexandria. We’re in the molokhia season now. Its green leaves are cooked in a broth with chicken or meat. It’s a very particular consistency—they get a bit gloopy. I like it with coriander and garlic. And you dry those leaves for your winter molokhia. This is the smell of my childhood. 

And what do you cook for yourself at home?

Well, up until Covid, often very simple things after a long day of work. Covid changed things because I got stuck at home for practically two years. I started cooking very traditional Palestinian food, and that’s something that’s stayed. I have two kitchens at home—one in the house, where I cook classic Palestinian food, and then my test kitchen that’s just outside the house, where I do tests for Akub and other projects—where I push the boundaries. The meals I cook the most at home are breakfasts. Fried eggs with sumac on top, practically every day.

Who do you share your home with, and do you gather to eat together? What kind of occasions bring you together to eat?

Often, my table at home brings together family, colleagues, and friends for a meal. Sometimes around the table, you would have someone working with me on Kassa, someone working on a cooking project, a wine maker, family from here or family visiting from abroad, and a few friends.

Tell me about the things you grow in your garden in Bethlehem.

I have a little garden where I grow my figs, my olives, my rosemary, my lavender, my roses. I use a lot of rose petals in Bethlehem in my cooking, my pomegranates, my bay leaves. Most of my citrus fruits. 

Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan
Fadi Kattan's Late-Night Labaneh recipe featured in Apartamento Cookbook #7: Late-Night Meals
Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan
Apartamento Cookbook #7: Late-Night Meals
Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan
Fadi Kattan's Late-Night Labaneh recipe featured in Apartamento Cookbook #7: Late-Night Meals

Tell me about the seasons in Palestine.

I don’t think in terms of the four seasons, rather the seasons of produce. So last month, we finished the season of apricots, which lasts for two and a half weeks. Now we’re getting started with figs. Fig trees have two seasons. You get those very pulpy, slightly savoury green figs, which we call dafour in Arabic. And then that same tree four or five weeks later will give the small, very sweet green and purple figs. There’s still a month and a half, at least, to go until we get proper figs here. But right now, we’re using watermelon—it is the beginning of the season in the UK and in Palestine. 

In my grandmother’s home, farmers would come to her house before they went to the market. They’d be carrying their produce of the day, and they would come to her first. Sometimes we’d go to her house, and she’d be like, ‘Oh, I just got the first oranges of the season’, and that would indicate what we were eating or cooking that day. And I think it’s important to go back to this.

Are there any special ingredients or equipment that you especially like, which you have in your personal kitchen?

Yes, definitely! For ingredients: sumac, za’atar, laban jameed, olive oil, Palestinian Dead Sea salt. For utensils: old spoons. I am obsessed with serving, saucing, and tasting with old silver or silver-plated spoons. Their shape, their weight in hand, are very different. I have some in every kitchen I work in.

What inspired you to open Akub, your new outpost in London?

I was approached by a group of investors who were interested in starting a Palestinian restaurant here. Mainly the Akub co-founder, Rasha Khouri. I know her father, and he put us in touch. But I’ve always thought London would be the best place to start something. There’s a very curious palette from diners.

Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan

It’s the first ‘modern Palestinian’ restaurant in London. Can you elaborate on that description?

Most of our cuisine is based around a large, shared dish that’s served at the table. It’s taking that into a restaurant setting, playing around with textures, with presentation, but also trying to keep the reminders of a traditional taste. It’s twists on Palestinian classics, with all of our fresh produce being locally sourced. There are adaptations; today we’re adding a new dish to the menu, which traditionally is done with prawns. We couldn’t find the prawns we were looking for in the UK, so we’re using langoustines because they’re fished locally. That’s the other ethos: We only source local produce. The things we do get from Palestine for Akub are the dry products. So, maftoul—the wheat grain—olive oil, almonds, freekeh. But everything that’s fresh is sourced locally. Most of our suppliers are small farmers, and everybody is sustainable. 

Do the things you source locally inspire the Akub menu?

Of course. The flavours I work with are Palestinian, but whatever local produce we have gives a tempo to the dish. For example, we have a dish called mafghoussa in Palestine. It’s a by-product of stuffed courgettes—what you do with the core is this mafghoussa, where you add yogurt and garlic. It’s not a dip, it’s a scooping dish. At Akub, we’ve added trombetta, because the person we work with for vegetables here was like, ‘What do you think of these?’ But I don’t make concessions in terms of taste. We’re not adapting Palestinian taste to London.

It’s important you don’t do that.

I think we’ve seen a switch in the last 10 or 15 years. It used to be that restaurants serving Chinese or Italian cuisine, for example, cooked food that was totally adapted to the local market. Today, people are curious to get a bit of an authentic taste—although I’m not a fan of this word ‘authentic’, because there are as many cuisines as there are people cooking.

Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan

In that case, tell me about your particular perspective and what has shaped it.

My first cooking experience was in my maternal grandmother’s kitchen. She was a fabulous cook. Her and my grandfather entertained a lot and were heavily influenced by Palestinian and French cuisine. She would mix and match, but never did fusion. 

