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When Heifa Odeh moved to Chicago a few years ago after marrying her husband Ahmad, she didn’t know anyone in town.
“I had to start over,” Odeh says. “The only thing I always liked to do is cook and bake and be in the kitchen. That is my happy place, my therapy.”
Her husband encouraged her to document her recipes in the form of a blog, and Fufu’s kitchen was born. Her husband helped her build the website; the title comes from her nickname. Now her recipes are also documented in a new cookbook, Dining in Palestine.
Odeh grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of two Palestinian parents. Food was a big part of her upbringing.
“I can remember when I was only 12 years old, and I used to watch the Food Network. I haven’t watched Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network,” Odeh says, “I could literally wear it for hours. The whole family would watch with me.”
Odeh says both of her parents were great cooks. Her father is known for his qalayet bandura, which Odeh describes as a flavorful casserole with tomato garlic, the recipe of which is in her cookbook. She says her mother was also an amazing cook and baker — one with the kind of talent where people would always want to come over for dinner and then grab seconds.
“I was always intrigued by her in the kitchen. She actually lived in the kitchen, just like I do now,” Odeh says. Now people are coming to Odeh’s kitchen looking for seconds.
The first job she had at age 15 was in a local bakery. She ended up working as a cake decorator at that bakery. As much as she loves to cook, Odeh might love baking even more.
“I like both. But for me, baking is even more therapeutic, and I feel like it’s more artistic. Baking is a bit more difficult. So I think I like that challenge,” she says.
One of her favorite things to bake is fatayer, which are savory Middle Eastern pies. She also likes to get crafty with her baked goods and other recipes.
“As an American, I’ve always loved brownies,” she says. “But hey, I’m going to add some pomegranate molasses and tahini paste and make them really delicious with a little Palestinian flavor.”
While many of the recipes in her cookbook are traditional recipes passed down through generations, many, such as her brownie recipe, reflect her Palestinian-American identity and incorporate creative flavor combinations.
When approached about writing a cookbook, she said it was important to her that her identity came first.
“I would really like a book that represents one hundred percent for me as a Palestinian-American,” says Odeh. “It was very important to me that the cover, the title, contained the word ‘Palestine’. I could perhaps count on one hand how many cookbooks have ‘Palestine’ on the cover.”
For Odeh, Palestinian cuisine is all about simplicity.
“The flavors are huge, but it’s so simple. It doesn’t take much, and a lot [Palestinians] don’t have much. So they make something really great with the resources they have around them,” she says.
Below, Odeh shares one of her favorite vegetarian recipes from her cookbook, for flafleh mahshi bil burghol – stuffed peppers with bulgur and herbal yogurt. She says the recipe is flexible: it can be its own meal, or a side of a protein like pan-seared chicken.
“I feel like every region has some kind of stuffed pepper,” says Odeh. “[This recipe] is not really a Palestinian thing per se, but Palestinians cram all kinds of things. We are notorious for stuffing grape leaves, stuffing zucchini, stuffing aubergines, stuffing onions, stuffing carrots! So this was one of my ways to be creative.”
Odeh is a former high school English teacher, so the cookbook felt like a natural next step for her. Being a food blogger and cookbook author has some similarities to teaching, she says. The trick is to make learning accessible, even if people have never eaten or made Palestinian food before.
“I used almost the same approach I did as a teacher for high school students learning English as I did cooking and baking — teaching people how to feel more comfortable and confident in the kitchen,” Odeh says. “I really think if you follow the way I present my recipes, they’re very approachable.”
Stuffed Peppers With Bulgur & Herbs Yogurt
In Palestinian cuisine, bulgur can often be found as a substitute for rice. Bulgur, a type of wheat, actually has more health benefits than rice because it is high in fiber and other nutrients. Often my mother would make a side of bulgur with mashawi (Arabic grilled meat). I’ve also used bulgur in salads because it absorbs flavors so nicely. In this recipe, the bulgur is flavored with tomato and pomegranate molasses, then used to stuff peppers, then topped with a complementary yogurt sauce to bind it all together. It makes for such a delicious vegetarian meal.
3 small red bell peppers, halved lengthwise and pitted
2 tbsp (30 ml) olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper to preference
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup (140 g) bulgur, coarse
2 cups (480 ml) vegetable stock
1/2 tsp seven herbs
1 vegetable stock cube, finely ground
1 tbsp (16 g) tomato paste
1/2 tsp pomegranate molasses
1 cup (240 ml) yogurt
Handful of chopped parsley
1/2 tablespoon (3 g) dried mint
1/2 lemon, squeezed
Salt, to preference
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F (191°C). Prepare the peppers by coating them well with 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of olive oil. Season them with salt and pepper. Add them to an oiled baking pan and bake for 40 minutes, turning once halfway through baking.
2. Mix the yogurt together with the chopped parsley, dried mint, lemon juice, salt and garlic, cover and refrigerate.
3. In a saucepan, add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of olive oil along with the onion and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for a few minutes until the mixture is fragrant and slightly caramelized.
4. Add the bulgur, vegetable stock, seven spices, stock cube and tomato puree. Stir and let it cook together for 15 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Sprinkle with the pomegranate molasses and stir in the bulgur.
5. At this point, the peppers should be cooked through. Fill each pepper with the bulgur and enjoy the herb yogurt with a side dish or topping!
Credit: Reprinted with permission from Dine in Palestine by Heifa Odeh. Page Street Publishing Co. 2022. Photo credit: Doaa Elkady.