A Palestinian Cooking Class

“My husband; he has been in jail three times,” says Sana, as she shows us how to squeeze out aubergines. 

“The saltwater helps to stop them soaking up too much oil,” she explains, before drying off the eggplant slices and dropping them into a vat of sizzling hot vegetable oil. 

The 49-year-old mother-of-five is showing us how to make maqlubeh, a traditional Palestinian dish of meat, rice and vegetables flipped upside down – ‘upside down’ is the literal translation of the Arabic word.  

Four of us are stood in her modern, well-equipped kitchen, eager to learn. It’s the kind of kitchen-diner-come-living-space you could find anywhere, except for the large gas canister hooked up to the stove.

And from the window, across the tops of the unfinished buildings, we can see the separation barrier and two Israeli watchtowers. Sana’s kitchen is in Aida Refugee Camp, on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the West Bank. The camp is bordered on one side by the Israeli-West Bank barrier; ‘The Wall’. 

While preparing the veg – potatoes, cauliflower and aubergine – talk has turned to her husband. There’s a picture of him on the fridge, in his younger days, with Yasser Arafat.  

“He’s an activist,” she says, matter-of-factly, measuring out rice by eye into a blue plastic washing up bowl. Reading between the lines is not hard; this is par for the course. 

We’ve already covered her background as a former nurse, while we learnt how to wash chicken (using lemon juice, olive oil, flour and salt). And as she chops onions in her hands (no chopping boards here!) she tells us how her family came originally from a small village outside of Hebron, but were forced to move in 1948. She was born in the camp and has always lived here. 

Her husband has another, normal job (he’s a social worker), but is also a political activist. He spends his spare time campaigning against the occupation, and sometimes gets arrested. 

The talk flits between the Israeli prison system and how best to prepare aubergines (peeled, and then soaked in saltwater). 

Maqlubeh was, I thought, a one-pot dish. Not so much. The two-hour preparation explains why this Palestinian favourite is usually cooked for special occasions. The chicken has been thoroughly cleansed and simmered in spices; vegetables carefully prepared and deep-fried; and the rice soaked, with more spices. 

“We used to do it always on a Friday,” she explains, “when all the family was home.”

Finally, it is assembled in one huge pot, topped up with chicken stock (just up to the first knuckle of your first finger), covered and left to simmer on the gas hob for 40 minutes or so. 

It allows plenty of time for chatting. 

We are assigned to chop tomatoes, cucumbers and parsley for the salad, as Sana starts another maqlubeh, twice the size, for her family’s lunch. I had no idea pots that size existed. 

All the while, in her easy-going, open manner, she is happy to answer our questions about living in the refugee camp, life under Israeli occupation, her career as a nurse and her hopes for her family, as well as her husband’s three stints in jail. 

We meet her eldest daughter; she has a law degree, but says there are not many opportunities if she wants to stay close to her family. She comes with her husband and their tiny baby, just a few weeks old. 

“She has only made this dish twice,” says Sana, nodding towards her daughter. It seems everyone still comes home to eat mama’s maqlubeh. 

We also meet Sana’s youngest. He arrives home from school and walks straight through the kitchen and into his bedroom; a scene familiar to many parents. His mother calls after him and he comes to say a coy hello.

Finally, it’s time to eat. Sana pops a huge platter over the top of the pot and in one swift movement, turns the whole thing upside down. The steaming mound of yellow rice and chicken is the table centrepiece, and we tuck in. 

“It’s better to eat it hot and fresh,” our host tells us. We eat it with yogurt and the salad we had prepared earlier, and the chatting stops.  This is Palestinian comfort food at its best.

After our lunch, Sana has to dash to her volunteering job – she is a translator with medical knowledge for Volunteer Palestine, an organisation which brings experts from overseas to live and work in the camp, so they can share their expertise. 

She’ll be back later to finish the second maqlubeh, and eat with her growing family. 

More info about this experience…

Cooking at Aida Refugee Camp is organised by Volunteer Palestine. The three-hour experience includes lunch, and if there are any leftovers you can take them home with you! It costs 175ILS per person. For more information contact info@volunteerpalestine.com.

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