Eating vegan Palestinian food between the casks of the palpably cool Vinca Minor in Berkeley is an enthralling experience. The kifta features plant-based meat, allspice, cilantro, mint, and onion wrapped around a tiny stick and drizzled with a tahini sauce that sings. Thin slices of beet, layered like a fanned deck of cards, balance just the right amount of oil and crunch and come adorned with bright orange flowers. Cashew labna are a zingy, textural surprise. For Michelle Nazzal, it’s an average Saturday at her pop-up Mishmish.
Nazzal didn’t know she’d be running a pop-up when she set down this path in 2021. She worked for years as a graphic designer all throughout the Bay — her longest stint being a variety of positions over the course of more than six years at Sightglass Coffee — and at first thought she’d launch a series of cookbooks to catalog her grandmother’s recipes, threading sweet family photos among dish histories and ingredients. But now, as she sells those dishes through Mishmish, Nazzal says she’s realized her venture is about more than just recipes: Mismish is a way of preserving the culture and food that define her rich experience as a Palestinian American.
“Seeing my grandma bring her traditions here — and be able to share those with me — [and] how she had to change what she cooked based on what was available in California has been big for me in understanding the Palestinian diaspora,” Nazzal says. “To recreate the texture, taste, or in some cases just the sentiment of a dish.”
Mishmish means apricot in Arabic, and it’s the nickname Nazzal’s grandfather gave her when she was a kid living in the Richmond District. Her grandfather came to the United States in 1960 with Nazzal’s father, who was born in Palestine. The family went on to own multiple markets in the city, the first being on Cole Street around 17th Avenue, though the one that the family still manages is Richmond Market on 41st and Balboa Avenues. Nazzal was born in San Francisco and learned the ropes of shopkeeping and cooking from her grandmother, tete Laurain.
Now, Nazzal’s family is scattered throughout the Bay; she moved to Petaluma with her parents after a childhood in San Francisco. Her grandmother currently suffers from dementia, which inspired Nazzal’s cookbook. Next to vegan versions of her grandmother’s recipes — Nazzal eats vegan — readers find family photos and notes on when and where to serve dishes. “I’m the oldest granddaughter, so a lot of the knowledge went to me,” Nazzal says. “We’d get up in the morning, have an Arabic breakfast spread, then spend the day cooking. Those were really nice moments for me.”
Down the road, she’d like to keep tinkering with her recipes. The kiftas, for example, could be a lentil base rather than a store-bought meat alternative. She sees the end goal as a vegan and Palestinian shop of her own, akin to Tahona Mercado, where she could sell pints of cashew labna and host art shows.
Looking back, Nazzal says she has been finding ways to wed her Palestinian American identity with the present since 2019. The cashew labna was just for herself, at first. But these days vegan food is going bold new places, and she points to the Singaporean Chinese pop-up Lion Dance as inspiration for ways to mix heritage with fresh ideas. Adapting to a new culture is exactly what Nazzal says she learned from her grandmother. She wants to make sure no one has to hide who they are: she says she loves how loudly people are claiming their Palestinian labels these days. “In the past, people would just call themselves Middle Eastern or Arabic food,” Nazzal says. “Palestinian food can easily be pushed to the wayside, but within that region there are so many variations on the food and theme. My family’s food in the West Bank is different from the food in Gaza. It’s important to honor that.”