A restaurant is the place that one goes to in order to eat a meal. As such, restaurants portray the state of a nation's cuisine at a given time in history. It is true to say that those cuisines that emerged from the confines of the kitchen onto the restaurant scene have witnessed great development and gained renown and recognition on an international scale. Such is the case of Italian, French, Chinese, Indian, and what is called Middle Eastern cuisines.
Restaurants are therefore instrumental in the development of a certain cuisine. For this to happen, there has to be a certain level of economic prosperity. In fact, the famous cuisines developed and prospered with the proliferation of restaurants, which, in turn, became more numerous as a result of a prosperous economy. The Syrian cuisine is one such example. It prospered during two distinct periods: during the Umayyad rule and in Andalusia. The American restaurant scene is another example. With economic prosperity, restaurants witnessed a lot of refinement, attaining respect on an international scale. This is curious, though, because there is no such thing as 'American' cuisine. The early settlers had come from a relatively poor Europe but later developed their unique cuisine, which came to be known as 'Western' cuisine.
The case in Palestine is somewhat different. For a long time the restaurant culture was practically non-existent due to successive occupations and harsh economic conditions, in addition to a society that is basically conservative. Restaurants were no more than a place to sip arak (an anise-based alcoholic beverage) with its customary accompaniments or merely a place to satiate hunger. On offer were the ubiquitous houmos, tabbouleh and other salads, some hot appetizers such as kubbeh and sfiha, followed by kebab or some other grilled meat or chicken. Those restaurants that considered themselves innovative would offer some French or Italian dishes.
The standardization of this restaurant fare is perplexing when one considers the wealth of the Palestinian kitchen, with its infinite possibilities, breadth of repertoire and flexibility. This may have to do with the scarcity of chefs and cooks trained in the Palestinian cuisine. The professional chefs available have acquired their training in other cuisines. Therefore, most restaurants are of the popular type, although some may be fancier in appearance, presentation and service.
Although coffee originated from Yemen, the coffeehouse culture did not develop in Palestine as it had in Europe or the way teahouses became popular in England. Whereas in the West coffeehouses became the haunts of artists and intellectuals, offering newspapers, books and, of late, access to the Internet, coffeehouses in Palestine are generally limited to the male clientele and offer little else than hot beverages and soft drinks. Patrons spend their time playing cards or backgammon. It is true that cultural and religious restrictions have a bearing on the way coffeehouses were allowed to evolve.
I would like to see Palestinian restaurateurs adopt Palestinian cuisine in its entirety, taking advantage of its rich variety, modifying it to suit their needs and bringing it up to date to suit modern tastes.
Chef and Researcher