When Haya Bishouty stepped into her dining room for her first sufra, she was proud and tense at the same time. This was what she had wanted deep down in her heart, always: upholding Palestinian culinary traditions that are fading away with time.

It was a bright, sunny day in January 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt. Bishouty, a former public relations professional whose grandparents are from Palestine, was hosting in her Dubai home what would be the first in an ongoing series of dinner parties that aim to educate people about Palestinian food and culture.

There were about 10 people at the table — family, friends and a couple of acquaintances. Dressed in her grandmother’s dotted thobe, Bishouty eased into her new role, certain that she was on the right track. That night, she went to bed relieved.

“They were all like ‘Ah, the food tastes just like what my grandmother cooked’,” the curly-haired businesswoman says; her eyes brimming with pride. She is aware that she has been able to curate a sensory experience for her guests week after week.

Bishouty, who will turn 33 in a couple of weeks, launched Haya’s Kitchen three years ago. Her motto, she says, is not only to make people — Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike — taste the rich cuisine of the region, but also to serve nuggets of information about the scrumptious spread at her sufra, which literally translates to dining table in Arabic.

“I want to honour my heritage. I am a Palestinian, but I have never had the opportunity to be in Palestine. My grandparents left around 1948 and were never able to go back.

“Haya’s Kitchen is, in a way, a tribute to my tetas (the Arabic word for grandmothers). They have been a massive influence in my life,” she says.

There was a time when Bishouty did not feel “connected to the land (Palestine)” and grappled with what she calls an “identity crisis”. But her sufras, overflowing with traditional delicacies and hearty conversations, transport her and others to a land she has never seen — albeit for a few fleeting-yet-precious hours.

Bishouty, a globetrotter born in Greece, says the community dinners have been an enriching experience for her — something she is proud of.

“In fast-paced cities, we take our food for granted. We don’t really have the time to understand why a certain food is the way it is, why we eat a certain food in a certain season, where this food comes from, and the stories behind that food. I truly believe that food does connect people. We can understand cultures through their food,” she says.

Bishouty stresses that “in Palestine, we have very specific dishes that are native and true to the land”, and that she wants to challenge the misconception that “Lebanese food is Palestinian food”.

“True, we share a lot of flavours across the Levant region, but there are distinct flavours that are from Palestine. So, it’s important for me to keep the discussion going,” she asserts.

Bishouty shares a story from her first sufra, where she served a dessert called mughli, a caraway pudding. The word mughli means boiling something. That’s how this dish is supposed to be made. It’s traditionally made after childbirth — and Palestinian grandmothers serve it to visitors and new mothers. “Palestinians believe caraway has a lot of health benefits for nursing mothers. I added it to my first sufra menu as a symbolic gesture, signifying the birth of Haya’s Kitchen,” she says.

How food should be eaten is equally important, Bishouty points out. For instance, musakhan is traditionally eaten with hand. It’s the “national dish” of Palestine made of taboon bread, onions slow-cooked with olive oil and sumac, and oven-roasted chicken with tonnes of other spices, she continues. Generally, it has a topping of nuts and is eaten with yoghurt.

“The reason why we eat it with hand is to make sure we taste the flavour of the olive oil. Plus, we believe that our soul, or nafas in Arabic, is also in our fingertips. When I cook, I transfer my nafas to the food. And guests can relish the love that has been poured into a dish by enjoying it the way it is meant to be eaten — that is with hand,” Bishouty says.

The seasonality of the food also matters, Bishouty reiterates. “Citrus season is in the winter, and Palestinians believe in the preservation of their fruits and vegetables,” she says. During winters, Palestinians would preserve lemon juice by adding generous amounts of sugar. It takes about two-three days for the sugar to completely dissolve, thus making a lemonade, Bishouty explains. It’s then stored in Palestinian pantries called namliyeh or mouneh.

While Bishouty’s grandparents taught her a lot about Palestinian food and their history, she also did her independent research to find out more, making sure what she shares at the dinner table is accurate. “You know, I am a fact-checker and journalist myself,” she smiles.

These days, Bishouty hosts her sufras once or twice a month at The Flip Side in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue. The place is a stylish vinyl record shop where visitors can find a wide range of music ­— from jazz to soul. Founded in 2017, its walls are plastered with posters of Western music icons, such as Frank Sinatra and Bob Marley, and Arabic music personalities, such as Abdel Halim Hafez and Umm Kalthoum, among others. The place is owned by Bishouty’s husband, Shadi Megallaa, who has supported her in her incredible journey and encouraged her to do something she truly believes in.

No more than 14 people can attend Bishouty’s sufra on any given day. This, she says, helps keep interactions at the dinner table warm and intimate. Alongside the sufras — which has an entry fee of Dh300 per person — she also organises workshops that teach Palestinian culinary skills, such as the rolling of vine leaves.

From breads to olive oils, Bishouty makes it a point to buy all her ingredients from Palestinian suppliers. In her efforts, she is helped by her community and a few part-time volunteers.

“Every day, our food is taken away from us. Every day, our land is taken away from us. Every day, our people are taken away from us,” says Bishouty. “It’s important for people to understand this is Palestinian food ­­— this is our culture — and it’s not going away.”

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