By Hadeel Rizq-Qazzaz
The aroma of spicy, delicious food is amongst my earliest memories as I was growing up in the Gaza Strip. My mother says that while she was pregnant with me, she had a craving for some unusual food that she had smelled while walking along a road in Shati Refugee Camp where I was born. My grandmother knocked on the door of the house where the smell had originated. The neighbor told her that they had not cooked anything that day. My grandmother insisted: “But what was the smell coming from your window?” The neighbor laughed and said that her son had gone swimming in the morning and collected some mussels that she had sautéed with a lot of garlic, parsley, and cumin. I guess that was the first food I asked for.
If you grow up in a refugee camp you would no doubt eat all types of “poor-family food,” delicious and nutritious fare that mothers need to improvise and spice to achieve three goals: utilize what nature provides (hence, mussels that are collected at the beach in Gaza or za’atar and louf, Arum palestinum, picked on the hills in the West Bank); make it tasty and edible; and make enough to satisfy a large family or to last for more than one day. These dishes that are born of necessity never cease to fascinate me – the number of spices, especially chilies, and herbs and other flavor sources such as parsley, mint, onions, and garlic and what they do to otherwise bland vegetables and beans. Lemons that grow in the orchards of Gaza are the main seasoning for many dishes made by Gazan refugees and one of the reasons that families grow lemon trees on any small plot of land that they have access to.
What always amazes me is the creativity of the women who create unusual combinations to make a tasty and nutritious meal. The combination of moloukhiyeh and beans to create bisara, or pomegranates and lentils to create rummania, or the majestic creation of chard, chickpeas, tahina, and meat cooked in a sauce of sumac to create sumakiya, or rice and lentils with lots of caramelized onions to create mujadara.
Women in Gaza, who have experienced long years of hardship, are experts in cooking these dishes. They can tell you stories about early experiences in refugee camps when they received food parcels from UNRWA that provided them with the basics and even with some items that they could not recognize, pushing them to be creative not only with what they planted and gathered from nature but also with what they preserved for long winter nights. One of these items is kishik, yogurt with burghul, dried chilies, and dill seeds that is made on hot summer days, dried and preserved in the sun, and stored to be eaten in winter, when it is cooked with chickpeas and rice.
These women also need to be creative with their use of spices. Not all families can afford to buy expensive imported species, and such spices are replaced with available seasonings that grow locally, including dill in the Gaza Strip and sumac across Palestine. Spicing food with chilies may be a common approach to food preparation for poor families throughout the world, bringing this sharp, sweet, and exciting taste of life to all the senses. Some people joke about Gazans’ immense love of chilies. They can hardly believe that red-chili sandwiches and doka (ground grains and beans with spices) were at one time the only lunches that many refugee children could afford to bring to school. If they were lucky and by chance had a few coins, they could buy jebjeb, sun-dried labneh (strained, thickened yogurt) balls that are mixed with lots of red chilies and dill, and usually made by Bedouin families who lived in the refugee camp and continued to be herders.
The food of the poor is also communal. Sumaqiya is a celebrated dish served at weddings and on special occasions in Gaza. One plate can feed a whole family, which is all the more reason to cook it on occasions when hundreds of people need to be fed. It is still the custom in Gaza to share a plate of sumaqiya, rummaniya, or kishik with the neighbors and other family members. Recipes are transmitted from mothers to daughters for generations. Some would argue that using lots of spices makes the little amount of food enough to feed many hungry mouths. Daka Ghazawia is a dish that requires a lot of green chilies, a few tomatoes, salt, and lemon and, only if available, some olive oil. The hot dish is enough for a meal if eaten with lots of warm bread and a hot cup of tea.
Nature has always been kind to poor families. Khobeizeh, hamasees, and bakleh are only a few of the greens that poor families can access easily and cook even if they are on a very limited budget. In Gaza, people make khobeizeh soup and eat it by soaking bread with the rich broth. Mothers encourage their children to eat this soup because it is rich in iron. Most of these dishes are seasonal and not available out of season. Some are more suitable in winter, when adding tahina and olive oil can provide the needed energy to warm up, others tend to be prepared in the summer as a refreshing way to ease the heat of the Gaza summer.
Most of these dishes are vegetarian and are thus gaining more interest from younger, health-conscious chefs. Recipes that had been transmitted orally are now being documented and videotaped to be shared more widely. Although the examples above are taken from the experience of one refugee woman in Gaza, most of the dishes are common to poor families across Palestine. There are specific spices, however, that identify the Gaza kitchen. For further information about Gaza’s kitchen, you can check the excellent work of Laila El-Haddad or follow the increasingly popular Gaza chef Abu Julia on YouTube.
More research and analysis is needed in the sociology of food, the anthropology of poverty, the ways to encourage a vibrant culinary culture among the poorest and most marginalized communities, and a historical analysis of the evolving nature of food in light of the continuous de-development and impoverishment of the Gaza Strip. We do not know enough about common practices in refugee camps or what original cooking habits and practices refugees have kept.