Grilled sea bream, sour plums and citrus fruits were once the staples of the Gazan diet. In the evenings, families would gather around a plate of fried fish stuffed with dill, accompanied with fragrant, chilli-spiced rice. Now, the daily struggle to put food on the table has forced many Gazans to reinvent their cuisine.
A new cookbook exploring dishes of the area formerly known as the Gaza District aims to create a record of the culinary history of hundreds of towns and villages that exist only in memory. Prior to 1948, the Gaza District encompassed an area far larger than the modern Gaza Strip and shared culinary similarities with Egypt as well as cities as far as Asqalan, Isdud and Yaffa to the North.
The Gaza Kitchen is a result of the journalists Laila El Haddad and Maggie Schmitt’s trip to the Strip in 2010. Set to be released this summer by Just World Books, the cookbook documents traditional recipes from Gaza, as well as the Israeli siege’s effect on food production and access to ingredients. For El Haddad, the book focuses on Gaza as a “hothouse experiment of sorts”, a microcosm for understanding Palestine and other regions in de-development.
“Food is the last real thread of connection for many refugees with their native villages and homes,” said El Haddad, a Palestinian from Gaza who grew up in the Gulf.
“Culture ultimately determines who we are as Palestinians; it defines us, even locates us, where maps and modern dictionaries fail to do so,” she said. “From our dialects to the stitches we embroider our thobes with to, for the purposes of our book, the way we finish our stews, our culture defines us.”
Unlike the more tempered dishes of the Levant and the West Bank, Gazan cookery relies heavily on the use of hot peppers, cumin, dill and red tahini, made by roasting, not steaming sesame seeds. Recipes focus on single-pot stews and are rich in seafood. Sour fruit such as plums, tamarind and pistachio-green pomegranates are featured ingredients. But, according to Schmitt, each dish has a strong regional character.
“There’s a real love of tangy, bright, sour tastes. Seafood-based cuisine was popular in coastal cities, while in the farming interior there is a strong emphasis on hearty stews and one-bowl meals that are notable for their sourness,” said Schmitt. “There are these connections through food to the rest of Palestine and the Levant, almost universal street food is served with a local twist.”
One uniquely Gazan dish is the sumagiyya. Served during Eid Al Fitr, it is a thick meat stew made with an infusion of sumac berries, red tahini, chard, dill, coriander and chilli. Mainstays of Levant cuisine, molukhiyya and falafel, are served with green chilli and dill seeds crushed with lemon. Chillies are even ground with kofta meat.
A narrow piece of land along the Mediterranean coast between Israel and Egypt, the Gaza Strip is just 20km long and 10km wide. The majority of its 1.5 million population are refugees who fled or were expelled from their land in 1948 during the creation of Israel. Many of them have been living in refugee camps for decades.
“In a refugee community, people marry within villages they came from before the exile, so within families there is an incredible continuity of recipes and inherited memories that create a ghost map of things that no longer exist,” said Schmitt.
The cookbook is designed to capture the Gazans’s isolated cuisine, as well as how the past two decades of blockades and UN food rations have affected it.
“There’s an evolution of what ingredients people have access to based on the vicissitude of the political situation,” said Schmitt.
Israel has been limiting travel of people and goods in and out of Gaza since the 1990s. Israel’s blockade intensified in 2007 and until 2010, allowing into the territory only those goods that it deemed “vital for the survival of the civilian population”. For years, Gazans have been dependent on food aid from international organisations, but even that was often limited to staples such as rice and wheat.
“It’s fascinating how the cuisine has changed,” said Schmitt. “The recipes people want to make haven’t changed, but the question is how to do it. There’s a constant adaptation to what’s available and what people can afford.”
Historically, Gazans had a very protein-rich diet. Now, there is very little access to beef, fish and traditional meats, according to Schmitt. However, aid projects helping farmers raise rabbits and chickens in recent years, as well as a growing fish-farming industry, are changing the popularity of some dishes.
“There’s an evolution of Gazan agriculture, the way the lands have been made inaccessible with buffer zones. Gaza was famous for fruit trees. Those were torn down, so it’s very difficult to recuperate those things. It’s complicated, but provides an interesting portrait of how the ‘logic of siege’ works and how life is degraded without ever reaching the point of starvation.”
Around 30 per cent of Gaza’s most arable land falls within the security-justified buffer zone that Israel has established within Gaza. Aimed at stopping explosives from being planted, the 300 metres approaching the border is off-limits, including to farmers who own orchards, crops and grazing land within the boundary. Israel regularly fires on anyone who approaches the fence.
