The Common Ingredient: Discovering Gazan Cuisine

Two women set out to explore cuisine in Gaza - and produced a unique cookbook that is a rich trove of recipes and a fascinating anthropological document.

Whenever Laila El-Haddad prepares the typical Gazan dish of dagga, a tomato and dill salad, in her home kitchen, she has to make it in two separate bowls: one generously spiced with hot pepper to suit her Gazan palate; and a second lightly seasoned bowl with no hot pepper to suit the taste of her husband, whose family comes from the Palestinian village of Waarit al-Siris (near Haifa) and who grew up in a refugee camp in the Baalbek region of Lebanon.

“Since the day we got married I’ve had to curb the hand that’s responsible for the seasoning,” she laughs. “Even too much black pepper can cause a big fuss and a family feud. When we go to visit his side, where they cook typical northern Palestinian cuisine with many yogurt-based dishes, I always take a little spice kit along for my own use, mostly garlic, dill seeds and hot peppers to add to the food that’s served on my plate.”

El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt are the authors of “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey,” published a few months ago in the United States. In addition to dozens of recipes from Gazan cuisine, the cookbook contains personal stories of the people who welcomed them into their homes and their worlds, and stories of the region at the hub of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict − largely hidden from view because of the Israeli blockade − from the culinary angle.

The book, written in English, is drawing a lot of attention worldwide. This interview with the authors was conducted via email and telephone while they were in New York on a promotional tour for the book.

“Gazan cuisine is an especially vibrant, spicy, lemony, herby variant on other Levantine cuisines, with Egyptian influences,” they explain. “There are dishes which are shared with other parts of Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean, like maqlouba, mahshi, mulukhiya, etc., but which in Gaza are given a hot and herby twist. And then there are dishes which are unique to Gaza, like rumaniya, a surprising and delightful vegetarian stew of eggplants and pomegranate, or sumagiya, a meat stew seasoned with sumac and tahini, or salata gazawiya (dagga), a spicy tomato-dill salad.

“Then there is the seafood, which is quite unique: since little of coastal Palestine survived 1948, Gaza is one of the few places where the rich Palestinian seafood tradition is still alive: perfumed rice with caramelized onions and calamari, little fried fish stuffed with herbs, shrimp baked in a clay pot with a crust of pine nuts.”

Of women and men

El-Haddad was born in 1978 in Kuwait to parents from Khan Younis and Gaza City. “I grew up primarily in Saudi Arabia while summering in Gaza throughout my childhood, mainly to renew our hawia [ID card], without which I would have been banned from reentering. I went on to attend an international high school in Bahrain, and from there, college and graduate school in the U.S. (Duke University, then Harvard), where I met my husband, Yassine Daoud, a Palestinian physician, himself from the ethnically cleansed and destroyed village of Waarit al-Siris near Haifa, who grew up in a refugee camp in Baalbeck, Lebanon.

“My parents, Maii El-Farra and Moussa El-Haddad, are both physicians who were schooled in Egypt in the 1960s, returned to Gaza in 1967, then sought work in the Gulf in the 1970s, eventually retiring in Gaza in 2000. A typical Palestinian experience!

“I always longed to return to Gaza to reestablish my roots there,” she continues. “After finishing graduate school in 2002, I returned to Gaza to work as a freelance journalist, including Al Jazeera online, for several years. I then left to be with my husband in the United States, since he was not granted a family reunification permit by Israel and therefore not allowed to come visit or live with my son and me in Gaza.

“I continued to blog and write and do public speaking from outside Gaza, eventually authoring my first book, ‘Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting and Everything in Between,’ followed by ‘The Gaza Kitchen.’”

Maggie Schmitt was born in Miami in 1975 and moved to Philadelphia in high school. “I started traveling as much and as widely as I could from when I was a teenager, always looking for some little job or project that would take me into other worlds,” she relates. “When I finished my undergraduate studies (Harvard/literature), I moved to Beirut to teach. Since 2001, Madrid has been my home base, with periods in Morocco, Lebanon, Turkey ... I’m slowly finishing a doctorate while working as a translator, freelance writer, university researcher and instructor, and videographer. I live with my partner Juan and our baby, Samuel.”

