Ask any Palestinian in Gaza what defines a Gazan, and they’ll likely include a love of spicy food. It’s a culinary craving not similarly evoked en masse by Palestinian communities outside this tiny Mediterranean enclave, but if you’re lucky to try Gazan cooking, you’ll understand why people hold on to their spice with such pride. Gaza’s peppers pack a punch.
The centrality of crushed hot pepper—shatta in Arabic—is rooted in Gaza’s rich history at the crux of trade and movement between the Middle East and Africa. But it also reflects the driving forces of contemporary times: Palestinian refugees poured into Gaza after Israel’s creation in 1948 (the Nakba, or disaster, in Palestinian history), which among many changes augmented cuisine as an identity-maker. Now, for the last decade, Israel and Egypt’s crippling land and sea blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza has meant massive shortages in what’s allowed in and out. All the while, shatta has remained available as one of the few stable remnants of better times.
“It’s something that’s on the table all the time,” says Joudie Kalla, a Palestinian chef and cookbook author based in London. “Every family has its own recipe. Its based on the basic things found in our land… I have bucketloads in my fridge. I never let it run out. I need it for everything.”
Kalla calls shatta “the Palestinian equivalent of sriracha,” the now ubiquitous chile sauce.
Like Gaza, “it’s something fresh and spicy and vibrant,” Kalla adds.
These days in Gaza, however, the situation is like an endless nightmare for its residents. Hamas, a designated terror group, has repressively ruled Gaza since 2007, when it ousted the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank. Since then, Israel and Hamas have fought three bloody wars, the last in 2014, and Israel has maintained tight control over most crossings in and out. Hamas and the PA have their own ongoing feud; since last summer, the PA, with Israel’s backing, has been trying to squeeze Hamas out by cutting off funds. All of this has increased already alarming shortages on basics like electricity, medical supplies, and clean water. President Trump’s decision in January to cut funding to the United Nations World and Relief Agency—which 1.3 million of Gaza’s 1.9 million people depend on for food—was another slap in the face for the already war-battered people.
The farm where Hesham Zakaria, 33, tends to peppers and other crops is seemingly quiet. But the hum of the Israeli drone from just across the border is never far off. The father of six works in Beit Hanoun along Gaza’s northern buffer zone. Three families own most of the fields here; farmers like him work them and know everything about it. One of the main factors that distinguishes Gaza’s hot peppers from similar varieties, Zakaria explained to me, is that they’re grown with patience that pays off: While other farmers may pick the peppers when still young to get several rounds out of the same bush, each season farmers in Gaza let them grow until they are as red and hot as can be.
Zakaria said this area used to grow citruses, but the 2008 war with Israel destroyed the trees, so they switched to mainly vegetables—Gaza's famed hot peppers included. Sometimes, when farmers in these areas dig, the earth suddenly falls through and they find tunnels, the ones Hamas built to sneak into and attack Israel, Zakaria says. In the last war, Israel pounded this area as it tried to destroy the tunnels. Zakaria was injured by an Israeli bomb that hit his home. "We are trapped in the middle," he remembers. Farmers used to buy their fertilizer, seeds, and other materials through the tunnels Hamas ran to smuggle in goods and weapons from Egypt. Since 2013, Egypt has cracked down, and the tunnel economy has largely collapsed. Now, Gaza’s farmers have to buy these basics from Israel.
Years of war and blockades have taken all kinds of tolls on Gaza, the cuisine included. But spice has persisted as a core part of Gaza's culinary identity, in part because it hasn't had to be adapted to the impacts of war and siege. Olive oil and fresh milk, for example, are now hard to come by, so instead, Gazans have substituted the cheaper (and lesser quality) soy oil and powdered milk that they receive (or received) from UNRWA in much of their cooking, as Laila El Haddad documents in her cookbook-history, The Gaza Kitchen.
Amid the daily instability, the demand for spicy pepper is consistently strong, said Mohamed Omar Abul Haleema, who works at his father’s popular seed and fertilizer distributor in northern Gaza.
“You know you’re a real Gazan [i.e., not a refugee] if you love shatta,” Abul Haleema said. His family’s originally from Gaza, but he also admitted he’s personally not that into the crushed red pepper, which people also say is a source of vitamins and other health benefits. What does concern the 20-year-old is trying to create his own genetically modified seeds so they won’t need to buy yearly from Israel. He’s currently experimenting with combining the properties of tomato and potatoes; next up is watermelon and pepper.
In the meantime, Gaza City’s historic Al-Zawiya market is is filled with barrels and barrels of spicy sauce. People purchase it already made here, or buy the peppers fresh to prepare and bottle it up themselves at home. The recipe itself is simple: Crush up the peppers and mix it with salt (a lot of salt). Then add some sour lemon or garlic or oil, cover, let sit for at least ten days, and then it’s ready to serve.
Shatta here can last for a long time. That is, after all, the Gazan way.