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A culinary memory book that tastes like Gaza

April 22, 2013 3:32 P.M. (Updated: April 29, 2013 5:44 P.M.)
By: Fiona Tarazi
When the average American thinks about Gaza, it's likely their first thoughts will be of Hamas, the blockade or issues of governance. It's considerably less likely that their thoughts would be of a local lentil recipe, the trio of spices used in Gazan cuisine (cumin, garlic and dill) or how a zibdiya, or mortar and pestle, is like a member of every Gazan family.

Yet changing Gaza's image by way of focusing on its cuisine is precisely the goal of Maggie Schmitt and Laila El-Haddad, co-authors of 'The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey' published in March 2013 by Just World Books.

Schmitt, a writer, translator and educator based in Madrid has published several articles on Gazan cuisine for 'The Atlantic' and El-Haddad is behind the blog 'Gaza Mom' covering 'Palestine, Politics, Parenting and everything in between'.

The two women are currently promoting the book in the United States, hosting talks and conducting interviews in cities such as New York, Washington and Boston. While doing this, they have also partnered with chefs at local restaurants to host events featuring some of the 130 recipes from the 'The Gaza Kitchen.'

All of the recipes in the book have been kitchen-tested and come from across the entire historic region of Gaza. In documenting this relatively unexplored cuisine, Schmitt and El-Haddad have attempted to "rebrand Palestine, or at least help the audience see it through a different lens. Plus, the food is really good."

El-Haddad said the fact that the cookbook even exists is rather serendipitous as the two women hatched the plan for it without ever having met. It was a plan neither expected to materialize given the tight blockade around the Gaza Strip. However, when security at Egypt's Rafah crossing was temporarily relaxed following the Turkish Flotilla incident in May 2010, they seized the opportunity to meet for the first time in Gaza.

"We just went with our guts, not knowing what to expect and wondering whether Gaza residents would even want to talk to us about their food," El-Haddad said.

Any concerns they had were quickly put to rest as it soon became clear that food was something locals were eager to talk about. As Schmitt noted, the average man on the street in Gaza is accustomed to cameras and journalists, so they have their comments and statements about the border and blockade ready at a moment's notice.

When they were asked instead about their recipes for lentils there was a moment of pause, but not for long: "It was very clear that they were thrilled to talk about something other than politics and something so close to their hearts."

The people they talked to quickly deferred to mothers, aunts or grandmothers as authorities on some particular recipe and invited the writers to meet them. Schmitt and El-Haddad were invited into their homes, or, more specifically, their kitchens, where these women cooked for them and taught them recipes handed down through the generations.

Schmitt argues that the family kitchen is perhaps the most intimate of spaces because "you learn so much about a person when you sit down in their kitchen and make a meal with them." It's also a space that is rarely seen, yet one that affords incredible insights into the home and family life of Palestinians, and they felt very lucky to get "access to those spaces as women, something the typical male journalist would not have had."

As they repeated this routine with countless Gazan families, Schmitt and El-Haddad realized they had hit an untapped goldmine of recipes; more significantly, they found that each recipe and each ingredient came with a story - a family memory recalled through food.

Inevitably, many stories made some reference to the political situation: usually, about the difficulties they had obtaining ingredients due to Israeli restrictions on imports, exports, fishing and farming. Gathering recipes from all over the Gaza region, not just the Strip, politics were impossible to avoid, but, told through the context of food, the book becomes a "culinary memory book" with recipes from towns such as Bayt Jirya, that "no longer exist but we know what it tasted like."

Recalling memories through food is something an American audience – indeed, any audience - can understand because every family has a recipe passed down through the generations: their grandmother's chocolate-chip cookies that melted in your mouth, an aunt's meatloaf and mashed potatoes that are still the best they ever tasted. The same is true for Palestinians with their cherished family recipes for maqlooba, mana-ish and fattit hummus.

Sara Jenkins, the chef and owner of the Italian restaurant, Porsena, in Manhattan recently hosted an evening featuring recipes from the book. "Food," she says, "is the most non-threatening way to bring people together."

Sara hoped to show people a different, more human side of Palestine: "Food is a safe topic, I'm not talking about statehood, I'm trying to bring humanity to the region by introducing people to a totally new cuisine…showing them there's something more to Palestine than conflict, more than politics."

As Schmitt pointed out, politics are merely the backdrop to Palestinian cuisine: "Food is long, taste is long, techniques are long. Nations are short, they come and go and they shift around."

The same is true everywhere: politics shift, but people always have to eat. The region's politics will never be ignored, but perhaps now more attention will start to be paid to the region's food. It is, after all, very tasty.

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