Some interesting comparisons crop up after Yotam Ottolenghi‘s acclaimed book Jerusalem won the British Guild of Foodwriters’ best cookbook 2013 at a buzzy ceremony in London last night. The Israeli cook and his Palestinian business partner, Sami Tamimi, scooped the prestigious award although with little money in it (£500 I think) it’s all about the glory and stamp of peer approval.


Ottolenghi hardly needs it though, as in the last few years he has attained cult status thanks to his four eponymous (& ambrosial) London restaurants and weekly recipe column in the Guardian. Pomegranate seeds, chillis, coriander, saffron, preserved lemon, mint, garlic – culled from Tamimi’s behind the scenes expertise, these bright, punchy flavours (as in the pic above) have become Ottolenghi staples and now star in full technicolour on London dinner-tables. So with the wealth of Middle Eastern foodie know-how and ingredients available (although Claudia Roden went there first, long ago), what about the rest of the region?


Of all Jerusalem’s neighbours, Gaza sounds least promising, with its 1.7 million inhabitants squeezed into a devastated territory under an Israeli embargo (yes, still) which brings food shortages along with many others. Surprisingly, against all the odds, a cookbook has just been published, The Gaza Kitchen by Leila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt (the pic above is of fogaiyya). Courageously, it “serves as an introduction to daily life in the embattled Gaza Strip: a visit to the intimate everyday spaces which never appear in the news.”


I’m delighted to quote these words from the press release as they conform exactly to what I feel after all my travels. Whatever the context, food remains our only common source of continuity and communication. It’s about memory, about emotional comfort and ritualistic gestures, even when everything else seems to crumble, and provides the most accessible entry into other people’s lives. Cooking thus becomes a metaphor for life, an expression of love and a conduit for understanding the ‘exotic’ – I use that word in its widest sense.


So for the people of Gaza who survive heart-rending conditions (many in half-bombed houses that can’t be rebuilt due to lack of building materials, while fishermen can merely stand on the beach and contemplate the Mediterranean, made inaccessible by the Israelis) this book is a triumph. Even Anthony Bourdain, who I often seem to cite, has endorsed it in the US, praising its “underappreciated, under-reported area of gastronomy.” And Ottolenghi too has added his grist to the mill in the following discussion, again in the US.
and part two


The pic above is of a market in Bethlehem, the one before in Jerusalem, food pics from Gaza Kitchen.

Gaza is also the subject of Dervla Murphy‘s latest book, A Month by the Sea (Eland Books), in which she describes her experience of getting into and around Gaza and meeting all levels of society, from embittered young men and resigned women to gung-ho types and Hamas officials. It’s not quite the seaside romp ironically promised by the title but comes in her inimitable style, droll, incisive, perceptive, veering from the depressing to the uplifting. Murphy was 80 when she went there, in 2011, yet gadded about the strip openly and fearlessly – refusing to make any concessions such as headscarves. Long may she continue to produce must-reads like this and long may the Palestinians keep their incredible spirit.