For Laila El-Haddad, maqlouba is the quintessential comfort dish of her Palestinian homeland. She has eaten it since childhood and now makes it for family gatherings. She layers sliced potatoes, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, carrots, rounds of griddled eggplant and chunks of lamb in a deep pot. Once a final thick layer of spiced rice is spread over the top, in goes a long-simmered broth infused with cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, rosemary and nutmeg. Flavorful steam rises to coax the rice into tenderness. Aromatics come to full force once the maqlouba is inverted, layers intact, on a platter and decorated with parsley and sauteed almonds.
Maqlouba is one of my favorites as well. El-Haddad, 35, and I had never met until recently, yet we grew up less than 50 miles away from each other. We were worlds apart, though: she in Palestinian Gaza, I in Israel. The place where we found common ground was in her kitchen, in Columbia, less than 50 miles from where I live.
El-Haddad is a blogger, political analyst and social activist who recently published a cookbook, “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey” (Just World Books, 2012), with co-author and Madrid-based researcher Maggie Schmitt. The workbook-size paperback has earned praise from food luminaries including Claudia Roden, Nancy Harmon Jenkins and Anthony Bourdain. It was honored in the Arab category of the 2013 Gourmand Cookbook Awards, announced at the Paris Cookbook Fair in February.
Like many other immigrants, El-Haddad uses food to teach her three young children about their heritage and to keep that tradition as part of their daily life in America. She and her husband, a doctor and third-generation Palestinian refugee from Lebanon who has been denied entry to Gaza, moved to America for school and met at Harvard University in 2001. The couple moved to the Washington suburbs when El-Haddad’s husband started his medical fellowship at Johns Hopkins.
Families in Gaza fulfill a similar purpose when they cook: to keep their heritage alive. Sumagiyya, a sumac-infused stew, is a typical dish from Gaza City, while roasted watermelon salad is a specialty of the southern towns in the Gaza Strip, the 140-square-mile sliver of coastline locked between Israel and Egypt’s Sinai Desert along the Mediterranean coast. Refugees account for approximately 70 percent of Gaza’s population of 1.7 million. Many prepare dishes from villages and towns they left 65 years ago — places to which they cannot return or that no longer exist.
When El-Haddad’s parents from Gaza were visiting their daughter a few years back, the borders closed and they couldn’t return home for a year or more. El-Haddad’s mother busied herself in her daughter’s kitchen by preparing rumaniyya, a sour eggplant and lentil stew from Jaffa.
“She was making it and remembering Gaza, crying, citing some poetry. It was very emotional,” El-Haddad says. It was one of the moments that made her realize that the story of Gaza could be told through food.
In their research and travels, the co-authors found that Gaza’s traditional cuisine has adjusted to fit changing conditions: a lifelong period of being refugees with no land, a strict siege enforced by Israel, and reliance on food aid from international organizations. In that part of the world, food and politics go hand in hand.
El-Haddad says she and Schmitt wrote their book, in part, to “humanize” Palestinians.
“Sad that we need to say that,” El-Haddad says. They wanted to show that behind the long war and siege there are concerned mothers trying to feed and nurture their children. And they wanted to document a fascinating cuisine that is hardly known outside the Gaza Strip. Both co-authors tested and notated recipes, disagreeing on how exacting they should be.
The book is also an attempt to save Palestinian and Gazan cuisine from what El-Haddad and Schmitt say is an Israeli attempt to occupy the Gaza kitchen.
Leafing through their “Gaza Kitchen,” I noticed a section titled “Cultural Appropriation.” The co-authors quoted articles in the Atlantic and in the Israeli daily Haaretz referring to freekeh, a smoked green wheat and longtime Palestinian staple that had become a trendy ingredient in Tel Aviv restaurants. El-Haddad and Schmitt interpreted the phrase “from Arabs living in the Galilee” as, in their words, “some hitherto undiscovered species inhabiting the land.”
At that point, I took personal offense. The article they were quoting was my own, from my Haaretz food blog. But I wasn’t surprised by their attitude. Any time I write about foods with an Arab origin (even those I’ve learned from my Jewish-Iraqi side of the family), I find a comment box full of angry Arab readers claiming that “Israelis took our land, now they’re taking our falafel/hummus/freekeh.”
“You can say this is part of the colonialism,” El-Haddad says.
