A Palestinian kitchen full of memories

We all have that one thing that brings us back to our origins. For some it is a certain song that reminds us of our roots; no matter how far away from our homeland, the lyrics make us feel we are back home. For others, it is a tangible item like an olive branch, an embroidered dress, or even a photograph. For me, it is food. Not only nutritious but a glue that holds the stories of generations within each recipe. 

Countless times I have tried to learn to cook, yet miserably failed. My poor culinary skills have never stopped me from enjoying delicious meals. And, my lackings never limited my sense of amazement when listening to tales from friends and loved ones about the origins of a dish. 

What I love about food is each meal has a story behind it; there is a story of a person who prepared the dish and a story of a family who gathered to eat it. When it comes to Palestinian cuisine, there is also a history of a land that once held many communities together. 

With great affection for cooking, I am sharing three recipes and the stories that came with them, as told to me by the people who formulated the below version of the dishes. The stories are written in their voice. The meals they share are popular in the Gaza Strip, where we live.

You will hear about a delicate tumeric pastry called musafan from Mayssa, the staple rice and vegetables dish maqlouba from Ahed, and a tangy tahini meat dish called somaqiya from Majeda. I hope you try them and that they inspire you to have your own story as well.

Musafan. (Photo courtesy of the author)


Mayssa, 34, is a painter. She works for a mental health organization that supports children who have experienced trauma. She is a mother of four boys. She lives in West Gaza. 

The tales my grandmother used to tell us were not about Cinderella or Snow White, they were about a land she used to live in until she was 12 years old, up until 1948. That land was called al-Majdal Asqalan. I heard a lot about friends she never got to see again and a home that was lost forever. But there were happy memories too. She shared stories about the celebrations. People from surrounding cities gathered for occasions in their most beautiful dress. Young men danced debka and played the flute (also called shababa). Girls strolled in groups and ate sweets. 

Her description of the people and the parties—the smells and the scenery—painted a vivid picture for my sisters and me, the recipients of these tales. Yet it was always the food that made the biggest impression. I will never forget the day she described the delicious bread they ate during celebrations. It is called musafan.  My grandmother would smile and close her eyes while describing the taste of olive oil mixed into that bread once baked in al-Majdal. They would eat it with eggs, thyme, and sometimes cheese. 

Throughout my childhood, my sisters begged her to tell us more stories. The more she shared the more she talked about food, and the more recipes we learned. As an adult, share her memories and meals with my children. 

I have never been to al-Majdal Asqalan, but every time I eat a piece of musafan I close my eyes and I can see my grandmother. In my mind, she is not the older lady I knew, but a 12-year-old girl in her colorful dress, sheepishly watching the boys in her town dance debka or eavesdropping on gossip. She is happy, alive, and in the only place she ever considered home.


  • 12 cups of flour
  • 1/2 cup of black cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon of turmeric 
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon of yeast
  • 3 tablespoons of cookie spice blend (a mix of equal parts of anise seeds, fennel seeds, and ground mahleb)
  • 1/4 cup of vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup of olive oil
  • 1 cup of pan-roasted sesame seeds 
  • 1 teaspoon of salt 
  • 2 1/2 cups of warm water


  1. Pre-heat oven to 350. Set aside cookie sheet.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sesame seeds, black cumin seeds, yeast, turmeric, salt, and cookie spice blend.
  3. Add vegetable oil and olive oil to dry ingredients until it reaches a consistency of sand.
  4. Add warm water, slowly folding the dough until it is soft.
  5. Set aside, cover and let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
  6. Cut the dough into 18 equal balls.
  7. Place one ball on a clean surface to form. Using a rolling pan, roll flat into a circle that is 6 inches wide and 1/8 of an inch thick.
  8. Brush with excess olive oil. Then, fold the dough inward, grabbing sections of the circumference and folding so the edge is over the circle to the center. Repeating eight times until the dough forms a flower shape.
  9. Bake on a cookie sheet for ten minutes.
  10. Brush once more before serving.

    Recipe yields 18 individual musafan rounds. This is a large amount as my Palestinian family is big and can consume this much in a few days.

Maqlouba. (Photo courtesy of the author)


Ahed, 33, teacher, he lives in East Gaza, he has one daughter.

The borders were closed until further notice and I got stuck! I wanted to go back to Gaza but I couldn’t and I did not know what to do. As a Gazan guy who has never traveled before with limited experience in life and little money, I was scared.

I never thought I would wish to go back to the open-air prison where I have lived most of my life. Why would a bird stand outside the door of its cage and ask to be let in? 

I missed my family and I missed my mother in particular. I remembered how every Friday we would gather for a big lunch. On weekdays everyone is busy with work or studies. Fridays were the only day we were together. Weekly, my mother prepared a classic Palestinian dish. She used to say: “Fast food is not allowed on Fridays. We are a Palestinian family, and we need to eat real Palestinian food.” 

On the other side of the border, I missed my friends too. I remembered the last time they visited me before I traveled and my mother prepared qidra for us. The word qidra in Arabic means a clay vessel. The dish is named so because it is made of rice that is baked in the qidra itself. My mother would cook the rice with pieces of meat stewed in garlic, chickpeas, cinnamon, cardamom, and cumin. 

Longing to be with my family, I decided to do something that reminded me of them. So, I learned the dishes my mother used to make for us. The first I decided to make was maqlouba, one of my favorite dishes. I called my mother and she walked me through it step-by-step.

The best part of preparing maqlouba is when you finish cooking it, you put a dish over the pot and then flip it upside down, which is how maqlouba, which means “upside down” in Arabic, got its name. After I did a fluid flip, I remember sitting by myself feeling proud of my achievement. It was delicious.

