Press "Enter" to skip to content

Gaza cuisine: A combination of healthy and festive food

Food, they say, is the identity of a community, the leitmotif of a nation.

For an estimated two million Palestinians living in Gaza, their signature food is their connection to a unique way of life constantly under threat in their besieged homes.

And it is this lifestyle and heritage that Palestinians try to preserve through their cuisines  — from the most famous dishes like the ‘Musakhan’ to the lesser-known but equally mouth-watering ones.  

Award-winning Palestinian author Laila El Haddad’s book “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Journey” – considered the most detailed and authoritative book on Gaza food – lists 130 recipes, interspersed with anecdotes by women and men telling stories of their food, their heritage, and their families.

According to El Haddad, Gaza’s recipes include spicy stews, piquant dips, flagrantly flavoured fish dishes, and honey-drenched desserts.  

Despite being a coastal city, many would assume that seafood is popular and affordable in Gaza. However, the Israeli siege limits the fishing area, cutting off Palestinian access to one of their favourite food items.

But over the years, they have adapted to the situation and improvised with their dishes. For Palestinians, food is also a survival guide.

Meal for celebration

“In Gaza, there are many special meals only prepared by Gazans or Palestinian refugees residing in the enclave,” Mona Alghosain, a Palestinian mother and member of the Palestinian Women Union, tells TRT World. “One of Gaza’s popular meals is the Sumaqiyya which we mostly cook on happy occasions such as Eid or weddings.”

Sumaqiyya is one of the oldest Gazan meals and it was mentioned in traveller and compiler Muhammad bin Hasan al Baghdadi’s cookbook published in 1225. The original manuscript of Al Baghdadi’s book is preserved at the Süleymaniye Library in Istanbul, Türkiye.

“It was named Sumaqiyya because sumac is an essential component (of the dish) for its colour and taste,” Alghosain says. Sumac is a flowering plant that lends a sour taste to dishes. Grown in subtropical and temperate regions, it is used as a spice, dye, and in some medicines.

“It is prepared by boiling small pieces of lamb meat with onion, then adding fresh chard (a leafy vegetable), dill (a herb), garlic, tahina (a condiment made of sesame), flour, olive oil and pieces of meat…and then adding sumac and chillies. Adding chickpeas or green chilli is optional.”

She says that Sumaqiyya is served mostly on happy occasions such as Eid al Adha because of the availability of meat from sacrificial animals. “There is a blessing in this meal and it is served with Arabic bread and delicious pickles, usually for a large number of people,” she adds.

READ MORE: First Palestinian cookbook brings love to the table

Low-budget meals

But for a majority of Palestinians – reeling under a growing cost of living crisis – Sumaqiyya is a luxury as it is a costly affair. The poverty rate in Gaza has risen to 59 percent due to very high unemployment and deteriorating social conditions.

Some meals are economical and healthy at the same time. Alghosain elaborates, “Due to hard economic conditions, Gazans cook food that is affordable. One of these single-bowl dishes is the Rummaniyya.”

Rumaniyya is a traditional meal named so as it consists of a lot of pomegranates which is called “Rumman” in Arabic. “It is delicious. It also consists of chopped eggplant, lentils, flour, salt, garlic, coriander and olive oil,” Alghosain says, adding that this meal can be eaten both hot or cold. “I cook it from time to time. I (also) present Rumaniyya dishes to neighbours and relatives.”

“Rumaniyya looks much like Sumaqiyya. Both are rich in vitamins and iron. Many people prefer to eat it with Dagga Ghazawiya.”

Dagga Ghazawiya is a salad dish made of hot green pepper mixed with tomato, coriander, onion, salt and lemon juice. All components are pounded in a clay bowl named ‘zibdiya’.

Cheapest vegetarian meal

During the 2008-09 Israel’s war on Gaza, Palestinians faced severe food shortages due to a blockade enforced by the Israeli security forces.

During the winter, many families survived on ‘khobiza’, a leafy plant endemic to the Mediterranean region.

A healthy and traditional meal can be made with the leaves of this plant. It is vegan and gluten-free. “It’s a unique meal when mixed with olive oil,” says Alghosain. “Khobiza grows everywhere, by the roadsides and in kitchen gardens. It’s easy to collect and can be cooked with chopped onions by adding olive oil, salt and pepper.”

Kunafa without cheese

Gaza has its many special desserts, but none perhaps as famous as the Kunafa Nabulsiya, a layered sweet made from an orange-coloured dough and nabulsi cheese, so called because of its roots in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus.

Pastry shops and households in Gaza prepare other types of  desserts, such as the Namora made from semolina, ghee, sugar, coconut powder and blossom water with almonds on top.

Malatet is one of the easiest desserts that look like a biscuit dough while Mutabak is a pie dough with sweet syrup and sugar. Makhtom Ajwa, well known in the southern parts of Gaza, is prepared with dates and nuts and is recommended for lactating women.

Another dessert, Kunafa Arabia has a special place in Palestinian society. 

“Kunafa Arabia, or Kunafa Ghazawiya as some people call it, is served on happy occasions like engagement parties, at iftars during Ramadan and during family gatherings,” Alghosain says.

It is prepared with bulgur – a type of wheat – soaked in ghee and mixed with nutmeg or cinnamon with a layer of sweet syrup and nuts on the top.

For Palestinians, the desserts are the promise of a future they seek as a free nation one day – just as sweet. 

Is Israel stealing Palestinian cuisine?

More from MagazineMore posts in Magazine »

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *