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Kal Penn’s primetime shoutout to Palestinian refugees is gift that keeps on giving

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Kal Penn’s swoon factor shot up a thousand fold last week when he prepared a tantalizing Pan-Seared Halibut Taco dish on MasterChef Celebrity Showdown and donated his $25,000 winnings to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA USA) and called on viewers to help buy jackets, mattresses, and blankets for Palestinians in camps.

Take a look at his mouthwatering presentation, he even prepared those masa tortillas from scratch:

Kal Penn's winning beer marinated Pan-Seared Halibut Tacos with Chipotle-Aioli sauce, citrus-coleslaw garnish and Avocados. Photo: Screenshot MasterChef Showdown

Kal Penn’s winning beer marinated Pan-Seared Halibut Tacos with Chipotle-Aioli sauce, Citrus-Coleslaw garnish and Avocados. Photo: Screenshot MasterChef Showdown

Penn, an international celebrity and actor on ABC’s Designated Survivor, is best known for his role as Kumar Patel in the iconic stoner Harold and Kumar comedy series and lead actor in the critically acclaimed Indian-American drama The Namesake, not to mention public service working in the White House Office of Public Engagement. He generated a lot of buzz on social media with his several tweets promoting the show and his choice of charity. 

His inspiring explanation:

Only in America can a guy make tacos on FOX TV, almost lose an eye, &win 25,000 to support refugees. We are so fortunate as Americans to live in a country as prosperous as ours. Especially during the Christmas, Hannukah, and Kwanzaa holidays, & in hopes that the New Year will bring peace and prosperity around the world, I thought it was important to choose an organization that directly helps those facing impossible hardships, especially refugees. Much of our own media attention is focused away from the human stories of children and families who are suffering due to displacement against the rule of international law, terrorism, & violence from so many sides. So having the chance to cook to benefit refugee families in MasterChef seemd like the right thing to do. 
In the last week, at the United Nations, & in washington, DC, secretary Kerry & Ambassador Power called on the international community, including Americans, to come together to raise money & help ensure that compensation & other needs of Palestinian refugees are met. As Secretary Kerry outlined, 1.3 million people out of Gaza’s population of 2 million are in need of daily assistance. I’m honored to have the chance to cook on behalf of UNRWAUSA’s refugee aid program & join folks in hoping for a peaceful & prosperous 2017 for everyone. Happy New Year!””

Because it is a captivating, dramatic and very funny episode, it brings the plight of Palestinian refugees into the national spotlight and continues to do so as FOX is still featuring the episode online. According to UNRWA, the response has been amazing.

Kal Penn's beer marinated halibut strips

Kal Penn’s beer marinated halibut strips

Laila Mokhiber, Palesinian-American Director of Communications for UNRWA USA, told me she was “hanging at the edge of my seat” during the show.  “Everybody’s so psyched about this. I knew he was competing but I was still shocked, it kind of made me speechless”.

Kal Penn in stare down with competitor Cheryl Hines. Screenshot: MasterChef/Fox

Kal Penn in stare down with competitor Cheryl Hines. Screenshot: MasterChef/Fox

Because Penn didn’t just support UNRWA with his win, but offered to send “some of you a thank you postcard” for making donations, Mokhiber said it caused a big spike in donations: “people go crazy over him, we’re so lucky to have him on our side.” And let’s face it, he’s a heart-throb.

Screenshot: AHH! Kal Penn takes a jab in the eye from competitor Cheryl Hines, for Palestinian refugees!

Screenshot: AHH! Kal Penn takes a jab in the eye from competitor Cheryl Hines, for Palestinian refugees!

All in fun and good sportsmanship, Penn’s competitor, actor Cheryl Hines, crossed over to his side of the stage while Penn was immersed in preparing his mouth-watering, beer-tenderized masa tortilla mix for his pan-seared halibut tacos (with aioli-chipotle sauce – also beer based), and pinched him in the eye with a pair of hot kitchen calipers – he howled out in pain — then FOX promptly cut to commercial!

A mistake!

A mistake!

Hines had admitted earlier, after one of the hosts asked her if she was drunk, that she may have been a tad tipsy from sipping beer, the required “mystery ingredient” added to the contestants’ recipes.

Kal Penn preparing Masa tortillas from scratch with one eye.

Kal Penn preparing Masa/beer tortillas from scratch with one eye.

I asked Mokhiber if UNRWA had reached out to Penn about the show and she said, amazingly, they had made no arrangement with him at all. She said Penn “thought of this all on his own which is even more exciting. To put it on mainstream, on Fox, the incredible things that people have been talking about, the needs of Palestinian refugees are even more dire than when they were first displaced.”

Preparing Aioli, a Mediterranean sauce made of garlic and olive oil, pre chipotle and beer.

Abby Smardon, UNRWA USA executive director told Mondoweiss that Penn’s appearance on MasterChef was a huge win for Palestinian refugees. She said it was an issue that “millions of Americans care deeply about,” but that it rarely gets the media attention it deserves.

The lives of Palestinian refugees have been under assault for decades due to Israel’s relentless occupation and the draconian blockade of Gaza. 

