Jakarta: In November, a month after the Israeli military began its relentless bombardment of the Gaza Strip, Michelle Santoso posted her first attempt at making Palestinian maqluba on Instagram.

In the video, the Chinese Indonesian chef walks into the frame carrying a heavy pot, before turning it upside down to reveal layers of rice, vegetables and meat.

She then celebrated her culinary achievement with a little dance.

“Once you make it, you’re like — you get it, like you get why they dance after that,” she told Arab News, referring to social media clips showing people rejoicing after a successful attempt at making the epic dish.

The video of Santoso making maqluba has since garnered more than 2.3 million views on Instagram, marking the beginning of her journey exploring the culinary treasures of Palestine and sharing them with the rest of the world.

“After Oct. 7 happened … I just felt really lost and I felt really helpless. And I think a lot of us felt that way at the time. So, I thought, you know what, like, why don’t we celebrate Palestinian culture and Palestinian heritage?”

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Indonesia, Santoso has been working as a chef for more than a decade and started making videos on social media about three years ago.

Maqluba, a seasoned rice meal cooked with fried vegetables and either chicken or other meat, and which literally translates to “upside down,” was the first Palestinian delicacy Santoso had ever tried to make.

Since then, she has gone on to make other Palestinian dishes and post them on the internet. This includes mujaddara, or lentils cooked with rice and onions; freekeh soup, a comforting bowl made of the namesake Levantine grain and infused with cardamom; and Nabulsi knafeh, the layered and crispy spun pastry soaked in sweet syrup with stretchy cheese named after the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Last month, the 35-year-old for the first time attempted to make akkawi cheese, an undertaking that gained her the most traction on a post to date, with 4.6 million views and counting on Instagram alone.

“I think the reason why people responded a lot to that was because I did my research,” Santoso said. “In my videos, you know, we are never just talking about Palestinian food. I’m also talking about the history.”

In the video, Santoso narrates the origins of the white brine cheese that centuries ago was developed in the northern Palestinian port town of Akka, known today as Acre.

Her videos start off like most food content on the web, where viewers first learn the name of a dish before the steps needed to make it. The familiar start is what catches most people off guard by the time she begins to narrate the story of the food, often probing the audience to think about how such aspects relate to Palestinian history and Israel’s deadly attacks on Gaza, which in the past six months have killed more than 32,500 Palestinians.

“I think the reason why I do that is because I want to humanize Palestinian voices, or Palestine in general, because food is a gateway,” Santoso said.

“You can’t just eat the food and not think about what’s happening in Palestine, especially if you’re eating Palestinian food.”

Santoso’s content has struck a chord far and wide, catching the attention of Arabs residing in the West and also of Palestinians, who shower her with appreciation in the comment section.

“I really … didn’t feel like I was doing a lot, but it meant a lot to other people,” she said. “I think I confuse a lot of people because I’m Chinese and I’m Christian. So, ‘why is she talking about Palestine? And also, why is she cooking Palestinian food?’ And I think that the initial confusion is probably why people watch the video.”

Santoso’s videos became her take on activism, and her following has grown to more than 127,000 from just around 7,000 in November.

“Without me really knowing I’ve (gone) into food activism, but my intention was to talk about it. So, it is a form of activism and because food is preservation, it is also resistance,” she said.

Since she started posting Palestinian food content, her new followers have told her their personal stories as victims of Israeli attacks, while others have shared their family recipes.

“For me it’s precious cargo because to entrust someone with a family recipe, that’s not something that people like to do willingly,” she said. “But for Palestinians, it’s also a way of preserving their family culture or their family heritage.”

Through social media, Santoso hopes to help Palestinians keep their heritage alive and make more people aware of it.

“The more you keep a food alive, the more you remember where it’s come from. When you eat food or if you make a recipe, you’re actually remembering the past,” she said.

“And that’s what I really wanted to bring to the table … you’re eating something real and it’s come from a place with real people and real culture. And I didn’t want that to be forgotten.”


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