At first, I found it hard to agree. The problem is not in the hummus; it’s the occupation that is still not resolved. The Palestinian influence on Israeli cuisine is a natural process, especially because it’s based on what the land has to offer: olive oil, herbs, eggplant, tomatoes, wheat and chickpeas. As a child in Israel, I used to eat chard, khobeiza and hamasees, much as El-Haddad’s family did.
The dishes that Israelis themselves consider to be most Israeli are falafel and hummus, both Arab dishes from the Levant. But isn’t that what has always happened with food? It’s the context that makes it different.
Were we dealing with a peaceful situation, the debate over ownership of food would sound overwrought. But for the people of Gaza, seeing their own culinary symbols being claimed by the same people they view as responsible for their plight can be a source of great frustration. In discussing the issue with El-Haddad via e-mail after we met, I found myself seeing that through her eyes.
But we weren’t on the same page, maqlouba-wise.
While El-Haddad and I were corresponding, I let her know that I was planning to include a maqlouba recipe in my blog for Israel’s Independence Day (April 16). Although I knew the dish’s origin was Palestinian, I also knew it was served in Israeli restaurants and homes. My version had a few adaptations to suit the Israeli palate.
“I think publishing a maqlouba recipe on what to Palestinians is Nakba Day [‘Day of Disaster’] would generate a lot of controversy,” she said. “I would find it offensive.”
I did not write that article.
“Gaza Kitchen” makes the distinction between street and home foods in the Palestinian world. Most Westerners are familiar with the restaurant fare traditionally prepared by male chefs — shawarma, kebab — but not many know the complexity and creativity of the home cuisine prepared by female cooks.
“Palestinians have seen their restaurant food appropriated and lucratively marketed as ‘Israeli,’ the book argues, “and there is some fear that the same thing might happen with these home foods.”
Living under occupation for so many years, El-Haddad had explained when I was wondering about this claim, makes Palestinians feel that their home and kitchen are the only places where they can have independence. That, she says, is why they are so protective of that domain.
The cookbook gives a full, colorful view of Gazan food. El-Haddad and Schmitt were welcomed into the kitchens of home cooks and street vendors alike.
“It’s a herby, sour, peppery, earthy cuisine,” El-Haddad told me as she peeled and prepared mini eggplants for stuffing in her Columbia kitchen. Palestinians use plenty of fresh herbs, many of which grow wild in the area, including parsley, cilantro, watercress, jute leaf, chard, khobeiza and hamasees. Figs, eggplants, tomatoes and watermelon all grow in Gaza, as well as in other parts of Palestine, and are used in lots of dishes.
But Gaza’s location, near the desert but also alongside the sea, results in a unique cuisine. It is based on extensive use of fresh dill and dill seed, on a love of hot peppers and spicy foods, and it features tomato-based dishes as opposed to the yogurt-based dishes in the north. The long stretch of the Mediterranean Sea means a lot of seafood dishes: red mullet, sea bass, sardines. And Gazans use an incredibly flavorful red tahini made with roasted sesame seeds. El-Haddad let me taste that kind of tahini, which is not available in the States. (How I wish it were; the flavor is so much richer than that of regular tahini.)
And, of course, all dishes are cooked in olive oil.
Or at least they used to be. The co-authors have written that massive destruction of centuries-old olive trees in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli army has limited the supply of the traditional oil and made what oil is available too expensive for most Gazans. Families who still own olive trees, such as El-Haddad’s, distribute the oil among themselves. As a result, the oil is used sparingly as a finishing touch instead of a cooking substance. Instead, Gazans use soy oil made available through food aid — a flavorless substitute that doesn’t offer the same health benefits as the olive oil.
The book chronicles Gazans’ reliance on frozen fish, smuggled regularly from Egypt through tunnels, due to restrictive fishing limits. Cheese is made of powdered milk provided by aid organizations. Rice and white-wheat flour, also distributed by the agencies, have replaced more traditional grains, such as bulgur.
“People continue to make food and recipes [like] they always have,” El-Haddad says. “But they have found a way to adapt to what’s available.”
El-Haddad’s children will continue to eat maqlouba, as I hope my children will, too. She will probably share with them, while serving the dish, the memories of her homeland. I will tell my kids that maqlouba showcases some of what what Israel has to offer — eggplant, lamb, pine nuts — and that we learned it from our Palestinian neighbors.
Guttman, a Washington caterer, blogs for Haaretz.com. She and Laila El-Haddad will join Wednesday's Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.