The Gaza Kitchen: A Stronghold Against Despair
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A few years ago, writer and social activist Maggie Schmitt was Googling the Gaza Strip. She wasn’t searching for information on its political tensions with Israel or economic woes, though; she was researching its cuisine. Much to her dismay, she could find little about the food from Gaza, but was able to find a few pieces from a blog called Gaza Mom, written by journalist, media activist, and Palestinian mother Laila El-Haddad.
It’s now four years later and El-Haddad and Schmitt are partners, having just published their first co-authored cookbook The Gaza Kitchen Cookbook (Just World Books 2012), which tells the story of the Gaza Strip through a culinary narrative of recipes and stories about Palestinian cooking. After connecting online as a result of Schmitt’s search for information on Gazan cuisine, they met in Gaza in 2010 and discovered that through the cloud of Gaza’s political turmoil there’s a silver lining: the kitchen.
Their cookbook tells the story of Gaza’s kitchens — it's a story of families rising up against the despair of their country’s warfare and uniting over a bond of food and cooking. By identifying Gaza’s unique cuisine, El-Haddad and Schmitt are able to pay tribute to its history, examining a timeline of Levantine and Egyptian influence, Palestinian exile, and changes in society and customs. The cookbook doesn’t turn a blind eye to Gaza’s current state, either, because it examines the situation of the siege through the lens of food; like its impact on Gaza’s farming and how that affects dishes such as a simple minced green salad, or in what way families are managing to cook despite not having electricity or gas. And lastly, the book examines the relentless bravery of the women of Gaza who feed their families despite nonexistent jobs and being displaced from their homes.
To research their book, El-Haddad and Schmitt traveled from kitchen to kitchen throughout the tiny strip of land in the southeastern section of the Mediterranean. In one account, the authors describe the kitchen at the Zeitun Women’s Cooperative outside of Gaza City:
"Heedless of both 100-degree heat and power outage, the cooperative’s members peel pumpkins and marinate chickens, fry eggplants and crush garlic in a whir of activity. While all hands are at work, the conversation ranges from thyroid troubles to daughters-in-law, from the ravages of the most recent war to the correct candying of carrots."
El-Haddad and Schmitt weave their stories throughout recipes upon recipes of authentic Palestinian cooking. They start with basics, which become the foundations of many recipes that follow, such as broths for stews or chile pastes for a calamari with rice. They share guides to spices, accounts of visits to families’ homes, and tips for ordering from Gaza’s street carts. Just like an Italian Nona would preach to use pasta water for the sauce, Gazan women have cooking mantras, too, and those are included within the pages of the cookbook.
The Gaza Strip is not a new topic of conversation, but through El-Haddad and Schmitt’s intimate stories of loving families and delicious cooking, they hope to change the direction of the dialogue. It’s their hope that through looking at these tiny glimpses of grace, beauty, and generosity, one can see peace in Gaza’s future.
Anne Dolce is the Cook editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @anniecdolce
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