Young women cooking up dreams in Gaza - Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East
RAFAH — What is more important: the presentation of a dish, or its taste? On social media, presentation seems to be the focus — especially as Facebook photos of food spread in the Gaza Strip. Some young girls have even turned into professional cooks after publishing photos of their dishes online.
The whole thing apparently started spontaneously with Bisan Afana, when she began cooking for her family when her mother traveled. She would make different dishes and photograph them for her Facebook page. Now she has thousands of followers.
“I discovered my talent by accident. No one imagined that I would ever cook. Even my mother was not convinced, although she was the one who taught me how to cook and decorate dishes,” Afana told Al-Monitor at her house in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.
She added, “I started with Palestinian dishes, then moved to cordon bleu, fettucine and Negresco. I would automatically post photos of the dishes I prepared on my Facebook page. Followers started asking me about recipes and I started posting photos of dishes along with the recipes.”
According to Afana, her profile quickly attracted cooking fans from Palestine, Iraq, Morocco and Sweden; many of them tried to cook the same dishes and then posted their photos in the comments section.
Her hobby soon took a professional direction. She was contacted by AlKitab TV in March and asked to host a weekly cooking show. “I host a cooking program that now has hundreds of audience members. At first I was confused and could not prepare any dish on air, but I quickly got used to it,” she said.
Afana also works as a cooking teacher at Kids Academy, a private school in the central Gaza Strip.
“I feel that I have great responsibility, and I still find the prospect of turning into a professional cook daunting. Some have been asking me to be the caterer at their events, but I’m still hesitant,” she said.
Afana made cheesecake for Al-Monitor. She told us, “I did not find the special jam for the cheesecake. It is difficult in Rafah to find some rare ingredients such as food dyes and white marshmallows.”
Hazem Afana, Bissan’s brother, is the first taster of all her dishes. He said with a smile, “I feel like as if I’m taking part in a field experiment, but I’m happy to do it. Her talent is evolving and her food tastes just as good as it looks. She even became interested in making healthy foods.”
On her Facebook profile, Mosheera Mansour, a first-year student at al-Aqsa University, posts photos of her popular Palestinian dishes. She cooks all the traditional dishes and personalizes special garnishes for each dish.
She said, “I have loved painting ever since I was a child. I started cutting fruit in an artistic manner and posting photos on Facebook. This attracted many Facebook users. I quickly started drawing with food, as it were.”
“I make Palestinian and Arab popular dishes such as maftoul [couscous], kabsa [a rice dish] and musakhan [chicken with caramelized onions] and garnish them in a distinctive way. I present traditional dishes in a modern way. For example, I cut potatoes in a rose shape then boil them and put them at the top of the dish,” she told Al-Monitor at her house in Rafah.
Mansour wishes she could find the right carving tools for vegetables and fruits. “I searched the market but I only found woodcarving tools. I only use knives to decorate my dishes,” she explained.
So far she has not found a TV show to sponsor her talent as she dreams. “I presently work as a sweets caterer and I make cakes on special occasions.”
Her mother, Intisar Mansour, said, “Mosheera helps a lot. She cooks every day, and sometimes satellite channels come to film her.” The mother pointed out that this activity is expensive, but as a family they are happy for their daughter and what she is achieving.
Mosheera showed Al-Monitor how to carve an apple to look like a duck.
On a Facebook page called Aklat (Food), which had just shy of 15,000 “likes” as of this writing, recipes for the most famous Palestinian cuisine are displayed through videos, photos and posts. The page curates cooking competitions for nonprofessionals, which adds a dynamic that attracts Palestinian women from all over the world.
Page administrator Rana Abu Sido, who now resides in the United Arab Emirates, told Al-Monitor via Facebook, “The idea started from the exchange of cooking recipes on a page created by my sister Tahlil Abu Sido, who later made me the group administrator.”
She confirmed that the group page has allowed her to achieve her goal of becoming an entrepreneur because she had always dreamed of working on a personal project, which the page has become.
Indeed, the page, initially made for the exchange of culinary expertise, was quickly turned into a bigger project. Rana Abu Sido told Al-Monitor that she decided to manage the Facebook page not only because she was motivated by her childhood dream, but also because she wanted to help women.
Abu Sido is working on creating applications connected to the page and a website where women can sign up for a personal account. Each woman will be able to display her culinary experiences and expertise in cooking, garnishing and food marketing, as well as provide consultancy and get paid for it.
She continued, “We wanted to turn cooking from a lifestyle, which made housewives feel isolated, into an art. We tell housewives that they should be feeling like stars in their kitchens. Our page allows them to share photos of their dishes and cooking tips. They can also share their expertise.”
Abu Sido pointed out that the project started taking a business-oriented form after ranking fourth in the Hadafi Women’s Entrepreneurship Program sponsored by Potential.com, indicating that the development strategy focused on bringing together amateurs and professional cooks in one place to provide a number of services and create jobs for women unable to be directly involved in the labor market.
The food and restaurant sector is booming in the Gaza Strip. The blockade may affect a lot of things, but not people’s good taste when it comes to food ranging from hummus dishes and falafel sandwiches to the maklouba, a rice dish cooked with meat, eggplant, cauliflower and garlic, and turned upside down when served.