MARCH 5, 2018

Cookbook Review: Olives, Lemons & Za’atar

It seems many of the most memorable cookbooks by restaurant owners read and look like generous invitations not only to their restaurant tables but also to the tables of their childhood memories.

Rawia Bishara, owner of the acclaimed Middle-Eastern restaurant Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn offers us just such an invitation. She begins her cookbook Olives Lemons & Za’atar: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking (Kyle Books 2014) by telling us that her name, Rawia, means storyteller in Arabic. “I was born into a food-loving Palestinian-Arab family in Nazareth, a beautiful town in southern Galilee. Though the words ‘organic,’ ‘locovore,’ and ‘sustainable’ were unknown then, my parents’ approach to food and cooking qualified on all counts. They were ‘foodies’ before the word was coined.”

The rest of the cookbook follows as a stunningly colorful Mediterranean family photo album capturing Rawia’s dual tributes to her homeland in Nazareth, and to her mother, Monita Hanna. She was “an impressive and enthusiastic cook who whipped together meals for the seven of us…though she was influenced by the cooking traditions of her native Galilee, her approach was not rigidly authentic. She understood the value of bending the rules when it came to cooking, a practice we relished at the dinner table.” Each recipe in the cookbook recounts in some way this hearkening back to the remembered cultural rituals of Middle-Eastern cuisine based on her mother’s inspiration.

Readers learn about the tradition of Mezze in Middle-Eastern culture, “small plates of food served all at once, before the main course, to provide a bounty of tastes and textures.” Raw Kibbeh (usually the freshest and most lean cuts of lamb or goat, mixed with bulgur, rolled into balls and served), Hummus, Eggplant Pate`, Baba Ghanouj, and Mutabal, are all dishes that may ring with some familiarity from Middle-Eastern American restaurants. In Olives, they are offered with a sprinkling of special instructions from her mother. “Whenever a dish called for tahini, my mother tried leaving it out because she felt omitting it instantly lightened the dish.”

We find out in the section “Big Dishes,” that the idea of eating the biggest meal of the day for dinner was foreign to Rawia until she moved to New York. “Back home in Nazareth, lunch, or Ghada, was the grand meal and it was always served late in the afternoon.” She describes her memory of the ritualistic making of Palestinian Couscous with Chicken, Chickpeas and Pearl Onions in a short section titled “The Romance of Maftool,” a wonderful little story about her mother and father sharing cooking responsibilities at a time when men were rarely if ever seen in the kitchen. By the last recipe, the reader gets the feeling that to visit Tanoreen would be in many ways a visit to those small towns surrounding Nazareth in Galilee.