Yasmin Khan’s Palestinian recipes: hummus, kefte and pomegranate cake (2024)

We’ve got this really weird thing going on at the moment,” notes the writer Yasmin Khan, “where Middle Eastern food has exploded in popularity at the same time as the Middle East is imploding. That was a big motivation for my book: can we join the two up because it’s great that everyone’s going crazy over pomegranate molasses, za’atar and labneh, but let’s also not forget the other side.”

The result is Zaitoun, a zingingly evocative collection of personal stories and 80 recipes from Palestinian kitchens. Calling it a cookbook does it a disservice. As with Khan’s 2016 debut, The Saffron Tales, which followed her scouring Iran for its most beloved dishes, Zaitoun deserves to be read as much as cooked from.

Of course, the subject of Palestine can quickly become highly charged. The week I meet Khan, 37, back in May in north London, more than 60 Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli forces in protests on the day the US embassy moved to Jerusalem. Khan – whose mother is Iranian, her father Pakistani, and who was born and mainly raised in the UK – knows the region well: she was a human-rights campaigner for a decade and spent much of her time on Israel-Palestine relations. (Burned out, she had to stop her NGO work and this led to her starting to write.)

Yasmin Khan’s Palestinian recipes: hummus, kefte and pomegranate cake (1)

Still, when Khan returned for research trips for Zaitoun (Arabic for “olive tree”), she was shocked by how much the situation had deteriorated since her first visit in 2009. “It’s so much more dire than when I used to work on it,” she says. “I think history is going to look back on what’s happened to Palestinians in the last century with…” she pauses, choosing her words, “with a lot of shame, actually.”

At points, working on Zaitoun, Khan wondered whether collecting recipes from Palestinians would trivialise their situation. For example, it is hard to talk of the culinary traditions in Gaza when 80% of Gazans depend on food aid to survive. One person told her that they were fed up with being treated like “clowns in a circus” by well-meaning writers and researchers wanting to share their stories.

Ultimately, however, as she had with Iran before, Khan hoped she could show a different side to Palestinians than the one we read of in newspapers. “One of the most beautiful things that happened with Saffron Tales is that, with social media, you get pictures from Brisbane or Berlin or Brooklyn of people cooking Iranian dishes,” she says. “For many, it’s maybe the first connection they’ve had with Iran. It’s a little drop in the pool of things that need to be done, but building connections between people here and in conflict zones is a passion of mine.”

Khan shows that Palestinian cuisine is diverse and enticing: both classically Levantine but with its quirks. In Galilee, they serve generous mazzeh (mezze) plates and the delicious pounded meatballs, kibbeh. The West Bank is dry, influenced by Bedouin culture, and the food often consists of hearty stews and taboon flatbreads. Gaza is different again: dishes full of dill and chilli and garlic. “An interviewee said to me, ‘The food of Gaza is like its political climate: intense,’” says Khan.

Compiling Zaitoun was challenging but Khan found Palestinians had a pride in their heritage and a determination to sustain it. “I went through every emotion,” says Khan. “The food was tantalising. So you’d have these exquisite experiences of joy and then you’d get stopped at a checkpoint and have a gun pointed at you. You’d be in shock and fear and then you’d move on and you’d feel sadness and anger.

“But that’s the sum of human experience,” she continues. “Food writing doesn’t have to be just, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re going to talk about an incredible cake!’”

Pomegranate passion cake

Pomegranates never fail to delight me; their crimson juices and sweet and tart arils provided such joy for me throughout my childhood that they are forever etched in my memory and on my heart.

Palestinians also hold this mighty fruit in high esteem, and here I’ve paired it with a dense and sticky almond cake, topped with a light and creamy mascarpone topping, which I love, and which I hope will enliven your passion for this magical fruit, too.

You will need a 20cm-deep cake tin.

