The spicy aroma and pots bubbling away are part of the daily routine that helps to see Nour Al-Batta and her husband Ahmed Taha through the crisis days in the besieged Gaza Strip. Moreover, they help other Palestinians too.
As the founders of Smile Kitchen Culinary Arts Academy in 2017, the couple give unemployed young Palestinians the opportunity to work and earn a living while benefiting their mental health. The academy is the first of its kind in the coastal enclave.
“We wanted to start something new here in Gaza,” explained Taha. “As my wife enjoys cooking and it is her hobby, we want to teach others professional cooking and serving skills using natural, organic products.”
The couple did their research, which included reading several times that nine out of ten food businesses fail. Taha laughed as he shared this with me. Staff at the Ministry of Labour also laughed when they were approached for funding for the academy project.
Taha and Al-Batta refused to let such a negative response dampen their enthusiasm, though. Nour, a graduate of the Islamic University of Gaza, returned to her kitchen, tied a white apron around her waist and began cooking and baking the kind of dishes that she planned to teach in the classes that she hoped to begin.
Born in Libya, Ahmed Taha lived in Tunisia for nine years and went to Gaza in 2011 to get married. “Believing in our vision, we started Smile Kitchen with our own funding,” the 42-year-old father of five told me. “We advertised the cookery courses on Facebook. Using social media is an effective way to attract people, so that’s what we did.”
In the first year, there were about 750 trainees in the workshops, which was very motivating for the couple. “Now, more than 3,500 students have joined the academy, where they learn how to cook various international and Arab dishes.”
About 60 per cent of the students are women, with many seeking to start their own home businesses to boost the family income. This is important in the Gaza Strip, where the unemployment rate was 49 per cent in 2020, and is expected to rise to 59 per cent, according to World Bank data for 2022. That figure is 75 per cent according to the Ministry of Social Development in Gaza, which has been under a strict Israeli-led siege for 14 years and subject to repeated Israeli military offensives which have led to the destruction of the infrastructure, as well as high levels of unemployment and poverty.
“Finding a job in Gaza is difficult, especially for women who are committed to raising children and meeting their daily necessities,” added Nour. “Moreover, many men have registered for the course to have the opportunity to work in restaurants in Gaza.”
Overwhelmed by the number of applications for their course, the couple launched a Diploma in Culinary Arts at Gaza University. Nour teaches up to 50 students starting with basic essentials such as baking bread, cakes and biscuits, as well as fruit salads drizzled with olive oil accompanied by side dishes like hummus, tabbouleh and yoghourt.
“Western dishes and sweets are currently very popular in Gaza,” noted Nour. “Traditional food is always popular and in demand but Palestinians here are very interested in the colourful flaky pastries and cakes that they see online. I teach them how to make the pastries, and even more creative versions.”
In Gaza, traditional dishes revolve around fish and seafood caught locally. However, Nour Al-Batta’s favourite is maqluba; meat and vegetables cooked in a spicy broth, served with nuts, herbs and yoghurt.
The Smile Kitchen Academy has gained international recognition from the World Association of Chefs’ Societies, affording the couple the opportunity to take part in an international cooking competition hosted in Dubai by the International Centre for Culinary Arts.
“Not only are we the first Palestinian culinary school, but we are also only the fourth in the Arab world,” said Taha proudly. “Our graduates won five medals, including silver and bronze. The ability to cook and prepare food among strangers takes a lot of confidence, so we were very pleased at their achievement.”
Following the success of their training programmes in Gaza, the couple plan to open branches in neighbouring countries, including Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They’re also looking to add a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts alongside the diploma programme at Gaza University.
“Preparing and serving food is an art, it is more enjoyable than actually eating the food,” said Ahmed Taha. “In the kitchen, the students use all of their senses to learn, and even on the dustiest days in Gaza during times of crisis, the smell of food is overwhelming. We feel safer when we are in the kitchen.”