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

(page 2 of 2)

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.

Co-authors Maggie Schmitt (right) and Laila El-Haddad (left) prepare the traditional Gazan dish maftoul.
Nate Lavey
Co-authors Maggie Schmitt (right) and Laila El-Haddad (left) prepare the traditional Gazan dish maftoul.

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 zeveloff@forward.com.


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!
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • 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.