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Here's what a chef in Bethlehem cooks up for Christmas Day

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

On this Christmas Day, I'd like to take you to the little town of Bethlehem, where tradition says Jesus was born, and where Fadi Kattan was born. Is that true?

FADI KATTAN: Good morning.

ESTRIN: Fadi Kattan is a gourmet chef in the heart of Bethlehem. I went there a few days ago because I wanted to see this city at Christmastime through his eyes - and his kitchen.

KATTAN: We're in the middle of the old city in my great-great-grandparents' house.

ESTRIN: Give us a little aerial view here, because we have an incredible view.

KATTAN: So on your left, you can see two bell towers. In Bethlehem, most Christian denominations are represented.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)

ESTRIN: How do you sleep? Is this every hour?

KATTAN: I am in a tug of war with those sounds. Basically, I'm an insomniac, so I do wake up at 5:15, 5:30. The mosque and the churches go off at 5:30.

ESTRIN: He got back from London just the other night. He's opening a restaurant there next month dedicated to Palestinian cuisine with a modern twist. On the brunch menu, there's going to be a dish Bethlehemites eat only at Christmastime, and that's what we're making today. We walk out the back door right into the open-air market to buy the ingredients.

KATTAN: So now we're in the middle of the market.

ESTRIN: Your stairs lead right into the market.

KATTAN: Yep. (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Everyone's greeting you, welcoming you back home.

KATTAN: Yes. That's the beauty of Bethlehem. It's a little town. You know, the little town of Christmas is still a little town. I very often smile when I am in the U.S. and people talk about Bethlehem as if it was a myth. Bethlehem is a real city with real people. People who live in Bethlehem are Arabs who speak Arabic, who are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, maybe the oldest. Hello. That's our spice shop.

ESTRIN: Hello.

The wall is covered in spice jars.

KATTAN: Yogurt spice, kidra spice, falafel spice, butter spice. The one that's in here, this is called church incense, but it's actually frankincense.

ESTRIN: One of the gifts of the wise men to the baby Jesus.

KATTAN: And this incense, I'm obsessed with this smell, and I'm trying to create a dish with this.

ESTRIN: He's thinking maybe a frankincense cocktail.

KATTAN: Smell it.

ESTRIN: Wow.

KATTAN: Actually, don't smell it. Taste it. Take that smell and imagine what it tastes like. It's the smell of pines. It's the smell of forest. I think it's a challenge I'll get to the bottom of soon.

ESTRIN: Today, we're making a kind of sweet porridge called burbara, named after Saint Barbara or Santa Barbara.

KATTAN: Burbara. The story is that Barbara was the daughter of a pagan king. She converted to Christianity. Her dad wasn't happy about it, basically sent his soldiers looking for her. She hid in a field of wheat and the wheat grew to cover her. That's the story. I don't believe in myths, but I love the dish. So basically, we slow cook.

ESTRIN: We get wheat pearls, raisins, dried apricots, candied anise seeds and fennel seeds and head back to his kitchen.

KATTAN: So it's wheat and sugar, and we're going to let them nicely cook. In 20 minutes, we'll add the fennel and the anise ground spices. And then the dried fruits, half of them go in at the same time. It'll cook for another 20 minutes, and then we use the rest of the dried fruits and the candy to decorate little bowls, which will then be joined together. And now we wait for 20 minutes, and what do we do in the Arab world when we wait? We have coffee.

ESTRIN: We drink our coffee on the balcony. Past the bell towers is a newer feature of the landscape, a barrier in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

KATTAN: It's crazy to think that we are the most holy - the holy city in the world for Christians. There's a freaking wall at the entrance of the city, a barbed wire wall.

ESTRIN: So this wall that Israel built during the 2000s during the Palestinian intifada, a lot of attacks happening inside Israel, and they build a wall that around Bethlehem is an actual cement - tall cement wall.

KATTAN: 12 meters high. Yes, there were a lot of Palestinian attacks, but the wall has never stopped attacks.

ESTRIN: A series of lethal Palestinian attacks on Israelis this year sparked Israeli military raids. This year's been the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank in 17 years.

KATTAN: What is changing? Nothing. It's worse and worse.

ESTRIN: He says he used to think Palestinians should have their own country and Israelis should have their own, too. But now, he wants to live together in one country.

KATTAN: What I'd love to see - you see this little garden? That, I planted 20 years ago. It's a nice mess. There's oranges and olives and acacias and cherries and figs. What I'd love to see is this in this part of the world. That...

ESTRIN: A beautiful mess of a garden.

KATTAN: Yes, that mess which we are. If we look at who the Palestinians and the Israelis are, we are a remains of 100,000 cultures. We have been occupied by every single civilization around the Mediterranean and beyond. Maybe it's time we stop doing ghettos.

ESTRIN: As a Palestinian, he needs an Israeli permit to enter Jerusalem. Things were more fluid when he was a kid. He'd go from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, where his school shared a wall with a Hasidic Jewish school.

KATTAN: One of - my English teacher actually was a Canadian lady of Jewish faith, and we'd have jelly doughnuts. And actually, let's be honest, the jelly in them is pretty disgusting. But it is a memory of childhood, and, you know, we all have these foods from childhood where we know they're disgusting, but we still like them and we find them endearing. So if you would have gotten jelly doughnuts for Hanukkah, I would have loved eating one.

ESTRIN: The burbara is ready. It tastes like comfort food. It's warm and sweet. Kind of tastes like porridge. Fadi Kattan says for him, Christmas is his memories of his grandmother, sharing her Christmas cakes with the community in Bethlehem.

KATTAN: My grandmother wrote a nice little book of stories, and one of the stories was about Christmas and how she celebrated Christmas in her father's house. The book was called (speaking Arabic), "Lest We Forget." Sorry. If I celebrate Christmas, it's because of what she told me. But I think today is the first time you're tasting burbara, and I celebrate joy with you. That's the power of food. The power of food is not getting people together. It's transmitting joy to people.

ESTRIN: Fadi Kattan is a chef in Bethlehem. His restaurant, Akub, opens in London next month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.