Cooking In Peace Inside The Gaza Kitchen

When it comes to cooking growing up in Gaza, it's no different than growing up in any mediterranean climate country.
03/18/2013 11:52 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. -- James 2:15-17

When it comes to cooking growing up in Gaza, it's no different than growing up in any Mediterranean climate country. A comparable cooking style as in Italian, Greek, Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian. Emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, plenty of seafood and poultry, red meat is reserved for special occasions. But as the population of Gaza continues to grow, this limits agricultural farming--some limitations are the fault of the occupation but others are due to population growth and being confined in a very limited space. For produce, Gaza relies on Israeli traders and farmers who sell Gaza their second rate brown bananas, soft apples and peaches. Gaza in a way is a dumping ground for second-rate produce Israelis are not buying. I recall my niece asking me sister why the apple she sees at home is never like the one she sees in her textbook.

When I first met my follow Palestinians who hail from the West Bank and Jerusalem, they all seemed to know one thing about Gaza, "You Guys like hot food". At first I did not think much of it, but the stereotype started getting to me. And Yes growing up in Gaza, hot food is a popular commodity in Gaza. I had to think back to my days at school in Gaza when I walked into school the first day, and noted that many students came with a peice of bread with a red colored substance. It was ground red chile (Filfil Shatta).

This cheap and abundant food was nourishing many young school children. And if we had an allowance, kids would buy a falafel sandwich with a lot of chilli pepper sauce on it, and ditto for the bologna sandwich. They were spicy and cheap, the two things that came to define cooking from Gaza. Gaza also has a variety of seafood dishes, just like all coastal regions of the world. There's an even unique Gaza dessert that not too many non-Gazans know of. I did search for it in America, with no luck. And there are old timer recipes my grandma used to talk about when she speaks about El Bilad--or the country. There's a unique cooking style that has emerged in Gaza and it's very similar to other Palestinian towns and cities. However, food tells a story of the people who once lived before us....

This is why one of the many things Gazans buy in bulk is olives and olive oil. Even within Gaza, there are certain dishes perfected by certain communities, from the refugees who came to settle in Gaza post 1948 and brought with them various cooking styles from around traditional Palestine. For example, my mom makes Maftool better than my mother-in law, but my mother in law makes better Sumakiya. My mom focuses on quantity--she has ten kids and their wives and their kids. My mother in law is more concerned with presentation and variety. There are very colorful meals

So I was thrilled about a recent book on this very topic, The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey co-authored by Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt. The book provides recipes for typical home cooked dishes (Mahshi (Stuffed Squash), Moulakhia) and translation for and cultural anecdotes about certain dishes, their history and the people who make them. It reads like a cookbook with subtitles, a cookbook as an anthropologist would approach the subject. Gazan cuisine is forced to be creative due to the scarcity of imports from the siege, what can be grown seasonally, and what is dumped on the Gazan food markets from the overflow of food from Israel. This cookbook is remarkable for capturing the recipes and variations of Arabic cooking that are special to Gaza, in spite of the above harsh factors.The recipes are colorfully presented. There are no airbrushed pictures of food - we see street vendors and streets, women's kitchens, traditional cookware, rows of food, peppers and spices as they really are lined up in the restaurants and stores. This book is a slice of life from Gaza that got out.

The Gaza Kitchen sheds a different light on Gaza, and brings to our attention the rich and elaborate culinary culture that has settled there. Even many Palestinians and Arabs do not know much about this cuisine. The book's hearty recipes and heartfelt stories will warm up your stomach and your soul.

The authors will be at The Palestine Center (2425 Virginia Ave, NW Washington, DC 20037) On Mar 22 12:30 pm - 2:00 pm. The talk will focus on their journey and experiences making the book. Don't miss this opportunity to taste some of the specialties of Gaza and hear from the authors.