The clatter of aluminum pots, the high-pitched exclamations of one grandmother talking over another, the echo of many people shuffling around, laughing in a tiny room at once. Hardly the description of a place often described as dangerous and desolate. And yet by all accounts that’s exactly where we are, the heart of Palestine’s most contested 25-mile-long, 5-mile-wide Gaza Strip, in The Gaza Kitchen, a new cookbook from authors Laila Al-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt.
To preface: The Gaza Kitchen doesn’t patronize or harp on borders. What it does do is depict the reality of life in a segregated territory – a reality which for some may be hard to bear – and the unique, niche cuisine that has evolved as a result of unreliable access to food supplies. It’s an important book, the only one of its kind as far as I’ve seen. It explains the political situation briefly enough to add context, then green lights to its primary focus: exploring the delights of widely unknown Gazan Palestinian food, and championing the local personalities who prepare it so beautifully.
I talk a lot about Levantine food on this blog, in particular Palestinian food as that is my heritage cuisine. The Gaza Kitchen reinforced my love for favorites such as mana’eesh (zaatar flatbread) and fatayer (spinach-stuffed triangles), and sooner than later I found myself earmarking page after page.
What you’ll find here is homestyle cuisine, family recipes like fattet hommus (hummus with crunchy toasted bread and garlic yogurt), qidra (spicy rice with slow-roasted lamb and chickpeas), mahshi (stuffed zucchinis), zibdiyit gambari (tomato and cumin-infused shrimp in a clay pot), date stuffed cookies, milk puddings, and of course… baklawa. Many of the recipes are accompanied by stories from the families who love to make them.
More critically, The Gaza Kitchen opened my eyes to flavors I didn’t even know existed in this part of my own culture. Gazan cooking, for example, is known for their use of dill and hot chili – something you don’t find in Levantine food at large. It also uses tahini, but a rust-red variety, the result of roasting the sesame seeds before grinding, rather than steaming as is usually done. Buzzing around my brain were geographical connections to other cultures: where was dill introduced to this section of Palestine and why didn’t it spread? Is this another culinary connection with Greece? And so on.
And ultimately that’s what I love most about The Gaza Kitchen: it piques my curiosity. I want to learn more about passionate men like Abdel Munim Ahmad (pictured above), who founded the Gaza Safe Agricultural Society, an organisation that promotes organic farming techniques. I want to learn more about the women of the Zeitun family (below), who through their Zeitun Women’s Cooperative, prepare large orders of special event food (think towers of stuffed vine leaves) for families who don’t have the resources to do it themselves. And I definitely want to learn more about Um Zuheir, who appears to make a mean fenugreek cake.
Al-Haddad and Schmitt have not written a political manifesto in sheep’s clothing. They have created a well-researched, personal account of life in a steamy, spice-filled Gazan kitchen told largely from the perspective of Gazan families. Their stories remind us that the slow food movement, home composting and social enterprise are not modern Western fads, but a necessary way of life for those concerned with food safety, and a way to encourage struggling local economies… just as much as they remind us that cooking, for them, is as much about being together, sharing stories, gossiping and laughing as it is for us.
Laila Al-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt’s The Gaza Kitchen is published by Just World Books and is available to buy on Amazon.com. You can follow Laila on Twitter, @gazamom, and watch a video of Laila and Maggie explaining a bit more about the book and making a traditional salad here.