Why the French?

My grandparents are Palestinians, but my maternal grandfather grew up in France. That was a quite heavy influence on that side. I really started finding out about textures in my grandmother’s kitchen. I remember the first tasks I was given to do were things like chopping fruit for a jam. And I still am heavily influenced by my mother’s cooking. I still call her and ask her about recipes. And then she tastes my version, and she usually approves. 

I trained formally in France.  At the time—20, 25 years ago—the French were really championing local produce. When I went back to Palestine, I realised that our restaurant scene was going very much towards ‘international’. Everybody had a cordon bleu, a club sandwich on their menu. And I left the industry for a while. I ended up being on the other side selling commercial kitchens, which is my family’s business. 

Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan

Can you share your thoughts on the connection between agriculture, land, and Palestinian identity? And is it something you were thinking about when you set up Fawda, your restaurant in Bethlehem?

Definitely. In Bethlehem, we have a set four-course menu that’s designed every day with whatever the farmers have brought us. Palestinian society is quite varied and diverse. But agriculture is an essential part of a lot of people’s lives. And the reality of occupation, of the lack of access to water or land because of the Israeli settlements, makes it 10 times more important. In Palestine, sustainability is not about just using water and resources correctly. It’s also about being able to make people more resilient simply by giving them a selling opportunity. For the restaurant, we don’t pre-order quantities. It’s my job to adapt to whatever the farmer has planted because it’s essential not to change people’s relation to the crop or towards the land. I mean, if you look outside [Fadi gestures towards the light-filled atrium at the back of Akub], there’s an olive tree. Over the last 75 years, Israel has systematically uprooted Palestinian olive trees, systematically burned down olive groves. I was giving a training session to the team yesterday and explaining that when we use a Palestinian olive oil, there’s a whole story of tradition, of presence, behind it. It’s the same with the Palestinian wines we import. There’s a story of resilience behind every producer. 

Some of those olive trees in Palestine are extremely old. They are an active part of contemporary agriculture, but they’re also symbolic of ancient Palestinian presence.

You know, the oldest olive trees in Palestine date from the Romans. If you look at the 530 or so Palestinian villages demolished around 1948 by Israel, one of the crops that still grows and is very resilient is the prickly pear. So, there are plants and trees in the country that are extremely symbolic. They tell a story of connection to that land. Today we’re in a position where people try to say, ‘Oh, but I was here first’, which I find totally ridiculous. Who cares about who was here first? It’s more about who’s living here now. And the tradition of agriculture indicates this. I mean, when you look at the little town of Battir, which has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has water canals from the Roman period, and the inhabitants of Battir have been there since at least the Roman period. There is that link to history and tradition through land and through the usage of land. 

We have a whole family of crops called ba’li. It means they are grown without additional water. So the tomatoes, the cucumbers, will be much more flavourful. These crops have adapted to the reality of the terroir. And that’s the story that has to be told. 

In 1977, the Palestinians were forbidden from picking wild za’atar by the Israeli authorities, who used the excuse of environmental protection. Now the question there is, does Israel have legitimacy over Palestinian land? No. There was a systematic attempt to try and cut that link between people and land. Today, culinary appropriation is happening. A lot of Israeli chefs use Palestinian produce and say it’s Israeli. Israel was created in 1948. Those native local herbs and trees have been there for centuries. It’s a question of narrative. 

What’s a good way to source Palestinian produce in London?

Zaytoun is an incredible distributor.

And you work with them to source dry goods for Akub?

Yes. They work with fabulous farmers. They work with women’s cooperatives. I’m totally biased because I do tastings for them in Palestine. But all the producers they work with are people that share our ethos. It’s not only about the produce. It’s about people and values. 

Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan
Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan

Are there a lot of restrictions in place on exports from Palestine?

The biggest restriction is actual access and movement. If you’re a producer in the West Bank, to be able to get your stuff to the Israeli ports or airports, you need to go through what they’re calling a ‘commercial crossing’, which is technically a military checkpoint with a scanning apparatus. Imagine if you were exporting vegetables and fruit, your produce has to be offloaded from the truck, scanned, and loaded into an Israeli plate on the other side. If you’re in the Jordan Valley and you’re exporting tomatoes, then they go into a refrigerated truck on your side. The average temperature in the Jordan Valley in summer is 40 degrees Celsius. The tomatoes are exposed to 40-degree temperatures, but are also exposed to an unknown, which is—when are they going to get scanned? Are they going to be scanned immediately? Are they going to be scanned in three hours? Five hours? It’s totally random. And then on the other side, it’s put back into a refrigerated container. What happens to the produce once it reaches the Israeli ports or airports? All Palestinian exports have to go through an extra security check. And again, that is random. It can take a day, it can take as much as a couple of weeks. When the exporter has his products at port, they’re paying storage fees. So that’s where we’re not equal in export. In terms of entry into the UK, it’s quite straightforward. It’s the exit out of Palestine that is the challenge, just like the exit of people. 

Tell me about the interior of Akub.