The effect is obvious: olives, a centuries-old mainstay of the Palestinian economy, have become “prohibitively expensive”, according to El Haddad. Olive oil, once pervasive in Palestinian cooking, is now only used for dipping or left out of dishes altogether.
“It’s reserved as a gift from someone who owns land, and grows olives. It’s no longer used by most of the population because it is prohibitively expensive,” said El Haddad.
But it isn’t just farmland that is blocked. Ten years ago, Palestinians fished 12 kilometres off the coast of Gaza, in accordance with the 1993 Oslo accords. But in recent years, Israel has limited fishing to three kilometres, policing the perimeters with gunboats. Fishermen are confined to the polluted shoreline, while larger fish migrate to deeper waters beyond their reach.
Though fish farms help supplement residents’ diets with tilapia, traditionally caught fish such as sea bream, tuna, sardines and mackerel have become scarce and unaffordable for many Palestinians. Dishes such as zibdiyit gambari, or “shrimp in a bowl”, made in a clay bowl, are now mostly found in restaurants, too expensive for most Palestinians to make at home.
The cookbook, El Haddad says, will shed light on Palestinian history, using food to examine the effect of the Palestinian exodus, and how people have worked to preserve memories and traditions over four generations of refugees.
“Unlocking these recipes unlocks keys to the past we know very little about in a real sense,” said El Haddad. “How people lived, how they interacted, what Palestine was like and how life was suddenly and violently interrupted, as well as the tenacity and steadfastness of the people … it is contributing to the Palestinian narrative, telling the Palestinian story from the point of view of those who lived it and continue to live it.”
Bsees (buttery semolina pastries)
3 cups pastry flour
1 cup finest available semolina
cup high quality butter, at room temperature
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix the flour and semolina, then slowly add just enough water to form an elastic, but not sticky, dough and let rest for 10 minutes. Divide the dough into eight lemon-size balls.
Roll out each ball into a circle on to a well-buttered surface to a thickness of 1/8 of an inch, then spread a thin, even layer of butter on the surface (about a teaspoon). Fold in two opposite sides of the circle to meet in the middle and pinch down, forming a flattened cannoli-like shape. Spread another thin layer of butter on top, then fold in the other two round edges, forming a square. Roll out again to form a very thin circle. Repeat with remaining dough balls.
Using a pastry wheel, cut the rolled out pastry dough into very thin strips. Don’t worry too much about uniformity.
Brush the surface of these cut strips with a little melted butter, then gather them together and shape them into a full circle. Transfer to a greased baking tray. Leave them to relax 10 minutes then flatten gently with the palm of your hand.
Bake for about 7-10 minutes. Pastries will not turn golden.
Let cool completely, then sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Rumaniyya (lentil and aubergine stew with pomegranate infusion)
cup brown lentils
1 lb aubergine (approx 6 cups chopped)
2 onions, chopped (approx 2 cups)
3 sour pomegranates (substitute 3 tbsp pomegranate molasses plus 6 tbsp lemon juice)
2 tbsp tahina
2 whole dried red chilli, or 2 tsp dried chilli flakes
1 tbsp dill seed
1 tsp salt
5 cloves garlic
9 tbsp olive oil
Boil lentils in 1-2 cups of water for approximately 15 minutes. Strain and set aside.
Remove pomegranate seeds from fruit. Combine seeds with 1-2 tablespoons of water, then place in a food processor and purée. Strain, reserving juice. Set aside.
Cut unpeeled aubergine into one-inch pieces. Sprinkle with salt and set on a paper towel.
In a mortar and pestle crush teaspoons of salt, dill seed and dried chilli until fragrant. Add garlic and continue to crush. Set aside.
Mix pomegranate juice with flour until uniform then slowly add to stew on stovetop while stirring continuously. Set aside.
Sauté one of the chopped onions in 4 tablespoons of olive oil until golden. Add the aubergine and continue to sauté, until soft and wilted, for about 10 minutes.
Add lentils along with two cups of water and salt. Boil the mixture for about seven minutes.
Add the crushed spices, cumin and garlic to the stew and continue stirring until thickened. Once thickened, add tahina. Continue stirring another five minutes and remove from heat.
Pour into serving bowls and allow to cool.
In a separate pan, fry onions in four tablespoons of olive oil until golden. Divide according to the number of bowls, and top each bowl of rumaniyya with fried onions. Garnish with pomegranate seeds.
Serve at room temperature or cool with Arabic bread and olives.