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Yotam Ottolenghi and the Authors of
‘The Gaza Kitchen’
Discuss Food, Conflict, Culture

By By Sam Dean
circa 2014
Article source: Bon Appétit

Laila El-Haddad, Yotam Ottolenghi and Maggie Schmitt

Defined by conflict, densely packed with refugees, and sealed from the outside world by the Israeli military, the Gaza Strip is not your typical culinary hot spot. But in their new cookbook The Gaza Kitchen, Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt set out to prove that Gazan cuisine can hold its own against any in the region by going into the homes of Gazan cooks and documenting the recipes they make for their families every day. It’s a cuisine with some familiar elements—chopped vegetable salads, falafel, richly spiced rice dishes—but for such a small region, it has a surprising number of trademarks. Gazan cuisine is unique even within Palestinian cooking for its chilies, its red tahini (made with roasted sesame seeds), its use of dill seeds, and, of course, its adaptations to the difficult circumstances and food shortages that have shaped its history. And this book is fascinating, both for its recipes and for its painstaking reporting, not to mention the first of its kind.

Last fall, meanwhile, London-based Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi wrote a cookbook called Jerusalem with his Palestinian business partner, Sami Tamimi. Together, they looked at the complicated mix of culinary cultures in their shared hometown.

The two books describe two different worlds—there’s Gaza, food-insecure and isolated, and Jerusalem, relatively rich and cosmopolitan—but these two worlds are only a two-hour drive apart. Inevitably, they touch on the same issues, shared histories, and, often, shared recipes.

We asked Ottolenghi, El-Haddad, and Schmitt to talk about their books, their hometowns (El- Haddad grew up in Gaza), the contentious problems of ownership and appropriation, and about how much they love this food. Their conversation is transcribed below.

Yotam Ottolenghi: I’ve been reading your book in detail over the weekend, and making so many little comments and little things that I thought were puzzling and interesting. It’s a great book, by the way.

Laila El-Haddad: Thank you very much. We’ve also been poring over yours, it’s gorgeous.

YO: Thank you. Very different books, I must say.

Maggie Schmitt: But somehow working in parallel.

YO: Your books is just such an accurate documentation of what’s going on, it’s fascinating. I learned a lot of things I hadn’t known about at all. I just claimed my own ignorance, but Gaza has never featured in my radar as a food place. I’ve always followed with great regret what’s going on in Gaza and seeing all the terrible things, but I just didn’t assume that there’s so much going on with these very clear identifying features.

LEH: It’s not on most people’s radars. For me, as a Palestinian from Gaza, it’s always figured on my radar, and I would always think, “Why? Why isn’t anyone familiar with this fantastic cuisine?” But, of course, it was also more than just featuring the cuisine. It was using the cuisine to talk about the larger situation.

MS: I think there are really clear reasons why it doesn’t figure on anyone’s radar.

YO: Who goes to Gaza? That’s the thing. I think it’s almost impossible—I just assume there’s no tourism.

LEH: Ha, no.

MS: The border is hermetically sealed. There’s no way without tremendous paperwork to get a permit. So really, there’s no way to get into Gaza and no way to get out of Gaza.

YO: So, as a result, there’s just no one to tell the story unless you’re there, like you were.

The whole business of women cooking home food at home and men cooking the official street food in restaurants or other sorts of eateries really struck a chord. I think this is something that actually happens across the Middle East—men cooking in restaurants and women cooking at home.

When I did a program about Jerusalem for the BBC a couple years ago, I went to visit a Palestinian home. The cousin of the family was working in a hotel, and the women of the house showed me a few Palestinian dishes, but they said, “Let’s do it quickly before our cousin arrives, because then it’s going to be all sorts of fancy food.” They wanted to get everything out of the way because they knew he can’t cook their food and they can’t cook his food, and it’s almost like there’s actually no dialogue. He’s the official chef but, in actually they were cooking the things that I found more interesting.

I think it’s an interesting division.

LEH: That was important to us, to highlight that home cooking that never gets featured, it’s almost a shameful thing. There’s also an element of protecting that intimate or personal space. Usually, at least in the case of Gaza, men are the interlocutors, and you never see the women, or you’re never getting that view of the inside intimate space.

