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A Delicacies Beneath Siege | Saveur

Although I’ve lived overseas most of my life, Gaza is the place I name residence. It is the place my dad and mom have been born and raised and the place I spent summers as a baby. At any time when we’d return, we’d be welcomed again by our giant prolonged household. First amongst them was my aunt An’am Dalloul, whom we known as Khalto Um Hani: “mom of Hani,” her eldest youngster and my cousin. She’d all the time arrive bearing a bowl of sumagiyya, Gaza Metropolis’s signature meat stew with chard, sumac, and chickpeas—and my father’s favourite meal.   

Um Hani, together with my cousins Hoda, Wafaa, and Hani, have been killed in an Israeli airstrike of their residential Gaza Metropolis neighborhood in November 2023.

Um Hani’s residence (picture: Maggie Schmitt)

Right away, the family perished, my cousin Nael later advised me. Solely a skeleton of the constructing was left. He recounted the horrific scene over WhatsApp—how he gathered their stays in his arms and buried them in a mass grave below heavy Israeli bombardment, how he didn’t retrieve the corpse of one in all his sisters, and the way his brother bled to demise earlier than paramedics might attain him. Nael, like 90 p.c of Gazans on the time of writing, is displaced, fleeing along with his youngsters from one metropolis to the subsequent in quest of shelter, meals, and a few semblance of security. He has been surviving on canned beans for greater than three months.

Nael’s information shook me to my core. I couldn’t sleep. I could not eat. I used to be overwhelmed with a profound sense of helplessness and despair. Was it solely a matter of time earlier than the remainder of my household in Gaza would perish? 

As I learn Nael’s texts, the recollections got here flooding again. Of Um Hani cooking in her shiny, breezy kitchen carrying the standard white hijab and light-weight blue jalabiya. Of the birthmark on her face and her comfortable olive pores and skin. Of her husky voice and the mild snigger that masked the fierce and decided girl beneath.

Um Hani (picture: Maggie Schmitt)

Um Hani was an anchor to me, a hyperlink to the paternal grandmother I by no means met and to a metropolis I usually felt estranged from. She was a repository of recollections, a key to the fragmented world to which I belonged as a Palestinian. She taught me to make the near-forgotten dishes my grandmother cherished, those my father grew up consuming resembling adas wi batata (lentils and potatoes cooked in a clay pot with lemon and fried garlic) and samak il-armala (“widow’s fish,” or fried eggplants with chiles and ribbons of recent basil). However as destiny would have it, she by no means acquired the possibility to point out me find out how to make sumagiyya—her specialty, brimming with lamb and spiced with dill seeds and cumin.

Sumagiyya (picture: Laila El-Haddad)

In Gaza, sumagiyya is synonymous with weddings, household gatherings, and Eid Al-Fitr, the Muslim vacation that marks the tip of the holy month of Ramadan and its 30-day quick. The dish is all the time made for a crowd, simmered in giant pots and enriched with nutty roasted “purple” tahina, then ladled into bowls for associates, household, and neighbors. 

I felt that sense of neighborhood every time I used to be in Gaza, however not a lot in Saudi Arabia, the place I spent most of my childhood within the Eighties. My dad and mom have been medical professionals, too busy securing their youngsters’s schooling and futures to labor over conventional dishes. The primary Palestinian intifada, or rebellion, was raging again residence, and past ensuring we had levels (the stateless Palestinian’s security internet), their precedence was making certain we didn’t neglect our historical past (“so historical past gained’t neglect us,” they stated). Meals acquired misplaced within the shuffle.

My mom was raised in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, within the firm of her Kurdish-Syrian grandmother. Consequently, her culinary repertoire was extra Damascene than Palestinian—till she met my father. A local of Gaza Metropolis, he usually yearned for the flavors of his childhood, which put my mom in a bind at first. However Um Hani fortunately got here to the rescue, sharing her comfort-food recipes over the cellphone.

Maggie Schmitt

On Eid, Baba (Dad) all the time requested one dish particularly: sumagiyya, which Um Hani taught my mom to make. As a woman, I bear in mind coming residence from faculty to a home thick with the scent of simmering lamb, allspice, cardamom, and tart, fruity sumac berries (for which the dish is called). 

