GAZA CITY – Last year, a Gazan entrepreneur smuggled hundreds of meals from a KFC outlet in Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula into Gaza via a network of cross-border tunnels linking Egypt to the besieged Palestinian territory.
The meals took hours to arrive, and people had to book their orders in advance.
But since the Egyptian army began destroying the tunnels following last summer’s ouster of elected president Mohamed Morsi, Gazans have been craving for fried chicken.
The golden, crispy pieces of deep-fried chicken aren’t available in local restaurants, most of which provide traditional Palestinian, Syrian and Jordanian cuisines.
Mona Ghalayenie, a local entrepreneur who runs a Gaza hotel, decided to do something about this.
“I tried to obtain the franchise license for an international food brand, but I couldn’t,” she told Anadolu Agency.
“So I took on this enterprise, hoping to present a local version of the well-known fried chicken,” she said.
Her newly-opened Big Bite restaurant offers fried chicken meals and sandwiches which, she says, are the closest Gazans can get to the real deal.
Located in Gaza City, the restaurant is always teeming with families, while dozens of customers scramble about the sole cash register, which frequently has to stop taking orders due to the kitchen’s limited capacity.
“It’s 90 percent like the KFC meals I used to enjoy during my visits to Egypt,” Khaldoun Abu Saleem, a Gaza bank employee, told AA.
“The appetizers and side dishes are also great,” he said.
The Egyptian military’s crackdown on the cross-border tunnels has coincided with stepped-up restrictions on the Rafah border crossing, Gaza’s only gateway to the outside world that hasn’t been sealed by Israel.
In the second half of 2013, the Rafah crossing was closed for more than 100 days.
The number of people exiting Gaza – and passing by KFC’s Al-Arish branch, some 40km from the border – has therefore dwindled, giving Ghalayenie another reason to go ahead with her business plan.
At the Big Bite restaurant, reactions were mixed, with most local gastronomes welcoming the venture while saying it could be improved.
“The food is good as fried chicken, but not when it’s compared to KFC,” university student Nadia Abu Shaban told AA.
For Abu Shaban, the chicken pieces “don’t have any special flavors alluring people.”
In Gaza, tightly hemmed in by both Israel and Egypt, there are no multinational food or clothing franchises, due mainly to years of Israeli blockade and occasional fighting between Gaza-based resistance groups and the Israeli army.
Several local businessmen have tried – and failed – to obtain licenses to open well-known international food chains.
Franchise owners were concerned that the frequent closure of Gaza’s commercial crossing points would disrupt delivery of the supplies needed to keep such a franchise up and running.
Some of those who tried to secure franchise licenses said that the political situation in the Gaza Strip – which is governed by the Islamist Hamas movement – make brand owners reluctant to set up operations in the Palestinian enclave.
In the West Bank, where access and movement face fewer restrictions than in Gaza, some multinational food chains – including KFC and Pizza Hut – have opened outlets in recent years.
Laila al-Haddad, a Palestinian journalist and co-author of “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey,” attributes the trademark fried chicken’s popularity to globalization, extensive advertising on Arab satellite channels, and the importation of the American “fast food” culture.
“A true tragedy,” al-Haddad told AA. “Advertising makes fried chicken and hamburgers seem exotic and desirable.”
But for Mohamed Darabi, 45, the breadwinner for a family of four, paying nearly $37 for a bucket of chicken is a luxury he cannot afford.
“With that kind of money, I could buy enough meat and vegetables to feed my family for a week,” he said. (AA)