Written by Laila-Al Haddad and Maggie Schmitt | Published by Just World Books
Many of us know the food of Palestine well. Think olives, hummus, tahini, falafel and lashings of grass-green olive oil drizzled over everything. But reading The Gaza Kitchen, I was fascinated to learn that food from Gaza is much more than that. A tiny strip of land with 2,000,000 inhabitants cut off from the outside world by the Israeli army, the Gaza Strip is not what you would expect from a gastronomic hot spot. Yet this is the account given by authors Laila Al-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt in their cookbook. I firmly believe that behind every recipe there is a story, and this book is just that. Part memoir, part cultural history, part political statement and part cookbook, it delights and educates on a multitude of levels. For this reason, this book is fast becoming one of my favourites.
Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt set out to prove that Gazan cuisine can hold its own against any cuisine of the world, by making their way into the homes of Gazan cooks and documenting the recipes they make for their families every day. It’s a cuisine with some recognisable elements like chopped vegetable salads, falafel and richly spiced rice dishes – but this tiny region surprised me with its unique trademarks. Gazan cuisine is unique even within Palestinian cooking for its chillies, its red tahini (made with roasted sesame seeds), its use of dill seeds, and of course, the fact that all this is done under difficult circumstances and food shortages.
Food authority and writer, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, writes the foreword for Gaza Kitchen. Interestingly, she notes that Gaza was once an important station on the spice route and the link between Southern Arabia and the Mediterranean. Spices from the land of the East continue to shape the cuisine of the culture today. Nancy believes that this book is a living legacy of traditional dishes from all over historic Palestine; a legacy of the refugees who flocked there after being driven out of their homes and farms.
While most cookbooks will allure you with its glossy “picture perfect” food photographs, you will be drawn to this book because of the history written between the pages and the wonderful warm Gazan citizens that you meet along the way. Like the warm Fatema Qadam, a widow clad in a bright orange dress who enthralls readers with her narrative of owning a business rearing rabbits. Her rabbit farm is flourishing and Fatema shares an interesting recipe for fatta bil jaj or fatta bil aranib, which is a buttery rice dish served with griddled bread and stuffed chicken or rabbit. We also met the Gazan fisherman, which really struck a chord with me. The fishermen believe if it were not for the shimmering blue horizon of the Mediterranean Sea, Gaza might feel like a dungeon. The fishermen have an intimate relationship with the sea which spans generations and makes for the magnificent seafood and mouthwatering recipes that Gaza is well known for. The fish brothers – Iyad and Ziyad who introduced fish farming to the strip share a recipe for hbari maqli, a Gazan style fried calamari that had my guest clamouring for more.
I honestly don’t think any book review would do justice to this rich and inspiring book. While its main focus is on food and recipes, the book makes a political statement by showing the world the resilience and tenacity of the people of Gaza. At the same time, it is refreshing to get a new angle on the city, a human perspective. The book beautifully illustrates many of the ongoing issues in the Gaza Strip: the struggles of local farmers and fisherman, reliance on the tunnel system for basic necessities and the difference between what is available and what is affordable.
Even though Laila Al-Haddad is a former Gaza citizen herself, The Gaza Kitchen is not about her recipes. When it comes to the women portrayed in the book, the authors largely step out of the way and allow the women of Gaza to present their own stories and recipes. The weaving of these narratives in and out of the recipes movingly highlights the role of cooking and the home in Gaza and portrays narratives of food and family that will resonate with almost anyone.
This book will make your mouth water, awaken your senses to something new yet old and perhaps leave you with a tear or two.