Akub, also known as gundelia, is an unruly plant that blossoms across the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East after the winter rains. Some believe that the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’s head during the crucifixion was made from this long-lasting, sweet-smelling thistle.
It is foraged everywhere, from the Kurdish highlands and Cyprus to the Sinai peninsula, for its earthy, tender stems and delicate-tasting flower buds, but is most highly prized in Palestinian cuisine. Each spring, people defy the Israeli authorities – who say the plant is in danger of overcollection – to bring as many bags of prickly akub as they can carry back to their kitchens to throw into meat stews or fry with eggs and lemon.
Akub has now given its name to London’s first modern Palestinian restaurant, the brainchild of entrepreneur Rasha Khouri, who supports business opportunities promoting the Middle East. She calls the plant “the essence of Palestine”.
“When I was working on another food concept back in 2019, I realised that even though London’s restaurant scene is very diverse, there’s still no interesting take on Palestinian cuisine,” said Khouri, speaking by phone from Akub’s three-floor building in Notting Hill, which will open on 7 December. The restaurant is already almost fully booked for its first month.
“That’s really what I want this to be. A celebration of the nuances of Palestinian food and cooking and heritage.”
Khouri quickly enlisted chef and hotelier Fadi Kattan, who founded the celebrated Fawda restaurant in Bethlehem in 2016. Before the pandemic forced it to close, Kattan won international acclaim for translating traditional Palestinian dishes into a bold fine-dining experience, despite the logistical difficulties generated by the Israeli occupation.
“Palestinian farmers don’t necessarily have access to water supplies, or their own land, or roads to get their produce to markets, so I decided to just work with whatever I can get when I go shopping in the day: hence the name Fawda, which means chaos,” he said.
“In London we have much more flexibility, which is very exciting, but we are keeping the same ethos of using locally sourced and sustainable ingredients. I believe in nose-to-tail, as little waste as possible.”
Akub’s fresh produce, meat and fish all come from the UK, while spices and olive oil, along with beverages such as arak and Taybeh craft beer, will be shipped by Kattan’s favourite Palestinian suppliers.
Showing the Observer around the Bethlehem souq, Kattan dropped into his favourite butcher – where he helps the family who own it experiment with ageing and curing meat – as well as stopping to talk to Umm Nabil, an elderly woman on the stone steps selling fresh purslane, mint and the first quince of the autumn.
In a 100-year-old coffee and spice shop a stone’s throw from the Church of the Nativity, the chef happily rooted around among jars of sumac and dukkah while discussing the quality of this year’s za’atar with owner Tawfiq.
“I have this idea to somehow get the scent of incense into a dish. It’s so evocative,” Kattan said, rolling nuggets of frankincense resin between his palms. “Still working on that.”
For Kattan, Middle Eastern staples such as kebabs and falafel are dirty words. Hummus, however, is by far and away the biggest enemy. “It’s banned from my kitchen. There’s more to our food than hummus … It’s time for people to get to know the diversity of Palestinian terroir and cuisine,” he said.
Tasting evenings at Kattan’s family home in Bethlehem and amid the as-yet unfinished interior of Akub have drawn on the fish and seafood recipes of the Gaza Strip’s Mediterranean coastline, which are heavily influenced by the bright, fiery flavours of neighbouring Egypt; deep meat stews, breads and lentils are often the base ingredients for building on West Bank favourites.
Sweet cheeses, dates and honey permeate desserts and pastries. Some dishes are enlivened with mahaleb, a bitter spice made from cherry seeds, or fresh, cedar-like mastika gum, and the akub plant itself will feature when in season.
In Kattan’s hands, musakhan – chicken roasted with sumac and served with sweet onions on soft, chewy taboon bread – has been reinvented as a dumpling-like offering, while a meghli cheesecake, rich with anise, cinnamon, caraway and coconut, transports Palestinian diners back to memories of childhood celebrations.
A charred freekeh risotto with saffron, arak-cured sea bream, vine leaves stuffed with skate and pulled lamb are accompanied by small plates of sheep’s cheese, pickled cucumber and cauliflower, spicy Gaza salads and a red lentil mutabal dip. Dead Sea salt and tahini chocolate cake is served with pistachio ice cream.
Akub’s staff all spent time in Kattan’s home kitchen in Bethlehem this year to get to know his cherished flavours and traditional cooking techniques. More than anything, though, the chef says he wanted his new colleagues to feel the warmth and rhythms of Palestinian hospitality.
“Honouring guests is important … bringing them into the home and making them feel like part of the family, filling up the table with plates. I want visitors to Akub to feel comfortable using their hands, to tear up the bread and mop up the juices,” he said.
“For me, that’s the best way to share my pride and joy in Palestinian culture.”