I’ve heard people say that food sometimes feels like a warm hug. That first bite of maqlouba felt like my mother’s hug. At that moment I felt that a piece of Gaza was with me and in my heart. 


  • 1 whole chicken cut into eight pieces (breasts, wings, thighs, drumsticks)
  • 2 eggplants
  • 2 ½ cups long-grain rice
  • 3 onions
  • 2 potatoes 
  • 3 green peppers
  • 1 bulb of garlic 
  • 1 cup of chickpeas
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil 
  • salt – as needed 
  • 1 teaspoon of black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of cardamom
  • 1 tablespoon of cinnamon
  • 1 of ground turmeric
  • 1 of rice spices
  • 6 cups of water (for cooking); 2 cups of water (for soaking) 


  1. Set aside a 16-quart pot.
  2. Chop the eggplant into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Season with salt and place in a bowl of water and set aside for 30 minutes. This takes the bitterness out.
  3. In a separate mixing bowl combine water and rice and soak for ten minutes.
  4. While rice and eggplant are soaking in separate bowls, chop onions and peppers into 1/4 inch slices. Dice tomatoes. Mince garlic.
  5. Drain water from rice. Then add the salt, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper and mix well. 
  6. Add olive oil to the large pot and set heat to medium-low. Fry eggplants for two minutes to each side, then set aside. Fry the peppers, garlic, and onions until onions turn translucent. Remove vegetables and set aside.
  7. Add chicken to the pot. Stir fry for 15 minutes, flipping frequently.
  8. When chicken is done, remove the pot from heat and build a one-inch layer of chicken (skin-side down), chickpeas, and eggplant. Stack onions, green peppers, garlic, and tomatoes in another one-inch layer.
  9. Add 3/4 of rice as the next layer in the pot.
  10. Add the remaining chicken, chickpeas, eggplant, potatoes, tomato, onion, pepper, and garlic.
  11. Add the rest of the rice.
  12. Add 6 cups of water. Press down on the rice and add more water if needed to bring the liquid barely to the level of the rice.
  13. Cover the pot cook on high heat until it reaches a boil. After, reduce to simmer and cook for 20 minutes.
  14. Here comes the fun part. Remove pot from heat. Pull out a large serving platter. Using oven mitts or a towel to protect your hands from heat and steam, invert the pot in one single fluid motion, so that the contents are flipped upside down onto the serving platter.
  15. Tidy up any draining liquid with a paper town and serve.

Chickpeas and green peppers are optional. Some people like to add them while others prefer not to. 

Somaqiya. (Photo courtesy of Majeda.)


Majeda, 30, is a project assistant who works at an educational institute. She is a mother of one daughter. She lives in North Gaza.

If there is a wedding in Gaza, you will hear older women ululating and songs pouring out of the homes of the wedding party. And you will eat somaqiya, because no family in Gaza would have a wedding without it.

There are many celebrations related to marriage. There is the actual wedding ceremony, the bride’s party (called the henna party, named after a plant-based dye used to paint intricate designs on the hands and arms), and the groom’s party where men will dance debke in the streets. We prepare the somaqiya for the groom’s party.

Somaqiya is a sign of happiness. When someone in our family is getting married, my mother would start preparing the ingredients the day before. On the party day, she would wake up in the early morning to start the big meal. Her sisters, nieces, and friends would join too. While they cooked, they sang and danced. When they finished preparing the dish, they poured it onto plastic plates and asked the children in the family to sort them over the floor to cool. We serve somaqiya with pickles and homemade bread, usually pita.

Somaqiya must be spicy! If not, people will say it was not delicious. When the parties end, the women in the family pack up the extras. 

After I got married I learned how to make somaqiya and along with other Palestinian dishes. My interest in cooking grew beyond traditional cuisine, and I started learning more about western dinners and sweets. I decided to create an Instagram page to share all the dishes I have learned.

The Palestinian dishes are a part of our traditions. And I believe that sharing them plays a role in keeping our history and identity alive.


  • 1/2 lbs of lamb shoulder cut into one-inch cubes
  • 4 cups of chard 
  • 8 tablespoons of sumac 
  • 5 tablespoons of dill seeds
  • 1 bulb of garlic 
  • 2 onions 
  • 1/2 cup of flour 
  • 5 chili peppers
  • 1 cup of vegetable oil 
  • 1 1/2 cups of tahini paste
  • 6 cups of water
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 cup of olive oil


  1. Pour water and sumac into a 4-quart pot, cover, and boil. When the water reaches a boil, remove from heat. Let it sit out to cool for 20 minutes. Then, with a thin meshed strainer, strain any leftover granules of sumac. Set aside the pot of sumac water. It should be a purple or red color.
  2. Dice chard and chop onions. 
  3. In a separate pot, on medium-low heat, add the meat and stir for 15 minutes. 
  4. Then add the chopped onion and stir for 5 minutes. After that, add the chopped chard and stir for ten minutes. 
  5. Add the smashed garlic, chili peppers, and dill seeds. Continue to sautee for another three minutes. 
  6. Go back to the pot of sumac water and whisk in flour, stirring until dissolved.
  7. Combine the sumac water and flour mixture with the sauteed vegetables and lamb. Stir continuously until the mixture thickens. 
  8. Add salt, tahini and one cup of olive oil and stir for seven minutes. 
  9. When the soup-like base appears consistent, the dish is ready to serve.

Ziad Ali
Ziad Ali is a pseudonym for a writer and blogger from Gaza.

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