Now that the dust has cleared from Israel’s “Operation Pillar of Defense,” Gaza has sadly faded off the media radar screen once again. In the meantime, if you’re interested in some new essential reading about this significant but chronically misunderstood region, I have just the thing: a cookbook.
Yes, “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey” by Palestinian blogger Laila El-Haddad and Madrid-based writer/researcher Maggie Schmitt, newly published by Just World Books, is far and away the most important book I’ve read on Gaza in some time – and I’m not even a cook.
I’ve been a huge fan of Laila El-Haddad’s work for years. Her blog “Gaza Mom” provided me with my first real “beyond-the-headlines” insights into Gazan life and culture and I remain a devoted reader. For those unfamiliar with her work, her “Gaza Mom” anthology (also published by Just World Books) is the perfect introduction – if it leaves you hungry for more, then you must check out “The Gaza Kitchen.”
If you had any doubts that this was not your typical cookbook, the authors of “Gaza Kitchen” will explicitly lay them to rest for you in their Introduction:
“(This) is a hybrid sort of book: it is mostly a cookbook which recovers and compiles both traditional and contemporary elements of a rich and little-known cuisine. But it also attempts to do a little ethnography, a little history, a little political analysis. Cuisine always lies somewhere at the intersection of geography, history and economy. What makes it such a compelling subject is that it serves as a cultural record of daily life for ordinary people, traces of a history from below made palpable in something as evocative and delicious as a plate of food. Our hope in this book is to share this food with you and in so doing, something of the indefatigable spirit of the people we interviewed.
Indeed, history has indeed left an indelible imprint on Gazan cuisine. Gaza was historically an important station along the spice route, providing a link between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean – and eastern spices continue to shape Gazan cuisine to this very day. Food historian Nancy Harmon Jenkins illuminates this point vividly in the Foreword:
In many ways, food in Gaza is classic Palestinian, Middle Eastern cuisine, but it is unique with its own regional diversity, which includes a deep appreciation for the kick of red chili peppers, the zest of eastern spices (cardamom, cloves, cinnamon), and the soothing calm of fresh dill and dill seeds. You can see this immediately in Gazan-style falafel, those those delectably crisp, deep-fried morsels of ground chickpeas with spices, universal street food throughout the Middle East, from Turkey to the banks of the Nile. In Gaza, however, the addition of chopped chilis and fresh green dill gives a special twist to felafel. (Only in Greece is dill used to the delicious extent it is in Gaza.)
More recent history has also impacted Gazan cuisine. After the Nakba of 1947/48, Gaza was filled with a massive population influx of Palestinian refugees. As Jenkins points out, this event turned the newly-created Gaza Strip into “a repository of traditional foods and dishes from all over historic Palestine, a living legacy of the refugees who flocked here, driven from their homes in the north and the east.” All this to say that “The Gaza Kitchen” succeeds not only because of its delicious recipes, but through its illumination of the social-cultural-political context from which they emerged.
Moreover, sprinkled among the dishes the authors include brief essays that consistently debunk the image of Gazans as either “hapless objects of pity or as vicious objects of fear.” It is impossible to read this book and not be powerful affected by the lives of ordinary Gazans (notably Gazan women) who struggle to maintain their cultural dignity amidst an almost total socio-economic isolation from the rest of the world.
In addition to learning new recipes, we meet Gazans themselves: we eavesdrop on neighbors sharing Arabian fables while kneading dough for hulba (feungreek cake); we meet Fatema Qaadan, a widow and single mother who supports her family by rearing rabbits through the help of a local community center; and we learn about al-Muharrarat (“Liberated Lands”), a Hamas government-sponsored initiative that responds to blockade shortages through a variety of innovative agricultural projects.
The authors also do not flinch from exploring the political impact of Zionism on Gazans and their cuisine. One interesting short essay entitled “On Schnitzel,” points out that many Gazan fast food joints serve schnitzel – the classic pan-fried “Wienerschnitzel” brought to the region by European Zionist immigrants. The authors continue:
Now, with Gaza totally isolated, it is easy to forget that for decades thousands of Gazans went every day to work in Israel, that Israeli and Gazan entrepreneurs had partnerships, that both commerce and social relations existed, albeit on unequal footing. Adult Gazans remember this, and many speak admiringly of aspects of Israeli society or maintain contact with Israeli business partners, employers and friends. But for the enormous population of young people who were not old enough to work or travel before Israel sealed the borders in 2000, this is impossible. Though their lives are completely conditioned by Israeli political decisions, they have never laid eyes on a single Israeli person except the soldiers that have come in on tanks or bulldozers, wreaking destruction. And the generation of young Israelis to which those soldiers belong has likewise never met a single Gazan Palestinian in any other context. A terrible recipe for continued conflict.
I personally consider the legacy of Israeli cuisine to be a complex and painful one. Reading through this book through the eyes of an American Jew, I was constantly reminded that so many of the foods that we assume to be uniquely “Israeli” are in fact dishes that have long been indigenous to Palestinian culture.
It is certainly true that there is really no such thing as uniquely “Jewish food.” To be sure, Jews have lived (and cooked) in a myriad of societies and cultural contexts over the centuries – and our cuisine has traditionally emerged from a (pardon the expression) fusion of Jewish sensibilities with our respective host cultures. Given the circumstances of Israel’s creation, however, I have long been troubled by Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian/Mediterranean culture – and the assumption, for instance, that dishes such as hummous and felafel are somehow “uniquely Israeli.”
(An interesting case in point occurred when the Harvard Business School cafeteria recently featured an “Israeli Mezze station” with such “authentically Israeli” dishes as Cous Cous, Za’atar Chicken, Fattoush, and Tahini Sauce. In response, Lebanese Harvard graduate Sara el-Yafi posted an impressively researached and widely shared Facebook comment that sought to set culinary record straight once and for all. Also highly recommended reading).
For their part, El-Haddad and Schmitt have now created their own cultural reclamation project. It deserves to be read, served up and shared widely. Bravo to my good friends and colleagues at Just World Books for making this delicious document available to the world.