Fadi Kattan: “My book won’t liberate Palestine, but it may get people asking more questions”

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Franco-Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan on his new cookbook Bethlehem and preserving Palestinian cuisine

Related tags Fadi Kattan Akub Palestine Restaurant Chef Cookbook

Amid the ongoing bombardment of his country, Franco-Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan is out to celebrate the breadth of his nation’s cuisine with his debut cookbook Bethlehem.

“Bethlehem is somewhere that everyone knows, but nobody knows,” says Fadi Kattan, reflectively. The Franco-Palestinian chef is in a thoughtful mood. We’re sat at a quiet corner table on the first floor of Akub, Kattan’s London restaurant, discussing the origins of his newly-published cookbook Bethlehem​, which centres on the eponymous Palestinian city in the Israel-occupied West Bank where he was born and raised.

“I come from a Christian family,” he continues. “And what I find shocking is that every Christmas churches around the world stop to celebrate my city, but nearly all of them couldn’t point it out on a map. Someone needs to tell the story.”

At any time, Kattan’s book would feel significant. Bethlehem is one of the most ancient and storied cities in the world and yet, as Kattan points out, to many of us it remains an enigma: “A city famous the world over, yet often only seen through the eyes of the pilgrims passing through it,” as he writes in his book.

For it to be published now, though, amid one of the most devastating chapters in the Israel-Hamas war, carries an extra weight.

“Bethlehem is somewhere that everyone knows, but nobody knows”

Bethlehem​ was written and on its way to the printers long before the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October last year, which subsequently led to the sustained and brutal bombardment of the Palestinian territory of Gaza. Kattan knows the timing of the book’s publication could be viewed cynically but pushes back at such a suggestion, noting that it’s not something he would have had the power to stop. “I’ve wondered a lot in recent months about how I can talk of having a book come out when my people are being massacred. But I do think we’re at a moment where a lot of people don’t realise who Palestinians are and attach one image to Palestine that’s been fabricated.”

He goes on to recount a story of a recent incident on the streets of London where a man verbally abused him for wearing a scarf in Palestinian colours. “He told me that we’re all going to burn,” he continues, with a weary sigh. “That’s why I need to have a book out. Because there are people who think Palestinians are a devil, and this needs to be challenged.”

Showing the ‘real Bethlehem’

Split into four extensive chapters, one for each season, Bethlehem ​features around 60 recipes – some based on Kattan’s own improvisations, and others passed down from his late grandmother and his mother, both of whom he credits with discovering his love of cooking. They include cheese-stuffed grape leaves; roasted lamb seasoned with fenugreek and cardamom; and braised chard with tahinia.


The journey to publishing the book begun some two and a half years ago. The fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic had recently forced Kattan to close his restaurant Fawda, which he had launched in the heart of Bethlehem's Old City back in 2016; plans for Akub, the Notting Hill restaurant he would eventually open in early 2023​, had yet to materialise.

“I was doing a lot more writing at the time,” explains Kattan. “They included a few recipes and stories for Palestinian blogs, and some more audacious pieces that were being published in Los Angeles.

“The idea of a book had always been there, but I had to think about how I take people on a journey through Bethlehem. I live there. It’s not like I have a place in London and go back there from time to time, I am there most of the year. I breath it every day, and so I had to work out how to show it to people.”

Kattan had previously received international praise for his ability to explore the culinary history of the city through a contemporary lens at Fawda, and so it proved to be the perfect jumping off point for his book. “When I was cooking at Fawda, I would leave my kitchen and go speak to guests. Many of them were tourists there to see the main historical sites, but that didn’t include the food markets, the bakeries and spice shops that to me are the essence of Bethlehem. So, I would offer to take them with me the next day and tell them the story of the real Bethlehem.”

As such, the book’s recipes are interspersed by stories and profiles of the local farmers and artisans based in and around Bethlehem who make up the city’s gastronomic tapestry. They include Abu Hussein, owner of the West Bank Salt Company, which produces salt harvested from the Dead Sea; Bethlehem-based butchers the Natsheh brothers; and ‘queen of herbs’ Um Nabil.


“Chefs have a tendency to think we’re the uber creators, the gods of the kitchen, but we’re not,” says Kattan. “The day our artisans and farmers stop, good luck making a good meal. They’re the ones doing the hard work; they’re linked to the land and the seasons. They’re the risktakers and the preservers, and we owe it to them to champion them when we can.

“This book tells stories of the diversity of Palestinians. It’s also a guide to Bethlehem. It’s what I would tell people if they said they were going tomorrow and wanted information on where to go and what to.”

Preserving Palestinian cuisine

The decision to focus exclusively on Bethlehem for the book was made early on. “I could have celebrated all of Palestine in the book, but I didn’t want to,” says Kattan, noting that he had already explored this through a YouTube series he hosted called Teta’s Kitchen, which was made in partnership with The Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy (PIPD). “There was talk of turning that series into a cookbook,” he adds. “But the time wasn’t right, and I still don’t think it is.”

