Battered by Israel, ignored by Egypt and packed nearly as densely as Manhattan or Hong Kong, the Gaza Strip is among the most fragile flash-points in all of the Middle East. But this tiny sliver of land wedged between the stark Sinai Peninsula and the azure Mediterranean continues to prove that culture and tradition can exist even in the most challenging conditions. Case in point: The Gaza Kitchen, a new cookbook and that chronicles the role of cuisine in Gaza as tools for both sustenance and resistance.
Written by authors Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt—and partially funded by crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter—The Gaza Kitchen pairs photo-rich regional recipes with detailed accounts of Israel’s decades-long occupation and subsequent blockade. Filled with chef profiles and economic analysis, the book’s reportage is at once transportive and grim. But the recipes—pickled fruits, spice-laden salads, earthy vegetable stews, syrupy sweet desserts—are unquestionably mouthwatering despite their austerity.
With its focus on home-style cooking, rather than the region’s well-known street-food like hummus or falafel, The Gaza Kitchen humanizes a land and people often reduced to wartime cliche. “Gaza may be impoverished and under attack, but that doesn’t mean people have stopped giving importance to cooking and cuisine,” says El-Haddad, an author and activist who was born in Kuwait, raised between the Persian Gulf and Gaza and now lives in Maryland. “As Gazans struggle to transform rations and food aid into family meals, the dishes are testimony to the tenacity of a people still clinging to what’s good in life.”
Written over two years, the book comes to market at a moment of increasing interest in both the flavors and health benefits of Mediterranean and Levantine cuisine. Indeed, much like the foods of neighboring Egypt, Lebanon and West Bank, Gazan cooking is rich in stuffed meats, leafy greens and dense, whole-grain breads. But Gazan dishes also reflect the Strip’s complex political and demographic realities. Many of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents, for instance, are refugees from Palestinian villages now part of Israel while key local ingredients—from seafood to olives to orchard fruits—are restricted by the Israelis or must be smuggled from Egypt through Gaza’s infamous tunnel system. This interplay between food and politics, the authors say, honors the memories of lost Palestinian communities while encouraging much-needed culinary innovation.
“The ongoing blockade may have resulted in shortages, but Gazans find ways to overcome whatever they’re slammed with,” says Schmitt, a Madrid-based author and translator. In the process, she adds, “food becomes a taste and memory of home for a refugee population when that home is long gone.”
Despite its niche focus, The Gaza Kitchen is cultivating a surprisingly sophisticated fan base. American adventurer-chef Anthony Bourdain, for instance, calls it “an important book…old school in the best possible meaning of the term,” while London-based Mediterranean food author and historian Claudia Roden highlights the importance of cooking to the area¹s cultural identity. “Food writers today often invent recipes or create their own twists to make cooking easier,” she says. “True, some ingredients may be hard to find, but El-Haddad and Schmitt have presented Gazan cuisine exactly how it actually is.”
It should be noted that many of the dishes featured in the book appear on Israeli tables too, and therein lies the book’s wider resonance. The authors are hopeful that the most effective way to encourage co-existence might actually be through the dinner plate. “There’s a misconception that talking about Gazan cuisine is frivolous in the face of obstacles such as the blockade,” says El-Haddad, who hopes to one day chronicle the cuisine of the entire Palestinian diaspora. “But talking about food and daily life is an effective way to show the human side of conflict and do our part to construct real solutions.”