Preparing Beer/Citrus-Coleslaw garnish. Screenshot MasterChef/FOX

Preparing salted Citrus-Coleslaw garnish with Olive Oil. Screenshot MasterChef/FOX

And Smardon said that for Penn, as an international celebrity, to proudly speak out about his support for Palestinian refugees on primetime TV was a “public validation of what so much of the US community already believes– the rights of Palestinian refugees are human rights, and these rights must be respected.”

I agree with her. I think awareness of Israel’s occupation of Palestine has reached critical mass and millions of Americans do care deeply for this issue, which is why Penn’s choice of charity generated so much press.

Screenshot: Searing beer-tenderized Halibut

Screenshot: Searing beer-marinated halibut

In fact, Penn got so much response donating his $25,000 winnings to UNRWA he’s left this 9 day old tweet pinned to the top of his feed:

One of the judges called Kal’s beer marinated halibut tacos “bloody delicious” and personally, I’d like the recipe. If Kal Penn released his recipe online, he’d make a lot of us very happy. And wouldn’t that be a great way to keep the buzz going.

His final words murmured as he was exiting the stage with his competitor was “Oh I can’t see anything”. But Penn sees exactly what millions of us see, and he did something about it in a very big way. You can show your appreciation by visiting UNRWA USA, and making a donation. 

Let Penn’s gift be the gift that keeps on giving.

Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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16 Responses

  1. chocopie on January 13, 2017, 4:05 pm

    Fantastic. So great to see support for Palestinians expressed in mainstream media. Hope his eye is OK.

    • bintbiba on January 13, 2017, 5:30 pm

      So many thanks, annie, for bringing us Non-Fox watchers in London this article and news !

      • annie on January 13, 2017, 5:55 pm

        my pleasure bintbiba! can you access the episode (at my link) over in the UK? it’s a great episode, i’ve watched it a bunch of times. he’s definitely fun to watch.

  2. Citizen on January 13, 2017, 4:17 pm

    I love White Castles too!

    • annie on January 13, 2017, 8:06 pm

      he’s hot. did you see namesake? great movie, and i really like him on designated survivor — i like that series. but i’ll tell you i’m like laila, i went over the moon when i found out about this, what a guy. over the moon and edge of my seat. just wow. plus, i don’t know what it is about watching men cook — just a fetish of mine. and he definitely looks like he knows his way around a kitchen.

      and thank god for UNRWA!

  3. Citizen on January 13, 2017, 8:32 pm

    I don’t know if he’s “hot,” but I wish there was a White Castle in my state so I could get some hot off the grill!

  4. ahadhaadam on January 13, 2017, 9:16 pm

    The UN – as impotent as ever – has chosen for 70 years to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem instead of addressing the root cause of it – the Jewish State’s “demographic problem” – and sanctioning the perpetrator. Although this act is good publicity for the Palestinian refugee problem, directing funds to UNRWA without providing the context is just repeating the folly of the UN and the international community in dealing with Israel/Palestine.

    • annie on January 13, 2017, 10:37 pm

      i don’t think UNRWA has the power to change policy. between now and whenever it is the UN/international community gets it together to DO something about palestine, i don’t know what palestinian refugees would do without UNRWA.

      UNRWA teaches 493,500 children in the largest and one of the highest achieving school systems in the region.
      UNRWA operates 137 primary health facilities, with 9.4 million annual patient visits.
      UNRWA feeds more than 1 million refugees through its food aid program.
      UNRWA empowers over 7,000 men and women each year at 8 vocational and technical training centers.
      UNRWA has awarded over $402.5 million in micro-finance loans to Palestine refugees.

      if you care about the well being of palestinian refugees, UNRWA is a supremely worthy charity.

      directing funds to UNRWA without providing the context is just repeating the folly of the UN

      i disagree, and our readers already know enough of the context.

      • ahadhaadam on January 14, 2017, 5:21 am

        ” our readers already know enough of the context.” – Yes, but not the general public who heard about Penn’s gesture.

      • Susan A on January 14, 2017, 7:18 am

        I agree with you totally Annie

    • jd65 on January 14, 2017, 12:13 pm

      Hello ahadhaadam. While I agree that it’s frustrating when the issue of root causes are not presented to contextualize, sometimes it’s alright/helpful to be able to see something for what it is on its own. You write this: …this act is good publicity for the Palestinian refugee problem… I agree. Maybe, even if only for a few at first, it can be a gateway to deeper understanding of root causes. You gotta start somewhere…

      And I agree w/ Annie about the purview of UNRWA. Saying one shouldn’t support UNRWA because the real issue is Zionism, is kinda like saying you shouldn’t support cancer research because the real problem is big tobacco and McDonalds.

  5. AddictionMyth on January 14, 2017, 8:26 am

    White Castle is so disgusting I can’t understand why anyone would eat it. What the hell is wrong with people?

  6. Misterioso on January 14, 2017, 1:28 pm

    Kal Penn

    As Duke Ellington used to say when he and his band finished a performance, “We love you madly!!!!”

  7. John Salisbury on January 14, 2017, 6:30 pm

    As long as the occupation and grotesque injustice persist there will be little outbreaks of advocacy that irritate and infuriate Israel.

  8. gamal on January 14, 2017, 11:14 pm

    dear Annie

    i have to put it simply if you could just spend 20 minutes on the opening of anaml, the ants, to the uninitiated his genius might not be apparent, its deep. no more than 20 minutes just the opening.

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