In the fall of 2022, Lyla Abukhodair, with her mother, Ann Abukhodair, and her husband, Samuel Miller, set on a mission to bring the heart of Palestine to Duluth, Minnesota, through food.
Abukhodair, who went to school for social work, was jaded from nonprofit work and felt called to explore and reclaim her Palestinian heritage. Taking inspiration from her mom’s small herbal medicine and preserved foods business, she and Ann launched a small pop-up bake sale at Dream Cloud Coffee Roasters, a friend’s cafe. They called it Falastin Duluth, and sold fragrant rose-pistachio baklava and manikish with za’atar and cheese. Much to their surprise, they sold out to a line out the door.
From there, Falastin slowly expanded to include dinner dishes like kofta platters and musakhan, the Palestinian national dish, with bigger menus and even bigger lines. Now, one year into their monthly pop-ups — as global attention centers on Palestine following Hamas’s October 7 attack and Israel’s siege and bombardment of the Gaza Strip — Abukhodair and her family are using their platform and voices to raise awareness about the occupation in Palestine, to fundraise for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, and to convey a message of cultural and political resilience. Abdukhodair (also a rising Duluth musician) plans to eventually open a deli and market, bringing more Palestinian dishes and ingredients to Duluth — in the meantime, she’s using Falastin to educate diners and inspire them to share what they’ve learned with others. Here, she reflects on how ongoing violence and displacement threaten Palestinian life and culture, and how food reflects history, lineage, and resilience.
Eater: What is your family’s immigration story, and what is your relationship to this history?
Lyla Abukhodair: My family is from Shu’afat, a village in Jerusalem. During the Six-Day War in 1967, my family was displaced and became refugees. My grandpa was working in Jordan, and while he was traveling for work, my grandma and her kids, including my dad, were forced to flee and not allowed back. Since then most of my family now lives in Jordan, and a few are in the States. My dad got a scholarship when he was 18 to study at the University of Minnesota and met my mother there. I’m from Duluth. I’ve lived here my whole life. My mom is from Fergus Falls, Minnesota, so she is not Palestinian, although she’s the best Palestinian cook I know. She really embodied the Palestinian culture of sharing, always having your table open for people. It’s such an iconic Palestinian trait.
What role did Palestinian food play in your life growing up in Duluth?
Food has been my main connection to culture because I don’t speak Arabic well. I’m not Muslim. Since Palestine has had ongoing occupation for [more than] 100 years, I’m realizing how much it is a huge part of me. You can’t say you’re Palestinian without there being some kind of response. I want to acknowledge the good responses I’ve had lately, but growing up, it wasn’t very good. We always had our family and friends over, constantly eating our food and sharing. It brought me closer to my culture when I was so confused about who I am. Growing up in a small, predominantly white, predominantly Christian town, with an atheist mom and a Muslim dad, my family wasn’t normal up here. Food was really the only way I felt comfortable talking about my identity growing up as a kid, because Palestinian food is really good. There’s no arguing that! Food is an act of resilience, because when Palestinian culture and land are occupied, our food, along with our existence and way of life, gets stolen.
What kind of values or approach does Falastin Duluth take to cooking Palestinian food?
When we’re thinking about values and missions as we’re growing into a bigger business, I really want to be upfront and unapologetically Palestinian. We deserve a voice, and we deserve a space. There are so many Palestinians everywhere around the world, and that’s because of the Israeli occupation. You can’t talk about Palestinian food without the context. That’s why we need to be loud, because there are a lot of things that want to silence us. I want to hold that true in everything we do, and be honest about who we are — because it’s a privilege that I get to talk to you about it without going to jail. To be honest, if I lived [in Palestine], I would. Falastin is how you say Palestine in Arabic, and the reason that’s our name is because I want it to feel like it’s a space for us. It’s a safe space for Palestine.
How does being unapologetically Palestinian translate into your food?
We go as authentic as we can. Authentic means to me how my grandma made it, how my family makes it. We want you to feel like you’re eating in Palestine — and when you eat in Palestine, it’s home cooking. We want to keep that feeling, so we do a lot of Palestinian national dishes. Palestinian food in Palestine is really regionally sourced: [For example,] a lot of the cheese comes from one certain area. The occupation makes it really hard to have businesses and to trade. But people still find a way, which I think is really beautiful.
As we grow, I want to always get the Palestinian-made ingredients when we import. In Duluth, a lot of people are innovative. Right now my husband’s working on a greenhouse so we can start growing [our ingredients], since we can’t go to the farmers market here, unfortunately, and buy the things we need. Palestinian food is very fresh; you have to have fresh ingredients. We’re friends with the people at the Food Farm, which is one of Minnesota’s biggest organic farms. Since we can’t go to Minneapolis to get fresh cheese or vegetables, we try to partner [locally] as much as we can because the heart of the food is sharing.
What is the bridge between Palestinian food and politics, and how does Falastin Duluth explore this connection?
Falastin is a way for us to feel connected, because it’s a really, really sad time. I feel like Falastin is strength; it’s power for us. If the least I can do is to put myself out there so that someone can meet a Palestinian, then there you go. If the least people can do is eat the food and see the hospitality of who we are, maybe they’ll change. Maybe they’ll see us as humans, as the media does not represent that. That’s why I’ve been using Falastin’s platform to share [information]. I think people want to learn and people want to know, but often they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. The platform we have is a privilege.
What is the future for Falastin Duluth’s brick-and-mortar deli? What are you envisioning?
We’re actively looking every day for the right spot. My dream is that you can sit down and have coffee and eat. But we also welcome you to buy the ingredients that you find here and ask us questions. Look in the deli case, try these different cheeses, try these things that maybe people haven’t had, and help bridge the education part of the food too. I want all of our favorite cookbooks there. I want family recipes readily available. I want freshly toasted spices, how they should taste, and I want people to be able to smell them because it’s a shame that they’re in plastic containers. I just want people to feel connected to Palestinian food in a way that they feel like, “I can do this. I want to do this at home too. I want to share this.” I want people to feel comfortable and safe and want to stay there, but I also want them to take it home and share that. With the market and the deli together, the dream is to share [Palestinian culture] in a way that can keep going.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.