In this gadget-riddled world, far be it from me to come out promoting a new must-have kitchen gewgaw. But I came back from doing field research in the Gaza Strip this summer with a zibdiye and it has become my most precious kitchen item, in constant use. I thought I'd share the joys of this most rudimentary and perfect object.
A zibdiye is a heavy unglazed clay bowl, accompanied by a lemonwood pestle. Throughout the Gaza Strip—and to my knowledge, nowhere else—this one implement has so many different uses it can be seen as a key to the whole cuisine.
To begin with, it is used for grinding spices, as an ordinary mortar and pestle would be. This might mean black pepper and allspice to give aroma to a soup of green wheat and chicken broth, or toasted coriander seeds to brighten lentils, or a precious drop of mastic to perfume a creamy dessert.
The rough walls of the zibdiye are perfect for crushing garlic to a smooth pulp, perhaps to prepare dugga, the blazingly hot sauce of chiles, garlic, and lemon juice that accompanies many of Gaza's most traditional main courses. Or to crush onion and fresh dill just until fragrant before mixing them into steaming maftool, a sort of Gazan couscous.
And then there are the salads, a flurry of color prepared and served in the trusty zibdiye. Onions and tomatoes can be crushed lightly with lemon and green herbs, or else smothered with a bit of tahini and oil, or mixed with a bright fistful of chopped arugula. Red cabbage, sliced and ever-so-lightly crushed in the zibdiye with a little onion and a dousing of apple vinegar quickly becomes a fuchsia blaze. Avocado whipped in the zibdiye with onion, lemon, and olive oil becomes a luxurious pale cream. With every meal a slightly different salad, all crushed and mixed and served in the zibdiye, which doubles as a handsome bowl.
But wait! That is not all. It is also a cooking vessel! The beloved zibdiyet gambari is a shrimp stew covered in pine nuts and baked in a zibdiye until crusty on the outside and melting inside. Tiny spiced meatballs are baked in a tomato sauce in the zibdiye, and vegetables stewed in the zibdiye with a crust of golden potato slices is a favorite lenten meal among the Christian population. Larger clay pots are used to make the magnificent festive meal of qidraa (more on that later); what is made in the zibdiye is small, modest, around-the-house.
One of the women we interviewed about food traditions and cooking habits in Gaza commented that her weathered and chipped zibdiye had been with her for some 20 years of constant use. Not bad for an object that costs about 50 cents at the market. It is beautiful to see the harmony of person and tool, the graceful efficiency with which this woman ground, mashed, crushed, and stirred in the zibdiye—its pestle worn to the shape of her hand— as she bustled around the kitchen, lord of her small but impeccably organized domain.
The zibdiye has pride of place in every Gazan kitchen we visited: the rich ones and the poor ones, spacious kitchens with every modern convenience and kitchens that were no more than a gas burner in the corner of a one-room shelter. An earthen crucible in which generations of women have made culinary magic, irrespective of often terrible circumstances.