RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Spicy stuffed squid and roasted watermelon salad are among the unexpected culinary delights of the Gaza Strip, a densely populated seaside sliver of land that has been choked by border blockades and battered by wars.
The territory’s hidden gourmet treasures have been detailed in “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey,” a new cookbook showcasing a unique, fiery variation of Mediterranean-style cuisine kept alive despite food shortages and poverty.
Many of Gaza’s 1.7 million people struggle just to get by. About 1 million get regular food rations of vegetable oil and white flour, key to survival but hardly ingredients of scrumptious dishes. Rolling power cuts lasting several hours a day frazzle the nerves of all those trying to prepare meals.
The daily hardships are a result of border restrictions imposed by neighboring Israel and Egypt in 2007, when the Islamic militant group Hamas seized the territory.
“Our situation hasn’t always let us cook everything, but we have adapted,” said housewife Nabila Qishta, 52, in the southern town of Rafah, near the border with Egypt.
Qishta once used an electric oven to bake bread and make her spicy stews. Tired of the power outages, she built a wood-fired kiln in her garden four years ago.
Such resolve is helping keep Gaza’s unique cuisine alive.
Gaza cooks like to mix chili peppers and garlic to flavor food. It’s a taste acquired at a young age, with children often showing up at school with chili spread on their lunch sandwich.
Dishes are laced with piquant flavors like sour plums, limes and a sour pomegranate molasses, or sprinkled fresh dill, an herb not widely used elsewhere in the region.
Gaza’s cuisine gives traditional Palestinian food “a spicy, sour, bright twist,” said Maggie Schmitt, co-author of the Gaza cookbook.
The territory’s penchant for strong flavors likely dates back to Gaza City’s history as a port on the ancient spice route from Asia to Europe, Palestinian anthropologist Ali Qleibo said.
Gaza’s location, on the fault line between Asia and Africa, and the influx of refugees more than six decades ago also have contributed to culinary diversity.
The refugees uprooted by Israel’s creation included villagers, Bedouin shepherds and sophisticated city dwellers, all coming with their own food traditions.
In Gaza, they cooked familiar foods, passing on recipes to children and grandchildren, keeping a link to lost communities.
“For Palestinian people, their food connects them,” said Laila El-Haddad, another co-author of the cookbook. “It locates them, when maps don’t.”
For Bassam el-Shakaa, 33, whose Bedouin roots trace back to what is now the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, home cooking is “libbeh.”
On a recent day, he made the dish by roasting bread directly on hot coals, dusting it off, shredding and mixing it with roasted eggplant, diced chili, tomatoes and olive oil. The eggplant was a substitute for young green watermelon, meant to crown the dish, but out of season.
Like his ancestors, el-Shakaa and other men sat in a circle and ate from the same bowl. They used their hands to scoop out fleshy bread, made smoky, spicy and dewy. “We inherited this from our fathers and grandfathers,” he said. “This is the food we crave.”
Another Gaza specialty is cooking with clay pots, and the territory’s signature dish is a fiery tomato shrimp stew with pine nuts. Spices are crushed in a mortar, using a lemon-wood pestle that releases their fragrance. The dish is assembled, baked and eaten in the clay pot.
Gaza’s rich clay deposits were the likely reason for the favored cooking method, said el-Haddad, 35, who is from Columbia, Maryland.
Another local specialty is tiny stuffed squid with dill, spices, raisins and rice.
Gaza’s border blockade has restricted many imports, raising the price of fuel and basic ingredients, such as sesame paste tahini, olive oil, meat and spices.
For years, smugglers defied the blockade by hauling in goods through tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt. Israel has progressively loosened the blockade; what remains are long power cuts and a ban on most exports, choking Gaza industry and keeping unemployment and poverty high.
Urban sprawl has eradicated most of Gaza’s farmlands. Israel limits access to farms near the border because militants have used the areas to fire rockets. Israel also restricts where fisherman can cast their nets, driving up the price of seafood.
Gazans are experts at recycling.
Qishta, the Rafah housewife, built her kiln from clay dumped by smugglers as they dug tunnels under the nearby border with Egypt. With her husband unemployed for years, she relies on UN food packages.
Rawan Salmi, a busy 39-year-old school teacher and mother of two, can no longer cook ahead for an entire week and freeze portions since daily power cuts mean food will spoil quickly. Instead, she cooks a day at a time.
El-Haddad and Schmitt, of Miami, visited Gaza in 2010 to research their book. They found Palestinians eager to show off their dishes and passionately arguing over the tastiest way to prepare meals like okra and lentil stew.
Transforming meals into recipes was another challenge. Through re-testing and pleas to women to repeat instructions, the authors said they recorded generations of oral knowledge.
Some dishes that proved nearly impossible to find, like the roasted watermelon salad, because the authors came in the wrong season.
The 140-page cookbook has sold 4,000 copies since it was released in March, said Asa Winstanley of publisher Just World Books.
It reflects growing interest in Palestinian cooking and culture, said Mahmoud Muna, of Jerusalem’s “Educational Bookshop” which specializes in Palestinian books.
Bestselling Jerusalem-born British chef Yotam Ottolenghi also recently wrote a book with Palestinian Sami Tamimi called “Jerusalem,” covering Arab and Jewish cooking in the holy city.
Qishta, the Rafah housewife, said Gaza residents deserve the praise.
“Palestinian women are proud of their food,” said Qishta, as she baked her bread.