Palestinian Catholic chef says he expresses his identity through cooking

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Bright Stars

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) — When he was a child, Bassem
Hazboun loved helping his mother prepare French delicacies in their Bethlehem kitchen. But it was his father who kept
trying to steer him to study engineering as he reached his teens.

“You don’t need this,” his father said when Hazboun told him
he wanted to take a cooking course. But the passion he found while cooking by
this mother’s side never left.

“My food is my identity,” said Hazboun, a Catholic Palestinian
who traveled in September from his native Bethlehem in the West Bank to showcase food from his
homeland to various U.S. cities, including Washington and Connecticut, part of
the “Room for Hope” festival. The festival aims to raise money for scholarships
to help youth in the Holy Land study music, dance, cooking and other arts.

Chef Hazboun, 39, studied at Bethlehem University, a Catholic university in the Holy Land, and is the head of the culinary arts program
at Dar al-Kalima University’s College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem, which
helps youth in the Holy Land hone skills in arts and culture.

Hazboun said food from the Holy Land is in a way unique for
Christians because some of it hails from biblical times. Sometimes he prepares biblical
menus, he said, for those who arrive in the Holy Land for religious
pilgrimages. This may mean a menu that includes a lentil soup, a dish of lamb
and yogurt, too. Food from the Holy Land also features lots of olives, which
are abundant in the region, he said, and spices you won’t find elsewhere.

“All the foods are special,” he told Catholic News Service.

In the U.S., Hazboun did several public food demonstrations
and also cooked large-scale dinners so others could learn about the richness of
food from the Holy Land. He prepared “musakhan,” a Palestinian roasted chicken
dish served with onions, pine nuts and spices over flatbread; “maqluba,” which is “upside-down rice, meat and vegetables”; “mansaf,” lamb with yogurt sauce
served with flatbread and rice; and 14 types of Arabic salads.

It’s important for him, he said, to help his students
develop a love for the food of their region and to see something positive about
their identity as Palestinians through the craft. It’s a love that many of them
can share with others and can also allow them to stay in the Holy Land, where
work for Palestinians is scarce. Luckily, with tourism, many of them are able
to find jobs at restaurants in Bethlehem, he said.

“Sometimes I visit the restaurant and they feed me good,”
said Hazboun.

Beth Nelson Chase, executive director of Bright Stars
Bethlehem in the U.S., the nonprofit that sponsored the festival, said programs
such as the ones chef Hazboun teaches in Bethlehem help students learn skills
that are useful for the economy of their homelands, where coming across a job
can sometimes prove difficult.

“It gives people hope,” Chase said.

The Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor and president of Bright
Stars of Bethlehem, said in a statement that the events focusing on the arts
and food of the Holy Land were part of the mission of building cultural
bridges “important for both the U.S. and Palestine.”

“We are excited to expose our friends in the U.S. to
Palestinian culture and art,” he said.

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Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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