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Meet the woman who introduced kimbaps to Gaza

Samah Haboub, renowned for her delicious Palestinian meals, has launched an online Korean food business.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — “The kitchen is my breathing space,” says Samah Haboub, explaining that whenever she feels sad, bored or anxious, she seeks refuge there and starts mixing ingredients without any plan, just letting her hands and her culinary heritage guide her.

But the 35-year-old chef from Gaza City has extended her talents beyond the rich Palestinian recipes she prepares for family and friends. A few months ago, she launched a Facebook page that introduced Korean food — noodles, salads and Korean sushi known as kimbap — to her city.

“In 2014, my husband, daughter and I visited my brother, who lives in the South Korean city of Gwanju. I was interested in their cuisine and I enrolled in a six-month-course that teaches foreigners to prepare Korean food,” she said.

Even for a cook familiar with the many different spices of Palestinian cuisine, Korean food seemed spicy, with its use of chili pepper flakes and hot sauces. “According to Koreans, spicy food boosts the happiness hormones,” Haboub told Al-Monitor. “For that reason, they prefer their food spicy. Still, Korean cuisine is rich and healthy. It contains lots of seafood and not much fat.”

The Palestinian chef said Korean meals put rice and appetizers to great use. Small dishes — sometimes as many as 15 — were placed on the table, much like Middle Eastern mezes. “Korean food does not need a lot of cooking and preparation time, and it is preferably served hot to savor its taste and flavors,” she added.

When Haboub returned to the Gaza Strip, she began preparing Korean meals and served them to relatives and friends, who always wanted more. She found herself cooking more and more Korean food. Everybody was curious about it,” she said.

As the demand increased, Haboub decided to turn this into a business by using social media to market the dishes she prepared. So she launched a Facebook page to receive orders. She was surprised to see the multiple queries about the dishes, ingredients, prices and whether buyers should come pick the food up or have it delivered.

Most clients order shrimp or chicken sushi or bulgogi, meat barbecued in a special sauce. People also like tteokbokki, hot and spicy rice cakes. Many order noodles, spicy salads or the seafood soup rich with prawns and salmon. The demand is growing,” she said, adding that she was proud to have an increasing pool of customers who like sushi and other Korean dishes.

Haboub prepares the dishes in her kitchen and sells them online and through fast delivery at prices ranging from 25 to 30 shekels [around $7 to $8]. She also throws in wooden chopsticks, which her brother sends her, along with special spices and sauces she cannot get in Gaza.

Director General of Consumer Protection at the Palestinian Ministry of Economy in Gaza Raed al-Jazzar told Al-Monitor that small projects have a strong impact, as they create employment in an economy where there are few opportunities. He said these projects also introduce new products to the market, although demand remains low, as residents of Gaza Strip have weak purchasing power.

Jazzar told Al-Monitor that the Ministry of Economy funded 16 culinary projects in 2018. A monitoring unit at the Ministry, in cooperation with specialized parties, conducts field visits to check on existing projects to verify product quality.

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