Serves 8
For the cake
unsalted butter 200g, plus more for the tin
caster sugar 170g
eggs 4, lightly beaten
plain flour 100g
fine sea salt ¼ tsp
baking powder 1½ tsp
ground almonds 270g
unwaxed lemon finely grated zest of 1
lemon juice 3 tbsp
unsweetened pomegranate molasses 2 tbsp
vanilla extract 1 tsp

For the glaze
unsweetened pomegranate molasses 3 tbsp
sugar (any type) 2 tbsp

For the topping
pomegranate seeds 150g
caster sugar 2 tbsp
mascarpone 250g
Greek yogurt 3 tbsp
icing sugar 1 tbsp

Preheat the oven to 160C/gas mark 3. Butter a 20cm-deep cake tin and line it with baking parchment.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar with electric beaters. When the mixture is combined, beat in the eggs gradually, beating well between each addition. Then fold in the flour, salt, baking powder and almonds with a large spoon.

Fold in the lemon zest and juice, pomegranate molasses and vanilla, then spoon into the tin.

Bake for 40–50 minutes, or until firm and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.

When it is almost ready, make the glaze. Put the pomegranate molasses and sugar in a saucepan with 3 tablespoons water, place over a medium heat and stir to help dissolve the sugar. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, use a fork to pierce holes in it, then brush the syrup over. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn it out, syrup-side up.

Place the pomegranate seeds in a small bowl with the sugar and leave to macerate for at least 30 minutes. Mix the mascarpone with the yogurt and icing sugar and spread it thickly over the cake. Finish with the pomegranate seeds and their juices.


Yasmin Khan’s Palestinian recipes: hummus, kefte and pomegranate cake (2)

Let’s start with the most iconic of all Palestinian dishes: thick bowls of hummus, drenched in tahini and singing with citrussy flavour. Palestinians mainly eat hummus for breakfast, when it is commonly topped with tangy chilli-and-lemon-dressed chickpeas and served with thick slices of tomatoes and crunchy wedges of cucumber. A lot has been written about the perfect hummus... but I’m not a purist. Lemon and garlic levels are a matter of taste, so, while I suggest amounts you might start with, I encourage you to adapt them as you like. As brands of tahini can vary, feel free to play with the quantities of that, too. Here is a basic hummus and, on the following pages, two more elaborate versions that elevate the simple chickpea to a more sophisticated main meal. Just be sure to process the chickpeas while warm, to achieve the lightest, creamiest result.

Serves 4–6 as part of a spread
dried chickpeas 250g
bicarbonate of soda 1 tsp
garlic 3 cloves, crushed
lemon juice 90ml or to taste
tahini 180g
ground cumin ½ tsp
sea salt 1½ tsp
ice cubes 4
extra virgin olive oil to serve

Optional extras
za’atar, paprika or ground cumin a pinch

Soak the chickpeas overnight in a large bowl of cold water. The next day, drain them, tip them into a saucepan with the bicarbonate of soda, cover with water and bring to a simmer. After 5 minutes, stir the chickpeas and skim off the foam that rises. Cook until the chickpeas are soft but not completely mushy. Depending on their freshness, this could take 30–40 minutes.

When they are ready, drain them and place the hot chickpeas in a food processor with the garlic, lemon juice, tahini, cumin and 1½ teaspoons of salt. Process until the mixture is smooth, then add the ice cubes and process for another 2 full minutes, until the hummus looks light and creamy. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a touch more lemon juice or salt, according to taste, and splashing in a little cold water if it is looking a bit thick (it will thicken more upon cooling). Transfer to a serving bowl and leave to rest for 1 hour for the flavours to come together.

To serve, use the back of a spoon to make a well in the hummus and drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil. You could also finish with a pinch of za’atar, paprika or ground cumin, if you like.

Hummus with spiced lamb

Yasmin Khan’s Palestinian recipes: hummus, kefte and pomegranate cake (3)

Discovering this spectacular combination of juicy marinated lamb spooned over velvety smooth hummus was one of the culinary highlights of my first visit to the West Bank. Incredibly simple to make, this winning combination has fast become one of my kitchen staples whenever I need a quick, nourishing dinner.

I’ve written this recipe using a batch of homemade hummus but, to be quite honest, you could spruce up shop-bought hummus with this delicious topping, too. Serve it with a bright, fresh salad and a bowl of crunchy Middle Eastern pickles.

Use minced lamb instead of fillet if you like but, if you do, leave out the extra virgin olive oil from the marinade.

