Palestinian cuisine is having a moment. There’s a wave of new cookbooks, such as Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestinian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan and Joudie Kalla’s Baladi: A Celebration of Food from Land and Sea, documenting the diversity of flavours and techniques. Palestinian foodies on Instagram are going back to their roots, collecting lost and marginalised recipes, and holding pop-up dinners and food tours. And upscale restaurants are bringing a taste of the Palestinian plate to a wider clientele around the world, as detailed by Eater.
It looks like engine oil!
But food businessman Ala Tamam doesn't think the world is quite ready yet for his favourite Palestinian gem: qizha, also pronounced with a silent ‘q’ as izha, a richly bitter and pungent shiny black paste of roasted nigella seeds with just a hint of sweet creaminess that surprises all the senses.
Tamam, who is from the Palestinian city of Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has been making tahini (or tahina as it’s called in Arabic) a sesame-seed paste, along with qizha in his family’s factory since childhood. Now he can’t live without it. He also knows that due to qizha’s richly dark look and sharp taste, people either love it – or hate it.
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Tamam seemed relieved to learn that I was ‘Team Qizha’ from the first bite.
“I used to take it with me to England when I was a student,” he said. “And a very nice lady from Helsinki came to me and she saw me eating this nigella [paste] and she said, ‘Oh my god. What … are you eating? It looks like engine oil!’.”
His eyes twinkled as he recalled her reaction. Undeterred, he’s been working to popularise this uniquely beloved part of the Palestinian palate ever since.
Nigella seeds are indigenous to Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as other countries like Turkey and India. They are also called black cumin seeds, among other names. But while many cuisines put the seeds in bread or even cheese, Palestinians are known for roasting and grinding them with sesame seeds (the latter are needed in the mix for their higher oil content, Tamam said). The thick, ink-like paste is then traditionally mixed with honey or date syrup to make a spread, or used as a base for halwa (or halva), a sesame seed-based crumbly confection, and other desserts, like a dense, dark and bittersweet semolina qizha pie.
In Arabic, nigella seeds are called habbat al baraka, or ‘seeds of blessing’. According to tradition, the Prophet Muhammad proclaimed that the seeds could cure anything except for death. Modern science, as explained by The Telegraph, has attributed a superfood-like status to nigella seeds as a possible factor in reducing cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes, among other ailments.
The old people eat a spoon of it each day so they won’t get sick
“The old people eat a spoon of it each day so they won’t get sick,” explained Ischak Jebrani, who runs a tahini factory in Jerusalem’s Old City, which his family has owned for nearly 150 years. As a child, Jebrani’s mother used to mix the qizha with olive and sesame oils and grape syrup, warm it up, and then top it with chopped nuts. He still swears by its health benefits.
Jebrani only makes qizha paste once a month, while he roasts and grinds sesame seeds for tahini daily. He says that’s because qizha is consumed less than tahini, which can be used in a wider array of dishes from hummus to salad dressing to cookies.
“Qizha doesn't have that many customers, just the people who know about it,” he said.
Tamam’s tahini factory, Karawan, is right outside of Nablus, which is renowned among Palestinians for its sweet foods and as the source of the best tahini – and its sibling, qizha.
He attributes qizha’s lower visibility to people being turned off by the colour and taste. The lower demand in turn makes it harder to scale and more expensive to produce in larger quantities.
When Tamam shows qizha at exhibitions in Israel and elsewhere, people “love it”, he said. “But it's not breaking the glass yet. It's really [almost] there. They like it. But the colour is holding it back... it’s not easy to accept it. As a colour, it’s really hard to eat it unless you know it.”
Several years ago, when I purchased the paste in Nablus and sent a container home to family in the US to taste, they reacted just as Tamam feared: they looked at it, couldn’t place the flavour, decided it must have become rotten and threw it out. But once you get past the shock of the first bite, it’s an addictive experience for many.
Tamam has been in the tahini business all his life. In more recent years, he’s seen global interest spread as people have become more accustomed to it.
“You know, tahini now has a reputation, so even chefs globally are trying to think of things to do with this thing,” he said. “But nigella is not there yet. And I think it’s going to be hard for nigella to get there.”
But it’s not just the fear of trying something new that’s holding qizha back, said Joudie Kalla, the Palestinian chef and cookbook writer.
“Palestinian food has been represented a lot as Israeli,” Kalla said. “No-one pays a lot of attention to our food until an Israeli chef cooks it, and it makes it cool and trendy, unfortunately.”
It’s just about breaking the fear of trying something different
All of this, plus limitations – such as access to agricultural and economic resources – due to the generations-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kalla believes, is part of why Palestinian dishes like qizha have not grown in greater prominence. Physically and politically cut off from many markets, qizha has thus, so far, had a limited reach.
“There are many good benefits to our cuisine,” Kalla said. “It’s just about breaking the fear of trying something different.” Kalla hopes that, despite these barriers, more people will try qizha and decide for themselves.
Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.
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