We often turn to the Gaza Kitchen cookbook by Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt when we need inspiration for weeknight meals and celebratory feasts alike. This recipe for roasted watermelon salad is spectacular as it effortlessly captures all the glory of fresh summer ingredients and, as Schmitt notes, it's a dish all about improvisation so any and all seasonal summer vegetables are welcomed! Young watermelons, eggplants, and squash are roasted until well charred so the flesh is beautifully fragranced by notes of smoke. Fresh chilies and tomatoes add complementary brightness and acidity while a generous drizzle of olive oil provides the richness of fat that transforms the mouth feel and offers an added fruity flavor to the composition. It’s not a dish one encounters often in the United States but it is one that should not be missed.
Also known as Qursa or Muleela, this unusual salad is a specialty of the southern Gaza Strip towns of Khanyounis and Rafah, the Palestinian district of Beer il-Sabi’ and the northern Sinai region. Making it is considered a social event in and of itself (click on link to see pictures of a family preparing it). It is particularly popular among families camped out on the beach in the early summer, as well as during the spring harvest time.
While frowned upon by the urban elite as a hodge-podge peasant dish, Fatit Ajir, سلطة/فتةالعجر, in Arabic, is considered a symbol of enduring family values by the falaheen, as its preparation frequently brought together neighbors, family, and friends. The dish has even inspired its own proverb, after the condiment it is served with: “An onion served by my dearest friend is akin to a roast lamb”: in other words, it’s not the food, it’s the company that matters.
The recipe calls for fire-roasting young, unripe watermelon (‘ajir in Arabic) along with calabash squash and eggplants, or whatever combination of summer vegetables is available at the time of harvest, then mashing them together with tomatoes, chilies, olive oil, and lastly, torn pieces of thick, unleavened fire-baked bread. You can experiment with the addition of any seasonal summer vegetable available. This dish is all about improvisation. Feel free to omit the vegetables altogether, as many locales in Gaza often do, replacing them with mashed garlic and onions instead.
Immature young watermelons are considered a delicacy in southern Gaza, prized for their size, and when small enough, are pickled whole. In the event that an immature watermelon cannot be found or purchased from a local farm, choose a small out of season melon or one with white or pale green patches on its side. Cut out this side of the melon, making sure to keep the rind on, wrap with foil, and proceed with the recipe.
The bread traditionally used in this salad is made from unleavened dough shaped into a thick disc, or Qursa, which is then wrapped in newspapers and baked beneath a low-burning wood fire. Any thick, unleavened well-toasted flatbreads, such as Persian Barbari, can be substituted, though making your own Qursa is relatively simple (recipe follows).
1 young watermelon (5-7 lbs) or a 3 lb section of the palest part of a mature watermelon, rind on 2 medium size globe eggplants, approximately 1.5 lbs 1 calabash squash, whole, approximately 1 pound 1 lb ripe tomatoes 5 hot chilies, such as Serrano or jalapeño, chopped ½ cup extra virgin olive oil 1 1/2 tsp salt
Roast whole watermelon over a grill on medium heat until soft to the touch and charred on all sides. If using a wedge, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and proceed with roasting until soft to the touch on all sides. If a grill is unavailable, roast over a gas range, or broil in your oven. Follow same roasting procedure with squash and eggplants (roast them as they are, without foil) until charred on all sides. Set vegetables aside and cool.
Meanwhile, in a mortar and pestle, pound the chilli peppers together with the salt. Add the tomatoes and continue to mash until mixture is a thick salsa-lke consistency.
Peel cooled watermelon and vegetables and discard charred skin. Mix together vegetable and melon pulp well, by hand, with chili-tomato mixture in a large bowl until thoroughly combined.
Add torn pieces of toasted bread along with olive oil and continue to mix until well-saturated.
Drizzle with olive oil and serve with small quartered white onions, olives, and assorted pickled vegetables
Qursa 3 cups flour 2/3 cup warm water, more as needed ½ teaspoon salt 3 T. warmed olive oil, more for drizzling
Knead together all ingredients well until dough is elastic and no longer sticky. Form into a ball, then flatten by hand into a 1 inch think disc. Drizzle both sides with some olive oil. Bake on a grill, preferably wood-fired, or in a frying pan on a stove-top, or in the oven, until well-browned.