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From the Gazan table: Palestinian cuisine

Food writing can be intensely political, and perhaps it’s even more so when it is a book with recipes for Palestinian dishes. In Zaitoun (Arabic for olive), London-based writer Yasmin Khan never leaves behind her years of experience as a human rights worker as she compiles “recipes and stories from the Palestinian kitchen”. The very scope of such a book is intensely political. Because, as Khan poses the obvious question to herself, “But what is the Palestinian kitchen?” She explains: “As I write, there is no country called Palestine, it hasn’t existed since the British Mandate of Palestine ended in 1948. But the national and cultural identity of the people has never waned and neither have the delights of the cuisine.”

In Khan’s estimate, there are 4.5 million Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem), 4 million Palestinians in exile in neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, 1.5 million in Israel, and another 1.5 million elsewhere. But as she sets out discovering recipes, and recommending hacks to allow readers outside the Holy Land to attempt these dishes in the absence of fresh ingredients no Palestinian kitchen would do without, she must first prove the sincerity of her own ambition. Upon landing in Tel Aviv, she is hauled off for intense questioning by Israeli immigration. At one point, she pleads to the official, “I’m just here doing research for a cookbook.” He replies: “Do you know anyone in Hamas?”

Of course, she does not, but the mention right away flags a big constraint in her project. Since 2007, the Gaza Strip has been blockaded by Israeli authorities, and she must collect her stories and recipes through interactions with Gazans living elsewhere or speak to residents of the territory on telephone. But with 2 million Gazans living under siege, some disturbing questions that may form in the reader’s mind while going though these sunnily organised recipes and food history are squarely articulated by Khan in the course of the book.

“The food of the Gaza Strip is the most distinct,” she writes, “using a flavour palette that embraces fresh dill, green chillies and copious amounts of garlic, and placing fish or seafood as the centrepiece for many meals.” The distinctiveness of Gazan cooking comes across in her recipe for Gazan Smashed Avocados. But elsewhere in the book, as a Gaza-born novelist in London cooks for her, telling her, “this is the smell of Gaza”, the incongruence between the food being cooked and the plight of Gazans is glaring. Eighty per cent of Gazans, of the 2 million living on “a small piece of land 40 km long and 9 km wide”, survive on food aid amid desperate malnutrition and hostilities.

Ahmad, the London-based novelist, tells her that the seafood at the heart of Gazan cuisine is more and more difficult to obtain as the waters in which the fishermen may find their catch is severely restricted. Also, with the neglect, and even destruction, of civic infrastructure and the lasting effects of the conflict (such as the use of white phosphorous by Israel in 2008-09), the chances of contamination of food and water have increased. Omar Gharib, a Gaza-based blogger taking her through the paces of local cooking via Skype, tells her: “No matter how much you clean the vegetables, you always wonder, is this really clean? Or is this carrot going to give me cancer?”

In Jerusalem, Essa Grayeb, a Palestinian rheumatology nurse, takes Khan to a famed lunch place in the old city, and warns her: “I think that, just dealing with the cuisine, you will see a romantic view of Jerusalem life. But it doesn’t reflect our reality… This isn’t me being political, this is me explaining that the Occupation affects how we eat. You can’t escape it.”

Or as another woman tells Khan more angrily: “We are not clowns in a circus for you to come and watch and make research notes about and then make your name from writing down our suffering.”

The recipes from Nablus and Nazareth, Bethlehem and Akka, and many other places are breezily written. But in surrounding them with personal stories and histories of countless Palestinians, Khan reminds us that recipe books are not just aids to more varied cooking. Empathetically written, they connect us to the joys and sufferings of those who live by these recipes.

mini.kapoor@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2020 11:52:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/from-the-gazan-table-palestinian-cuisine/article26341006.ece

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