The women first met online, thanks to serendipity and overlapping areas of interest. Maggie had been in Gaza in 2009 as part of a citizen-diplomacy tour, and decided that looking at food would be an interesting way of describing what was going on there from a different angle.

While doing research, she found the only information online about food in Gaza was written by someone named Laila El-Haddad. So she wrote to her, and a volley of correspondence followed.

El-Haddad picks up the story: “Strangely, my obsession with the kitchen happened in a sort of unexpected way. I come from a line of women on my mothers’ side who viewed cooking as a sort of backward step, a degrading task that had to be performed as a matter of duty, to feed the family, not as a pleasurable act or bonding experience in any way.

“As far as they were concerned,” El-Haddad notes, “women belonged in the workplace, not the kitchen. My grandmother used to pooh-pooh my requests for recipes as a result, feigning ignorance or old age. That made me more determined and more interested in food and food ways than ever.”

Having found a common language, the two young women began toying with the idea, still via email, of writing a book together on Gazan cuisine.

“We decided to write the book in 2009,” says Schmitt. “On the one hand, [Operation] Cast Lead was very much in the news, and it seemed imperative to find ways of explaining the situation in Gaza without falling into victimism or heroism, or any of the other various clichés we were seeing a lot of. Looking at the food system in Gaza: what people were eating, how it was getting there (borders, aid, tunnels), what was happening to agriculture and industry − these all seemed like a very real, material point of departure for understanding the situation there.

“On the other hand,” she adds, “the cuisine in Gaza really is amazing, and people there are justifiably proud of their food traditions, which they’ve held onto despite displacement, war, impoverishment ... Collecting their recipes seemed like a great way of paying tribute to the persistent joie de vivre of the people despite grinding circumstances.”

The women’s explanation for why they chose to explore the cuisine as a gateway to understanding the Palestinian world has a very familiar ring for someone who researches and explores the world of Jewish cuisine.In their words: “Food is also critical to identity for a people deprived of geography: it defines Palestinians, binds Palestinians, locates Palestinians, where maps and modern dictionaries fail to do so. It also bears reminding that there is a reason most food enthusiasts know so little about Gaza’s food: it has been deliberately and forcibly cut off from the rest of Palestine, and from the outside world. Our book is a reminder of this very stark fact, and a reminder that Palestine is more than one polity or geography.”

The pair drew up a basic outline for the project, tried to find funding and a publisher, but since at the time the Israeli blockade prevented them from entering Gaza, despite Laila’s local ID, the plan remained a distant dream. A narrow window of opportunity opened in 2010, following the Gaza flotilla and the sudden, partial opening of the Rafah border crossing. The two women had never met before the six weeks they spent together in Gaza researching the book.

Intensive fieldwork

“Once we were in Gaza,” says Schmitt, “we started locating people of two basic types: on the one hand, women of all different social classes and backgrounds who were willing to invite us into their homes and show us how they prepared classic Gazan recipes; on the other, experts in various aspects of the food system: economists, aid workers, agronomists, nutritionists, etc.

“We conducted the most intensive fieldwork I’ve done in my life: several interviews each day in the blazing heat, racing from one end of the Strip to the other, visiting farms, houses, markets, offices, ministries, all while − in Laila’s case at least − fasting during Ramadan.

“We recorded all our interviews, and documented our visits with photography,” Schmitt continues. “It was astonishingly easy to find subjects to interview: everyone was very eager to share their particular local version of each dish.

“We accompanied our interviewees to the market, paid for the ingredients, and then went to their homes, met their families, and spent the afternoon cooking with them, learning recipes mingled with personal stories, memories, gossip. This is the kind of kitchen intimacy we try to reproduce in the book.

