Michelle Nazzal (right) started Mishmish to represent her Palestinian roots. Her friend Cee Hernandez (left) helps out with the pop-up and also runs a separate bakery business called Heidi'z Pantry. (Alan Chazaro)
¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region’s culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.
I love the East Bay. On a spring afternoon, you can wander into an Oakland punk bar with an outdoor patio to enjoy a cocktail with a longtime friend and discuss the rise of artificial intelligence with a stranger at your table — all while sharing plates of fattoush (an Arabic salad) and foul medammes (a fava bean dip served with oil and pita bread) beneath the hazy sun.
Slow moments like this are welcomed in our fast-paced world — a chance to check in, make new connections and nourish a sense of self-care and community through an exchange of cultural lessons and life experiences. And, at least for this particular dive bar pop-up, Mishmish — Michelle Nazzal’s take on vegan Palestinian recipes with a Bay Area lens — is at the center of it all.
For Nazzal, who is mixed white and Palestinian, food transcends a mere meal. Instead, it becomes a way to acknowledge the resilience of others, a conduit to pass down sacred knowledge and a gathering point for intergenerational optimism.
After stopping by Eli’s Mile High Club — where the pop-up ran throughout April — to experience Mishmish, I asked Nazzal about her connection to Palestine, Northern California and her grandmother’s recipes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alan Chazaro: Let’s start with “Mishmish.” What does that concept mean for you, and how did it turn into a food pop-up?
Michelle Nazzal: It’s something that’s very personal to me. It means “apricot” in Arabic. [But it’s also] a nickname my grandpa gave me as a kid. People in my family call me that.
When I was putting together Mishmish, it started out in a different format. I was a graphic designer [at the time] and I was thinking of ways to document food. I spent time with my grandma and wanted to catalog it. It started out as a [PDF] cookbook project, a personal thing with family photos and things like that. It sort of became a thing where I made food for friends, and they asked if I had a pop-up. My parents had a grocery and deli around San Francisco but I hadn’t thought about getting into making food. It’s different [from the family’s market]. It’s Palestinian and vegan. A lot of Palestinian food is innately vegan, but I took time to change recipes that are usually meat-centric. It started out in 2021.
In thinking about how I want Mishmish to feel, it’s welcoming and community-based. Providing things that are authentic and mostly traditional and hard to find, things I grew up with that are weird and niche, like jameed, a dried yogurt ball. It’s a really big process, but there’s no vegan version of that. I want to figure that out and offer it. Having my own twist on things that I’ve discovered and played around with as a vegan [that incorporate] other Arabic flavors as well.
Are apricots common in Palestinian food?
Apricots are used frequently in desserts. You can get it in Turkish delight, puddings are made from or topped with it, compotes, jams. [It’s used] as a sweet component. There’s also a saying in Arabic, “Bukra fil mish-mish.” The season for apricots is so quick. They ripen and go bad really quickly. It’s a saying everyone always says. It’s like saying “when pigs fly.”
When did your family migrate from Palestine to the Bay Area, and in what ways has food been passed on throughout that transition?
I grew up with this food because of my grandma. My grandparents immigrated here in the ‘60s with a rich culture and background and all their recipes. When the partition happened in the ‘40s, my grandma was expelled from the land, which is now Tel Aviv. They decided they wanted to give the family a bit of a better life. A lot of [Palestinians] moved in the ‘60s. My family moved directly to San Francisco, around Cole Valley. They lived in one building, one family per floor, but all our family was together. My dad got to grow up with his first cousins in the same building.
My grandma grew up on a farm in Jericho, raising her food and livestock. The perspective she brings to [foodmaking] is from her region. My grandma taught me how to break down a vegetable or animal [because] it all has a purpose. We honor it. There’s something special about that. She showed me how to make a lot of things fully from scratch. There’s a tenderness and slowness to that. It can take multiple days; it’s involved and hands-on to prepare a big dish. It’s so community-based and community-oriented. Palestinians have a connection to the soil and agriculture which has been passed down through generations.
Growing up in the diaspora and having never gone to Palestine has been challenging, so my direct connection is through food and recipes. That’s how I connect to ancestral things I’ve inherited from my family.
Why is it important for you to serve Palestinian food in today’s Bay Area?
There’s so much erasure happening with Palestine — the people, culture, land. Being in diaspora, you’re one step removed from everything, and the further you get and water it down, the more it gets diluted and starts disappearing. In the diaspora, it’s a good idea for us to represent those roots.
