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  • Susan Low

What are cookbooks for?

Review: The Gaza Kitchen

What are cookbooks for?

There’s the obvious: they show you how to cook recipes. The more interesting ones give you a glimpse into a different time, like an edible time capsule.

Some introduce you to a new place, or a different culture; good ones draw you into a sense of kinship or intimacy with the writer. And once in a while you come across a cookbook that is truly affecting.

The Gaza Kitchen is one such book (for me, at least). Written by US-based social activist Laila El-Haddad, born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents from Gaza; and writer, researcher, activist and translator Maggie Schmitt, the first edition was published by Just World Publishing in 2012, partly funded by a Kickstarter campaign.

I was lucky enough to be invited by Yotam Ottolenghi, a supporter of The Gaza Kitchen project, to a talk in London by the two writers for the launch of the second edition, and I was struck by the stories they told about the people they met, and the difficulties of life in Gaza.

On June 15, Just World Publications is launching the expanded and updated third edition of the book with a webinar with the authors during which they “will review what's happened in Gaza and what’s happened in Palestinian cuisine since their groundbreaking first edition came out in 2012.” You can register for the event here – and I highly recommend it.

Palestine, and Gaza in particular, is associated with privation and want, yet the book portrays the society’s resilience and pride. The authors spoke to home cooks, farmers, fishers and food producers, and they don’t shy away from the way that politics dominates life in Gaza, in and out of the kitchen. The recipes are a mix of traditional Gazan specialities and dishes from other parts of historic Palestine (the influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948 trebled Gaza’s population practically overnight).

“Cuisine always lies somewhere at the intersection of geography, history and economy,” the authors write. “What makes it such a compelling subject is that it serves as a cultural record of daily life for ordinary people, traces a history made palpable in something as evocative and delicious as a plate of food.”

The recipes are indeed delicious and evocative, and there is so much to be learned from this book about what makes Gazan food Gazan. There is also much to be learned in what makes humans human, and about how food can feed resilience, as well as hunger.

This is one book I wouldn’t part with.

(All the recipes, text and photographs from the new edition of The Gaza Kitchen will be available in full on on 15 June.)

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