Open Zion

03.08.13

Inside the Gaza Kitchen: My Palestinian Shabbat Dinner

Picking up Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt’s The Gaza Kitchen—part cookbook, part socio-political survey, part interview with the people of Palestine—you immediately start wondering about intended audience. Who, aside from those already sympathetic to the book’s obvious pro-Palestinian message, would buy it? Could it serve as a catalyst for conversation, as a springboard for dialogue, or do its politics predetermine and circumscribe its readership? Rather than speculate, I decided to test the cookbook out on the toughest food critic I know: my staunchly pro-Israel, 79-year-old, conservative Jewish grandmother.

To enter my grandmother’s kitchen on a Friday afternoon is to enter something akin to a lightning storm: Knives flash and steam rises as she bustles about preparing Shabbat dinner. A Bombay-born Jew with a bit of Baghdad in her blood, she can usually be found making dishes like bamia, mahasha, or imtabaq. What you will not typically find her cooking is a Palestinian dish like kufta bi saniya—and it wasn’t easy to convince her to do so. Finally, worn down by my pleading, she agreed.

The dish took over an hour to cook—longer than the recipe prescribed—but the delay provided a welcome chance to discuss the book. Turning its pages with visible suspicion, my grandmother read aloud from one of the many informational panels: “Nothing goes to waste in a Palestinian kitchen.” She smirked at that line. “See, they’re trying to say to the world, ‘We’re so poor, we can’t afford to waste a thing!’”

The book’s photographs, she claimed, belied this story. To listen to the Palestinians, you’d think their market stalls stood in perpetual emptiness (“they’re always crying that they’re starving!”), yet here was an abundance of fish and fruit, greens and grains. When I pointed to a panel in which the difference between accessibility and availability is explained—for many poor Gazans, the problem is not that food is unavailable, but that they can’t afford it—my grandmother merely grunted her acknowledgment.

But as she flipped through the pages, she saw many recipes similar to her own. This should not have come as a surprise: Mizrahim—Jews from Arab lands—share many Arab culinary traditions. Yet for my grandmother, who often insists that “I’m not an Arab, I’m a Jew,” the newfound commonality had a softening effect.

She paused, grinning, over the photo of a Gazan woman squeezing lemon into her salata gazawiyya (Gazan salad). The woman’s method of catching lemon seeds in an upturned palm reminded her of her own grandmother, who used to prepare this same dish in the exact same way: “She would squeeze, and the seeds would stay between her fingers. The juice would go out.” When I told her that Israelis have a different name for this dish—they call it salat yisraelit (Israeli salad)—she scoffed. “It’s not Israeli, it’s an old Arab recipe!” How did she know? Because her own grandmother, along with the other Mizrahi Jews of India and Iraq, had been preparing this dish long before the state of Israel was born.

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'The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey' by Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt. 140 pp. Just World Books. $29. ()

Seguing into the subject of cultural appropriation, I noted that The Gaza Kitchen draws on theorists like Franz Fanon to discuss ways in which traditional Palestinian foods—falafel, hummus, zaatar, shakshuka—have been re-branded as “Israeli.” The book also cites the example of frikah, a dish that Palestinians have been enjoying for decades and that recently became the object of an Israeli food craze after it was popularized by chef Erez Komarovsky. The authors criticize Haaretz and The Atlantic for having run articles that gestured vaguely toward “the Arabs living in the Galilee” and “local food traditions” but neglected to attribute the recipe directly to Palestinians. Because they fail to properly acknowledge the heritage of the “new foods” they’re just now “discovering,” the authors suggest, media outlets are often complicit in “colonizing this last frontier of Palestinian identity.”

That Palestinian foods are routinely turned into symbols of Israeliness is just one way in which the book’s central thesis is borne out: “Food, it turns out, is more than just nourishment; it is highly political.” So much so, that even the decision to gather these previously unpublished recipes into a cookbook is viewed as a risky endeavor:

We present these foods not without some trepidation: Palestinians have seen their restaurant food appropriated and lucratively marketed as “Israeli,” and there is some fear that the same thing might happen with these home-foods.

But the more my grandmother and I paged through these recipes, discussing their political significance while we waited for our meal to cook, the more convinced I became that the book’s implicit wager is, after all, a sound one. Publicizing these foods may open them up to the threat of cultural appropriation, but it also opens up the possibility for a new conversation.

When at last we sat down to our Palestinian Shabbat dinner, the kufta bi saniya—a layered mixture of tomatoes, potatoes, and beef—packed a familiar punch. It was a cumulative spiciness I recognized from years of exposure to—you guessed it—Israeli cuisine. The experience was uncanny. “Their” food was the same as, yet also different from, “ours.” My grandmother sat at the head of the table, not saying a word, thinking, digesting.