From the yogurt-based sauces and tart tastes characteristic of the north, to the tomato-based stews of the south, the complicated seafood dishes of the coast and the hearty vegetables and grains of the farming interior, there is no shortage of diversity in the kitchens of Gaza.Um Ramadan’s fishing family originally hails from Yaffa, a coastal town known as the ‘bride of the sea’. They were forced to leave the port city for Gaza before she was born.
Like many citizens of the Strip she reincarnates her family’s beloved city in the form of enticing dishes. She learned to cook the cuisine of her hometown from her mother-in-law, also a native of Yaffa, much of whose population fled to Gaza in 1948. ‘We both connected that way,’ she shares. ‘The smell of the cuisine takes me back to the stories my mother-in-law used to tell me about her house, her land, the garden near the sea. My grandfather was a fisherman so seafood is like our heritage. We teach our kids family recipes and they will pass them along to their children. All that is left of Yaffa is these memories we hold on to through our cuisine.’ Home, for Yaffans then, is where the fish is.
Zibdiyit gambari (shrimp in a clay pot) is a particularly cherished delicacy. The zibdiya is a vital part of the Gazan pantry. The weighty, unglazed clay bowl and lemonwood pestle that accompanies it have a role to play in most dishes, simple or complex. Best described as a shrimp stew coated in pine nuts, zibdiyit gambari is baked in a zibdiya until it develops a piquant crust. It is heartening to imagine Um Ramadan hustling around her small kitchen, stirring a combination of shrimp, tomatoes, spices, crushed chilies and – naturally – dill and garlic, toasting pine nuts and sesame seeds, pouring this simmering medley of tastes into her zibdiya, and baking Yaffa to perfection.
Um Ramadan is one of several women in Gaza whose kitchens were visited and recipes documented by Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt, authors of the unconventional ‘social’ cookbook, ‘The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey’. Schmitt came across El-Haddad’s writing online while she was researching Gazan food for an article. Communicating mostly over email, the two conceived the idea of writing a book that would serve three different but interconnected purposes: ‘document Gazan cuisine as a kind of folk knowledge and female heritage; humanise the situation in Gaza; and use food as a point of departure for wider economic and political analysis.’ They met in person for the first time in Gaza in 2010, and proceeded to journey up, down and across the tight Strip collecting 130 recipes for the book.
‘The situation as a whole is so much more than statistics and numbers,’ Schmitt says. El-Haddad continues. ‘We have this caricatured image of Gaza from afar as being nothing but guns and wailing mothers.’ It is this image, the two explain, that the majority of Americans – one of the book’s main target audiences – are most familiar with. ‘They shake their heads and say, “isn’t it a shame,”’ Schmitt explains, ‘but it doesn’t touch them because it is so far away from their own experience. On the other hand, everyone has a kitchen, everyone has a family, and everyone has some experience with the kind of intimate chitchat and the little conflicts that occur in the kitchen.’
‘The Gaza Kitchen’ does not limit itself to what we know today as the Gaza Strip. It revisits what are essentially bygone geographic spaces but enduring culinary zones, preserved in the kitchens of the Strip’s many refugees originally from the much more extensive Gaza District, as well as other parts of Palestine. The Gaza District was one of the administrative districts of the Ottoman Empire and later, the British Mandate of Palestine. A key stop on the spice route, it served as a bridge between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean, exposing its cuisines to the spices of the east. In modern-day Gaza, subtle differences in the preparation of Middle Eastern cuisine staples narrate this regional history, such as the allspice, cardamom, nutmeg and black pepper folded into stuffed vine leaves.
The residents of Gaza, explain El-Haddad and Schmitt, suffer more from a lack of accessibility to basic and necessary food items than from the availability of such products. Despite their debilitating economic condition however, Gazans are staunchly optimistic and perseverant. Omar Shaban, director of the independent organisation for strategic studies Pal-Think, tells me that Palestinians, ‘depend on themselves, and in Gaza especially, they are driven by personal initiative. When there was a shortage of fuel, people used cooking oil to run their cars; when there was a shortage of cooking gas they used wood, and so on.’
Um Hana, one of the individuals Schmitt and El-Haddad introduce in their book, pursues small-scale agriculture on her building’s roof, growing basil in half oil-drums. Her husband’s second wife raises pigeons for protein in a dovecote. Others use powdered milk provided by organisations like UNRWA to make cheese. Lacking reliable refrigeration due to electricity cuts, many have turned to vegetable pickling and the production of jams. These are but a few examples from an endless list of manifestations of what Gazans call the practice of ‘sumud’, meaning steadfast perseverance. The word has no real equivalent in English and is used to express a uniquely Gazan ‘steadfastness’. The 140 pages of ‘The Gaza Kitchen’ demonstrate the multitude of ways through which Gazans manage to make hommos out of chickpeas – to update a tired adage.
Fatema Qadan, a widow living with her teenage daughter in a single room left to her by her late husband, is one such example. She provided the authors with a recipe for fatta bil aranib (buttery rice and griddle bread with chicken or rabbit), a dish often eaten during Ramadan. Qadan signed up for a rabbit-rearing initiative started by the NGO CARE International. She was given a pair of breeding rabbits, material for a hutch and a few sacks of feed, which she transformed into a small legion of steady protein for her family. Impressively, she cooked her fatta recipe for the authors on a small butane burner.
Fatta is part of a larger repertoire of broth-soaked bread and meat combinations popular in the Middle East. According to the authors, legend says it was one of the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) favourite dishes. While it was once embarrassing to serve a dish like fatta to a guest with anything other than lamb, Gazan’s limited protein options have forced them to creatively adjust the dish. Rabbit was never an established part of the Gazan diet, but with the introduction of initiatives like that of CARE, the small mammal has become a ‘prosthetic limb’ with which to complete otherwise crippled traditional dishes.
El-Haddad and Schmitt give the women of Gaza room to speak, to reintroduce themselves as creative, steadfast individuals working against the odds. From Um Zaher and her small out-kitchen, to Um Hamada and the community kitchen run by the Zeitun Women’s Cooperative, and the many other women who daily find ingenious ways of digging nutritious tunnels to hungry bellies, El-Haddad and Schmitt’s book highlights the Gazan kitchen as a particularly female front of everyday resistance. ‘If you don’t press forward,’ Schmitt comments, ‘and continue to cultivate little spaces of pleasure, delight and meaningfulness, and insist on being human on your land, everyone will go stark raving mad. This book is a kind of homage or a tribute to this character of the people.’
By inviting us to cook Gaza, the authors offer a way of consuming from afar elements of this fragmented nation’s history and culture. We can ingest the seaside economy of the once great Arab port city of Yaffa, taste the transnationalism of what used to be known as the Gaza District, chew on the agricultural character of the farming interior, and swallow Palestinian hospitality, gender dynamics, class relations and social conventions. ‘When so much has been lost,’ El-Haddad explains, ‘and so little remains in a physical and geographic sense, things like food become one of the only means of locating one’s self and one’s identity, of retaining the attachment to and the memory of these lost places.’