It was designed by Annie Harrison of FARE INC., a design studio in London. The idea was to try and create quite simple, pure lines. I can’t deal with kitsch at all. We tried to be within the colour palette of Palestine—those greens, those very earthy colours. The plates and cups are made by Palestinian ceramicists in Jaffa. Having a back courtyard in the restaurant creates a feeling of Palestinian outdoor dining. It’s a daylight infused space. It was essential to get this feeling of a homely place that is comfortable and where the colours are reflective of the Palestinian landscape.

The materials we have used—the marble, the coppery lamps—are very much in the tradition of Palestine. We are one of the largest stone producers in the world. And then you have our nice little keys up there. [Fadi gestures to a collection of large, metal keys that hang in decorative rows on the wall.] I mean, for anybody, keys are symbolic of home. But within the Palestinian context, keys are symbolic of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 who lost their homes. That idea of being a diasporic community is very present and linked to 1948 and 1967, two major events of displacement and forced exile.

Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan
Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan

Can you expand a little more on the outdoor dining traditions in Palestine?

A hosh is an open courtyard within a home. It’s close to the Moroccan idea of riad. You’re still within the comfort zone of a family, but you have that access to the outside. Today, less and less houses in Bethlehem have this, but the older ones do. Very often, you will have a couple of trees and pots in the courtyard and your table to eat at. At Fawda, there’s also a guest house which has a hosh. And we just opened a new boutique hotel with six rooms called Kassa, which also has a hosh. It’s a recurring theme, that need for an outside space. It’s how people live in Palestine—with the sun. It’s also where you would traditionally dry your tomatoes and season your okra, your molokhia. It’s part and parcel of the rhythm of life. 

I was wondering, are there regional variations in the food that would typically be eaten for iftar, when the daily fast of Eid is broken?

Definitely. Each region has a different influence. Gaza has a very strong influence from Africa. And so that’s where you will have dill and chillies being used for iftar or for Lent—you have to remember, in Palestine there are both Christians and Muslims. I think most people in Gaza break their fast with soup, which is usually spicy. They’ll have a tomato salad with dill seeds, fresh dill, chillies, and olive oil. And both Christians and Muslims will have it. The Christians will have it for lunch, because they’re not eating meat, and the Muslims will have it for iftar. If you serve that salad to somebody from the West Bank or from the north of Palestine, they’ll say, ‘Oh, but we don’t eat dill’. I’m like, ‘We do. But you’ve never been to Gaza because you can’t access it’. In Hebron, people eat a lot of lamb. One of the specialties for a feast of iftar would be stuffed lamb rib rack. But in Bethlehem, it’s more the stuffed vine leaves and courgettes. And then if you go up north to Nablus, it’ll be musakhan, which is roasted chicken with onions cooked in sumac, and bread. If you go to the coast, whether it’s Jaffa or Haifa or Akko, it’ll be more fish. All of those cuisines are inscribed very much in the local terroir. That’s what dictates it.

Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan

Thinking about Palestinian culture more broadly, are there specific writers, musicians, and filmmakers that you’d recommend?

Of course, everybody has to watch all of Elia Suleiman’s movies and Annemarie Jacir’s movies. There’s a fantastic film called Foragers by Jumana Manna, which is totally about everything we’ve talked about.

In terms of writers, I think this is the answer you’ll get from every Palestinian: Mahmoud Darwish was a national poet, and his writing is essential. But I think somebody like Susan Abulhawa, with her book Mornings in Jenin, is a very good introduction to the reality of Palestine. For French speakers, I would have to recommend my younger brother, Karim Kattan, who’s published two books, and his third is on the way.

In terms of music, Le Trio Joubran are three brothers. One lives in London, one in Paris and one in Palestine. They’re originally from Nazareth. That is the go-to Palestinian music. I very much enjoy a whole group of younger Palestinian musicians: Sama’ Abdulhadi , who’s a Palestinian techno DJ, and Tamer Nafar, who is one of our most vocal rappers. During the pandemic, there was an online radio station that was set up by a group of Palestinian architects in Bethlehem called Radio Alhara. I did a podcast for it at that time. They offer very good insight into Palestine because it’s not just music, but also a lot of very knowledgeable shows. Two of the founders, Elias and Yousef, are my first cousins. They’re working now on a cultural space called the Wonder Cabinet, which I am involved in, too.

In terms of visual artists, there’s a fabulous Palestinian painter who’s actually become more and more present here in the UK. Her name is Malak Matar. She’s from Gaza. I think the classic Palestinian painter is someone called Sliman Mansour—he’s older generation. The one I love—sadly, she passed away last year—is Laila Shawa. She was London-based. She was originally from Gaza and was a very, very courageous woman who worked to challenge social perceptions around occupation and Palestinian society. I wish I had the money to buy everything that’s left of her collection.

Apartamento Magazine - Fadi Kattan

Chef Fadi Kattan’s recipe Late-Night Labaneh is featured in Apartamento Cookbook #7: Late-Night Meals, together with 15 other recipes such as Yemisi Aribisala’s Alkaki and the Allegory of a Good Marriage, which you can also read and listen to here.

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