Carnegie Mellon University
February 21, 2023

A Recipe for Understanding

Grand Challenge Seminar students explore history and culture through food

By Emily Nagin

The long, bright kitchen is alive with noise and activity. 

Onions are chopped into fine crescents, piled into a pot and spiced with purple grains of sumac. Labaneh, a creamy strained yogurt, is rolled into balls and dusted with green za’atar spice and small black nigella seeds. Chicken poaches on a stove with bay leaf and cardamom.

Monitoring it all is Chef Fadi Kattan. He strides between the cooks, checking their work, instructing as necessary.

This is not the back-end of a restaurant. This is the first-floor kitchen of Carnegie Mellon University’s Fifth and Clyde Residence Hall, and the cooks are first-year students enrolled in Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Palestinian and Israeli Food Cultures Grand Challenge Seminar.

Co-taught by Michal Friedman, Jack Buncher Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of History, and Nevine Abraham, assistant teaching professor of Arabic studies in the Department of Modern Languages, the class filters Palestinian and Israeli history, culture and conflict through the lens of food. Topics range from regional and culinary history to gender roles in Israeli and Palestinian communities to the ways displacement and military occupation affect the production of produce.

Working with chefs and food scholars is a vital ingredient. This year’s guests were Michal Nahman, a scholar and cook of Canadian-Israeli heritage whose Mizrachi Food Project traces the anthropology of food specific to Middle Eastern and North African Jewish people, and Kattan, a Franco-Palestinian chef from Bethlehem whose new London restaurant, Akub, serves traditional Palestinian dishes with an innovative twist.


Food is not neutral

Israel/Palestine is a deeply fraught region with a complicated history and culture — when there is so much to say, why focus on food?

“Food is not neutral,” Friedman says. “It is a very rich and deep way of looking at Palestinian and Israeli identity and history.”

From ingredients to origins to ownership, food can help decode the complexities of a region.

“We look at different perspectives, how communities blend and impact each other and reshape their understanding of food and identity,” Abraham says.

Before chefs visit campus, Friedman and Abraham work with students to prepare questions. Drafting questions ahead of time helps build students’ confidence, and crucially, prepares them to broach potentially sensitive or controversial topics in ways that are productive and nuanced.

And, of course, there is the cooking.

As the first guest on campus, Nahman worked with the students to make bourekas, a Sephardi baked hand pie stuffed with cheese and spinach and topped with sesame seeds; fried eggplant served with tahini and pomegranate seeds; and sautéed tomatoes with garlic, cilantro, sea salt and chili flakes. The students also competed in a savory/sweet board challenge during which they had to race to create the most appealing labaneh or tahini board using traditional Middle Eastern ingredients.

Friedman and Abraham believe that the chance to meet culinary celebrities and learn to cook from them is more than just a fun exercise.

“We hope this will be important to building students’ intercultural competence and be aware of the different lenses and perspectives that these celebrities offer them,” Abraham says. “What they take from them is the importance of what food means to different groups.”

Kattan demonstrates how to mix a freekeh salad.

Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of History Michal Friedman, Chef Fadi Kattan and Assistant Teaching Professor of Arabic Studies in the Department of Modern Languages Nevine Abraham

Learning from each other

Friedman and Abraham’s strong rapport and intellectual partnership is evident from the moment they step into a room. Although they were relative strangers specializing in different fields, they met in 2019 and quickly agreed on how to structure the course.

Friedman brings her knowledge of history, going back to the Middle Ages, moving into the migration of Jews across Europe, and finally the modern history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, to the course. Abraham provides the cultural and literary perspective, introducing novels and memoirs that help students understand the Arab and Jewish diasporas and how they contributed to today’s culinary culture. The two are at work on a research paper together.

“We are always learning from each other,” Abraham says.

The professors’ parallel experiences growing up in the Middle East also lend an extra layer of nuance to the course. Abraham grew up in Egypt, Friedman in Israel, and the two experienced historical events, including the peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979, in ways that both intersected and diverged. They bring these personal experiences into the classroom, explaining how pivotal moments in history were understood by people living them in the moment, on different sides of a border.

“It was important for us, on a topic that’s so fraught, that we have a Jewish and an Arab voice co-teaching,” Friedman says. “It’s more powerful and more meaningful for students to have two instructors from different backgrounds.”

Students also appreciate this diversity of experience.

“Grand Challenge Seminars are valuable because they give you different perspectives on issues that sometimes it feels like society is afraid of talking about,” says Warisha Khan, a first-year student studying at CMU’s Institute for Politics and Strategy.

Fellow student Elizabeth McBridge, a first-year student in the Department of History, welcomed the opportunity to learn about a topic not often taught in U.S. high schools.

“As an American student, I never really had any knowledge of Palestinian history before the creation of Israel in 1948,” McBride says.

Nahman shows students how to fill bourekas.

Students pose with the food they've prepared.

Kitchen as classroom

The students finished preparing Kattan’s menu and set it on serving platters on the long kitchen island: maqloubeh, lamb layered with eggplant, tomato and rice; musakhan, chicken on flatbread topped with caramelized onions and toasted pine nuts; labaneh balls rolled in spices; freekeh salad filled with herbs and pomegranate seeds; and silky homemade hummus studded with chickpeas, slivered almonds and lemony sumac.

They dig in, scooping up food with flatbread. The room swells with laughter and chatting, the atmosphere is easy and happy.

For all the course’s intensive and challenging subject matter, in this moment, everyone is experiencing the same thing: the chance to eat and talk, the special satisfaction that a good meal can offer.