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Book Review: Gaza Kitchen

Gaza Kitchen.jpg

This is the seventh in a series of reviews of new books on Middle Eastern affairs. We asked Dr. Gail Weigl, an APN volunteer and a professor of art history, to review Laila El-Haddad's and Maggie Schmitt's new book about the cuisine and culture of the Gaza Strip.

Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt, The Gaza Kitchen:  A Palestinian Culinary Journey (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2013). 138 pages.  $29.00

The Gaza Kitchen is a fascinating hybrid of recipes balanced against short biographical, historical, and socio-economic essays.  While the recipes themselves speak to the history and resiliency of the Palestinians who inhabit the tiny coastal strip, it is the accompanying texts which prove of greatest interest, especially to the average or modestly skilled cook for whom food preparation is not a primary occupation.  As the culinary historian Michael Twitty, an African-American Jewish convert, has observed, all food is political, especially for disadvantaged or disenfranchised populations.  

El-Haddad and Schmitt would be among the first to agree, adding also that food is identity, and that the preservation of Palestinian food traditions in the face of war, deprivation, and dislocation represents a "living legacy," one of the most telling ways the people of Gaza can affirm and remember their Palestinian heritage

The Forward by Nancy Harmon Jenkins sets the tone and introduces many of the themes more thoroughly addressed in the body of the book,  establishing at the outset that The Gaza Kitchen is more than a cookbook.  It is a manifesto, a declaration of national Palestinian identity through the preservation of a cuisine that is characterized above all by the sharp, pungent tastes of hot pepper, dill, and lemon.   

To make the point that this cuisine is as resilient as the people of Gaza, the authors consistently reference the restrictions imposed by Israel, from exports to imports, from fishing rights to electricity, from the destruction of farmland to the management of water, and they contrast these hardships with the cheerful adaptability of those who inhabit a geographically tiny strip, now isolated from what was once greater Palestine.  

While the politics of the region, the suffering and daily humiliations visited upon Gaza's inhabitants and the consequent transformation or elimination of traditional dishes might be the product of Palestinian as well as Israeli policies, it is not the authors' intent to present an even-handed history.  Rather, as they themselves have stated, it is to celebrate the vitality and durability of the Palestinian people and their traditions, by introducing the range of home cooking that flourishes despite punitive Israeli policies.  

Only rarely is the reader spared repetitive references to privations inflicted by Israel, references that undergird the message of Palestinian self-reliance and creativity.  These are central to the essays accompanying the recipes, without concern for historical context.  While these are extremely informative, not least because we are thereby introduced to the consequences of conflict whatever the context, they also portray Israel as the callous perpetrator of policies designed to harass or destroy the food culture -- and hence the larger culture  --  of Gaza. 

On the other hand, observations and individual biographies are presented with great economy, and together celebrate daily life in Gaza, giving a highly sympathetic and believably objective overview of the normality of obstacles and the ingenious ways in which they are surmounted.   The short biography of Fatema Qaadan (p.97) is an example of this approach, and is characteristic of many of the biographies studded throughout the text, each stressing the strength, warmth and cheerfulness of their subjects, while cataloguing the losses endured by native and refugee Palestinians who have suffered boycotts, bombardments and demolitions under Israeli control of Gaza.  

Every story is one of survival of body, mind and spirit despite a drumbeat of losses.  We learn how the Palestinian cuisine has been adapted to food aid, to the rationing of electricity, to the agricultural imperatives of Israeli incursions and Hamas government-managed "liberated lands"; and of the current debate about sustainability and about whether Gaza faces a humanitarian crisis.

The soul of this book is the story of the women of Gaza and the recipes they have cherished and transmitted from generation to generation. Here we encounter the principal intention of The Gaza Kitchen: Rescuing the people of a neglected part of the world from their image as victims, restoring to them their dignity, humanity, and zest for life by uncovering the lives they manage to live, the food they manage to create in the face of dispossession and privation.  We also discover that theirs' is a Palestinian heritage, and that the preservation and transmission of these recipes is the preservation of Palestinian national identity.

While The Gaza Kitchen often presents fascinating and informative narrative that celebrates our common humanity and extends our notion of the region far beyond the conflict and enmity that dominate the news, it is less valuable as a cookbook for the average American cook or palate.  Again, the authors emphasize that their recipes represent the home cooking prepared by women, and not the restaurant fare almost always prepared by men and familiar around the world as Middle Eastern cuisine.  

The book usefully begins with some tips on pantry ingredients, including acceptable substitutions and follows with basic preparations that at once demonstrate the labor-intensive character of the recipes.  We are immediately introduced to the absolutely indispensable Gazan red-clay zibdiya, or mortar and pestle, and the crushing, pounding and grinding that is the "base flavor for nearly every dish."  Though the zibdiya is only available in Gaza, any rough mortar and pestle can be substituted, and this fact prepares the cook for both the premium the authors place on absolute authenticity, and once having made the point, their effort to include acceptable substitutions for unobtainable utensils or ingredients.  This chapter continues with the spice-based broth that is equally the foundation of numerous dishes, and the lengthy process of preparing meats for the broth (we later learn that insuring the cleanliness of the meat is a by-product of unpredictable refrigeration); next follow recipes for the hot pepper, spices, and cheese and wheat berry preparations common to the cuisine.  

By this time, the average cook will have determined that the basics are extremely complicated, especially when it comes to finding the proper ingredients--rennet, wheat berries, sun-dried basil, or sumac.  The American kitchen pantry normally does not contain these ingredients, nor do the authors include references to sites where the ingredients may be found or ordered in the United States.  

It makes most sense, therefore, to skim the recipes for those that are doable without a search for uniquely Gazan ingredients, and to adapt available utensils for those that are central to the flavors and preparation of the food of Gaza.  The result may not be authentic in the truest sense of the word, but given the degree to which the women of Gaza adapt their recipes to the conditions in which they live, one suspects they might approve.  Recipes that seem on the face of it to be both delicious and completely authentic, however, might include those for vegetables, some of the salads, and several of the meat or vegetable soups and stews, though the latter do rely on the time consuming preparation of basic broth.  

Unlike the cooking of land-locked Palestinians, the situation of Gaza on the Mediterranean coast has resulted in fish and seafood recipes unique to the region, despite Israeli restrictions on fishing.  These preparations require nothing more than fresh fish, readily available spices and a light touch.  Happily, in this section we read of a rare positive outcome of Israeli policies:  brothers who learned their trade in Israel in the 1990s, and have since opened a number of successful fish farms in Gaza.

One final caveat: the authors do not include the number of servings per recipe. This may indicate that their purpose is not to provide a guide for cooking, as much as it is to tell us about the circumscribed and difficult life of the Palestinians crowded into this tiny strip of land, and about the vital Palestinian traditions kept alive by the welcoming and courageous women of Gaza.   There certainly are recipes the average cook will be tempted to try, largely those that make use of ingredients and preparations common to European and American cooking.  Otherwise, the recipes, too, may be seen less as guides to cooking than as examples of the unique traditions preserved in Gaza over years of turmoil, and of the lives they represent.