I’m standing in front of the induction range at work, a pancake slowly sizzling in the pan, a bag of crushed walnuts and nutmeg open and waiting to my left.
There are still four and a half hours until sunset, and the heat and the smell of fresh qatayef rising from the stove make me dizzy. I spoon some walnuts and nutmeg into the still uncooked batter and fold the pancake over, and I wonder how the hell my Taita ever made qatayef for twenty or more people, over what must have been a gas range, in the stifling heat of a concrete apartment in Amman, while fasting and minding seven children.
This is only the third time I’ve made qatayef, and tonight I’m making a bigger batch to take to the Quran Khatm at a local masjid.
One of my fondest and only memories of Ramadan as a child is watching and waiting as hot qatayef came out of the oven. The crunch of walnuts and the sweetness of nutmeg, the sweet and salty clash of melted ackawi cheese inside the qatayef and the sugary syrup cascaded over the pancake outside.
I make qatayef because it’s freaking delicious, but also because it’s one of only two Palestinian dishes I sort of know how to make.
Growing up, I never realized that traditions like qatayef were something that people like my Taita had held onto through occupation and displacement, from Palestine to Kuwait, Jordan, and finally America.
Now, living with my brothers during Ramadan, I have to be the one to inject Palestinian tradition into my experience of the Holy Month. Generally, Ramadan cuisine in my house is whatever I can eat quickly after work, like cereal or cheeseburgers. In just eating whatever is convenient, I sometimes neglect the many colorful dishes of my colorful family. Ramadan is tough, but making Palestinian wrapped grape leaves, or Irish (ish) chicken pot pie for solo or shared iftars is important.
Food is how we speak to each other, how we create bridges between cultures and learn to appreciate one another’s experiences. By participating in our own cultural traditions, and by sharing them with others, we fulfill a wish of Allah’s, for He created us in different “tribes so that [we] may know one another.”
By participating in our own cultural traditions, and by sharing them with others, we fulfill a wish of Allah’s, for He created us in different “tribes so that [we] may know one another.”
Growing up, I always heard that America was one great big melting pot, and I always hated that analogy. The “melting pot” analogy implies things like cultural appropriation and forced assimilation; it implies a culture that over time becomes bland and homogenous, in which different ethnicities and nationalities’ traditions are washed away in a sea of sameness.
I prefer to think of America as a pot-luck.
Think about it: I go to masajid, and even though there has been a provided Iftar of Indian/Pakistani food, most women bring a dish to share. I taste Chinese spicy orange chicken, Eritrean breads, classic American apple and cherry pies, Indonesian Martabak (very similar to qatayef, as a spongy pancake filled with melted chocolate and cheese).
African-American sisters bring bean pies and Cajun fried fish, the dates are from Saudi, the mangoes are from the Philippines, and sabaya is from Yemen. A Czech sister brings black tea and serves it hot from a thermos to everyone around.
The “melting pot” analogy implies things like cultural appropriation and forced assimilation; it implies a culture that over time becomes bland and homogenous, in which different ethnicities and nationalities’ traditions are washed away in a sea of sameness.
This tradition, the all-American pot-luck, the Islamic tradition of sharing meals, is one of my favorite things about both Ramadan and America.
We don’t only share delicious food and full bellies, we share the cultural contexts our foods were created in. We share our languages, our histories, and our customs. We share fully and sincerely of ourselves.
And this year, I am bringing the part of myself that is Palestine to the table.