A blurry image of tiny morsels of falafel – mid-fry – flashes up on my phone, accompanied by a text apologising for the quality of the photo. “Did you get it?” asks Wafaa Saad, a mother of six, from Gaza City. “The connection is weak. The electricity keeps going in and out.” Two symmetrical plates of falafel, delectable fritters formed from chickpeas, fresh dill, chillies and coriander, are surrounded by olives, pickled peppers, shatta, a local chilli-pepper paste, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. “Dinner!”
Most pictures that come out of Gaza are of the devastation wreaked by Israeli bombardment and the grinding poverty of life under Israel’s and Egypt’s blockade of the territory. The 360 square-kilometre sliver of land, wedged between the Sinai Peninsula and Israel, is crowded with 2m people, most of whom don’t consider Gaza their ancestral home. Around 80% are refugees from other parts of Palestinian territories. The small photo of falafel is a reminder that, even in desperate circumstances, people need to eat.
Gaza’s cuisine is part of the culinary continuum of the Levant. It has much in common with nearby Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, but it now exists in a gastronomical bubble, cut off from all its neighbours.
In 1976 my parents left Gaza for Kuwait, where I was born. We returned to Gaza only for hot summers. Today, visiting from my home in America is impossible. Food is one of the few ways in which my Gazan roots continue to play out. In my suburban kitchen in Maryland I cook the food of my parents’ birthplace and taste our heritage.
In Gaza you can eat your way through the riches of Palestinian history: kishik is a fermented wheat and dairy stew once made in Beit Tima, a Palestinian-Arab village depopulated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and other farming communities. Richly spiced shrimp is from Jaffa. Lamb is roasted long and slow as the nomadic Naqab Bedouin have cooked it for centuries. The blisteringly hot tomato and dill salad is from Gaza itself.
Today half of Gaza’s population live in poverty and two-thirds either can’t afford or don’t have access to nutritious food in sufficient quantities. More than half are unemployed. To cope, local women say they buy cheap foods in small quantities, often with borrowed money, and cook it over firewood. Saad sends me a photo of her fridge: it is mostly empty, the few items on the shelves melting or rotting because of power outages.
Saad’s husband is employed by the Palestinian National Authority, the body that has governed Gaza since 1994, and works in public health. His salary has been cut but because he has a job his family receives no food aid. They live pay cheque to pay cheque, yet Saad considers her family is among the lucky ones. She plans the rare costly dish ingredient by ingredient, she says. This week she has makhshi koosa in her sights: fried magda squash stuffed with spiced ground beef and pine-nuts in a fresh tomato sauce. She will buy the vegetables, then wait until she has the money to buy a little beef. “Maybe Friday...”
For Saad, thinking about and planning her family’s favourite dishes is a form of escapism. Her husband loves fatteh, poached and stuffed chicken served on top of cinnamon-flecked rice and saj, buttery griddle bread, with a dressing of smashed green chilli peppers, garlic and lemon juice, as well as maqlooba, literally “upside-down”: a layered, spiced rice dish with chicken and aubergines, cooked then dramatically flipped onto a tray. She makes them once or twice a year at most. Gaza sits on the coast but fish is a rarity: the good fish goes to restaurants for journalists, aid workers and Gaza’s elite.
Iman Joudeh, a single mother, runs a women’s cooking co-operative in the central Gazan town of Deir Al-Balah. It employs more than ten women, all the breadwinners of their families, to prepare meals for wealthier Gazans to buy. They specialise in local dishes: spiced, hand-rolled couscous, served with a stew of chickpeas and orange squash; kunafa arabiyya, a sweet pastry made elsewhere with cheese but in Gaza with walnuts.
As I listen to Joudeh, my mouth waters as I remember the flavours of a home I can no longer visit. I try to replicate them thousands of miles away but I wonder, in the birthplace of these recipes, how the co-operative is able to prepare them. The difficulty is affording the ingredients, says Joudeh.
In the eyes of many, musakhan is the national dish of Palestine. Chicken is rubbed with sumac, cinnamon and allspice and served on top of flatbread baked in a clay oven, then drenched in rich, fruity olive oil and smothered with caramelised onions and fried almonds. It appears in my dreams. But in Gaza, says Joudeh, fresh chicken is so expensive that people use frozen, imported meat, which lacks flavour but is half the price.
Such thriftiness is widespread. Um Mazen and her husband run a small supermarket in northern Gaza. Their customers’ children stare longingly at the snack aisle. Shoppers buy grains only when they receive their quarterly food vouchers from aid groups. They buy olive oil by the shekel’s worth, enough for a single dish.
That olive oil is unaffordable is especially bitter. Olive trees are the most lasting symbol of Palestine. Almost half of Gaza’s fertile land lies along its border with Israel. The strip was once thick with olive groves but the Israeli army has levelled well over a thousand acres of them. Most locals rarely use the expensive oil now; they have replaced it with sunflower or soybean oil, doled out sparingly by aid agencies.
Saad sends me a message to tell me that she was at last able to cook her beloved makhshi koosa for her family, “but everyone devoured it before I could send you a picture!” It is a small but important victory in a world where there is little semblance of normality. The mundane routines that Gazans keep – preparing traditional meals with whatever is available, eating together whenever possible, telling their stories – are acts of quiet resistance.•