“After our period of fieldwork, the long process of transcribing all the interviews began, extracting all the recipes mentioned, and kitchen-testing them. Of course, home cooks do everything by eye, not by measure, so we had to translate that kind of knowledge into weights and measures for the cookbook.

“This was a huge amount of work, of which Laila did the lion’s share, frequently calling some of our key interviewees in Gaza to double- and triple-check with them. During this time we also did research to supplement our interviews in Gaza and wrote up the sections on agriculture, economy, nutrition, etc.

“Then finally came the layout,” Schmitt adds, “which in the end required cutting back our total material quite radically: we could have written three books! The biggest challenge was trying to strike the right balance between recipes, personal stories and contextual information.”

Cuisine and politics

The unassuming softcover book they produced is much more than a cookbook, however. The human stories contained within it, combined with intriguing forays into areas that overlap with the culinary world, make this a fascinating anthropological document that also helps illuminate how a regional and national cuisine is shaped.

“Gazans are very proud of their cuisine,” says Schmitt. “In an environment where people control so little about their lives due to restrictions on movement, industry, development, etc., the kitchen is one of those rare refuges where families still can find joy in their labors and their heritage. Moreover, since 80 percent of the population of Gaza are refugees from pre-1948 Palestine, these families retain and pass along the specific local culinary traditions of cities and villages, of which nearly nothing else remains – a precious legacy. In fact, the book covers the food heritage of the area previously known as the Gaza District, comprised of a much larger region to the north and east, not just the modern day Gaza Strip.

“Cuisine always tells us a lot about the history of a place, and the recipes we collected in Gaza speak to us of what the region was before 1948: we find both a sophisticated urban culture − particularly in the coastal cities of Jaffa and Gaza City − as well as a vigorous peasant culture in the agricultural interior, with an intense bond to the land. And then it tells us about the history since 1948: how families have adapted their old recipes and ways to the UN-provided rations which form the basis of most Gazans’ diet, how they have both conserved the traditions of their home villages and been influenced by their exposure to Egyptian foods (between 1959 and 1967, Gaza was under Egyptian rule) and to Israeli products (until the border was closed in 2000, hundreds of thousands of Gazans worked in Israel).”

The hardships faced by Gazans in recent decades are described simply and directly, without falling into the trap of victimhood or appeals for pity, and are palpable in many parts of the book.

“The situation of Gaza is so unique and so crazy because every single thing which happens there is so directly determined by Israeli political decisions: what can enter, what can’t, which land can be sown, which can’t, which waters can be fished, which can’t. Agriculture is especially telling,” Schmitt says. “The market gets unpredictably flooded with Israeli surplus, creating price fluctuations which mean farmers never know whether their produce will have any value at all when it gets to market. Erratic border policies also mean that farmers’ access to fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, and fuel for transport and irrigation pumps are also totally unpredictable. Not to mention export: In the early 2000s there were strong incentives for Gazan farmers to grow cash crops for export, but these delicate products (strawberries, cherry tomatoes, carnations) now rot waiting to get through the border which is almost entirely closed to exports. And then of course there are the frequent incursions into agricultural land, destroying trees and greenhouses, the growing buffer zone which is gradually eating up much of Gaza’s arable land, and the frequent targeting of farms in Israeli bombardments. I could go on and on: the point is that what is available in Gazan markets − and whether Gazans can afford it − is tremendously volatile and depends almost entirely upon Israeli decisions. On this stage we can also see the strategies of other actors, like the role of the many NGOs active in Gaza, and the different political visions of the two main Palestinian parties.”

Behind the headlines

At the Paris Cookbook Fair, the book won the prize for Best Cookbook of the Year in the category of Arab cuisine. Helena Cobban, owner of the small independent press that published the book, ascended the podium to accept the award. El-Haddad and Schmitt, both with young children at home, were unable to attend. But they weren’t going to pass up the promotional book tour in London and New York over the past weeks.

In our final phone conversation, they acknowledge with endearing candidness just how astonished and pleased they were by the great interest the book has aroused.