Even then, I used to be intensely interested in Gazan meals and the tales it advised: of villages erased from the map, of locations I’d solely heard about, of individuals I’d by no means met. Recipes have been a type of  treasure map to a largely invisible, or invisibilized, world of Palestinian historical past going again nicely earlier than the 1948 Nakba, the yr Palestinians discuss with as their “disaster,” or mass expulsion and dispossession. After ending school in North Carolina, I adopted that map to Gaza, the place I lived, labored, and raised my firstborn. 

It was there that I noticed my hands-on culinary schooling from Um Hani wasn’t distinctive to me however slightly quintessentially Palestinian. Ask any Palestinian how they realized to flip a pot of maqlooba, they usually’ll doubtless inform you it was by means of an elder’s affected person instruction, not a cookbook or YouTube video. Israel’s checkpoints, separation partitions, and roadblocks might have bodily separated our households, however they may not eradicate our tradition. To cite Jerusalem-born Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi, “Recipes transcend mere culinary directions; they encapsulate narratives, recollections and function a testomony to the resilience of those that have entrusted them throughout generations.”

Maggie Schmitt

Instructing the subsequent era of Palestinians find out how to make a celebratory stew could appear trivial,  inappropriate even, in mild of the deliberate hunger and believable genocide going through Gazans proper now. However meals is as integral to our id and rootedness to the land as our facilities of cultural data, resembling archives, libraries, theaters, and colleges, that are additionally below assault. Israel’s assault is eliminating complete bloodlines, and with them, all the recollections and data they possessed. 

I stay in the USA now, and I’ve cooked sumagiyya extra occasions than I can depend—even when it by no means tastes fairly like Um Hani’s. One event stands out. It was Might 2021, and Gaza Metropolis was being pummeled in what was the fourth main assault by Israel on Gaza in 14 years. The assault coincided with Eid, and as I watched on my display in Clarksville, Maryland horrific pictures of air raids and grief-stricken moms, I out of the blue felt the urge to make a pot of sumagiyya. Serving it to my household and associates that evening, regardless of the unfolding tragedy, was unexpectedly liberating and affirming.  

Final month, I once more discovered myself in tears chopping onions and chard for sumagiyya, however this time I used to be making it to honor Um Hani’s reminiscence. Like in 2021, I couldn’t look away from the information: The park the place I used to take my son for night strolls, the seashore promenade the place I drank sage tea with my mom, the college the place I gave visitor lectures—they have been all unrecognizable piles of overturned filth and warped wire.

Maggie Schmitt

Whereas the pot bubbled, I rifled by means of previous notes. I used to be searching for an interview with Um Hani that I carried out for The Gaza Kitchen, the cookbook I co-authored. Studying the transcript, I used to be instantly transported again to her kitchen desk in Gaza. Our dialog, which unfolded throughout Ramadan, coated all the pieces from struggles with water contamination to persistent energy outages to the rising worth of fish resulting from limits imposed by Israeli navy gunships. Um Hani started the interview describing how my grandmother cherished watermelon and taking sumagiyya to the seashore on Fridays. Then she spent hours exhibiting me footage that solely she had of my father’s childhood in Gaza. “Do you see how stunning I’m on this yellow costume?” she mused. 

Nothing stays of these footage, or of that kitchen, or of that home. I used to be too sizzling and too impatient and too hungry to make copies of the photographs. “Let’s get to the cooking,” I stored urgent, making an attempt to remain on observe. (I weep as I write this. If I might tear a gap in time, I would wrest the photographs from her arms and maintain them with me endlessly.) 

The interview ends like this: “I can train you ways your grandmother made sumagiyya …”

“One other time,” I fired again, exhausted from the lengthy day of fasting. One other time by no means got here, and by no means will. 

Recently, I’ve been fascinated with what I’d return to, and what I’d discover, if I returned to Gaza. Many of the landmarks have been destroyed. Gone too are most of the individuals I cherished. However with Ramadan quick approaching, and endlessly to the bombardment, it seems like I’m the torchbearer now, the household’s keeper of treasured recipes. Like Um Hani, I’ll cook dinner and I’ll train, connecting the subsequent era of Palestinians to our homeland.

Palestinian pantry staples

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