You Can’t Cheat Vegetables: An Interview with Joudie Kalla
London-based chef and author Joudie Kalla was kind enough to take a break between events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to answer some questions about her award-winning cookbook, Palestine on a Plate, talk about her future plans, and—of course—recommend a couple great reads.
I know from experience that the flavors of staple ingredients in the Middle East can be different from the versions available in this part of the world. Can you tell me about adapting your mother’s Palestinian recipes to ingredients available in the UK?
I think the best way to do it is just to maybe add more spice and more sauce, because the fruits and vegetables here are just not the same. They look the same, but the flavour is just not. I mean, a tomato back home is not like a tomato here. They look red but when you eat them, they taste white. Does that make any sense? So you just have to add more to it. More garlic, more onion, or spice or whatever. And that's how I sort of get away with it, and I think that's really the simplest and most honest answer. You can't really cheat vegetables, they're what you get. They're very watery here. So you'd have to make it more intense in another way.
Palestine on a Plate began as a gorgeous Instagram account. Is it important to you that every dish you serve is as beautiful as your Instagram?
Yes! Most of the things you see are not styled. It's food that we've made at home. It's not that I'm sitting there and making something perfect for Instagram; Instagram comes by accident. I'm like "Ah, don't put your hand in there, I need to take a photo!" Initially, when I first started, I wasn't working as much and I was taking time out to write the book, so I had to think about how to make things look good, and then I thought: that's not how I live my life, I'm not going to fake it. It was only for about 20 posts and then I thought, my life is too short to take a photo for Instagram. But it just so happens that we eat like this. My mum—I go to her house a lot—she takes a lot of time in presenting her food well. She'll never just slop anything on a dish. She'll spend as much time making it look good as much as she did making it. Presentation is always important. You eat with your eyes first, and then with your stomach, so we're very much in this kind of mentality.
When you’re not making Palestinian food, what kind of cuisine do you enjoy cooking?
I think, if I'm not Palestinian, I'd probably be Japanese. I love Japanese cuisine, everything about it. I think I eat Japanese food because of the soya sauce. And I think, really that's why I eat it. But I love Asian food, all the spices and garlic, and especially the soya sauce and fish. It's just a very healthy, clean-eating diet, so when I'm not eating Palestinian food, I'm 99% eating some sushi somewhere.
I’ve read that you haven’t yet been to Palestine, but are hoping to now that you have a UK passport. Is there a trip on the horizon?
Yes, definitely. I met this really lovely Israeli journalist. She came to London to meet me. I sort of spoke about this possibility before, obviously she has connections with people. And you know, wasta ("it's who you know")– you need to know someone and she's told me she's helped other Palestinian people, chefs, writers as well, and that anytime I wanted to come I just had to give her a heads-up and she'd arrange a guaranteed entry. And I think obviously because my book has had a bit of tension—it's been banned in Israel now—it's a little bit... let's see. I'll let you know when I get in! I think I'll definitely be there in the next year. I want to see it, I want to smell all the things that I've been dreaming of. I have a very romantic idea of what Palestine is, and I hope it is that. I'm sure there are some spaces that are stuck in time, which I hope I get to see.
I read an interview where you were asked what “Palestinian food” means. In your reply you mentioned that you don’t like to get into the politics. How do you respond to people reading politics into your cookbook?
Yes, it is political if you're looking at it in that why. While my book was received very well by lots of publishers, they did not want to publish it if the title stayed the same, and it was not negotiable for me. I didn't write this book just to be lost in hundreds of other Middle Eastern books, and I didn't write it to make an attack on anything. It's just who I am, I wanted it to be in print, and the name meant something to me. I didn't want to write a book and name it something like "Sugar, Blossom, and Roses" or whatever, which is great, but it's not who I am. I wanted to give a voice to us, in a different way. I'm not a political person in the sense that I don't know every detail about what's happening, I know lots of things, but I don't want to take that role. I want to be a food person, bringing attention to us, and that we're like everyone else—we eat, we like good things and to have good times. So I hope in that sense that it does come across. Yes, people are frustrated by it. But at the end of the day, it's a cookbook, and it's about us, and if someone has an issue with it, it's their issue, not mine.
Your second cookbook is a work in progress. What’s the status? And what can you tell me about the recipes?
Whatever's missing in the first book is in the second book. That's what I can tell you about the recipes. Whatever you think is not there is in the second, and then some. It's a work in progress, I've been working on it for quite some time. Very interactively actually, with people online, asking what they want to see in the book. Obviously I have a list of things that are definitely going to be in there, but there are things that I didn't even think of, because we didn't eat them often at home or I'm not familiar with them at all. So I've done some research and learnt how to make some things. If they work, they're coming in, if not, I'm not going to put something I'm not confident in or that wouldn't be easy to be replicated by other people. But it's been a joint effort with all these lovely 60,000 people that interact. If it keeps going to plan, it will be out next September. I can't tell you the name right now, but I wish I could. It's just one word and it means everything to me.
What's a book that people who know you would be surprised to know that you love?
I don't know about "surprised." I think people know me, or even if they don't know me, I am who I am. I love romance books. Elif Shafak's book, The Forty Rules of Love, just killed me. I saw that quite a lot of people got upset that it was about a male relationship, and I found it to be the deepest love ever. I wanted that kind of love. I love those kind of books. I'm reading another book called The Rules of Love, it's a sort of guide to sort of living your life. I'm very romantic, I believe in life, love, and not just relationship love, but the love for life and for ourselves, and people, and just want everything to be good. So I try to go into these types of stories, because it's not real, as much as we want it to be. All of my sisters, my parents are like this. My parents are always singing Fairouz in the car and they're the worst singers, but they sing with their hearts out, you know? I think it's a good way to live. The world is quite sad and depressing, especially in these times. You see the news all over, and it's good to escape into those things, and I'm happy to be there.
50% of proceeds from sales of Palestine on a Plate go to The Palestinian House of Friendship, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization in Palestine, dedicated to serving the needs of children, youth and families.
You can buy your copy, with free international shipping, here.