The Foods of Gaza
By Laila El-Haddad
Let’s be honest: the last thing people associate with Gaza is its food. Most often, Gaza conjures up images of war and destruction-razed homes and fields, bombed out buildings, and masked gunmen. It also brings to mind a mélange of unflattering adjectives: along with Hebronites, Gazans are the butt of most popular jokes in Palestine. They are “brute" and “unsophisticated," and what they lack in culture they make up for in strong-headedness. So it should come as no surprise that their food is often overlooked in most popular cookbooks about Palestinian food, let alone outside of Palestine. Nevertheless, Gaza boasts a unique cuisine rivalled in its variety only by its versatility of ingredients, with a flavour to satisfy every palate. Many Gaza foods, of course, are common throughout Palestine and the Levant, or at least in certain Palestinian cities, such as Hebron. These include mahashi (stuffed vegetables), mezze and maqlooba - literally “upside-down," a delicious rice dish cooked with sautéed vegetables, spices, and lamb or chicken and flipped upside-down upon serving - and different varieties of tabeekh: vegetable and meat stews, such as fasooliya (green beans), bamya (okra) and bazayla (peas). Usually there are slight variations in flavour and spices, such as the addition of chopped basil to bamya and the customary side dish of whole green chillies. As far as Palestinian food goes, Gaza’s is characterized by its generous use of spices and, of course, chillies. Other major flavours and ingredients include dill, chard, garlic, cumin, lentils, chickpeas, pomegranates, sour plums and tamarind. Many of the traditional dishes rely on clay-pot cooking, which preserves the flavour and texture of the vegetables and results in fork-tender meat. Traditionally, most of the dishes, such as rummaniya, are seasonal and rely on ingredients indigenous to the area and its surrounding villages, pre-1948. Poverty has also played an important role in determining many of the area’s simple meatless dishes and stews, such as saliq wa adas (chard and lentils) and bisara (skinless fava beans mashed with dried mulukhiya leaves, chilli, dill seed and garlic). One cannot discount the influence of the 1948 Nakba, which resulted in an influx of refugees from all over Palestine’s coast, tripling Gaza’s population overnight. Many of them were fellahin (peasants) who would rely on eating seasonally, based on what they grew, and who brought with them a variety of flavours and ingredients, especially those that were easy to carry and cook in the harsh conditions of the exile they were forced to live in, as many first-generation refugees testify. Due to the Strip’s geographic isolation from the rest of Palestine as a result of decades of occupation and Israeli-imposed closures, many of its dishes have not been heard of outside of Gaza. In fact, perhaps the best test to determine if someone is truly Gazan, or at least well-acquainted with Gaza’ culture, is to ask if he/she knows what sumaggiya is! The popular dish, which is traditionally made on the Muslim Eid El-Fitr holiday but is popular amongst all of Gaza’s inhabitants and throughout the year, gets its name - and distinct colour - from the main ingredient: sumac. Sumac seeds, or ground sumac, are first soaked in water. The resulting infusion is mixed with tahina (sesame seed paste), water, and some flour which acts as a thickening agent. The mixture is then added to sautéed chopped chard - a key ingredient in many of Gaza’s dishes - chunks of slow-stewed beef, and chickpeas. It is spiced up with a mixture of crushed dill seeds, chillies, and garlic fried in olive oil, and then poured into bowls to cool. The final product is eaten with kmaj (pita bread), and distributed to friends, family and neighbours. Customarily, they return the bowl full, either with sumaggiya of their own or with nutmeg-infused date cookies, ka’ak bi ajwah. Rummaniya - similar in name and texture but completely different in taste to sumaggiya - is a seasonal dish made towards the end of summer and beginning of fall, when pomegranates, from which the dish derives its name, are still slightly sour. The dish is vegetarian, made by stewing together the unlikely combination of eggplants, sour pomegranate seeds or juice, tahina and brown lentils and flavoured with garlic, dill, and chillies. Shortly after the rummaniya season draws to a close comes the fall bounty: squash of all varieties, ruby red pomegranates, carrots, and other root vegetables. In Gaza, this means mahshi jazar ahmar, stuffed red carrots, so-called for the beet red colour of the juices they emit when cooked. The carrots, which are stouter and shorter than the usual orange variety, are cored and stuffed with meat, rice and spices and cooked in a tamarind and tahina based stock. Early spring is the time for fugga’iya, a hearty stew made of chunks of lamb stewed over a low fire with chickpeas, chopped chard, onions, and rice, and flavoured with fried garlic and a touch of lemon. Other basic non-meat dishes include lentil stew variations, such as pumpkin and red lentil flavoured with lemon and garlic; potatoes and lentils baked in a clay pot, fukharit adas; and saliq wa adas, a popular, slow-cooked stew made in the winter and early spring when chard is in season. It is flavoured with red pepper flakes, crushed dill seed, garlic, and cumin. Many of these vegetarian dishes are consumed by Gaza’s Christian communities during Lent.