“The gap between the beginning, with all the bureaucratic obstacles and the minuscule budget we had available, and the honor and acclaim we’re receiving now is virtually inconceivable.”

They were happy about the Haminzar restaurant’s plan to offer a special menu of Gazan dishes inspired by the book (today, April 5, from 2 P.M., Allenby 60, Tel Aviv). “It reminds me of a project I did with Israeli artist Mushon Zer-Aviv,” says El-Haddad, “in which we overlaid a map of Gaza on a map of Tel Aviv and invited people to wander the streets of the metaphysical city that was created.”

They decline to make any predictions about the future of the region and of relations between the two peoples. “We also wrote the book to remind the world that behind the stories you see on the news and the political aspects, there are human faces and daily life. And where there’s life, there’s hope.”

The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey (Just World Books)


Recipes from the Gaza kitchen

Gazan salad (dagga)

This is the most common basic salad on the Gazan table, and it has a sharp, spicy taste that makes it the perfect accompaniment to meat and rice dishes. If fresh dill is not available, dill seeds may be substituted. They should be crushed well with a mortar and pestle in a circular motion, together with the salt, to release their natural oils. From that point on, continue with the recipe as below.

1/2 tsp. salt

2 peeled garlic gloves

2 minced green chili peppers (or to taste)

2 very ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill

2 tbsp. olive oil

With a mortar and pestle, crush the garlic and salt into a paste. Add the chopped peppers and continue crushing. Add the chopped tomatoes and continue crushing until the salad has a thick, salsa-like texture. Add the chopped dill, mix and pour on a generous amount of olive oil. Serve with pita that can be dipped in the dagga.

A variation: Substitute minced shallots for the garlic and crush them the same way. Add 1 tbsp. lemon juice and mix.

Sumaggiya

Perhaps the most quintessential of all Gazan foods. A classic dish from Gaza City, traditionally served on large platters in honor of Id al-Fitr, at the end of the month of Ramadan, and distributed to friends, neighbors and relatives who reciprocate with date cookies, salted fish or sumaggiya of their own. The generosity of the cook is measured by the quantity and quality of the meat found in the dish. Usually, the dish is made from whole sumac seeds, but if unavailable, ground sumac may also be used.

Maraka is the name of the seasoned meat stock that serves as a basis for many festive dishes in Gazan cuisine. It is usually made from chicken or rabbit meat, but for sumaggiya it is made from beef or lamb.

1 1/2 pounds lean stewing meat

2 onions

4 tbsp. olive oil

1 bay leaf

1 sprig rosemary, if available

1 cinnamon stick

5 allspice berries

4 cardamom pods

10 cups chopped chard, any variety

1/2 cup sumac

2 cups boiling water

3 heaping tbsp. flour

1 tbsp. dill seed

5 garlic cloves, mashed

1 tsp. coriander

1 tsp. dried red pepper flakes

1 green chili, chopped (optional)

2 tsp. salt

1 14 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained

3 tbsp. red tahini, or 2 tbsp. regular tahini mixed with 1 tsp. roasted sesame oil

Sauté meat with one chopped onion and olive oil until lightly browned. Cover meat with water and bring to a boil. Skim any froth that rises to the top. Add whole spices and stir. Lower heat, and cover. Cook until meat is tender, but not falling apart. Drain meat and reserve broth. Add the second onion, chopped, and chard and stir until just wilted.

Boil the sumac for 10 minutes, then drain and reserve the liquid. Let cool to room temperature.

Add flour to cooled sumac and stir until dissolved. Using a zibdiya or mortar and pestle, grind dill seed and dried pepper with salt until fragrant. Add garlic and chilies, if desired, and mash. Set aside.

Combine broth and sumac-flour mixture and whisk thoroughly to avoid clumping. Add meat mixture, dill, garlic, chili mixture, and remaining spices. Bring to a boil as you continue to stir, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 15 minutes. Continue to stir throughout until mixture becomes thick. Add 1 tablespoon tahini and cook for 3 more minutes.

