In Gaza, When the Fire Ceases, the Bakery Reopens

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For weeks, Gaza City has been a ghost town, as people shuttered businesses, locked their doors and took shelter.  But the recent ceasefire has felt different to residents here — they believe this one will hold — and beginning Tuesday, intrepid owners tentatively reopened their cafes, markets began to bustle, and city dwellers emerged to do their shopping and return to some semblance of normal life.

Today, Abu Al-Saud, which has been owned and operated by the Saqalla family for 42 years, is back to doing a brisk business. They specialize in the traditional sweets of Gaza, versions of which exist all around the Mediterranean: beautiful compilations of honey, dough, shredded wheat, ground nuts, and cheese.

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Their claim to fame is their kunefe: melty sheep’s milk cheese topped with tightly shredded wheat, semolina, and toasted pistachios, all swimming in honey syrup. The dish, made on giant metal platters, is actually cooked upside down, with the semolina and nuts building up a crust under squishy honey pastry, handfuls of cheese melting on top. When cooked to their specifications, the pastry makers sprinkle ground nuts on the cheese, toss another pan on top, grab the entire concoction with a burlap bag (beats oven mitts any day of the week), and flip it. At the counter you’ll order a hot square, sliced to order and served on laughably flimsy plastic plates. Your hands will get burned, and you will break your plastic spoon as you eat it. That’s just the way it goes.

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Abu Al-Saud also serves a uniquely Gazan version made without cheese: basically an ode to walnuts.  Made in the same fashion, a crust of semolina and wheat are crisped up and topped with honeyed ground walnuts, even finer ground walnuts, and chunks of walnuts. When flipped and cut, it barely holds together, bound only by sugar and heat.

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If these giant slabs of goodness don’t seem like your thing (though seriously, honey+cheese = one of the best combos in the world), never fear: they churn out more baklava and other phyllo dough pastries than you could possibly eat. In the kitchen basement, hair-netted men roll and mold the dough with the kind of ease and speed that only comes from years of repetition: these guys are serious pros.

Life on the Gaza Strip is as hostile as it gets, and if there were ever food under fire, this is it. Any place that can survive… thrive… for 42 years here is a place worth going.

Abu Al-Saud
Remal Neighborhood
Omar al Mukhtar St.
Gaza 
08-2821630

Beautiful photos courtesy of Sebastian Rich.

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