Serves 4 as a main, or 6 as part of a spread
lamb neck or loin fillet 300g
garlic 1 clove, crushed
lemon juice 2 tbsp
extra virgin olive oil 1 tbsp plus more to serve (optional)
sumac ½ tsp
dried oregano ½ tsp
ground turmeric ¼ tsp
Aleppo pepper (pul biber) or cayenne pepper a pinch
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
light olive oil 2 tbsp, for frying

For the rest
pine nuts 30g
chopped parsley leaves a small handful

Chop the lamb fillet into 1cm-thick pieces. Mix in all the marinade ingredients, except the light olive oil, seasoning with ½ teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of pepper, and ensure that the lamb is fully coated. Cover and leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour.

Heat the light olive oil in a frying pan and fry the meat for 3-4 minutes over a medium heat until it is just cooked through.

Toast the pine nuts by placing them in a small dry pan over a medium heat and stirring them for a minute or so, until they turn golden brown. Set them aside in a small bowl.

When you are ready to eat, transfer the hummus to a couple of serving bowls and use the back of a spoon to make a shallow well in each. Spoon the lamb over, finishing with a sprinkling of parsley, the toasted pine nuts and a pinch of sumac.

Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil, if you like.

Chickpea and bulgur salad

Yasmin Khan’s Palestinian recipes: hummus, kefte and pomegranate cake (4)

Nutty and flavoursome, herby and zingy, this makes a great side dish for roasted meat and fish. Try it with lemon, cumin and green chilli sea bass, or slow-roast shoulder of lamb with Palestinian spices. It is also lovely on its own as a light vegetarian main dish.

Serves 2–3 as a main, 4–6 as part of a spread
coarse bulgur wheat 175g
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
chickpeas 400g tin, drained and rinsed
parsley leaves 30g, finely chopped
mint leaves 30g, finely chopped
chives 15g, finely chopped
garlic 2 cloves, crushed
extra virgin olive oil 5 tbsp
lemons juice of 2
pomegranate seeds 60g

Cook the bulgur wheat with ½ teaspoon of salt in a large pan of boiling water for 10 minutes, until it is soft. Drain, rinse with cold water and place in a serving bowl.

Add the chickpeas to the bulgur wheat, then stir through the chopped herbs and garlic. Dress the salad with the olive oil, lemon juice, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning as you prefer, bearing in mind that this dish benefits from generous salting.

Just before serving, sprinkle over the pomegranate seeds.

Aubergine and feta kefte

Yasmin Khan’s Palestinian recipes: hummus, kefte and pomegranate cake (5)

The Palestinian kitchen is filled with a variety of meat, fish and vegetable kefte, which are balls of seasonal ingredients that have been moulded, stuffed, baked or fried. This is my vegetarian version, using the region’s ubiquitous aubergines married with fresh herbs and tangy white cheese. These are perfect for picnics and keep well for a few days in the fridge.

Serves 4–6
aubergines 600g (about 2 large ones) chopped into 1cm squares
light olive oil 3 tbsp, plus more for the tray
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
bulgur wheat 175g
cumin seeds ½ tsp
coriander seeds ½ tsp
garlic 1 clove, finely chopped
mint leaves 10g, finely chopped
parsley leaves 15g, finely chopped
feta cheese 175g, crumbled
sunflower and pumpkin seeds 50g
eggs 2, lightly beaten
unwaxed lemon finely grated zest of 1

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Place the aubergine pieces on a baking tray and drizzle with the 3 tablespoons of light olive oil and ½ teaspoon of salt. Use your hands to mix the pieces, then roast for 25 minutes, or until soft. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and leave to cool.

Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, add the bulgur wheat and cook for 15 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water, drain well again, then add the bulgur to the aubergines.

Preheat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7, or just increase the temperature if you didn’t turn it off.

Toast the cumin and coriander seeds by stirring them in a dry pan for a few minutes until their aromas are released, then grind in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Stir into the aubergines and bulgur wheat with all the remaining ingredients, seasoning with ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper.

Oil a baking tray, then use your hands to mould 12 satsuma-sized kefte and place them on the tray. Roast for around 20 minutes, or until the kefte are golden all over.