My family comes from a Christian background, and there are a lot of Christian Palestinians in the Bay — especially in San Francisco, San Jose. If we went to a market, we knew people were Palestinian but it was never broadly announced. It’s challenging to honor your background as a small business owner, making sure it doesn’t affect your business. It was more challenging perhaps to do that back then, but it’s important to me to make that an essential part of what I’m doing. I don’t shy away from it. I have a punk and anarchist background so it’s important to honor that. Sharing my food, that’s important. Removing Palestine from it isn’t doing justice to the sacrifices my family has made.
What challenges have you faced as a Palestinian American food maker?
When people think of places like the Arab region there tends to be a stereotype about the people or how the food will taste. With Arab food people default to shawarma, falafel, hummus. But there’s so much nuance to our food. It’s challenging when you have a pop-up because there are certain expectations to [serve] things like hummus. But I don’t always want to give that to people. I want to share dishes I grew up with that are special to me.
What’s the most popular item you serve at Mishmish? And what’s an example of a traditional Palestinian dish that represents comfort for you?
My cashew labneh is a big hit. People who are lactose intolerant or maybe have never had labneh before love it. I’ve been a vegetarian for a long time and went vegan five or six years ago. I had to figure out how to replace knafeh, which is a cheese-based dessert, and labneh [with vegan substitutes]. That’s really special for me to share with people who have a similar background to experience and invoke those memories, but also for those who haven’t had it before to introduce those flavors.
Depending upon where you’re from in Palestinian, there are very regional dishes. Labneh is, traditionally, yogurt that has been salted over time and fermented for over a week or so. Knafeh is very Palestinian, from Nablus. My family uses sweet and salty cheese and dough, like shredded filo, with orange powder and butter for a crunchy effect. It gets baked and dusted in sugar — it’s syrupy, very sweet, salty, crunchy. Depending on which region you’re from, they will make it differently. In Gaza they don’t use cheese; they make more of a baklava filling with spiced walnuts and pistachios. But it’s specifically Palestinian.
There are variations [of similar dishes in other regions]. Labneh, hummus, falafel — a lot of people in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, they all make similar food. But it’s important to highlight things that are specific to your culture, to make those differentiations. That’s important to me with Mishmish — to make dishes that have inspirations, maybe from Persian food or other Arab countries that are adjacent to Palestine, but I want to make sure to make that differentiation.
How has growing up in San Francisco and Petaluma influenced your approach to food?
I sometimes take special trips around the Bay to get something I’m specifically looking for. I remember being a kid and taking Muni with my grandma and going to different Filipino vendors to find things that are similar in our cultures. My grandma would find the closest possible thing to use in her cooking. That’s really special — being able to adapt and support other people and cultures. It’s a cool cross-cultural way of honoring food. It gives you a wider appreciation.
A few businesses here are an inspiration for me. Queens in San Francisco, a Korean market. They make and vend Korean foods and ingredients you can’t really find anywhere else. Reem’s, of course, is an amazing Arab street food place and bakery. I love their idea of creating equitable workplaces for people. That’s important to how I structure my business and how I want to hire and provide a safe work environment for people who are paid well. I also like Lion Dance — they’re a vegan Singaporean restaurant here in Oakland. I appreciate their approach. One of the owners is Singaporean and the other is Italian, so they’ve created a beautiful menu that honors the authenticity of their foods and cultures. I celebrate that and want to see that more for SSWANA people.
SSWANA means South Asian, Southwest Asian and North African. When you think of Middle Eastern versus SSWANA, SSWANA is actually more accurate. Middle Eastern is a colonized word and term that was created by people who aren’t Arab. I’m trying to help change that narrative by changing my vocabulary. I’ve had a wild experience filling out my ethnicity on census forms.
That’s dope, I didn’t know that. I think specificity is important for the liberation of all groups. What’s next on your food journey?
It feels good to see where I’ve gone without any [formal] cooking background. I’ve cooked with my family throughout my life, but by figuring out how to make food to order and things like that, I’ve made progress. I’m always wondering: What feels good? How do I want to move forward? What that means for me right now is I’ll probably move away from the pop-up format and go into farmers markets and package my food and eventually keep building toward my brick-and-mortar grocery and deli. When I first started out I didn’t have the intention of it being a full-blown food project, but it went on that trajectory.
Mishmish operates as a roaming pop-up around the Bay Area. Check online for updates on locations and menus. They appear every second Sunday of the month at Birba Wine Bar (458 Grove St., San Francisco) from 1–8 p.m. They will also pop up atMillennium Restaurant (5912 College Ave., Oakland) on Sun., May 21 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Abacus Row (1256 Mason St., San Francisco) on Sat., June 24, time TBD.
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