Our Daily Bread

Beans, avocados and defiance: Gazan memories

As hunger stalks the devastated Gaza strip, a reminder of how the Palestinians have used food as a way of remembrance, resistance, and resilience

Samar Halarnkar
First Published15 Jun 2024, 03:13 PM IST
Gazan avocados
Gazan avocados(Photo by Samar Halarnkar)

"My mother has a wonderful photograph of herself and her sisters and cousins holidaying in Gaza wearing fashionable ’60s bikinis and Jackie Kennedy-style scarves over their heads secured with sunglasses.” Born in Jerusalem, Phoebe Rison, a British blogger I follow, once shared what now sounds like a surreal memory of a place where beaches now house refugee tents and the death toll from the Israeli onslaught crosses 36,000.

“She says ‘oh it was the best place to go for the weekends, we would eat fish and go swimming and have lots of fun’,” writes Rison in her blog, The Olive Tree Kitchen. “Gaza has such beautiful beaches, a charming harbour where fishing boats strewn with colourful nets come in to dock their catches.”

Also read: Cut kitchen time, up your cooking game with a squid recipe

The Gaza strip—half the size of Bengaluru—was no paradise even before the current apocalypse, destruction and Israel’s killing of more than 10,000 children, but besieged Gazans were known for their resilience and their ability to make the most of very little, in particular their ability to produce some of the Mediterranean’s most delicious food.

It may appear strange to dedicate a column on food to a people battling hunger and malnutrition, but food—at the worst of times—is a means of remembrance, resistance, and resilience. I am conflicted about the concept of “gastro solidarity”, a collective expression of support through food, but you will find it widely expressed on Instagram and elsewhere.

The Palestinians have often been visited by catastrophe, and there are numerous accounts of how, over the decades, they have kept their culture and cuisine alive in refugee camps and places far from a home they may never see again.

“Food is the most precious part of Palestinian heritage… food is what keeps us together as Palestinians,” says a refugee called Aisha Azzam who has worked on a collaborative history project with Canadian historian Elizabeth Vibert, known for her work on embattled communities. I’m waiting to see their forthcoming film, Aisha’s Story, a chronicle of displacement and resistance born out of a grain mill that Azzam and her husband have run for 35 years in Jordan’s Baqa’a refugee camp.

In her evocative 2018 book Zaitoun (or olive)—one of my favourites from my kitchen library—Yasmin Khan notes that the most enduring aspect of Palestinian cuisine is its adaptability, undergoing a unique journey because of the eternally beleaguered nature of its people. The Palestinians are the world’s largest refugee community, with as many in exile as within what the United Nations calls the Occupied Territories of Palestine.

Khan, a writer and human-rights campaigner of Iranian-Pakistani extraction, wrote in the book—more than six years ago—that the cuisine of Gaza was “under the biggest threat of disappearing, due to the crippling food blockage which has plunged the Gaza strip into devastating food poverty”. Even then 80% of its 2 million people depended on UN food aid, and Gaza’s once flourishing fish industry, Khan wrote, “is in the process of being eradicated”.

Of Palestinian culinary variations, the food of Gaza is some of the most distinct and spare. It is not hard to understand the latter. Much of its food revolves—or revolved—around fish, even after the Israelis over the years restricted its fisherfolk to a narrow section of a sea increasingly polluted with sewage, with electricity unavailable for treatment plants. The sea bass that once graced many Gazan tables is rare, and I cannot bring myself to make their fish, even though the recipe stares at me.

Olives are widespread in Palestinian cuisine, but I did not come across too many Gazan recipes with them. Olives, like so much else, have become a metaphor for conflict. The Israelis have intentionally cut down olive trees across the Palestinian territories.

Garlic, chillies and dill appear to be the mainstays of Gazan flavours, from what I could gather while researching the meal I prepared. It seems simple, but even the ingredients I used are now hard to find in Gaza. Avocados grew throughout the Strip, but it is hard to imagine many trees surviving in the wasteland of concrete rubble that is Gaza today. If they grow again, no Gazan will forget how they were used.

Green beans with olive oil
(both recipes adapted from Yasmin Khan’s Zaitoun)

Serves 3

Ingredients

250g green beans
1 onion, finely chopped
6-7 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Half tsp cumin powder
200g tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
Half tsp sumac
1 and a half tbsp light olive oil
Sea salt to taste

Method

Gently heat the olive oil, fry onions until translucent. Add garlic and saute for a minute. Add cumin and saute for a minute. Add the tomatoes, sugar, salt, pepper and sumac. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Add water if required.

Boil the beans in saucepan of water until cooked through. Drain and add to the tomato sauce. Adjust seasoning. Before serving, drizzle with half tbsp olive oil.

Gazan avocados

Serves 2

Ingredients
1 avocado
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 green chilli, finely chopped
1 tbsp Greek yogurt
Juice of half lemon
Half tsp sesame seeds
Half tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt to taste

Method

Chop avocado in large chunks after removing the stone. Mash roughly with a fork. Add green chilli, pepper, salt, lemon juice and mix. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He posts @samar11 on Twitter.

Also read: The mystique of saffron in a summer lunch

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First Published:15 Jun 2024, 03:13 PM IST
HomeLoungefoodBeans, avocados and defiance: Gazan memories

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