A women's collective is serving up traditional homemade Palestinian dishes - with an authentic taste.
In a kitchen in the "martyrs' quarter" of the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, one of the toughest places in the West Bank, Islam Abu Aouda is preparing a soft dough of yoghurt, oil and flour. Soon she will fill small pockets with chopped spinach, sumac and lemon, and bake them in the oven. The mouthwatering parcels are called krass; I ate four but I wanted 14.
Less than 50 miles away, Reem Daloul is also kneading dough in a makeshift kitchen in Gaza City, lit only by a small window during one of the coastal enclave's regular eight-hour power cuts. This dough is for small cigar- and horseshoe-shaped pastries, filled with za'atar, a blend of spices, or soft, salty cheese mixed with hot chilli.
These two Palestinian women are divided by walls, fences and checkpoints, but connected by a love of traditional food - and the will to use this to improve their circumstances. Islam, whose six children include a 13-year-old disabled son, is part of a small collective of women, nearly all mothers of disabled children, who offer cookery classes and homestays in the Aida camp; Reem is part of the Zeitun Kitchen women's co-operative, which caters for weddings and family parties in Gaza.
The tastes and aromas of traditional Palestinian food are at the heart of every home, where vividly flavoured dishes are created from scratch using the freshest ingredients, herbs, spices and olive oil. For foreigners, it's not easy to find this food: restaurants and street stalls concentrate on the staples of grilled meat, salads, falafel and hummus; real Palestinian cuisine is found at home.
Invariably women rule the home kitchens: mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts and cousins cooking together while passing on techniques and swapping recipes. The restaurants and street stalls are the domain of men. The two spheres do not overlap.
Among the most common home-cooked dishes are maqluba, meat and vegetables cooked in a spicy broth, served with nuts, herbs and yoghurt; baba ghanoush or muta'abal, a dip of roasted aubergine, garlic, lemon and tahini; mujadara, rice and lentils topped with caramelised onions; and musakhan, chicken roasted with sumac and served with sweet onions on taboon bread.
In Gaza, traditional dishes often revolve around fish and seafood caught off its 25-mile Mediterranean coastline and tend to be fiery, reflecting an Egyptian influence. Recipes include Zibdiyit gambara, spicy shrimps cooked in a clay pot topped with pine nuts; habari ma'daggit il samak, small squid stuffed with dill, coriander and chilli; sayadiyya, a classic dish of spiced rice and fish; fattit ajir, roasted watermelon salad with green chillies and dill.
These dishes are to be found in an enticing new cookbook, The Gaza Kitchen, which combines recipes with stories from Gaza and the political context of the residents' hardships. One of its two authors, Laila el-Haddad, a Palestinian-American, who spent her childhood summers in Gaza, says: "Food was always a way for me to stay connected to my heritage and Palestinian identity.
"Even in such a small place there is remarkable regional distinction which generation after generation holds on to with great pride. In general, it's spicy, piquant, herby, sour and very earthy, relying on fresh herbs, green dill, dill seeds and a love for all things sour - sour plums or pomegranates, or lemon juice - and hot."
The women of the Aida refugee camp have also produced a small booklet of their recipes, called Zaaki, in collaboration with the Noor Women Empowerment Group, a tiny Bethlehem-based grassroots project.
While chopping tomatoes and cucumbers into tiny chunks for a traditional Arabic salad and roasting whole aubergines over a naked flame, Islam, 32, says that the cookery project stemmed from a need to raise money for consumables and equipment for the women's disabled children.
But the first task was to get the women together in a supportive network. "Sometimes, families hide their children in the house because they are ashamed," she says. Some disabled children never go to school. The cookery classes allowed the mothers to make a small income without abandoning their domestic responsibilities. At first the women, brought up in a tradition of Palestinian hospitality, recoiled from charging strangers to eat their food. And their husbands were initially reluctant for men to be admitted to the classes.
"At the beginning, everything was really difficult," says Islam, scraping the smoky aubergine flesh into a bowl with lemon juice, garlic, tahini and salt. "There was a lot of gossiping about the project in the camp, with foreigners coming to our home, but now people are supportive."
Islam, who married at 16 and whose husband's brother and sister were both shot dead in the house in Israeli military raids, is learning English so she can deal with foreign visitors without the need for translation. Her husband is unemployed, like most of the men in the camp, where many families depend on food aid. Despite the traditions and skills of home-cooking, Aida children suffer from high rates of calcium deficiency, anaemia and tooth decay.
