Keeping Gaza's Food Traditions Alive

Gazans can only access a fraction of the supplies they need to make traditional dishes. SLIDE SHOW  I


Photo by Amir Sadafi

Palestinian cuisine is as varied as the land, which ranges from the lush green valleys of the north to the desert dunes of the south. As 80 percent of Gaza's population are refugees displaced in 1948, within Gaza one finds food traditions from every part of Palestine. A lot of the foods, especially those found in restaurants (hummus, ful, mutabbal, mejaddra) are common throughout the Levant. Nonetheless, a specifically Gazan cuisine does persist, distinct from other Palestinian or Levantine cuisines in its generous use of hot peppers, cumin, and dill, and sour fruits like pomegranite, tamarind and plums.

It relies heavily on fish and on poor-man's ingredients like mustard greens and garbanzos. Many of the most classic dishes are stews cooked slowly in clay pots, unique in the region. Because of Gaza's isolation, many of these recipes are completely unknown outside of the Strip.

Fish Old photos show the fish market of Gaza overflowing with fresh fish: Sultan Ibrahim , or red mullet; arous , similar to sea bream; samak Moussa , a large flounder; tuna, sea bass, sardines, turbot, and all manner of squids, shrimps, and crabs. The current fish market is a sad shadow of what it once was. In fact the manager, of the fish market estimates that the total haul of the 60 boats that set out from the Gaza city port each night barely adds up to what any one boat used to bring in before the waters were restricted.

According to the 1994 Oslo accords, Palestinians are free to fish up to 12 kilometers off the coast of Gaza, but this limit has gradually decreased to the de facto 3 kilometers imposed by the Israeli gunboats that are always present on the horizon. Fishermen know that the migratory routes for fish are farther out, in deeper water, but any boat straying past the 3km limit is promptly fired upon. This limits fishing to the shallow coastal waters, where spawning grounds are being dangerously overfished. Hence the fish that do arrive at market are ever smaller, ever fewer, and ever more costly.

On the rare occasion, then, that a family can afford to buy seafood, they might make a zibdiyit gambari , whole large shrimp stewed in a clay pot with tomatoes, chilis, garlic, fresh dill, sweet peppers and olive oil, and garnished with toasted pine nuts or almonds.

Or else they might make the classic sayyadiy , or "fisherman's dish," in which chunks of fish are fried with caramelized onions, cumin and turmeric, then water and lemon juice are added and the fish simmers until nearly done. Finally, rice is added to cook slowly in this broth with the fish.

Or they might simply grill the fish, marinated first in coriander, chili, cumin and lemon juice and then stuffed with cilantro and garlic. Such grilled fish can be had at any of the seaside restaurants in Gaza city, where families gather to smoke shisha and drink tea and watch the children fly kites on the beach.


Festive pride of the Palestinian table, maqluba (literally "upside down") is part of a long lineage of spiced upside-down rice dishes made from Iran to Egypt since at least medieval times. In Palestine many versions are made, using either chicken or lamb, cauliflower or eggplant. The one I was served in the Meghazi refugee camp in Gaza and am still thinking about with awe was made with chicken and cauliflower. The chicken is sauteed in large chunks with onions, and the cauliflower deep fried until browned but not cooked through.

Rice is then soaked for half an hour, drained, and mixed with baharat, a classic Levantine spice mix of black peppercorns, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg and a bit of samneh, a clarified butter. All these ingredients are then layered into a large greased pot: first the chicken, then a layer of toasted almonds, then the cauliflower, and then the soaked and spiced rice. Water is added to cover, and the pot is set to simmer very slowly until the rice is cooked. To serve, the entire pot is turned upside down onto a large tray, making a beautiful glazed mound.



To read the first part of Maggie Schmitt's series on food in Gaza, click here .