Remove from heat and pour into bowls. Then cool and serve at room temperature with Arabic bread and chilies.

Five things you should know about Gazan cuisine

1. Hot pepper and dill The prominent presence of chili peppers and dill (fresh or seeds) is immediately apparent to anyone who leafs through the book and is a little familiar with the Palestinian cuisine of the Jerusalem area and the West Bank, or the Palestinian cuisine of the Galilee and the Levant. Why did these two seasonings become such an important part of Gazan cuisine? The first is present in neighboring Palestinian cuisines, but at a lesser intensity, and the second is nearly completely absent from them. The authors of this comprehensive Gazan cookbook are also at a loss to explain. “I was obsessive about finding names and historical contexts for unique varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs that we discovered in Gaza,” says Schmitt, “but when it came to the great love for hot pepper and the extensive use of dill, we couldn’t find any satisfying explanation.”

2. Zibdiya The mortar and pestle, consisting of a clay bowl and a pestle carved from the wood of a citrus tree, is the most basic and important utensil in Gazan cuisine. Perhaps thanks to its history and geographic location on the ancient spice routes of the Middle East, many Gazan recipes begin with the pounding of spices to release their flavors, aromas and oils.

3. Fatit ’Ajir (roasted watermelon salad):This unusual salad, a special dish commonly found in the towns of the southern Gaza Strip, is especially popular with families going to the beach in early summer. Fatit ’ajir, a symbol of the preservation of family values by the fellahin, draws together family, friends and neighbors to gather around the fire. To make it, you first roast unripe watermelons in a charcoal pit and then crush and mix the flesh of the fruit with tomatoes, chili peppers, olive oil and pieces of pita.

4. Red tahiniAnother very popular ingredient in Gazan cuisine. Red tahini, unlike the more commonly known white version, is made from whole sesame seeds that are not steamed to remove the hull, but instead just roasted in the oven. The result, according to the cookbook authors, is tahini that has “a nuttier flavor and a richer sesame taste.”

5. Slow food in GazaOne of the most compelling sections of the book deals with the sad paradox of how the slow food movements in Europe and the United States could find much to envy in Gazan culinary practice, in the way local customs from days of yore are being preserved as a result of the constraints created by the Israeli blockade. Rooftops and balconies are home to vegetable and herb gardens, along with cages in which rabbits and pigeons are kept. Frequent electrical failures have compelled residents to rely upon ancient pickling and preserving methods. And those who cannot count on a dependable gas supply have taken to building clay and mud ovens.

Food insecurity in Gaza

The effects of the Gaza closure on local cuisine are evident throughout the Gaza cookbook. As described in the book, at certain times certain food products are only available via the smuggling tunnels that connect Gaza with Egypt, which raises their price significantly.

From 2007-2010, Israel prohibited the entry of various food products and other basic goods, for unclear reasons, although in some cases the economic interests of food growers in Israel appeared to be a factor. There was a list of “permitted” food products for entry; all the rest were prohibited, and the division between what was permitted and what was not was often quite illogical.

For example, coriander was banned while hyssop was allowed; fresh meat could not enter but frozen meat was permitted. For a time, rice was permitted but pasta was not. It took an inquiry from Senator John Kerry, now the U.S. Secretary of State, about the odd distinction, to save pasta from the blacklist. Israel’s arbitrary closure policy created uncertainty as to the availability of basic foodstuffs. But as Gazan economist Omar Shaban says in the book, it wasn’t so much the absence of products that was the problem, but rather the people’s inability to buy them.

The lack of purchasing power arose from a steep increase in food prices combined with a decline in income. The restrictions on the entry and exit of goods, and the prevention of access to farming and fishing areas, also described in the book, led to the collapse of the local industry and caused unemployment to reach a peak of 40 percent, at the height of the closure in 2009. The high unemployment rate and rising prices hurt the buying power of many families in Gaza and led to a tremendous increase in the number of needy. Together, all of this had a dramatic effect on the food consumption habits of Gazans, and to a 60 percent rate of food insecurity.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization definition, adopted by World Food Summit in 1996, “food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Food insecurity happens when a person has enough food to survive, but not more than that; when his food source comes from donations so that he is dependent upon aid; and when he does not have the possibility to choose food in accordance with his preferences.