In Gaza, almost 1 million people - more than half the population - receive basic food assistance from the United Nations. The 13 women of the Zeitun Kitchen co-operative have learned to adapt to the privations of life in Gaza: shortages of power and cooking oil; Israel's ban on many foodstuffs during the three years in which a stringent blockade was in place; the fluctuations in black market supplies through the tunnels to Egypt; the destruction of and restrictions on access to prime agricultural land; the imposition of strict limits on how far from shore Gaza's fishermen can lower their nets.
Olive oil is just one example. An essential ingredient in most Palestinian dishes, the uprooting of olive trees in both Gaza and the West Bank has made the once-abundant oil prohibitively expensive for many families. Now it is often used just to dress a dish, rather than create it.
"We either use a lower quality oil, or we import olive oil from Syria, which adds to the price," says Jamila Daloul, who founded the Zeitun Kitchen eight years ago. "Even when the farmers re-plant the trees, it takes three years for them to bear fruit, and at least 10 years to good olives."
On the day I visited the Zeitun Kitchen, there was no power. "We used to have a generator, but it broke. The power goes off every other day for up to eight hours. We make everything fresh so we don't depend on fridges," says Jamila.
The dish in preparation at the start of our visit was maftoul, the Palestinian version of couscous. A dough of flour, salt and water is pressed over a flat sieve to create fine grains which are then steamed with chopped onions, peppers, dill and lemon. Maftoul is traditionally served with a meat and vegetable stew.
The women gossip and laugh as they cook, and occasionally disagree over technique. Reem, whose speed in rolling and shaping her dough doesn't compromise her perfectionism, remonstrates with a less careful colleague. But all is forgiven over an early lunch washed down with thick Arabic coffee and sweet mint tea.
Food is more than a mere necessity; it nurtures, and binds people to each other and their cultural identity. In their introduction to The Gaza Kitchen, Laila el-Haddad and her co-author Maggie Schmitt say they conceived the cookbook as a way of allowing them "to tell the story of the place in a very special way. Nearly everyone in Gaza to whom we explained the project understood it immediately: to talk about food and cooking is to talk about the dignity of daily life, about history and heritage in a place where these very things have often been disparaged or actively erased.
"Approached for an interview, Gazans braced themselves to explain one more time - gently, patiently - the impossible political situation of the Strip. When they discovered we did not want to talk about political parties or border crossings but about lentil dishes, there was a moment of astonished delight before they launched into the topic. Passers-by crowded around, each proffering a hometown recipe: 'No, no, it's much better if you add the onions at the end ...' Food is a passionate subject."
• The headline and subheading of this article were amended on 15 May to delete a reference to the author visiting a refugee camp in Gaza. This has been corrected.
Krass with spinach
For the dough:
Pinch of salt
¼tsp baking soda
¼tsp baking powder
75ml olive oil
60ml plain yogurt
Flour for kneading
Mix everything together adding a little warm water if the dough is too stiff, or a little more flour if it's too sticky (the dough should be quite soft). Let it rise for 1-2 hours (until it doubles in size) in a warm place.
For the filling:
½ kg spinach, washed
½ kg spring onions, washed and chopped finely
Juice of 1-2 lemons
60ml olive oil
½ tsp sumac
Salt and pepper
Mix the spinach and spring onions with lemon juice, olive oil and sumac, and add black pepper and salt to taste. Massage the mixture vigorously until the spinach wilts and releases some water (it should look like cooked spinach). Squeeze the mixture well and discard the liquid. Take a little ball of the dough and flatten into a thin disc, around 120mm diameter. Put a tablespoon of the spinach mixture (squeezed again) in the centre. Fold the sides over the filling to form a triangle, pressing the edges together with your fingers to seal. Transfer to an oiled baking tray, and bake in a hot oven until golden.
2 medium aubergines
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Juice of one lemon
Salt and black pepper
Roast the eggplants in an open fire (the flame of a gas hob will work) until the skin becomes completely black and the flesh is very soft (insert a knife in the middle to check). Cut the cooked eggplants in half (in the length), scoop the flesh with a spoon and transfer it to a bowl. Add the tahini, garlic, lemon juice and mix well with a fork. Add salt and black pepper to taste.
The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey by Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmidt is published by Just World Books at £22 (paperback) and £29 (hardback). Available from gazakitchen.com; zaytoun.org; or telephone: 0845 345 4887. For more information about the Noor Women's Empowerment Group, go to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Making 'krass' in the Aida refugee camp. Photograph: Harriet Sherwood for the Guardian