Keeping alive Gaza's culinary traditions

Chef Asad Abu Haseera prepares a sea bream

Despite food shortages and irregular power supplies, people in Gaza are finding ways to keep their culinary traditions alive - and eat their own distinctive spicy dishes.

Amid the loud whir of fans and clatter of plates in his kitchen, Asad Abu Haseera ladles a rich, tomato and chilli sauce over the fresh prawns sizzling in a pan.

When the mixture is simmering, he pours it into a traditional clay bowl - or zibdiya - and slides it under the flames lapping around an open grill.

A few minutes later, as the top of the stew bubbles like molten lava, the young chef removes it from the heat and sprinkles on some crushed pistachio nuts. This is zibdiyit gambari, a cherished Gazan dish.

"People in Gaza love to eat fish and seafood of all kinds. It's good for the health and full of vitamins," says Abu Haseera, who trained under his father at the family restaurant from the age of 13. "We say it's the best tonic and can even give you sexual energy."

Chef Asad Abu Haseera ready to serve prawns with sea bream Chef Asad Abu Haseera

The Gaza Strip is a small, coastal sliver of land that is home to over 1.6 million Palestinians. Most people's primary associations with it probably involve its Islamist Hamas government, militants fighting Israel and the Israeli border blockade.

However, a new cookbook - The Gaza Kitchen - that went on sale in the UK this month, tries to give an alternative perspective by focusing on the distinctive, and piquant, local cuisine.

"We had an intuition that this would be a really remarkable way of telling the story of Gaza - the connection between the people, the land and the history," says co-author Laila el-Haddad, who is Gazan but lives in the US.

"An overhead view of a bombed-out building, something exploding, people wailing or a masked gunman, those are kind of the images that are conjured up when one sees Gaza in the news," she says.

"We wanted to challenge that and say what you would see if you zoomed into the kitchens and had a conversation or cooked with the women, men and children."

Two sea bream on a flame grill Sea bream, known as Denis fish, is another Gazan favourite

In her kitchen in the Nuseirat Refugee Camp, Um Mohammed shows me how to make a typical Gazan salad called dagga using a pestle and mortar to pound garlic, dill, fresh chillis and tomato.

"My recipes are all from central Gaza. I learnt them from my mum, my uncle and aunt, and my sister-in-law," she tells me.

While she adds a tahina sesame seed paste sauce and chopped chillis to thin slices of fried aubergine, other members of her extended family gather round to join the discussion on the best dishes for special occasions.

They describe recipes for maftool, Palestinian couscous, and sumagiyya, a spicy meat stew flavoured with lemony-tasting sumac and served with chard and chickpeas.

Meanwhile, little Mohammed listens in and helps himself to fiery green chilli peppers from a pickle jar.

Recipe: Prawns in a clay bowl

Prawns in a clay bowl, or zibdiyit gambari

Lightly fry up to 2lbs of fresh prawns over high flame, pour off any excess liquid and set aside.

Finely chop two or more green chillis, four or five cloves fresh garlic and 3tbsp dill, and mix by hand with large pinch of salt. In separate pan, fry one large chopped onion in olive oil, add six peeled and diced tomatoes and 3tbsp tomato puree. Add 1tsp cumin, 1tsp cardamom and black pepper to taste.

Add the chilli, garlic and dill mixture to the onion and tomatoes with a cup of water. Stir well, allow to simmer and then add the prawns. Warm through and then transfer to a clay bowl or zibdiya. Place under an open grill for 10 minutes.

Roughly chop a quarter of a cup of pistachio nuts (pine nuts or almonds are alternatives), toast lightly and add to the top of the zibdiya. Place zibdiya on a plate and serve immediately with rice or bread.

The style of food in the Gaza Strip owes much to its port, which was on the ancient spice route linking south Arabia and the Mediterranean.

Chillis of all kinds are popular and cooks make greater use of fresh green herbs and sour tastes than elsewhere in the region.

There is also diversity in dishes because the majority of Gazans are descendants of refugees from a wide area of historic Palestine, where there were different tastes and ingredients. They were displaced in the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel.

In recent years, it has often been hard to keep culinary traditions alive in the Gaza Strip because of food shortages and power cuts.

Israel tightened its ground and naval blockade of Gaza in 2007 after the takeover by Hamas, which it views as a terrorist organisation. Restrictions were partly lifted three years later.

However, fishermen are still restricted to a zone just three nautical miles off the coastline, which dramatically reduces their catches.

Gazans also continue to use a network of smuggling tunnels dug under the border with Egypt to bring in goods.

In the Zawiya market in Gaza City, where stallholders shout out their wares, most basic products can now be found easily.

A lot of fruits and vegetables are locally grown and there are home-reared rabbits and scraggly Egyptian chickens for sale.

It is mainly the prices that limit what shoppers can buy.

Unemployment and poverty remain high in Gaza. Israel continues to ban most exports and local industry has been hit hard.

"Two-thirds of the Gazan people are considered poor. Those need assistance from (the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees) UNRWA or other international humanitarian organisations. Unemployment is officially 45% but in reality it is much higher," says economist, Omar Shaban.

Rabbits for sale in a Gazan market

"There are many studies that show families in Gaza consume meat less than before, consume fruits less than before. We find food but we could not eat the same quality of food that we used to have."

Burning wood crackles in a wood-fired oven, or taboun, behind the house of Nabila Qishta in the southern border town of Rafah.

She has returned to this traditional way of baking white, round loaves of bread - a staple of the Middle Eastern diet - because of the constant shortages of gas in Gaza.

"It is good we kept this knowledge alive," observes the housewife, an accomplished cook whose recipes are featured in The Gaza Kitchen.

Qishta and her son, Khaled, an unemployed engineer who used to work overseas, built the oven with clay that had been thrown away by smugglers digging a tunnel.

"Life's difficulties make us more creative and resourceful," Qishta says. "We have a saying: 'Poverty makes miracles happen.'"

The taboun provides a means of cooking without gas. But what do people do when there is no wood? "We use paper or cardboard boxes," explains Khaled.

"When we were desperate, some people in Gaza even used discarded car oil to cook with but I don't recommend that. The smell is very bad," he adds.

I ask Qishta how she feels about Western readers of the cookbook trying to recreate her favourite food.

"It's a strange thought," she laughs. "But I think they will like it. We enjoy good food in Gaza and in Palestine."

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