Um Ibrahim, a Gazan woman, cooking Kishik Beit Tima, a kind of stew

MS: We have an interest in compiling the recipes and the culinary culture, but also have the documentary ambition of talking about the overall situation in Gaza through the food. It’s really important to us to start with the households and the homes and then work up to the greater economic picture, looking at homes as the basic unit of the economy, and of daily life.

YO: And were people always completely accepting you, open-armed? There was never a sense that, you know, “This is my recipe!”?

MS: On the contrary, I felt like everyone was falling over themselves to invite us into their homes! I really at no moment felt any hesitance about sharing these foods. If we brought up a recipe, people would say, “Come to my house and I’ll show you.”

LEH: Yeah, people were completely taken aback and pleasantly surprised that someone was going to ask them about something other than the rockets and the siege. Of course, it all figures together, but they were all just extremely delighted that people were thinking about them, and interested in learning about them, as human beings.

YO: And with communication with the outside world being so impossible, because of the siege, this was an outlet. Food is the way that people kind of communicate things in the most unfortunate circumstances, so I guess it was finally an opportunity for them to raise their voices and show what Gaza’s all about, apart from all the rest of the stuff.

Making Salatit Abo Safiya, a variation on the classic Gaza salad, in a zibdiya, the mortar-and-pestle that’s in every Gazan kitchen

LEH: Definitely. They take great pride in their heritage. Which is, as you probably learned, an amalgamation of heritages from outside the modern Gaza Strip.

The one exception to the eagerness to share was in the public face of the food there, the restaurants. There were a couple of places that were really well-known where we wanted to get their take on certain recipes for example the Abu Hasira, a fish restaurant, or Saqallah’s Sweet Factory. And that took a bit of convincing. In fact for one of them, I had my mother go after we had left Gaza, and she spent about an hour negotiating with the owner of Abu Hasira to try to get his take on sayadiyya, the fish and rice.

And he just would not have it. “Absolutely not. This is a protected family recipe.” Finally she managed to convince him, saying “This is a great thing for Gaza. Your name will be in the book,” but she couldn’t convince the spice guy to reveal his mix of qidra spices. Gaza, Hot Zone.

YO: I wanted to ask you a little bit about this love for chilies and hot food that you say is typical to Gaza. Do you think it has got to do with the proximity to North Africa? You find in Tunisian food and Libyan food much more chili used than in, let’s say, Syrian and Lebanese.

MS: I don’t think that can quite explain it. Frankly, it baffled us–we were trying to trace the historical spice routes, and what could have brought in chili peppers and also dill. Like, who uses dill?

YO: I know, so weird. I mean, dill is very prominent in Turkish food and in Persian food.

MS: Yeah, but we couldn’t quite figure out how that got to and stayed in Gaza but not in the surrounding areas. So that continues to be for us a kind of geographical culinary mystery.

LEH: And dill seed, as well. It’s always dill seed, garlic, and crushed red peppers–those things are used in unison.

YO: Dill seeds are something that when I was reading, I was thinking “Ah I haven’t used that forever. I should really go back and try it.”

LEH: I remember when I was growing up in the Gulf—in Kuwait, and Bahrain—whenever we would go back to Gaza, we’d always stock up on a supply of dill seeds. We couldn’t find them in the Gulf, and no other Palestinian families we were growing up with had any idea what this was. The one thing they knew about Gaza cooking was “You guys use chilis, right?” Which is of course true, but also not, because most of the population of Gaza are not from Gaza, and their cuisine tends to be more mild, from the farming interior.

YO: This is another thing that I think most people don’t understand. I’ve spoken to an Israeli chef, Rafram Hadad, and he was trying to write a book with Claudia Roden about cuisine without terroir. Basically the cuisine of wandering Jews who had no terroir to speak of for many generations, but who have developed still a very identifiable cuisine.

I always thought that was also a little bit applicable to Gaza, in the respect that most people there are really not originally from there, but you can still talk about a cuisine, which is a bit similar to a cuisine that’s lacking in terroir. It belongs to a people who are refugees, or not even permanent, but still manage to carry things with them. Do you see the comparison?

Gazan women walking home from the market

MS: Certainly. It’s a mixed comparison. Because in Gaza, it’s not that there is no terroir. There’s a lost terroir, and a sort of continuous nostalgia and attempt to recreate. One of the things that shocked us in our field work was how extraordinarily local each cuisine was. Even families living in refugee camps for the last 65 years were maintaining the very specific variations of recipes from their home villages in the lands lost in 1948, and they had specific memories of the ingredients, the kind of vegetables, the kinds of wild greens from the specific place. So it’s not cuisine that can be reproduced wherever you are in this wandering sense; it’s a highly, highly local, very terroir-specific cuisine.