Structuring the book seasonally was another initial decision. “It was the right approach. Food in Bethlehem is extremely seasonal, and it’s nice to show the city in its different shapes and moments of the year. The place you see at Christmas is very different to one in spring.”

Kattan describes Palestinian cuisine as being split into three main terroirs: the coast, inland, and the desert. “Palestinian cuisine, to me, is a celebration of our terroirs. The challenge of defining it is that it’s the only cuisine where people are not honest.”

He references the story of the Jaffa orange groves included in the book. His paternal grandparents once owned several acres of orange groves in Jaffa and Bethlehem ​includes an image of the ownership documents family had for the land. “The relationship with the land is built into the memory of its people,” Kattan writes. “Jaffa oranges, most notably the Shamouti variety, famous for their vivid colour and sweetness, are part of our rich history and heritage. The oranges were internally exported and were for decades a source of great pride and wealth.”

However, the family’s groves were, in Kattan’s words, ‘confiscated’ by Israel in 1948; a moment in history that continues to carry a lot of pain. “I’m tired of people telling me Jaffa is in Israel,” he says. “It is today because it was occupied.”


One of the signature dishes Kattan’s paternal grandmother used to make was an orange givrée, which the chef has subsequently used on his menus including for a Palestinian dinner series he held at chef residency restaurant Carousel in London prior to the launch of Akub. The dish, which paired the givrée with a pistachio ice cream, was simply named the ‘Jaffa orange’. During one service, a diner challenged Kattan on the name and in a heated exchange insisted Jaffa to be part of Israel.

For Kattan, episodes like this are reflective of what he calls a ‘programmed erasure’ of Palestinian identity. With Bethlehem​, he clearly hopes to challenge this. “Originally, I wanted to share more recipes and focus more on that over the stories, but now my feelings have changed.

“The worst thing I’ve seen since October last year isn’t the people taking sides, it’s those I know and have worked with around Palestine in the past who have remained silent or just paid basic lip service.

“This is a human drama, not a football match. You don’t have to support our side, but you need to be clear that it’s not ok to commit a genocide. More than 33,000 people have been killed and that’s ongoing.

“Food, for me, shouldn’t be militant. My book will not liberate Palestine, but it may get people to start asking questions beyond it.”

Opening Akub

Competing with Kattan as he speaks is the buzz of Akub’s busy lunch service. Plates of labaneh balls, mafghoussa (a dish of squashed courgette with garlic yoghurt, pine nuts and mint), and bukjet mousakhan (a combination of chicken, onion and sumac served in a baked bread parcel) emerge from the kitchen, paired with a succession of Palestinian wines.

Kattan opened Akub with his business partner Rasha Khouri. Housed within a converted Notting Hill townhouse, the restaurant takes its name for the Arabic word for a cardoon and is described as 'celebrating the under-represented rich culinary history of Palestine'. It has been a success with both diners and critics with The Standard​’s Jimi Famurewa describing it as ‘a meaningful act of cultural preservation’.

“Food, for me, shouldn’t be militant. My book will not liberate Palestine,
but it may get people to start asking questions beyond it”

The decision to open in London came from Khouri, but from the start Kattan was sold on the idea. “I first worked here 25 years ago,” he says. “Back then something like Akub wouldn’t have worked, but now people are curious and they’re daring. I could see that when I visited with Rasha and that reassured me about it being the right place to open a restaurant.”

Since October, Kattan and Khouri have introduced a series of charity dinners to raise money for Gaza, as well as monthly supper clubs to celebrate the country’s food suppliers, with a percentage of money from the events also being donated to charities including Medical Aid Palestine and the Amos Trust.

“As chefs, we have a social responsibility. We don’t cook in a vacuum. And when we’re seeing a whole population starved by force, it’s very important that we’re conscious of this.”

Finding hope

Kattan describes the exercise of recipe writing as one of the main learning curves when writing Bethlehem​. “I learnt that writing recipes for people rather than chefs is a very different exercise,” he says, with an almost mischievous smile. “I don’t go into details usually, but here you have to. What’s interesting is that now that feeds into my recipe writing for the restaurant.”

The process also allowed him to simplify his recipes. All that appear in the book, which include many of Akub’s signature dishes, are designed to be accessible, with preparation times kept to under an hour. “The end goal is to have people cooking Palestine. I don’t want there to be all these elaborate recipes that are specialised and take ages.”


While Bethelehem​’s publication comes amid a period of great suffering for his country, Kattan hopes the book will be seen as a celebration, even if there have been times, in recent months, where he has forgotten this himself. “One thing this process has showed me is how proud people from Bethlehem are of their city. It’s telling their story and so many people have told me how moved they are by it.

“When you’re in a region suffering as Bethlehem is right now, with the occupation and war, people forget that that pride exists. And I was one of them. I’ve learnt to be fair in acknowledging the privilege I have living in Bethlehem.

“There’s so many in the diaspora who have a different relationship with the city, often built on nostalgia, and what this book is doing is giving them that hope that it hasn’t disappeared. It’s not a history book or preservation book: it’s a cookbook, and it’s alive.”

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