Franco-Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan will finally bring his iteration of modern Palestinian cooking to London on 24 November, when Akub opens in Notting Hill.
Kattan, who runs Fawda in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, offered a prelude to the restaurant with a residency at Carousel in May, where the menu tied its six dishes to six Palestinian cities: Jerusalem; Jericho; Gaza; Nablus; Jaffa; and Bethlehem. The fully fledged restaurant at 27 Uxbridge Street will diverge from this template, cutting closer to Kattan’s process at Fawda, where he adapts the forms of Palestinian cuisine to local ingredients. With Akub, he will follow the same formula, but using produce, meat, and seafood from Britain, alongside imported Palestinian ingredients from the Zaytoun cooperative.
Kattan accordingly says that Akub is an exercise in “poignant memories, tastes, and smells” — not an attempt at a facsimile or copy of his restaurant in the West Bank. In practice, this leads to a menu whose breads include nigella seed crackers, but also an “Akub focaccia”; a salad of maftoul, the hand-rolled bulgur and cracked wheat; sea bream cured in arak, a distilled anise spirit; a dish of freekeh, another cracked wheat grain, described in the language of risotto; and musakhan, roasted sumac chicken. The cocktail list will revolve around arak.
Inside the restaurant, hanging vintage keys will act as symbols of their own, for houses lost under Israel’s occupation, with plates, bowls, and other crockery made by Palestinian ceramicist Nur Minawi.
This model of refracting British produce through a country or region’s techniques and cultural memories, and visa versa, is not new to London, but rarely is it done as thoughtfully as Kattan promises. Speaking in an interview with his brother, Karim, he describes how her perceives Palestinian food to change according to its context:
I would say it’s Palestinian food because I do use recipes that are not necessarily from Bethlehem. I interpret them differently. Something like the national dish like musakhan, a dish made of onions, sumac, a lot of olive oil and crispy chicken. It is not really a dish from here, it’s more from the north of the West Bank. But I play around with it because north of Hebron, not far from Bethlehem, you have the best sumac trees that I’ve come across. So it’s really Palestinian.
This thoughtfulness extends to the question of “modern” Palestinian food, which Kattan wholesale rejects as a mechanism of elevation: “When I try modernizing Palestinian cuisine, I am not trying to make it acceptable to people.” He uses the term “coexistence cuisine” as a byword for the flattening that can occur when chefs and restaurants attempt to use cooking as an harmonious erasure of the political reality of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and the name of his restaurant is its own rejoinder.
Akub, translating to cardoon, is a thistle, and does not just reflect the shifting seasonality that Kattan wants to bring to his restaurant. It is also one of a number of “protected” native plants and herbs that can no longer be foraged in the West Bank, despite being allowed to be foraged in areas under Israel’s control by Israeli foragers, according to the chef.
“It’s a wonderful little thorn which for me is very symbolic and I love using it,” Kattan has said. “It is a lot of work to take out all the thorns in it and it has a very delicate taste.” A delicate taste, with a sharp edge.