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GAZA CITY: The Gaza Strip may be off-limits to foreign foodies, but the coastal Palestinian enclave is full of seafood restaurants, many of which are owned by a local family whose culinary hook is their spicy fish tagine. matriarch.

Munir Abu Hasira arrives at the Gaza Port fish market at dawn, but holds back as traders catch sardines and other fish caught overnight.

It catches more demanding catches like grouper, sea bream and large shrimp, which can cost around NIS 70 ($ 22) a kilo – a small fortune in the impoverished enclave, under Israeli blockade since 2007.

“It’s expensive because of the economic situation, but we buy the fish to supply restaurants and to export it” to the occupied West Bank, he says, as workers stack fresh fish in a van.

For decades the Abu Hasira family were fishermen, but since opening their first restaurant in the 1970s, they have gradually traded in their fishing kit for chef’s tools.

Gaza fishermen say they are struggling to make a living, trapped by Israeli restrictions on the enclave’s fishing area and on the importation of equipment into the enclave, from boat engines to sonar devices for finding shoals.

Problems such as overfishing and pollution deteriorate the local industry.

Some 4,200 tonnes of fish and seafood were caught in Gaza waters last year, according to Israeli authorities. Only 300 tonnes were exported to the West Bank.

Sitting on a chair in a Gaza courtyard, Eid Abu Hasira, in his eighties, said he was the last of the family’s fishermen.

“I sold everything in 2013,” said the head of the family, sporting a white mustache and wearing a traditional dress and headdress.

“Today we are in the fish business and have 13 restaurants in Abu Hasira,” he said, clutching the Muslim rosary as he leaned on a wooden cane.

One of his ancestors was a prominent Moroccan Jewish rabbi who died on a trip to Egypt in the 19th century.

A descendant in Egypt had a vision that “they had to go to Gaza,” said Eid Abu Hasira.

“So we came here. My grandfather chose to live by the sea, ”he said, adding that a Jewish branch of the family lives in Israel, while those in Gaza are Muslims.

As a young boy, his mother prepared a seafood tagine that has become the signature dish of the Abu Hasira family chain.

Moeen Abu Hasira, 56, paid tribute to his family’s culinary heritage, from their shrimp and tomato tagine, known as ‘zibdiyit’, to a fish tagine made with tahini, herbs and pine nuts, passing through the grilled grouper.

“The secret to Gaza’s cuisine is hot peppers,” he said from the kitchen of his restaurant, which he opened earlier this year.

The clientele of the Abu Hasira family has evolved over time.

“Until the start of the first Intifada, our restaurants were packed. The Israelis came to eat here and so did the tourists, ”said Moeen Abu Hasira, referring to the first Palestinian uprising in 1987.

Since the start of the Israeli blockade in 2007 after the Islamist group Hamas took control of the enclave, few international tourists, foodies or food guides have visited.

Now the family’s restaurants cater to affluent Palestinian clientele, but Moeen Abu Hasira said times were tough as unemployment in Gaza hovers around 50 percent.

“No one will give you a star” in recognition of your restaurant, said the chef, trained in French cuisine at a restaurant in the Israeli city of Jaffa.

“We didn’t learn in cooking schools or universities. There is none of that in Gaza, ”he said. “We all learn from each other. “

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