YO: But the terroir is not something that’s still available in a practical kind of way, so it’s more a memory of that kind of place. And I think also it means that you keep alive the hope of returning to the terroir through the food.

MS: Exactly, exactly.

YO: I was also quite interested in reading about the very charged subject of appropriation.

LEH: Oh yeah, we had a question for you as well on that.

YO: OK! You know, this is something I’m always struggling with and Sami as well, with the naming of things. I think it’s quite difficult to find a way to properly refer to foods in general when it comes to…there’s a lot of variation on themes according to where you are and where you’re cooking. My frame of reference was always in dishes from East Jerusalem cooked by Palestinians, or Jews from the Levant or North Africa. So when we were researching the book I often found that dishes have various similar names or something the pronunciation is different, and every decision to call something by a name or tell a little story about it is increasingly a political decision. So eventually I just almost decided to give up, and when we were writing the book, Sami and I were saying “OK, this time when we talk about a stew we’ll just talk about the Sephardic Jewish version, the next time we’ll just take the Palestinian name.” Rather than trying to cover all ground, we just sort of sporadically decided to refer to a certain dish based on one certain variation.

LEH: Yeah, I mean we talked a lot and thought about this as well, and I could sense that that’s the conclusion that you came to in reading your recipes.

MS: The thing is, on the one hand we very much appreciate the effort in your book to look at this continuity of foods, and of course food—civilization, culture in general—is always borrowing one from another, and there’s always something that came before and so on.

But you do, at a few moments in the book, make this anxiety about ownership seem like a sort of silly squabbling, partly because it’s taken out of its material context. Since our book is so focused on the material context, we have very different takes on that. And as you of course know, the question of “is this our food, or is this your food—who gets to name this food,” is not occurring in a void. If it occurred in a void it would be silly, but it’s not in a void. It’s in this intensely laden political question, with so much life and death material sustenance also being debated. So these food items become sort of symbols of a much bigger, much broader question of ownership. That’s why we can’t just sort of write it off as silly debates.

YO: Yeah, I have to say that if I had to write this introduction now, I probably would have written it a little bit different. I do agree that some of the things are more important than just some kind of argument that should be discarded as petty. It’s a matter of life and death in many cases.

Origin Stories

YO: Jerusalem is a very difficult story to tell. It’s a very troubled place in a very different way from Gaza, and it’s troubled because the occupation has sort of gone into the veins of everybody, Jews and Arabs. So in Gaza, it’s not a positive thing, but the separation is much clearer. There’s the Gazan cuisine, and it hardly ever comes into interaction with anything else. It’s very easy to assert things with an Arabic name and give a sense of authority to a dish because it’s cooked by that particular Palestinian person, in that particular house. We always had to sort of tiptoe between various versions and stories, and which histories to tell is difficult to know. Jews were living in Arab countries for thousands of years, cooking those same things, and if I meet a Jewish woman from Aleppo and she says, “I used to make this kibbeh and my grandmother did,” it’s very hard to take a stand and say, “Oh, it’s Arab.”

I do completely agree that to turn falafel into something that is considered Israeli food is just totally wrong. But if you want to tell a story of a place where the two sides live side-by-side, in a sort of bad situation, you need to use sort of diplomatic language to convey, to try to seem convincing. But I absolutely agree that sometimes we were being too cautious.

Women at the Zeitun Women’s Collective preparing Mahshi, stuffed vegetables

MS: Also your book does an important task because outside of Israel—certainly in the United States—very few people understand how complex Israeli society is. Very few people understand the whole history of the Mizrahim and the Sephardim. But the image of Israel is hugely Ashkenazi. So it’s important, I think, the work that you do to make it clear how false that is, how many other traditions there are, the fact that Arab and Jew are not somehow opposite, but rather have a long history woven together. That’s also for me an extremely important history to tell.