Of course one cannot have a discussion of Gaza’s cuisine without mentioning its most sought after delicacies: seafood. In recent years, due to Israeli restrictions on Palestinian fishing zones off Gaza’s coast, the industry has been in decline, and seafood prices have skyrocketed, a sad turn of events for an area where fish was once a staple of the local diet. Now the best way to sample Gaza’s seafood is at a beachside restaurant or - the more economical and savoury way - by getting invited to someone’s house! Some famous seafood dishes include “zibdiyit gambari," literally, shrimps in a clay pot. The shrimps are baked in a clay bowl in a stew of chopped tomatoes, chillies, garlic, green dill, sweet peppers, onions, and olive oil. It is garnished with pine nuts, almonds, or sesame seeds. Calamari, known here as habbar after the ink it releases, is plentiful, cheap, and absolutely delectable when in season. It is either fried and served with a lemon-chilli sauce, or stuffed much as mahashi would be, with a mixture of rice or bulgur, mild spices, and chopped green dill. Crabs, Gaza-style, are stuffed with a mixture of shatta - Gaza’s famous red hot chilli pepper dip - crushed garlic and cumin and then baked in the oven. Fish is either fried or grilled after being stuffed with cilantro, garlic, chillies and cumin, and marinated in a spice-rub of coriander, chilli, cumin, and chopped lemons. It is also a key ingredient in sayyadiya, rice cooked with caramelized onions, a generous amount of whole garlic cloves, large chunks of well-marinated fried fish, and spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, and cumin.
Rice is a key ingredient in most Middle Eastern dishes. In Gaza, it is traditionally reserved for festivals or occasions. Perhaps the most famous rice dish here is qidra, named after the large clay vessel and clay oven in which it is baked. The rice is cooked in the vessel with chunks of meat, often lamb, a generous amount of whole, unpeeled garlic cloves, chickpeas, cardamom pods, and a laundry list of spices including, but not limited, to turmeric, which gives it its distinct yellow colour, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cumin. Qidra is usually made in large restaurant kitchens equipped with clay ovens, and ordered in large quantities for everything from weddings to funerals. Every restaurant and spice-store owner boasts his own “secret" qidra spice mixture recipe. After qidra comes fatteh gazzawiah, plain rice cooked in meat or chicken broth and flavoured with a sprinkling of mild spices such as cinnamon. The rice is layered over thin, saj baked bread known as farasheeh, which is smothered in ghee for flavour, and topped with stuffed chicken or pieces of lamb. The fatteh is eaten with a green-chilli and lemon sauce. When it comes to sweets, Gaza does not quite rival its Lebanese and Syrian neighbours nor, of course, Nablus with is mouth-watering knafa. Nuts are a scarce and pricey commodity in Gaza and often cashews, peanuts and almonds that are grown locally are substituted for the usual pine nuts and pistachios in biqlawa. Gaza’s answer to knafa nabulsiya is its own variety, called “knafa arabiya." Though it does not resemble the former in the least bit, is it equally delicious and can only be found in local pastry shops. It is made of a semolina and wheat mixture that resembles coarse crumbs, which are layered in a pan alternately with walnuts and pine nuts, flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg and generously drenched in hot syrup after being baked to a deep, crunchy brown. Bsees is a luscious, spiral-shaped flaky pastry baked with ghee and sweetened with syrup. It is difficult to find, however, and fewer and fewer pastry shops now make it. Such recipes are usually preserved orally, handed down from confectioners to their children. Finally, there is an array of jams that are popular in Gaza, depending on the season, ranging from strawberry and khushkhash (Seville orange) in winter to fig and grape in summer, but the most uniquely Gazan of them is arasiya, a sour plum jam. The small, cherry-sized plums have a short, two-week season in July during which women flock to local markets to buy their season’s worth of the precious fruit. As with sumaggiya, jars of the finished product are handed out to friends and family. Dried arasiya is also used to flavour many stews, such as maftool, the Gazan variety of Moroccan couscous. It is eaten with a soup that consists of tomatoes, chickpeas and onions and flavoured with dill seeds, crushed red pepper flakes and dried arasiya. Ari’ bi tahina, a pumpkin-beef stew cooked in a tahina lemon-garlic sauce is likewise flavoured with the plums. The Gazan kitchen also includes the usual Palestinian-Levantine mezze, such as mtabbel (baba ghanouj), hummus, and fool. Other popular Gazan mezze include bandoora maqliya, tomato slices fried in olive oil with garlic and chopped basil. Along with Palestinian zaatar, Gaza is almost famous for dugga - not to be confused with the ever-popular dagga salad. It is made of chickpeas, wheat, caraway, sumac, dill and red pepper flakes, all of which are ground to a fine powder and mixed with sesame seeds and eaten with olive oil and kmaj. And, finally, no article about Gaza’s treasure trove of food is complete without a mention of dagga, the arguable king of the Gazan table and one of her most famous dishes. Dagga is a spicy salad traditionally made in a clay bowl with crushed tomatoes, raw garlic cloves, hot chilli peppers, chopped dill and olive oil and seasoned with a squeeze of lemon upon serving. And with that, all that is left to say is: bil hana wil shifa! Laila El-Haddad is a writer and freelance journalist based between Gaza and the United States. Her blog, Raising Yousuf: Diary of a Mother Under Occupation (www.a-mother-from-gaza.blogspot.com) is named after her two-year-old son. She can be reached at email@example.com.