Not for nothing is this a holiday meal: the chicken required to make this dish has increased more than 100 percent in price since the bombings last January. One chicken can now cost as much as $18, as three of Gaza's 11 chicken farms were completely leveled by Israeli tanks, two more were severely damaged, and even the farms not directly damaged lost most of their animals for lack of fuel with which to heat the henhouses.

The massive unemployment in Gaza owing to the destruction of its productive sector and the impossibility of exporting through closed borders has reduced the per-capita daily income to about $2 a day. The ingredients for this splendid traditional dish would therefore cost more than two weeks' income for an average Gazan given the current situation.


Of course, grilled kebab is the king of street foods, served in a pita bread with grilled onions and a little plate of pickled vegetables. But traditional home-cooking tends more to the slow stews, meat so tender it melts at the touch of the fork. Sumaggiye is one of these dishes, perhaps the most quintessentially Gazan. It is a stew of beef, chickpeas and chard, married with the unique combination of lemony sumac and tahini. It is served with fried garlic and chili and mopped up with fresh pita bread. During the holiday season at the end of Ramadan, neighbors give each other bowls of sumaggiye, each family having its particular style of making the dish.

As beef is now almost completely unavailable in Gaza, this and other dishes are being made with lamb if they are being made at all. Lambs can be smuggled through the tunnels--they trot right through--whereas calves generally panic or don't fit. The minimum number of calves necessary to feed Gaza, according to the Israeli "Red Lines" document, is 300 a week, but even before the crossings were completely closed fewer than 100 entered per week. Now none enter at all, though small quantities of frozen meat are occasionally allowed in.

This has grievous consequences on both sides of the border. In Gaza it means malnutrition, astronomical prices, and the accumulation of power in the hands of those who run the tunnels. In Israel it means a breakdown of the trade relations that were once extremely lucrative for Israeli farmers.


The siege, or, as Israel calls it, the "restriction of luxury products" (like paper, shoes and rice), does have some economic benefits for Israeli farmers, however. If they have lost an enormous market, they have gained a dumping ground that serves to regulate market prices. What is or what is not a luxury, Gazans told me, seems to be determined by the surpluses produced by Israeli farms: when i visited, for example, the Israeli markets were glutted with melons, and at least three trucks a week of melons were entering Gaza. Whole neighborhoods of Gaza, I was told, were living largely off of melons.

Mustafa, a farmer I visited on the eastern border of Gaza who was harvesting his melons, lamented that there was no market at all for them: so many had so suddenly entered through the border. This was probably just as well, he added, as his melon patch was abutting the "security" limit from the border, and when working there he and his sons were occasionally shot at. Their farm, like so many others, is directly in the shadow of the border wall and its watchtowers.

Every once in a while jet planes drop a box of leaflets to the ground, advising them of new security limits: a couple of weeks ago the security limit was increased to 300 meters from the border, putting the melon patch in a danger zone. His children, he told me, know very well up to which row of vegetables they can play and after which row they will be shot.

During the bombardment last January, Mustafa's family was fortunate enough not to have their farm bulldozed, as some of their neighbors did, but they did lose almost all their livestock when their barn was hit by artillery fire. Some 25 goats and sheep were killed while the family huddled in the house listening to the continuous din of the nearby watchtower firing over their farm and into the refugee camp just beyond their lands.

"Where could we go?" says Mustafa's elderly father, who clearly remembers 1948 when the refugees arrived and the border fence crossing their land was first erected. "We will live here or die here, we have no other choice."

And so they continue to farm what land is left to them, and it's a beautiful farm. Tidy rows of tiny pale zucchini, eggplants both white and purple, peppers both sweet and hot, some broad beans, some corn. The water pump is under a spreading mulberry tree, and mulberry-stained kids play in the shade. "Of course we're optimistic," says Mustafa, with a gentle smile, compassionate with my incomprehension. "We have to be. The land is good, God will provide."

Thanks to Laila Al-Haddad, Rami Almeghari, Mond Mishal and Amir Sadafi.