In Gaza's Kitchens

A New Cookbook Bites Into This Spicy Cuisine

Nate Lavey

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published April 17, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Gazans are used to talking with visitors about the political situation with Israel. But it’s not every day that two writers come knocking with questions about local cuisine.

“Everyone wants to hear about borders, the situation, the blockade,” said Maggie Schmitt, co-author with Laila El-Haddad of the new cookbook, “The Gaza Kitchen.” “We said, ‘No, no. We want to talk about lentils.’”

Video: Nate Lavey

For two months, El-Haddad and Schmitt traveled the densely populated Gaza Strip learning about traditional foods and culinary techniques to create what is likely the first cookbook — and most certainly the first English-language tome — on Gazan home cooking.

“The Gaza Kitchen” is part cookbook and part anthropological study. Zooming in on the lives of every day Palestinians, it argues that diet and cuisine are shaped by Israeli policy. Hamas, meanwhile, is referenced briefly, most notably in a discussion about the merits and drawbacks of the Hamas-led government’s program for agricultural self-sufficiency.

Schmitt, an American writer based in Madrid, first visited Gaza in 2009 on a citizen diplomacy trip shortly after Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli military incursion into Gaza in response to Palestinian rocket fire. She was researching a story on Gazan food and found almost nothing online, save for a magazine article and a few blog posts by El-Haddad, a Palestinian journalist in Maryland who grew up between Saudi Arabia and Gaza. Schmitt made contact with El-Haddad, and the two decided to write a cookbook that would rectify the lack of English-language writing on Gazan cuisine and culture.

In June 2010, they met in person in Gaza. El Haddad’s parents, who live in Gaza City, helped the pair get in touch with dozens of Gaza’s renowned home cooks. “The Gaza Kitchen” introduces readers to 89-year-old Um Ibrahim, who shares a recipe for fermented wheat stew and talks about her family’s displacement during the 1948 war. Readers also meet Um Hana, a talented home chef who hid with her husband, his second wife and their numerous children in a storeroom for 22 days during Cast Lead. But not all the stories are about suffering: “The Gaza Kitchen” includes a sidebar on the Zeitun Women’s Cooperative, which creates pre-cooked meals for families in Gaza City and earns its members a living in the process.

Though Gaza is a scant 25 miles long, its traditional cuisine is richly varied and distinct in the region; the book includes recipes for dagga, Gaza’s classic hot tomato salad, shorabit frikah, green wheat soup, maqlouba, upside-down casserole and sanayit hulba, fenugreek olive oil cake. Many dishes feature a savory-sweet spice blend made with nutmeg, ground red pepper, cinnamon and other seasonings called ibharat qidar, which reflects Gazan’s position between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean on an ancient spice route. Unlike Palestinian food in the West Bank — and most cuisines in the Levant — Gazan food is very spicy. It also rivals Greek cookery in its prolific use of dill seed and dill weed.

What and how Gazans cook has been influenced by the conflict with Israel. According to the book, the strip’s iconic red tahini — made by roasting sesame seeds — has all but disappeared from Gaza kitchens since Israel began flooding the local food market with inexpensive white tahini. Refugees in Gaza have incorporated food rations from the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency, such as powdered milk, into their cooking. And the avocado, introduced to Gaza by Israeli settlers in the 1980s, is now a favorite ingredient.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.