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.’”
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.