Roast rainbow carrots with herbed yogurt

Yasmin Khan’s Palestinian recipes: hummus, kefte and pomegranate cake (6)

This recipe is inspired by a meal I enjoyed at Tawla, a Palestinian-owned restaurant in San Francisco that serves up innovative and tasty adaptations of eastern Mediterranean cuisine. Rainbow carrots are a particular addiction of mine and I adore how they brighten up my table with their purple and golden hues. If you can’t find any, fear not, regular carrots will do, just try and buy organic if you can, as the taste is so much better. This salad is best made an hour or so in advance, then left to rest so the carrots soak up all the herby flavours from the dressing.

Serves 4 as part of a spread
mixed rainbow carrots 1kg
extra virgin olive oil 3 tbsp
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
natural yogurt 3 tbsp
garlic 1 clove, crushed
fresh dill 1 tsp, finely chopped, or ½ tsp dried dill
dried mint 1 tsp
nigella seeds ½ tsp
sesame seeds ¾ tsp

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Peel the carrots and slice them diagonally into thick wedges. Toss them with 2 tablespoons of the extra virgin olive oil and ¼ teaspoon of salt and roast for 30–35 minutes, until they are tender, but still have some bite.

Meanwhile, whisk together all the remaining ingredients, except the seeds (and not forgetting the final 1 tablespoon extra virgin of olive oil) with ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper.

When the carrots are ready, transfer them to a serving dish and leave them to cool to room temperature. Pour over the yogurt dressing, mix well, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Scatter with the nigella and sesame seeds.

You can tuck in immediately or, for best results, cover and leave to rest for about 1 hour before serving.

Lamb meatballs with tahini

Yasmin Khan’s Palestinian recipes: hummus, kefte and pomegranate cake (7)

Of the dozens of different types of kefte (meatballs), this is my firm favourite. The unique combination of sticky roasted potatoes, spicy lamb and garlicky tahini never fails to delight. You can prepare the potatoes, meatballs and sauce all in advance, then just assemble the dish and pop it into the oven about 30 minutes before you want to eat. I recommend going to a butcher for some minced shoulder of lamb for this dish, as I think it has the best flavour (and ask them to trim off any excess fat before mincing). Use a large ovenproof dish that doubles up as a serving platter for this recipe, so you can take the dish straight to the table.

Serves 4 as a main or 6 as part of a spread
For the potatoes
potatoes 700g
sea salt
light olive oil 2 tbsp

For the kefte
minced lamb 800g
onion 1, finely chopped
parsley leaves 25g, roughly chopped
garlic 3 cloves, crushed
chilli flakes ½ tsp
ground cinnamon 1½ tsp
ground allspice 1½ tsp
freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil 2 tbsp

For the tahini sauce
tahini 75ml
lemon juice 2 tbsp
garlic 1 clove, crushed
parsley leaves 10g, chopped, plus more to serve

For the topping
pine nuts 30g
salted butter 15g

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Peel the potatoes and then slice them into 1cm-thick discs. Place them in a large ovenproof dish in a single layer, sprinkle over ½ teaspoon of salt and the light olive oil and toss to coat evenly. Bake for around 40 minutes, or until soft.

Meanwhile, make the kefte by placing all the ingredients, except the extra virgin olive oil, in a food processor, seasoning with 1 teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of pepper. Blitz for a few minutes to combine evenly. (Mincing the meat twice in this way also ensures a better texture.) Mould the meatballs into 5cm ovals. Put the olive oil in a bowl and, using your fingertips, lightly coat each ball with oil to smooth it. (At this stage, you can leave the kefte for a few hours in the fridge if you are preparing the meal ahead of time.)

When the potatoes are soft, place the kefte in a layer on top of them and bake for 15–20 minutes, until just cooked through.

Make the tahini sauce by whisking all the ingredients together, seasoning with ½ teaspoon of salt and adding 75ml of water. Tahini varieties can vary, so add more water or lemon juice if it seems a little thick; you want the consistency of runny honey.

For the topping, fry the pine nuts in the butter until they are golden, then place on kitchen paper to soak up excess oil.

Once the lamb is cooked, drain off any excess fat that has been released during cooking, then spoon over the tahini sauce and top with the pine nuts and chopped parsley. Serve immediately.

Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestinian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan (Bloomsbury Publishing, £26). To order a copy for £21, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only

Yasmin Khan’s Palestinian recipes: hummus, kefte and pomegranate cake (2024)
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