Perhaps a little off-putting for vegetarians, this joke does have a point.
Anyone privileged to share a meal in a Palestinian home will not be allowed the leave the table until they’re stuffed. Despite the fragile Palestinian economy and the Israeli checkpoints which prevent most Palestinians from getting around, most West Bank cities present numerous opportunities to sample the culinary side of Palestinian culture.
Starting the day usually involves a pick-and-mix breakfast incorporating pita bread, hummus, labneh (thick yogurt widely used as a dip or spread), olives, olive oil with za’atar (dried thyme with sesame seeds and sumac) and sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. More luxurious versions might include fried eggs, grilled hallum cheese (like Cypriot halloumi) and fuul, a hot or cold dish of beans cooked with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil.
If you’re eating on the hoof, lunch will probably mean felafel or shawirma. You’ll find cafes or stands selling these in all cities, most towns and in street markets, especially those by checkpoints where people may have a long wait ahead of them.
If your image of felafel is the dried-up, greasy brown ball often presented as a veggie option in Western restaurants, think again. Freshly-made felafel from Efteem on Manger Square in Bethlehem or the cafes in and around Hebron’s souq are plump, fragrant chickpea rounds, the inside green with fresh parsley, the outside fried golden crisp, served with garnishes – fried eggplant, hot sauce, yogurt, pickles and fresh salads.
Travellers can be confident about eating salads here: standards of food hygiene are good, and in ten years of working and travelling in the West Bank I’ve never managed to get a stomach upset.
Less vegetarian-friendly fast food includes shawirma – slivers of meat cooked on a vertical spit and sliced off to order. In the West Bank, you may be lucky enough to find this served in markouk, vast tasty rounds of very thin bread cooked over a big metal dome.
Busy cities like East Jerusalem and Ramallah also have street vendors selling skewers of lamb kebab hot off the grill. Both are also home to an excess of chicken-and-chip joints, only worth visiting if you’re a homesick KFC fan.
In Ramallah, which has a cosmopolitan feel stemming from nearby Bir Zeit University and the numerous NGO, press and diplomatic staff, there are also cafes offering less traditional options. Perhaps most worth visiting is Stars & Bucks, sitting several storeys above Manara Square and with some great views of the city. It’s a good place to explore dishes like manakeesh, a flat bread topped with various combinations of cheese, vegetables and za’atar. Like many Palestinian cafes it also does a great range of non-alcoholic drinks – milkshakes, smoothies, frappes and fancy teas and coffees.
For those with a sweet-tooth, Palestinian food is heaven. Whether you’re visiting a family or attending an NGO briefing, sweet tea with fresh mint or thick, sweet black Turkish coffee will almost certainly be served.
If you’re lucky, you’ll also get baklava or other traditional pastries and biscuits. You can buy great sweet and savoury pastries at bakeries in Nablus, Ramallah and on Salah Eddin Street in East Jerusalem.
If you’re very lucky – or if you’re in the souqs of Nablus or Jerusalem – you’ll encounter Kanafeh.
Especially associated with Nablus, this sweet, hot, stretchy cheese baked under crispy vermicelli and doused in hot sugar syrup is filling, tooth-destroying and delicious. The best place for it is the al-Aqsa Cafe in Nablus, where it’s made in metre-wide trays which empty almost before they hit the serving counter.
During evening meals in traditional Palestinian restaurants, or lavish meals for guests in family homes, the country’s cuisine really shines. Such meals generally start with a selection of starters similar to those at breakfast, as well as mouttabal and baba ganoush (dips made with roasted eggplant), imam bayildi (eggplant stewed with tomatoes), kibbeh (balls of cracked wheat stuffed with meat) and a vast array of other dishes.
Just as you think you’ve eaten a creditable quantity and can relax before a small coffee, the main course arrives. This might be grilled meats (often lamb, or shish tawouk – tender cubes of marinated chicken). But if possible, go for traditional dishes you might not find elsewhere, such as mussakhan (chicken, onions and sumac baked on flat bread), maklouba (rice with lamb, nuts and vegetables), bamiah (okra, often stewed slowly with lamb) or qidreh (spiced rice with lamb).
Vegetarians, look out for mujuddarah – a rice, lentil and caramelised onion dish which is much more exciting than it sounds.
Unsurprisingly, dessert is rare; most people head straight for coffee and, perhaps, a nargila (a tall water and tobacco pipe).
The best restaurants to experience this kind of meal include the Citadel in Beit Sahour, the al-Saraya or the Yasmeen Hotel in Nablus, or the Philadelphia on Azzahra Street in East Jerusalem (an institution which dates back to the era of Jordanian control and has photos of 1950s celebrity diners on the wall).
For a contemporary take on Palestinian cooking, the Askadinya in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood does innovative things with traditional ingredients. The delicious results mean that booking is often essential.
And, lest you thought that Palestinians always want local cuisine when they go out, there are other cultural options. Bethlehem boasts a reasonable Mexican (the Mariachi at the Grand Hotel), although the burritos, made with markouk bread, take a little getting used to. Ramallah has decent pizzas at Pronto or La Strada, and an interesting Chinese restaurant.
The majority religion in Palestine is Islam, which accounts for the wonderful range of fresh juices, mint lemonade and other non-alcoholic drinks you’ll find.
But the significant Christian minority means that in Bethlehem, Ramallah and East Jerusalem you can find alcohol. The best beer is Taybeh, a mellow, rich golden lager named after the small village outside Ramallah where it’s brewed to German purity laws.
The monks of Cremisan in Bethlehem have been making wine for centuries – it’s found in numerous restaurants and shops in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Some hotels and restaurants in these three cities also sell imported spirits and, for the brave, jet-fuel local arak.
Traveling to the Middle East? Our Middle East Focus Page has all Matador articles about the area centralized for your perusing pleasure.