Palestinian cook and writer Laila El-Haddad recently completed a successful Australian tour. Weaving stories of Palestinian life through her demonstrations of a cuisine that is unfamiliar to many Australians, Laila showed curious foodies how food, culture, resistance and occupation intersect and what it is like to live through such a heady mix.
Laila’s visit to Australia was organised by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) so she could participate in the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. Sol Salbe from the AJDS introduced her Melbourne cooking demonstration, which was attended by about 60 people. Salbe reminded the audience that while Laila’s homeland is occupied, Australia itself was invaded and colonised.
Through food, Laila conveyed the connection to land and culture that sustains people in Palestine and is a powerful reminder to expatriate communities of what is threatened on a daily basis by the Israeli occupation.
The co-opting of traditional Palestinian dishes by Israel is a sore point with Laila, one that reinforces how a simple cookbook like hers is actually a powerful tool for reclaiming and promoting Palestinian cuisine in the face of the Israeli occupation. Take the freekeh craze for example, which Laila writes about. This traditional Palestinian grain had an Israeli makeover several years ago and emerged as a mysterious and ancient grain from Galilee, with no mention of its Palestinian origins.
In her book The Gaza Kitchen she makes important and heartbreaking points about what it is like to farm and cook in Palestine, where access to land and water is heavily restricted and the threat of starvation and violence from Israeli soldiers could mean a devastating loss of culture as much as a loss of food security.
Whether it is dependence on NGO-delivered food aid — consisting of ingredients that no self respecting Palestinian cook would choose — or risking their lives by fishing off the coast of Gaza and being shot at by Israel’s navy, the result is widespread malnutrition and the incalculable insult to Gazans’ dignity through the attempt to wipe out their food culture.
Far from being a kind of “hummus kumbaya”, to borrow from Laila’s book, the deserved popularity of a collection of stories and recipes from a Palestinian cook and writer should mark not just another food fad, but a vital publication that educates people about Palestine and keeps its stories and struggles alive.