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In writing “The Gaza Kitchen,” Schmitt and El-Haddad spent countless hours testing and refining recipes that had never before been written down. “So much of the challenge we faced was transforming oral knowledge and making it usable,” said El-Haddad. Yet even with the book in hand, a home cook approaching Gazan cuisine would do well to employ a degree of intuition and improvisation — like Schmitt and El-Haddad did when they cooked with me in March while on a book tour in New York City.
With El-Haddad’s four-month-old daughter in tow, the pair arrived at the apartment of a friend of mine. On the menu was maftoul, Palestinian couscous served with yakhni, a savory aromatic stew of chicken, butternut squash, tomatoes and chickpeas. A classic Gazan comfort food, “Palestinians request it when they are coming home from abroad,” said El-Haddad.
She slipped her baby onto a couch in the living room and got to work on the chicken, meticulously removing the fat from the raw meat and scrubbing it with a fresh lemon over the kitchen sink. This fastidiousness is commonplace in Gaza; as a child of an Arab cook it’s the first thing one learns, said El-Haddad.
“Not all home cooks are quite as neurotic as Laila,” Schmitt chimed in with a grin. Taking over for El-Haddad, she poured a heavy drizzle of olive oil into a pot and dropped the raw chicken in. As the chicken popped and crackled, the two took turns chopping vegetables. Schmitt dumped several mugs of water over the frying chicken to begin creating the stew.
El-Haddad then produced two small bags of dried maftoul. Browner and larger than the couscous found in most American markets, it was created by a member of the Zeitun Women’s Cooperative named Lulu, whose burgeoning maftoul business El-Haddad and Schmitt helped to finance. The pair spritzed the grains with water and then set them to steam atop a cheesecloth draped over the chicken pot.
Next, El-Haddad held up a shallow clay bowl. “This,” she said, “is the soul of Gazan cooking.” Considered a treasured family member by some Gaza home cooks, the zabadiya is used as a mortar in which to crush spices and as cookware for dishes such as zibdiyit gambari, or shrimp in a clay pot. This particular zabadiya was created by a potter in Gaza City; El-Haddad’s parents transported it on a recent trip to the United States.
El Haddad used a wooden pestle to crush salt and dill seed — known to Palestinians as “locust eyes” — into the zabadiya. Pounding each ingredient as she went, she added red chili pepper flakes, dill weed and onions. The result was a spicy green and red mix that she added to the maftoul. It’s called the “bride of the maftoul,” she told me. Why? “Because without it, it wouldn’t be a wedding.”
In a small pan, El-Haddad and Schmitt sauteed the vegetables with a spice blend from Gaza City. The cooked chicken was removed from the pot, the vegetables went in, and the fragrant maftoul was lifted off its cheesecloth sieve.
Minutes later, El-Haddad and Schmitt emerged from the kitchen with an oval platter of steaming maftoul topped by the yakhni stew. It was served with the reserved liquid from the pot — a brown, satiny gravy — and dried sour plums. I dug in. The dish had the sweet hominess of chicken pot pie, cut through with the blaze of Gazan spice. It was familiar and novel all at once. But then again, so is the idea of a kitchen in Gaza.
For the complete maftoul and yakhni recipe, click here.
Naomi Zeveloff is the deputy culture editor of the Forward. Contact her at email@example.com.