Cookbooks, if you look closely, contain more than recipes. Even when recipes predominate – in books with no headnotes, contributor names, nothing more than ingredients and methods – you learn a lot about the people who wrote the books. By scrutinizing the text, you develop a sense of what’s important to the authors and the authors’ intended audience.
And, sometimes, you discover cookbooks that spell out their mission with unmitigated boldness. Take, for example, a controversial cookbook, The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey, by Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt (Just World Publishing, 2013). Funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, The Gaza Kitchen reveals a side rarely seen in the current conflict in Gaza: the food. The authors mince no words about the political issues associated with Gaza, saying “Cuisine always lies somewhere at the intersection of geography, history, and economy.” (p. 9) Celebrated food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins wrote the Introduction, summing up with a wise and knowing conclusion: “Not just a cookbook, The Gaza Kitchen is a reflection of of a unique group of people at an important moment in their history. As such, of course, it is a reflection of all of us, of our common humanity.” (p. 6)
A nameless Palestinian woman’s face dominates the cover of The Gaza Kitchen and radiates intense concentration. Placing this anonymous figure at the center of the design cannot be a coincidence. Women in Gaza cook in the home and men cook in the restaurants and on the streets. Like lodestones, women form the core around which family life and survival swirl, giving a sense of security in a place where none actually exists. Interspersed throughout the book, short pithy interviews with actual women, all cooks, lend insights into how people think about food. Um Rami, who lives outside of Beach Camp near Gaza City, mentioned that she “used to buy several kilos of fresh fruit and vegetable a week, but now it’s much less, they’re so expensive…in any case we all just sort of lost our appetites after the last war. I cook the same things but in smaller proportions, and still there are leftovers.” (p. 73)
The Gaza Strip, as it is called on the maps, or just plain “Gaza,” stretches twenty-five miles in length, its width a mere five miles at its broadest point. Two million people, mostly refugees or descendants of refugees, scratch out a living in one of the world’s most politically volatile regions. In this modern world of ours, Gaza reminds us of just how far-reaching diplomatic decisions can be. Supported by the League of Nations, the British created the Palestine Mandate in 1921. When Israel became a nation state in 1948, Palestinians from throughout the region found themselves relocated to the narrow Gaza Strip. In exile, for all practical purposes.
Regardless of what side you might take in the conflict in Gaza, The Gaza Kitchen compels you to keep reading, because – besides the fragrant-sounding recipes – here you comprehend the true meaning of “culinary exile,” a phrase I coined when examining the cuisine of immigrants in modern France. This culinary exile is exacerbated by the fact that 80% of the people in Gaza receive food aid from international donors such as UNRWA and WFP, dictating what staples cooks use. Many traditional grains and other ingredients are no longer to be had – frikah, bulgur, barley, red tahina.
El-Haddad and Schmitt speak forcefully in The Gaza Kitchen, describing in sad detail the plight of cooks living under siege-like conditions. You learn that there’s not just one Palestinian cuisine, but many, loosely categorized as urban, rural, and nomadic. Now, thanks to the large number of refugees from different areas of Palestine, this cuisine forms a mélange of styles. It also becomes, at times, an object of “cultural appropriation,” according to the authors of The Gaza Kitchen. Looking at the cuisine, for example, in the very few cookbooks produced by French colonialists, you will be struck by two things: 1) the lack of local dishes and 2) the absence of the female voice, in sharp contrast to the British colonial experience. Colonizers tended to ignore local cuisines. In the case of appropriation of Arab dishes, El-Haddad and Schmitt quote Israeli author Yahil Zaban, who states that “hummos, tahini, and falafel were turned into symbols of Israeliness, while their Arab heritage was repressed and obliterated.” (p. 47)
This point of view, that Arab culinary contributions are being subsumed into Israeli national cuisine, plays a large role in The Gaza Kitchen. Yet, you cannot overlook another vitally important aspect of the book: the authors’ rich photography and visual documentation of cooking techniques, ingredients, and equipment. Many ingredients no longer exist, such as red tahina, due to restrictions on imports, another factor illustrating the way that cuisine changes. “While Palestinians have adapted to this reality [food aid], creating innovative dishes with what ingredients are available, for Um Ibrahim, as for many elders, food – real food – is always in the past tense.” (p. 61)
As a portrait of a people in exile, The Gaza Kitchen offers one thing that many cookbooks do not: stories of real people, real food, and real life. If you yearn for “authentic,” whatever that is, you will come close to it here. And no matter what your politics, you will find The Gaza Kitchen an example of oral history at its best, recording precious memories and foodways that could easily slip away under the pressures of culinary exile.
Sumagiyya (from pages 58-59)
1 1/2 pounds lean stewing meat, beef or lamb
1 onion, chopped
4 T. olive oil
1 bay leaf
1 sprig Rosemary, if available
1 Cinnamon stick
5 allspice berries
4 cardamom pods
1 onion, chopped
10 cups chopped chard, any variety
½ c. Sumac
2 c. boiling water
3 heaping Tablespoons flour
1 T. dill seed
5 garlic cloves, mashed
1 tsp. coriander
1 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
1 green chili chopped (optional)
2 tsp. salt
1 14 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
3 T. Red Tahina, or 2 T. regular Tahina mixed with 1 tsp roasted sesame oil.
Saute meat and onions with olive oil until lightly browned. Cover meat with water and bring to a boil. Skim any froth that rises to the top. Add whole spices and stir. Lower heat, and cover. Cook until meat is tender, but not falling apart. Drain meat and reserve broth.
Add onion and chard and stir until just wilted.
Boil the sumac for 10 minutes, then drain and reserve the liquid. Let cool to room temperature.
Add flour to cooled sumac infusion and stir until dissolved. In a zibdiya or mortar and pestle, grind dill seed and dried pepper with salt until fragrant. Add garlic and chilies, if desired, and mash. Set aside.
Combine broth and sumac-flour mixture and whisk thoroughly to avoid clumping. Add meat mixture, dill, garlic, chili mixture, and remaining spices. Bring to a boil as you continue to stir, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 15 minutes. Continue to stir throughout until mixture becomes thick. Add 1 T. tahina and cook for 3 more minutes.
Remove from heat and pour into bowls. Cool and serve at room temperature with Arabic bread and chilies.
© 2014 C. Bertelsen