When we think of the Gaza Strip, our minds probably turn to conflict, isolation and an insurgence of refugees, rather than food.
But this small Palestinian territory, bound by the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and Egypt, has a cuisine that will rival some of the world’s hottest culinary meccas. This is what Laila El-Haddad, and her co-author Maggie Schmitt, set out to demonstrate in their 2013 cookbook, The Gaza Kitchen.
El-Haddad, an award-winning author, chef, and journalist (she’s been published in The Washington Post and cooked with Yotam Ottolenghi), was eager to fill in the gaps left by her history teachers by exploring her country’s food.
“Why had our neighbours from Jerusalem never heard of sumagiyya (a spicy meat stew), or dill seeds? Why were there certain dishes, like bisara and rumaniyya, that my parents largely kept to themselves? What could all these foods tell us about the hundreds of towns and villages that existed only in the collective memory of Palestinians, but none of the textbooks or maps I read growing up?” she asks, speaking to SBS Food ahead of a 10-day visit to Australia in April.
Food allowed her to retrospectively connect the dots and “eventually tell the story of the Palestinian experience”, she says.
Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, El-Haddad later worked as a journalist in Gaza, which spurred a desire to both codify its cuisine and to “use food as a lens to tell the story of Gaza”.
“And by and large, [to tell] the story of the Palestinians, in a very real, very relatable way,” El-Haddad tells SBS. The result is a raw, un-retouched series of pictures of ordinary people cooking ordinary things in ordinary kitchens, as a means of humanisation, El-Haddad explains.
It was the Arab-Israeli war and exodus in 1948, leading to a population that virtually tripled overnight as the Gaza region became a refuge for thousands of displaced Palestinians flocking from rural areas, the coast and cities, that lends the region its rich, layered and diverse cuisine.
El-Haddad cites some of the dominant flavours of this multilayered ‘new’ Gaza Strip as dill (both fresh green and in seed form), souring agents like sour pomegranate juice, lemons, sour plums; cumin; garlic; hot peppers; red tahina (“a delightfully nutty brick red variety made by roasting the sesame seeds first before pressing them”); chard; squash; and maftoul, or Palestinian couscous.
When encountering such rich cultural narratives, it’s easy to be swept up in images of grandmothers wistfully passing recipes down to her children and grandchildren, who of course, listen intently. But El-Haddad quickly quells these romances, describing herself as a malnourished, sickly child with no interest in food whatsoever, who came from a long line of working women who believed a woman's place was in the workplace, not the kitchen. Her grandmother, a well-respected teacher in the UN schools in Gaza, spoke at least four languages, memorised countless volumes of poetry and was an avid Oud player (an Arabic string instrument); her mother was a physician.
“Even though both were excellent cooks, they would recoil at the thought of my asking them how to make a particular dish, so I had to observe,” she says. “Food preparation was always a source of angst and stress for my mother, who was torn, like most mothers, in a million directions. But I do remember her actively encouraging me to experiment in the kitchen.”
“She may have hated cooking but she was awfully good at this.”
El-Haddad recalls the home economising skills passed to her by her mother, who taught her how to reserve the centres of cored squash for making lentil soup and stale bread for salads.
“And if all else failed, leftovers would be distributed to the birds or the chickens we had out back.”
As a family, they would gather around a low floor table and enjoy simple suppers of white cheese, olives, za’atar, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggs, and fava beans.
Today, these foods are far from exotic; za’atar, tahina and pomegranate juice are now in grocers and on café menus around Australia.
Israeli-born Australian food researcher and writer Sol Salbe cites political interest in the area as an undeniable factor for putting Palestinian food on the map.
“But also, the third generation have come to the forefront and are a lot more proud of their Palestinian heritage,” he tells SBS. “Even in Australia, Palestinians are putting their cuisines forward. They don’t have to prove anything, unlike their parents [the second generation]. That’s why so many of the Palestinian cookbooks belong to this third generation.”
Salbe, a Facebook friend of El-Haddad’s, is currently writing a book on how Palestinian and Israeli foods have informed each other, and how Palestinian food in particular is emerging from the shadows. He names Yotam Ottolenghi and his Palestinian business partner Sami Tamimi as instrumental in popularising regional Middle Eastern dishes beyond the tried and true kebabs, tahina, hummus and Baba ghanoush.
“The biggest misconception is a lot of people think, for example, that everything is Israeli. Well, there are some innovations, I don’t deny that. But people think of a very narrow range of dishes.”
El-Haddad will be shining the light once more on the breadth and colour of Palestinian food – namely, southern and Gazan food in the second edition of The Gaza Kitchen (John Reed Books), which she’s promoting around the country via a series of events in April.
“This project has really been a long time coming,” El-Haddad says, “from my interest in food as a sort of archaeological tool to a means of cementing my identity.”
Laila El-Haddad’s Australian events include a free talk (bookings are required) on Politics and Parenting in Palestine in Melbourne on April 5; a cooking demonstration and talk at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival on April 6; a cooking demonstration in Adelaide on April 8; and in Sydney, a free talk (rsvp required) on Food, Security, War & The Everyday in Gaza on April 10 and a dinner on April 12. The full programme is here.