YO: That’s absolutely true. And there are so many kinds of wrongdoing around that. Even when Sami and I initially tried to do just a recipe book, without addressing any kind of social political issues, I think we realized after about, three hours, that this is just not gonna happen. The recipes are the context–there aren’t recipes without a context, at least in this part of the world–and so we had to almost reconstruct the context once we had the recipes. The process was quite different from yours. Where you went out there and engaged with people came up with recipes, we had the recipes from memory or the meetings we had and then told the story in hindsight. This is where I found it really, really challenging to decide which narrative to use in each introduction to each recipe: whether it’s the Jewish narrative or the Arab narrative, or if you can make them work together.

LEH: For me, when I kept seeing like “Jew” and “Arab,” it almost felt reductionist. For me I consider, before ’48, there were Arab Jews, too, but that’s a different thing.

YO: Absolutely, Arab Jews! But you know if I write Arab Jews, it’s um… you create… it’s who you want to annoy. With a simple thing of that magnitude you could alienate a lot of people. But I guess you’re right that we shouldn’t be too concerned about alienating anyone.

LEH: And a final note on that whole thing: For me it’s not so much the ownership as it is about devaluation or historical distortion. People are more than happy to share their recipes and their food, but there’s a fine line between what you call “tolerant, yet smoky harmony”—I like that phrase—and distortion, disfigurement, or whatever you want to call it.

YO: I think what we can agree on is that the biggest risk is not to tell the context properly—to use a very reductionist kind of attitude to the food and say “this is this and there’s nothing more to it.” Hand on heart, I would have probably written the introduction a little bit different now that I see a little bit more, but that will have to be the next book.

MS: What would you have written differently?

YO: I think now I would have taken the whole aspect of appropriation and ownership more seriously. I probably would have made the point that it’s very hard to say who is the originator of each dish, but it’s also overwhelmingly true that some of those dishes are the symbols of the Palestinian culture, and as such they just cannot become everybody’s sign of culture or identity. That the sign of an identity is a bit more crucial than just getting the history right of a certain dish. I did try. When we talk about za’atar, we did address this issue a little more deeply and try to look into what za’atar means to Palestinians, and what it means to not allow Palestinians to harvest za’atar in the wild.

LEH: I was happy to see that; it’s a very important discussion. For most people in the United States, it doesn’t even register on their radar. As far as people know, there’s just Israeli food.

YO: Why is it that Arab food doesn’t get as much recognition in America? There isn’t as much exposure as you would find with other kinds of Mediterranean food. There’s so much going on with Spanish food and Greek food and sometimes Moroccan, but the typical food of the Levant has never been so much celebrated in America. I think it’s very political. It goes to the standing of Arabs and Arab culture in American society, but I could never come up with a good answer as to why it hasn’t had as much recognition and exposure.

MS: I think it’s very political, because there certainly is no shortage of excellent Lebanese restaurants in the United States, for instance, but they call themselves “Mediterranean.” They make themselves generic, because, especially after 9/11, they feel [being Arab] is a stigma upon them.

YO: It’s like they’re almost embarrassed to call it by its name. Here, Lebanese is the least offensive. Ten, fifteen years ago, they only just started calling them Syrian.

Fogaiyya, a chickpea and chard spread unique to Gaza

LEH: The funniest example was small Iraqi restaurant in rural Maryland. I was getting something to eat, and the sign said “Middle Eastern and Indian Cuisine”—something like that—and I saw a man and his wife were baking traditional Iraqi flatbread there in the back, but they had a little buffet of generic South Asian curries and things like that. I said, “I want to see what you’re making there. Why isn’t this on the menu?” And he said, “Who do you think would come and eat Iraqi food? I don’t want to scare people away, and there’s a large South Asian community in the area,” and so on. Part of it was maybe some kind of paranoia, anxiety, some kind of insecurity. People have to go out and discover it.

Whence the Watermelon?

YO: I wanted to ask: That roasted watermelon salad, where does that—how did that happen? I’ve never seen anything like it.

LEH: It’s actually a Bedouin dish. Again, it’s a question of ownership. I kept hearing about the dish, but being from Gaza City, I was totally unfamiliar with it. People kept saying, “If you’re making a book about Gaza food, you have to include Fattit Ajir,” but they didn’t know exactly what it was, or if it truly existed. Then I went back to the US, and after a year or something, my cousin came to California, and he said “Oh yeah, my father used to make it on the beach in the summers,” and then it became this mission of mine to track it down.

YO: How funny!

LEH: So I had to do the research from abroad.

YO: Just the idea of taking a raw watermelon and roasting it… Who would have thought!? I guess the Bedouin explanation makes more sense.

