Think of Gaza, and what comes immediately to mind is unlikely to be the fragrance of slow-stewed shrimp with tomato, garlic and dill, or the taste of sour plum jam on freshly home-baked bread. But journalists Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmidt want to change this, and show the outside world that there’s a delicious, rich life in Gaza beyond siege and conflict. They have spent the last year chronicling the culinary history of this tiny strip of land, revealing through daily routines of cooking and eating what they say is a microcosm of the Palestinian narrative of displacement and resilience. Their forthcoming book is part anthropological study, part social history, lavishly illustrated with photographs and family narratives. There might be recipes in The Gaza Kitchen, but “this is not just a cookbook,” says el-Haddad firmly. “It’s about a claim to identity and homeland, documenting our history. This is a culinary art book.”
Because of Gaza’s relative isolation – even before the siege imposed by Israel in 2007, following the Hamas take-over – food traditions in this narrow strip of land, just 18 miles long and five miles wide, remained preserved and protected from outside influence.
The result is a piquant, spicy-sour cuisine dominated by notes of chilli, garlic, cumin, dill “and a spice – ub’in [locust eye] – that I think you can only get there”, says el-Haddad, who now lives in Columbia in the US with her husband and two children.
Other Gazan specialities include dagga, a fiery sauce of crushed red chillies, garlic, chopped fresh dill and olive oil, seasoned with fresh lemon juice and served alongside every Gazan meal. Or sumaggiya, in which purple sumac seeds are soaked in water, then thickened with tahini, before being added to a stew of beef, chard and chickpeas spiced with dill seed and the ubiquitous chilli.
But in Gaza, everything is political. According to the UN, access to agricultural lands and fishing waters has been severely restricted due to the imposition of security buffer zones. The siege imposed by Israel following the Hamas takeover had its own impact on the Gaza kitchen. For four years, Israeli cited security fears as the logic behind the tight restrictions on goods allowed to enter the Strip – including at one point, most notoriously, coriander. Everything was available smuggled through the thousands of tunnels, of course – but at a price. Gazan ingenuity kicked in. Beef was replaced by lamb in many traditional recipes – apparently, lambs are easier to bring through the tunnels than calves, which tend to panic – and a severe shortage of cooking gas meant many families set up their own traditional wood-fired tabun ovens to cook bread.
Israel has eased the restrictions on food and other imports following the Turkish flotilla fiasco last year, in which nine activists were killed trying to enter Gaza. “But that’s not what the siege is about,” says el-Haddad. The Gaza economy is still in a dire state, and ongoing travel restrictions meant the comforts of home and kitchen are as central as ever. “The culinary history of Gaza shows so much about the situation, even from the 1948 exodus,” says el-Haddad. “And we hope people come away with an understanding of life in Gaza through these everyday rituals.”