As I write this Gaza is once again embroiled in a bitter battle with Israel. While I don’t usually mix my food with politics, this conflict had me diving into my collection of cookbooks to read up on the food of this land. I firmly believe that, despite everything, food brings everyone together – and maybe the people of Palestine and Israel have forgotten that despite their difference they share a very similar heritage when it comes to what they eat.
One book that stands proudly on my e-bookshelf is Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. The book is a private memoir of two culinary journeys of success that often overlap with each other. I might be naïve in my thinking but this story of two chefs born on opposite sides the ancient city of Jerusalem gives me some glimmer of hope in this chaotic world.
Yotam and Sami grew up in the ancient city of Jerusalem. Yotam lived in the Jewish west side and Sami in the Muslim east side. They did not know each other. Both were born in the 70s and both pursued culinary dreams: first to Tel Aviv and then in the same year to London. Only years later did they finally meet when Ottolenghi walked into the upscale London bakery where Tamimi was working and asked for a job and thus discovered their parallel histories. This chance meeting is now an established and successful business partnership. Many say that watching Tamimi and Ottolenghi cook is like watching a finely tuned well-oiled machine.
But what ties the bond closer is that Sami and Yotam have fond food memories of Jerusalem. While they lived on opposing ends of the city, which to many is probably worlds apart, they both remember the same smells and tastes coming from their cultural homes.
“The flavours and smells of this city are our mother tongue. We imagine them and dream in them, even though we’ve adopted some new, perhaps more sophisticated languages. They define comfort for us, excitement, joy, serene bliss. Everything we taste and everything we cook is filtered through the prism of our childhood experiences: foods our mothers fed us, wild herbs picked on school trips, days spent in markets, the smell of the dry soil on a summer’s day, goat and sheep roaming the hills, fresh pitas with ground lamb, chopped parsley, chopped liver, black figs, smoky chops, syrupy cakes, crumbly cookies. The list is endless – too long to recall and too complex to describe.” (Excerpt from Jerusalem)
What I love about this cuisine is that it has ancient origins and with its ancient origins is a unique freshness. The true Middle Eastern food experience experiments with mounds of flavours and textures. From silky smooth hummus, fresh, crisp clean salads to its smoky meats and pillow-soft breads. Even more interesting is although Gaza is two hours away from Jerusalem, the food is different. Gazan cuisine is unique even within Palestinian cooking because of its abundant use of chillies. Gazans love chilli and have it even at breakfast. Then there is the red tahini (made with roasted sesame seeds), their use of dill seeds and, of course, its variations due to the difficult circumstances and constant food shortages.
While I wonder if Palestinian children will ever live in a free land or if there will ever be an amicable solution for both sides, I live in hope. Food is elemental and able to channel the powerful emotions that attach to it into something reaffirming.
Laila El Haddad, author of The Gaza Kitchen says:
“Because food is the essence of the everyday. Beyond all the discourses, the positions and the polemics, there is the kitchen. And even in Gaza, that most tortured little strip of land, hundreds of thousands of women every day find ways to sustain their families and friends in body and spirit. They make the kitchen a stronghold against despair and there craft necessity into pleasure and dignity.”
And no matter where you are in the world, the kitchen remains the heart and solace of every home.
Filfil Mathoun (A traditional Gazan chilli paste)
Unlike most chilli paste recipes, this one calls for fresh, not dried, chillies. It is used in many recipes, served as a condiment to accompany meats or mixed with feta cheese or labna for a Gaza-style breakfast with flatbread.
• 1 pound red chilli peppers, stems removed
• 2 ½ tbsp salt
• ¼ cup olive oil
1. Pulse the chillies in a food processor or grind them with a mortar and pestle in small batches until finely ground but not yet a paste.
2. Add salt. Mix well.
3. Pour into containers and cover with a layer of olive oil. Use immediately.
Fatima Bheekoo-Shah is a wife, mother, food blogger, foodie and breastfeeding activist who is finally answering her calling to be a writer.