LEH: It’s common to see the utilization of vegetables and foods in all their stages. Even apricots when they’re still slightly under-ripe are considered a delicacy, or green almonds, or the plums.

YO: Of course, all of them. And do you also use green chickpeas in salads?

LEH: You roast them over an open fire.

YO: Oh, they’re so good.

MS: We were wondering about the process of the book, and how you and Sami started working together. Reading the book carefully, you can just feel the effort with which so many of the phrases are written, the trying to find a way to say things sincerely and honestly. There’s a very practiced neutrality without stepping on too many toes, which I know can be difficult.

YO: We did it, it’s just something that we had to do.

LEH: Is there a particular dish you’re nostalgic for, or that’s your favorite?

YO: Ah, we are already professionals in answering this question: the mejadra. We both love it, and can agree on it immediately. You must have something equivalent in the book.

LEH: We had to actually cut that from the book. We didn’t quite have the luxury of spreading our book across 300 pages and having researchers and photographers. We felt a little better about ourselves after we read the acknowledgments for Jerusalem–it was just the three of us for the Gaza Kitchen: Maggie and me and Maggie’s partner doing the layout.

BA: And how about for you? What are your favorite or most nostalgic recipes from The Gaza Kitchen?

MS: For me, none of this is nostalgia food, but I love the Gazan seafood. I find it amazing.

LEH: When we were working on layout and the proposal, I jotted down a list of things I was familiar with from growing up, like stuffed crab. I remember my father making those for me, and my mother from southern Gaza being wholly unfamiliar with them. In fact, she still doesn’t eat crab. But that, for me, was comfort food.

YO: I’m dying to try the sumagiyya because it sounds so good.

LEH: That’s in the genre of what we call “iyyas,” foods that people will not eat as children, or only develop a palate for as they grow older. Parents don’t want to make them because they expect you won’t enjoy them, and then when you get older, you ask, “Why didn’t you make this?!”

YO: The two of you tested all the recipes?

LEH: Yeah, Maggie in Madrid and me in Maryland. All of them were tested, maybe with the exception of the watermelon salad.

Crossing Borders

BA: Is there any way to say what is distinctly Israeli food, and what is distinctly Palestinian food?

YO: I think it’s really impossible. Especially in Jerusalem—I think Gaza is a little different. They all come from somewhere, but especially with Israeli food, it’s something that didn’t exist 50, 60 years ago. It’s a new construction, it’s difficult to even define. It draws on, or appropriates, depending on your point of view, from so may sources, and I don’t think it’s fully formed yet.

MS: I think that’s a very good answer.

LEH: Was there anything you were surprised by that you came across writing your book?

YO: A million things. What was really interesting for me was the thing of access, from Libya and Palestine and Lebanon and Syria, because the best Jewish food in Jerusalem either comes from Tripoli in Libya or Aleppo in Syria. I was doing research on the Jewish part and Sami was doing the Arab part, but whenever there was overlap, it was fascinating to see how this Sephardic cuisine interacted with what was around it. And every time you come across one of those in a Sephardic Jewish recipe ,you come across an exact parallel in the Palestinian kitchen. That was the most fascinating for me to discover every time.

Also the influence of Turkish food all over Israel and Palestine. It was all Ottoman until 150 years ago and hundreds of hundred of years back, and we all undervalue how much Turkish food has influenced what we eat in the Levant.

MS: And then you have to rewind, too, and see that the Turks came out of Central Asia. I think they probably found a lot of that food already underway. Maybe not the yogurt, but there was a culinary universe already established from the Byzantines before them.

YO: Absolutely, but I think it’s one cuisine that’s absolutely alive. It’s an oversimplification to call it Turkish food, but in Istanbul all the echoes of the things we eat in Israel and Palestine are clearly out there—the sources are very clear to the eye.

MS: We find it and continue to find it a thrilling way to look at history and a really interesting tool for looking at history that goes beyond sort of official histories, and national borders, and the constantly changing political structures in the region. Food moves and changes somehow more slowly and more organically than these political constructs.

YO: Absolutely, I agree.

And that’s it! You can find The Gaza Kitchen online, or catch Laila and Maggie on their book tour—they’ll be in Boston for the first week of April, Oslo for the first week of May, and London (possibly at some events with Yotam) the week after. You can find Chef Ottolenghi at one of his restaurants, and find his cookbook, Jerusalem, here.