Standing at the busy kitchen of the co-author of the Gaza Kitchen cookbook Maggie Schmitt, we prepare together Kefta (ground meat mixed with bread, spices and onions). She crushes the dill and hot chilli pepper craftily in a Gazan zibdiye (a heavy unglazed clay bowl, accompanied by a lemonwood pestle) that she admits has become one of her most precious kitchen items. I slice the tomatoes and onions while her 1-year-old son, curious, takes a taste from the Tahina (sesame paste) and squirms. Being from Gazan origin myself, this is not the first time I prepare Kefta and other Arab dishes. However growing up in the diaspora, I never found the Gazan recipes that my father so affectionately remembers from his childhood in the strip, so when I first heard about the Gaza Kitchen cookbook, I didn’t think twice before buying it.
Gaza Kitchen cookbook _ photo by Hala Muhanna
With the aim of not letting the rich food heritage of Gaza disappear with the political conflict that burdens the strip, Gazan author and activist Leila El-Haddad and Schmitt teamed up to document its cuisine in the 600 page cookbook. Between the kefta and the exotic roasted watermelon salad, the book recounts stories of daily household economy under the siege and electricity cuts and most importantly gives faces and names to Gazans often represented in the media as numbers in the fight between Hamas and Israel.
The authors shifted their focus from the famous falafel and hummus to home cuisine, the many Gazan dishes that have been passed from generation to generation, never written down, and are now disappearing with the 48 generation. Armed with a camera and a notebook, they roamed the strip and cooked together with women from the urban and rural parts of Gaza, they visited refugee camps and Christian families and noted down exotic recipes like Arugula soup, Rumaniyya (sour lentil and eggplant) and roasted tomatoe and kishik (fermented wheat) stew.
Used to being interviewed about nothing else but politics, Schmitt´s questions took Gazans by surprise. “We told them, no, no… all we want to know is how your grandmother used to prepare the Rumaniyya,” Schmitt passionately recounts. The authors were overwhelmed with invitations for lunch and dinner.
While the Gazan cuisine is as varied as the habitants of the strip, they are all characterized by the generous use of spices and dill, the chefs´ fastidiousness and the healthy diet of vegetables and legumes. Indeed, celeb chéf´s like America´s Anthony Bourdain called it “An important book on an egregiously under appreciated, under-reported area of gastronomy. This is old school in the best possible meaning of the term.” while the jury of the Gourmand International Cookbook Awards at the International Cookbook Fair in Paris named The Gaza Kitchen the Best Arab Cookbook of 2013.
“We didn´t use chilli that often,” my father comments on the recipes. There is a reason to that. With the economical hardships Gazans face under the siege imposed on them since the election of Hamas in 2006, the nutritionally rich and fast growing chilli peppers proved a viable and inexpensive product as it requires little irrigation. Indeed, for many of the poorest Gazans´s children, their lunch at school is limited to a flifil ma67un (smashed hot chili pepper) sandwich.
More than a simple cookbook, Gaza Kitchen starts from the everyday household economy and connects it to bigger political, economic, social and geopolitical questions. It sheds light on the active de-development of Gaza and Isreal´s policy of turning it from a productive economy to a dependent one through controlling import and banning factory components, machines and raw materials like cement from entering the strip. The ongoing blockade also left limited possibility for export which caused the strip´s private sector to collapse.
As a result, many Gazan´s turned to farming. Families also revived the use of clay ovens, traditional methods of cooking and conserving foods that my father remembers from his childhood in order to survive the persistent electricity cuts due to Isreal´s bombing of the strip´s sole power plant in 2006 and its ban on the import of machines and raw materials to rebuild it.
The ban on the import of sesame also changed the local tastes as Gazans are no longer able to produce red Tahina, a Gazan delicacy of roasted sesame paste that they invented. Zaatar (a spice blend of dried herbs, mixed with sesame seeds, dried sumac, salt and other spices) popular all over the levant as a Palestinian delicacy) also disappeared from the tables of Gazans as Israel declared it a protected species and banned harvesting it.
Life in the strip might not be easy but make no mistake, this is not a Gazan sob story. In Schmitt and El-Haddad´s cookbook we are invited to the busy kitchens of strong cheerful women, giggling children and grandmas recounting old love stories. The cookbook also lightly touches upon social issues in the strip such as polygamy and women´s right to education and work in Gaza´s conservative circles. Avoiding big political questions, the authors tell the personal stories of the individual women just having lives buffeted by the circumstances of history and document the specific material details of their everyday life that few people in Europe know.
“We wanted to focus on ordinary people and especially women and just see how you live through these insane circumstances and maintain basically your humanity and your sense of humor and your ability to take care of your kids and be a normal person,” Schmitt explains. “Our aim was to give a sense of having gone to someone´s house and had dinner because if you share someone´s table and you know a little bit about their life and you meet their kid then you cannot in good conscience vote for policies that would bomb them and wipe them off the face of the earth. It´s just a basic strategy of humanizing.”
More about the book on its official webpage.