In the book, UNRWA’s chief in Gaza notes that a huge portion of the population would have been vulnerable to hunger without food allocations from the agency. He describes a situation in which families reduce the number of meals they eat per day, cut back on the amount of food at each meal and forgo basic products due to the high prices. Dependence on aid agencies also leads to dietary changes, as the book points out. These agencies distribute more white flour and less of the traditional grains like frika (green wheat), burghul and barley. According to Israel, the closure was intended to prevent economic development without creating a humanitarian crisis. And indeed, thanks to the aid, there is no famine in Gaza, but the closure has created a chronic dependence on donations, worrisome levels of nutritional insecurity and substantial changes in dietary habits. (Tamar Feldman and Aeyal Gross)

Jurists Tamar Feldman and Aeyal Gross are currently writing a study on the issue of food security and the Gaza closure.

Last supper with Maggie Schmitt

Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt
Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt
Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt
Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt

For my last meal on earth, I’d like to eat: My mother’s youvetsi (Greek orzo stew). The perfect comfort food.

An indelible memory from childhood (connected to food or the kitchen): Stuffing the Thanksgiving turkey at my grandmother’s house when my cousin and I were little. She had us wear hospital scrubs and the whole process had a sort of hilarious formality (“Scalpel?” “Scalpel!”) as if it were a surgical operation.

An unforgettable dining experience: A “you catch it you cook it” trout farm and family picnic place on the Litani River in Lebanon. Feet in the cold water, fresh summer tomatoes and wild za’atar, a picnic table with many friends, grilled trout with lemon and garlic.

An unfulfilled food fantasy: Someday I’ll grow more of what I eat.

I will never ever put in my mouth: I’m afraid I’ve tried so many weird and unappetizing things that I can no longer say “never.” But I will consider myself blessed if I never have to eat canned tuna.

An unforgettable food-related memory from books or film: That great moment in “Babette’s Feast” when all the Puritans are trying desperately not to enjoy the meal, but the power of pleasure starts breaking through their grim principles.

Last supper with Laila El-Haddad

For my last meal on earth, I’d like to eat: Mulukhiya bil aranib. Or zaghaleel mahshiya (stuffed pigeons). Or both? Is that greedy? Honestly, I don’t think I’ll be thinking about food at that point, but you asked!

An indelible memory from childhood (connected to food or the kitchen): My father used to buy me the most incredible grilled quails, tearfully spicy and delightfully crispy, cooked over an open charcoal flame on the streets of downtown Khobar in Saudi Arabia, where he used to work. The cook, a Pakistani guest worker, would expect us every Thursday night. We’d eat the whole bird (or several birds, because they were so small) − bones and all, with a side of chili pepper pekoras downed with a mug of freshly juiced sugar cane − which was never quite as refreshing as the Egyptian variety.

An unforgettable dining experience: I would have to say it was this very simple breakfast prepared by the wife of a taxi driver from Al-Arish, who invited my mother and me to stay in his humble one-room sand-floored home in the middle of Sinai when Rafah Crossing was abruptly closed one night. She must have used every last penny they had to prepare that meal (and buy us a can of bug spray). That made it more unforgettable. Food is as much about the company and circumstance as it is about taste. We were cold and starving and a little freaked out, and, as far as we were concerned, in the middle of nowhere. At that point, a wedge of processed cheese would have been unforgettable.

An unfulfilled food fantasy: Spending a month foraging, hunting, slaughtering, and preparing my own food in the wild.

I will never ever put in my mouth: Pork bung. Well, pork in general, for obvious reasons. But specifically, pork bung.

An unforgettable food-related memory from books or films: Watching Egyptians tear apart a roast chicken on a dinner table in Egyptian movies.